While fetish and BDSM may blur in people's minds due to them both frequently being seen as sexual, they are not the same thing and one can exist without the other. They can usefully be distinguished because:
- A fetish doesn't require interaction with a second person and can be explored or activated just by one person,
- BDSM is not done solo, i.e., it's always done with a second person,
- An action or object alone can be the object of a fetish,
- In BDSM it is the engagement of two people which makes it satisfying and rewarding,
- A fetish is always, by definition, sexual, and
- BDSM activities and relationships need not be sexual at all.
Even though BDSM and fetish are distinct, in any particular BDSM activity engaged in by two people, there may be elements of both BDSM and fetish present. In fact, it may be that a top or dominant utilises a fetish of their bottom or submissive to assert power over them, thus potentially satisfying one of the motivations for BDSM.
The following is an extract from Understanding BDSM Relationships by Peter Masters, p. 14:
When it’s physical strength it means that this power can be expressed through manhandling, or by grabbing your partner by the hair and hauling them physically to where you want them, or by physically wrestling them and overpowering them. This can be very primal.
When you have a susceptibility to fetish, instead of having a power to use over someone else, this is a power which can be used over you. If your particular fetish is feet, for example, then your partner has two excellent tools at the ends of his or her legs which they can use to control, inflame, or extinguish your sexual feelings.