Science writer Jesse Bering has been called "fearless," "witty," "madly provocative," "smart" and "deeply compassionate." Yale professor and author Paul Bloom has gone so far as to call him the "Hunter S. Thompson of science writing." In his latest book, Perv: The Sexual Deviant In All Of Us, Bering uses the tools of science to crack open more than a few taboos, and shows why he's deserving of the accolades. I recently spent some time with Bering discussing his newest book and its wealth of eye-openers.
DiSalvo: Reading your new book, Perv: The Sexual Deviant In All of Us, feels like being told the truth (and not in hushed whispers) about an ocean of assumptions most people never think to question. Did you feel like you were on a “truth telling” mission writing it?
Bering: I don’t think I ever framed it in my mind in such explicit terms, but now that you mention it, yes. Oftentimes, as I was trying to explain a particularly challenging or difficult topic, I had the image of myself at, say, fifteen or sixteen, a closeted boy straining to understand things that nobody was willing to have a frank conversation about. That’s to say, much of what I write in this book involves what I only wish I had known back then.
One of the themes that comes through is that we feel so sure about the origins and motivations of various sexual behaviors, and for a good many of them there’s no scientific basis for feeling this way – indeed, in many cases science is far from reaching a conclusion. Why do you think we’re so prone to staunchly believing that how we feel about a sexual behavior is automatically true?
It’s certainly one of those areas where everyone has an opinion. But if there’s one thing I discovered while working on this book, it’s that the strength of one’s moral convictions about sex usually reflects the depths of one’s ignorance about the science of sex. The more one learns in this area, paradoxically, the more uncertain one becomes.
Human beings are “stomach philosophers”—we allow our gut feelings to make decisions about other people’s sex lives on the basis of whether or not we’re personally disgusted or uncomfortable with their erotic desires or behaviors. I draw the line at harm, but defining harm can be a slippery matter, too. Since we would be harmed, we presume that others must be harmed as well, even when that’s far from apparent. I joke in the book about how I’d be irreparably damaged if Kate Upton were to pin me to my chair and do a slow strip tease on my lap. Lovely as she is, I’m gay, and not only would I not enjoy that experience, I’d be made deeply uncomfortable by it. My straight brother or my lesbian cousin, by contrast, would process this identical Upton event very differently.
Our acceptance or rejection of others based on their sexuality can have life-changing consequences for them. The fact that disgust is the blind engine of hate is a big problem, in my view. To make ethical progress in these discussions, even the most open-minded among us must abandon the continued harmful delusion that our own visceral feelings mark a clear moral reality outside of our heads. Instead, we must be vigilant about putting our own emotional biases aside when considering other people’s subjective experiences.
In the book you talk quite a bit about the early “sexologists” who daringly delved into questions about sexual proclivities and orientations that were anathema to even discuss at the time. And yet, as far as we’ve come, it still seems like we’re in the dark about many sex-related topics. What would you say are our “last frontiers” of figuring out why we think as we think and do as we do sexually? Who's doing the hard work of answering these questions?
I’m not sure that there will ever be a last frontier, because the boundaries continually change with shifts in societal attitudes. In the pathologically prudish Victorian era, research on women’s sexuality was especially scandalous, since any woman who masturbated or wanted to have sex (in other words, any woman with a pulse) was seen as a “nymphomaniac.” This was a period when overzealous Darwinians were pointing out how human beings share a common ancestor with gorillas and chimpanzees, and so sexuality became even more disturbing to people due of its animalistic connotations. Throughout the early to the middle of the twentieth century, when gender relations had become increasingly tense due to an urbanized workforce and the military demands of two world wars, sexologists who objectively studied homosexuality, and who didn’t see it as intrinsically diseased, were likewise accused of trying to normalize this “perversion.”
Today, in the wake of the Catholic Church abuse scandal and the domestication of the Internet, sexologists who study pedophilia and other “chronophilias” (there are five of them, including “gerontophilia,” or attraction to the elderly), are often looked at askance. Seeing pedophiles as anything but evil monsters is, to many in society, to flirt dangerously with the prospect of their acceptance. But there’s certainly a lot of good amoral work being done even on this very important issue.
In my book, we can’t fix what we don’t understand, after all, and screaming and shouting isn’t terribly productive. Research into the nature of “erotic age orientations” by scholars such as Michael Seto and James Cantor makes a careful distinction between pedophilia as a fixed psychosexual orientation and the inherently harmful act of sexual abuse against children. Not all pedophiles abuse children, they point out, and half of all abusers aren’t pedophiles, but “opportunistic offenders” who are actually more attracted to adults. In general, I think we’re particularly uncomfortable today with what sexologists refer to as “intergenerational sex.” And our discomfort isn’t just with pedophilia, but with notable age differences even between parties who are both legally and reproductively mature.
Today’s sexologists are pushing other boundaries as well. For instance, Meredith Chivers of Queen's University in Kingston (who just happens to be the wife of Michael Seto) has been investigating why women become genitally aroused even by sexual stimuli that they find completely abhorrent and far from erotic or desirable, such as violent rape scenes or graphic videos of apes having sex. (Spoiler: Chivers’s “ready-for-anything” evolutionary interpretation is that the capacity for women to respond to any sexual signal in the ancestral environment with vaginal lubrication protected their vulnerable reproductive anatomy—and hence genetic interests—even when they were not consciously aroused.)
Talk a bit about the fetishes you cover in the book, and if at any point even you were stunned at the breadth and variety of the things that people fetishize. And what in a nutshell is a fetish really all about?
In the book, I mention 46 paraphilias, which is a primary attraction to a target or activity outside of the statistical norm. These included both exceptionally rare paraphilias (such as “climacophilia,” in which a person can only get off while tumbling down a flight of stairs) and the more run-of-the-mill ones that are detailed in the DSM-V, such as voyeurism, sadism, and frotteurism (which is gratification by touching people in crowded public places, such as subways). But that’s just a small sampling. The most authoritative list, cobbled together by an Indian psychiatrist named Anil Aggrawal, includes a total of 547 distinct paraphilias.
And yes—I was skeptical about many of them too, to say the least. I mean, are there really people out there who experience their most intense orgasms while watching tornadoes (“lilapsophilia”) or who can only become sexually aroused when their partners pretend to be dead (“pseudonecrophilia”)? Early on, I reached out to Aggrawal, asking him as much. After directing me to a few obscure clinical case studies in the literature (including a piece on “emetophilia,” or erotic vomiting), he indeed confirmed that each named paraphilia in his list had been the subject of either a peer-reviewed, published report or had been otherwise documented by therapists who’d seen such a patient in their private practice. But it’s also important to remember that, with some of the more exotic paraphilias, there may be just one or two people in the entire world whose sexuality is expressed in that particularly unusual way. I’m doubtful there’s more than a smattering of “phthiriophiles” (those attracted to lice) walking among us.
A fetish is basically a subtype of paraphilia. Most people use the word “fetish” a little too casually, seeing it as interchangeable with the lighter “kink” or “turn-on.” But clinically, it has a specific meaning. Fetishism refers to an erotic dependence on a specific class of object. The key point is that a fetishist is attracted to a given object because it has made physical contact with a desirable person, absorbing that individual’s “essence.” Basically, the object becomes a surrogate for the lusted after person’s genitals, sometimes becoming even more desirable to the fetishist than those actual reproductive body parts. So, a panty fetishist, say, gets off by panties that have been worn by a particular woman whom he’s attracted to—buying a brand new, never-worn pair of panties from Victoria’s Secret won’t do it for him. Shoe fetishism works the same way. In fact, fetish objects can be anything imaginable. There are cases of people masturbating to hearing aids, rubber swim caps, crutches … anything can be subjectively eroticized by the human mind.
Another theme that comes through clearly is that when we think of topics in the sexual deviancy sphere, we’re usually thinking of what “other people” think and do – but you’re really telling us that “other people” is all of us no matter how pure of heart we consider ourselves. I have a feeling most people know this is true even if they won’t admit it publicly – have you found that to be the case?
One of the reasons that I wrote the book is to encourage readers to consider just why the construct of sexual deviance is so unpalatable and uncomfortable to us. The fact that so many people are so terribly concerned about being seen as “normal” in other people’s eyes betrays our deep anxieties and shame over the nature of our idiosyncratic desires, which, whatever that is, is something we’ve no control over. Whether we act on our desires is another thing, but whatever our brains happen to orient to sexually isn’t a choice that we’ve made. Normal is just a number, and one that conveys no intrinsic moral value. I do think people reveal their hidden desires in subtle ways, and if you look closely (for example, at the amount of emotional energy that a homophobe invests in antigay causes), shimmers of one’s repressed sexuality often shine through the “normal” surface.
You’ve written about these topics for years, and for some high-brow pubs, including Scientific American. Over the course of your experience, what would you say are the topics that people are most unwilling to think about? Which are the topics you’ve had the hardest time exploring in print?
It’s always a challenge trying to articulate evolutionary interpretations of human sexual behavior for a popular audience. As a writer who doesn’t want to simply parrot politically correct views and become undone by my own emotions, I go into it knowing that—no matter how clear you think you’re being, no matter how many detailed caveats you carefully insert—there will still be readers who conflate explanation with advocacy.
And when you’re writing about some of the more squirm-worthy aspects of human nature—say, how men’s sexual arousal is related to sexual coercion, or why women become genitally aroused by images of rape scenes, or men’s attraction to teenage girls—that’s dangerous territory for a science writer to wade into, especially knowing that you can’t construct a solid theoretical framework in a 1000-word article, not to mention without putting readers to sleep. Many simply read it as, “Oh, so this guy says it’s natural for men to rape women, or to screw young girls, so he’s saying it’s okay.” As much as you think it’s obvious that that isn’t what you’re saying, some will inevitably interpret it this way.
In fact, my rationale in such pieces is always the opposite: to improve on the human condition, to reduce sexual harm in this case, we first need to understand the underlying mechanisms. If we’re aware of the psychological processes that drive harmful behaviors, we’re in a far better position to shut them down when they arise or to change conditions that favor them. We can loathe and lament our evolutionary heritage, but to what end? My approach has always been to shine a light on our darker nature, to blind it with reason and logic rather than scream at it through an outrage that refuses to understand it.
What’s next on your writing horizon?
Something that doesn’t involve the genitalia, hopefully. At this point, I think I’ve said everything that I have to say about sex. And to be honest, I’m a little leery of being typecast as a “sex writer,” since I’m interested in so many other things. Sex is fascinating, and the topic of deviance allowed me to explore some incredibly rich philosophical material. But it’s time to move onto something else. What that is, I’ve no idea. I’ve done sex and religion (my first book was The Belief Instinct), and I’ve zero interest in politics, so for my next book, I’ve still got my ears pricked for that perfectly scandalous topic.