Psychologist Jesse Bering is a man after my own heart. His new book, Perv, the Sexual Deviant in All of Us, attacks the modern attempt to label sexually uncommon or misunderstood behaviors as inherently deviant and dysfunctional. Bering’s book follows the history of the concept of sexual deviance, tracing the development and use of the terms fetish, paraphilia, and perversion. Like my own writing, Bering's work is intended to defend many of the individuals shunned by society and labeled as “perverts,” and to provoke questions about our views of sexual deviance. As psychology and science grow in knowledge about sexual behaviors, we find that there are far, far, far, more individuals out there who are interested in aspects of sexuality that we formerly believed were rare, and evidence of disordered desire.
Did you know that the term “pervert” was originally applied to atheists? This tidbit of history, one of the many delightful details in the book, sets the stage for a long history, where anyone engaging in socially unacceptable behaviors is called a pervert. Perversion was once a clinical term, used in the 19th century, which still found some clinical use in Freudian and psychodynamic literature. For the most part, it’s fallen out of clinical use, as a stigmatizing, subjective term. However, in some fields, such as the sex addiction industry, the term and concept are still used. Patrick Carnes, father of the sex addiction industry, published an article in 2001, where he termed perversion as “eroticized rage,” an expression of people’s anger with social conventions, and a key factor of sex addiction.
The clash between socio-cultural norms and an individual’s sexual behaviors or desires may very well create distress, dysfunction and conflict. But that is a social issue, not a medical one. There are many, many sexual behaviors that can be functional in one environment or culture, but not in others (more on this in just a bit). That variance reflects the cultural differences, and should not be used as evidence of sexual disorder.
Bering terms the great majority of social attacks on sexual deviancy to reflect underpinnings of “moral panic,” driven by fear and lack of understanding, often based on the notion that thoughts, fantasies and desires, even when kept completely in the mind, can still reflect sin and deficit. As Bering discusses sexual fantasies, I was reminded of the many sex addiction proponents who identify that sexual fantasy is equivalent to “relapse,” and that even one’s thoughts must be kept under strict control, to prevent an inevitable slide in degeneracy and uncontrolled sexual behavior.
Why are we so afraid of sex? Why are we so quick to label sexual behaviors as “perverse,” deviant and disturbed? Bering offers many reasons for people’s instinctive reaction to pathologize sexual difference. One of the best answers points to research with homophobes, that reveals that there is a positive correlation between an individuals’ endorsement of homophobic statements, and their physiological arousal reaction to homosexual porn. In other words, homophobes may be expressing strong fear and anger towards homosexuality, because they are conflicted and afraid of their own secret homosexual desires. So—next time you hear or see someone expressing fear of sexual deviance, one hypothesis is that whatever kink they find most troubling, might actually be the sexual behavior they find secretly exciting and tempting.
Many of the strongest proponents of sex addiction treatment are themselves self-identified former sex addicts. This is one strong reason why their arguments are not based on science or empirical data, and why they react so strongly to critical challenges from professionals like myself. They fear sex, based on their own past experiences. The idea that sexual desire is a force to be battled against, and defeated through sex addiction treatment, seems to be the thing they cling to, to keep control of their own sexual desires. When someone like myself, or Bering, comes along and challenges that notion, they often feel that we are attacking their very identity, and the thing that they use to create an illusion of internal control. As Bering argues well, these aren't rational arguments that are used against sex, but arguments based in fear and disgust.
A key component of Bering’s argument is that “normal” sex is an empty concept. Normal is relative. What is normal in one culture, might be abnormal, even illegal in another. An infamous New Guinea tribe, the Sambia, practices what would be called pedophilia in our own culture, where adult men allow younger males to perform oral sex on them, under the tribal notion that adult semen is needed to help these young men grow into warriors. Transport that tribe to the United States, and those men, seen in New Guinea as virtuous, community-minded and moral, would likely be incarcerated and registered as sex offenders for life. In our culture, an individual that has a need for sex four or five times a day would very likely be termed “hypersexual.” In fact, daily sex/orgasm (just once a day mind you) is often included as a symptom of hypersexuality in many definitions of sex addiction. But, in Africa, a tribe called the Aka believe that frequent sex at this level is necessary in order to create healthy children. Again, transport these individuals to our country, put them in front of Western therapists, and let’s see how quickly their sexual behaviors are called excessive and evidence of disease—rather than evidence of different cultural attitudes.
In 1896, Manhattan psychiatrist Allan Hamilton published an article “Civil Responsibility of Sexual Perverts,” in which Bering reports that Hamilton argued that psychiatrists need to report homosexual individuals to the legal system, in order to forcibly remove them from homosexual relationships. Today, the Kink.com website (very NSFW) in San Francisco represents a marvelous example of “civilly responsible perverts.” This group, which took over a historic building in San Francisco, The Armory, has created a nonprofit foundation, and dedicated a large portion of their building to public, community use. They stand in direct, vocal and visible contrast to the notion that those involved in sexually deviant behaviors are inherently immoral and untrustworthy.
Bering ends his book with a powerful argument that society is changing dramatically and rapidly. The Internet, and increasing sexual research, is revealing that many of our beliefs about sexuality have been based on myths and subjective fears. We stand at a crossroads, Bering argues, and before us is a road never traveled. A cultural path, where we minimize the degree to which subjective, morally-based and nonempirical beliefs about sex are used to pathologize, stigmatize, shame and shun. To walk this path requires all of us being willing to acknowledge our own secret “perversions,” and from that self-knowledge, practice greater acceptance towards the different (but not necessarily sick) desires of others. Bering is optimistic in his hope that our society will continue to embrace this level of acceptance and openness. Certainly, recent changes in gay marriage reflect huge social shifts in attitudes towards sexual expression once deemed “perverse.” However, our media continue to thrive on selling sex as a fearsome, dangerous thing (See Gayle Rubin's excellent essay on the moral panic about sex that is often employed by the media). As long as they do so, I fear that being a “pervert” will continue to be a dangerous thing.