Are you a perv? Of course you are, you pervy perv, you. At least, that’s the explicit (pun intended) promise in Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us. Jesse Bering grapples with that truism that the only normal is that there is no normal. He catalogues, comments upon, and otherwise investigates the various types of sexual behaviours that are or have previously been labelled as deviant. The purpose of this exposé (pun intended), if you will, appears twofold: firstly, Bering wants to remind and reassure that there are more kinds of kink under the sun than just S&M and foot fetishes; secondly, he wants us to understand the mechanisms in our society that have traditionally been responsible for identifying, labelling, and even censuring kinks and sexual deviance.
This is the sixth (!) book I’ve read for the Banging Book Club, run by Hannah Witton, Lucy Moon, and Leena Norms. Each month’s read provides new insights into the facets of sex and sexuality in human society, whether we’re talking rape culture, attitudes towards vaginas, or in this case, fetishes and other deviations from “the norm”. The inevitable comparison will be with Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. While that’s probably fair, I don’t know if it really does either book justice. Bonk is a tour-de-force of the science of sex buoyed by Mary Roach’s intense commitment to the cause (including both interviews and, ahem, participating in some experiments herself if need be). Perv has a similarly journalistic tone to it but feels much more like a review of literature on the subject.
That being said, I don’t want to give the impression this book is boring! Far from it, for Bering writes with a very accessible style. He’s also quite open, which is important in this type of book. He puts his identity, as a gay man, and his agendas up front so the reader knows the biases with which he approaches this subject matter. And ultimately, the tour that he takes us on is both fascinating and educational, albeit at times somewhat lacking in focus.
Perv documents the shift in our views on the permissibility of sex from regulation by tradition/morality to regulation by science. For a long swath of human history, we allowed, controlled, restricted, and demonized sex and specific sex acts based on whether or not society viewed them as “right” or “wrong”. The specific acts that ended up in either of these categories have varied by time and place, but it was always fuelled by morality. People who sexed it up the right way were good, ordinary members of society; people who went off script were bad, immoral, and possibly possessed by demons. As science became more popular and people began to refine the scientific method, its application to the study of human sexuality offered a new opportunity to recodify sexual behaviour through science. Suddenly, perverts weren’t immoral and sexual deviancy wasn’t a matter of character; rather, they were ill, and deviancy had become a sickness to be treated, possibly cured.
The medicalization of sexuality is ongoing. It has brought with it many great benefits, from the Pill, to that other pill, not to mention various ways to work around infertility. Bering points out that the earlier ways of regulating sexuality were prone to inconsistency and arbitrariness. For example, the age of consent varies widely across countries and is based more in our morals than in any scientific consensus on when someone can consent to sex. That there should be an age, or some other marker determining when one is capable of consent, seems not to be in doubt—but no one seems to know how to quantify it in a way that will satisfy all of us. If anything can offer up an answer, however, it might be neuroscience and our increasing understanding of how the brain works.
Nevertheless, there are also many scary ramifications to the trend of medicalization (female “viagra” and the medicalization of lack of sexual desire always comes to mind). Bering, of course, talks about the various attempts to “cure” homosexuality in the twentieth century, as well as the medical community’s approach to nymphomania. The lesson here: what was once the established norm in medicine with regards to sex has changed quite a bit over the past half-century and continues to change still. Even various psychological manuals can’t quite agree on definitions and which “conditions” to include. So while we know ever more about the science behind sex and have better tools available to help us investigate it, we are still debating how to interpret the results.
Perv spends a chapter or two discussing paraphilias and the various modes of attraction. It is entertaining to read about the woman who married the Eiffel tower or people who become aroused by bees. I had no idea how the DSM-5 classified fetishes and the like (and had not really given it much thought, but it’s a cool thing to know). The world of kink is so very diverse, and Bering does an excellent job of pulling back the curtain to help us understand that there are so many different obsessions, fixations, and attractions. It puts paid to the idea that there is an overwhelmingly “normal” or vanilla approach to sex that most people follow, with only a small minority of the community on the fringes. I appreciate the attempt to challenge the heteronormativity of our society.
Probably the heaviest topic Bering addresses is pedophilia. Firstly, he delves into the way that the popular definition of pedophilia has expanded to cover things like hebephilia (attraction to pubescents) and the difficulty this causes in a medical context. Related is the conflation with pedophilia and child sexual abuse (not all pedophiles have abused children, and not all those who abuse children are actually aroused by children). Then he addresses various attempts to screen or measure attraction through penile plethysmography (he doesn’t really talk much about the controversy around this technique). Bering highlights the conflict between wanting to identify and study potential pedophiles and the consequences of a non-offending pedophile outing himself. This reminded me of an article in Matter about self-identified pedophiles who have come together to form a support group because they acknowledge their attraction but don’t want to hurt children. This is the dilemma we have: how can we help people who are aware of their problem, people who don’t want to offend, when we vilify them for existing?
I only wish Perv had grappled a little harder with issues like this. It’s a fine, interesting book—but it’s also somewhat forgettable. I’ve learned from it, but I’m not sure how much detail I’m going to retain (or how much I really need to retain). Bering presents an adequate survey of various kinks and perversions, certainly proving his thesis that “normal” is an illusion. But it doesn’t seem to amount to much. It’s a book with a subject but no appreciable direction to its narrative. If you’re really into the way Bering explains things, this is probably enough. But I could see people having a lot more trouble getting through this, or considering it dry, if they were looking for something a little more engaging.
Each non-fiction book we read for the Banging Book Club offers its own unique window into sex and sexuality. None of them have been a solid 5-star hit for me yet, but every one was interesting in its own way (even if Vagina was somewhat disappointing by playing fast and loose with science). I’m having a good time learning about all these different aspects of the field and picking up books I might not otherwise have found.