Jesse Bering’s “Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us” isn’t the easiest book to write about, at least not for a family newspaper. It isn’t that “Perv” is bad. To the contrary, Bering’s a supple, witty writer, and praiseworthy terms like wry and irreverent suggest themselves readily. The book is a humane flirtation with the often-strange intimacies that drive people’s lives. No, why “Perv” proves difficult to discuss — and promise me you’ll read the next paragraph and not just the end of this sentence — is that Bering is a bit soft on podophilia.
That’s right, podophilia, or sexual attraction to feet, not to be confused with its typographical cousin pedophilia, which we’ll get to. For much of “Perv,” Bering, a psychologist and contributor to publications like Scientific American, details the kaleidoscope of human sexuality, including paraphilias — unconventional sexual attractions.
From rather pedestrian fetishes like casual S & M to exceedingly unexpected interests like tertophilia (the congenitally deformed), psychrophilia (watching others be cold), and melissaphilia (bees! wasps!), Bering explores what that old pervert Freud called humanity’s polymorphous perversity in a series of chapters that focus on unfortunate key episodes in the history of sexual politics or on the contemporary sciences of sexuality.
Fascinating stuff, ripe for lampooning. But Bering does an admirable job avoiding a sideshow freakout. In essence, Bering argues that anything a person can encounter or experience can be eroticized — statues, fog, falling down steps.
For Bering, humans are all deviant but the vast majority within a relatively narrow, socially acceptable range. The biggest problems for most originate in the “moralizing human mind.” “When unburdened of its massive emotional weight, sexual deviance is no more and no less than a statistical concept that signifies being off course from our societal norms.”
“Normal” is just a statistical red herring, and “[t]he notion of abnormal sexuality is as much a matter of straying from our culture’s sexual scripts as it is one of violating the laws of reproductive biology.” And we don’t choose how we stray from the cultural mean. People get saddled with kinks during the formative years, and they are not consciously chosen.
Bering augments his argument with largely qualitative psychological research on humans, as well as provocative research on animals. In one study, goats and sheep are switched at birth and raised by members of the other species. Upon adulthood, the animals exhibited strong sexual preference for their adoptive species. Animal studies have limitations, but given the results (and the ethical impossibility of human experiments) the experiments command consideration.
“Perv” is most challenging when focused on “erotic age orientation.” Sexuality exists on a continuum including pedophilia — yes, that one. Bering does not condone sex with minors, in fact just the opposite. The key to resolving the problem, he argues, involves understanding it.
He views the stigmatization of true pedophiles (those truly attracted to children as opposed to “opportunistic offenders” who prey on them because they are available at the time) as misguided.
“A good first step,” he writes, “is acknowledging that pedophilia is indeed a sexual orientation . . . [and] its causal antecedents lie in early development, not in the adult’s perverted, against-what-is-right choice to ‘become’ a pedophile.” Pedophiles will have an easier time keeping their desires in check if they admit them and deal with them openly. As it stands, the social shame attached to pedophilia keeps pedophiles from self-identifying.
This is a difficult point. Pedophilia is an extreme case, of course, so Bering chooses to include it because it tests his argument that people don’t choose to be deviant.
Most of “Perv” isn’t so uncomfortable. If anything, the book moves too quickly, dispersing attention from the crippling nature of unwanted desires.
That doesn’t dilute the book’s power to force one to rethink knee-jerk bafflement at niche sexual activity. As Bering writes, “[t]he basic rule [should be] no matter how deviant your desires, if you’re not hurting anyone (or anything), and if your sexuality isn’t causing you personal distress” you should be free to let your freak flag fly.