Deviant is the Norm
Review by Elisa McGovern
Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us
Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
You’re a pervert. Oh, don’t get so upset; you come from a long line of perverts, as do I, as does everyone everywhere. To paraphrase Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat, we’re all pervs here.
Have you ever become aroused by watching others engage in sexual behavior? You’ve taken a step into the realm of voyeurism. Ever seen a cute girl, and then felt bad for looking when you discovered she was only 15? The good news is you’re not a de facto pedophile; you’re not even an ephebophile, the proper term for one aroused by older adolescents.
In Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us, Jesse Bering postulates that all of us have, at some point in our lives, experienced a sexual response to someone or something that falls outside of “normal” human sexuality. Dr. Bering supports his arguments with several centuries of study—gradually refined by the use of respectable scientific methods—and plenty of in-depth look at the fickle morality we use to define “normal” sexuality in Western culture.
Bering’s own homosexuality was once considered a deviant desire. (To some willfully obtuse minds, it still is.) Women who expressed sexual desire in the Victorian era were considered sick with hysteria. As silly as that seems today—and though we remain grateful that personal vibrating devices were invented as a result—we share with the Victorians a long history of shifts in morality primarily based on a lack of demonstrable harm. We look with amusement rather than disgust at objectophiles who announce a relationship with the Eiffel Tower; we accept that sadism can be practiced with consent on masochists whose response is pleasure through pain. Bering treats the discussion surrounding pedophilia and non-consensual acts of sadism and assault respectfully—with a desire for understanding and without an excusal of harmful behavior. Heavy doses of research and case studies are tempered with remarkably good humor, and Bering has managed an engaging and absorbing read about the not-boring subject of sex.
Let’s go back to Mr. Carroll. It’s well known Carroll had a fondness for young girls and liked to amuse them with tales of fantastical creatures and imaginary lands. However, there is, at best, only circumstantial evidence Carroll was a pedophile. Now, apply the question of demonstrable harm as posed by Bering. It’s easy to react with typical knee-jerk disgust at the possibility Carroll acted inappropriately with young girls, but unless the possibility becomes a certainty, Bering’s question is a more rational response. If we could look at the expansive realm of sexual desires so, ahem, dispassionately, we might be further along in our personal evolution instead of concerning ourselves with a capricious definition of “normal.”
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