The Mystery of Perversion

What idiosyncratic lust can, and can’t, tell us.

With sexual perversion, what we make of it may be less critical than where we locate it. For much of the last century, deviance occupied the core of human psychology. For Freud, the Oedipus complex or its female equivalent shaped personality; everyone was incestuous. In the course of development, children were aroused by a variety of body parts. Inevitably, quirky desires lingered into adulthood. In his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Freud concluded that no healthy person “can fail to make some addition that might be called perverse to the normal sexual aim.” That normal aim was genital and heterosexual—Freud lurched between avant- and arrière-garde when it came to homosexuality. Unusual sexual drives were of great theoretical import, since they offered clues to the nature of the unconscious as it metamorphosed across the life cycle.

Today, we simply don’t believe that science will uncover a Rosetta stone that translates sexual idiosyncrasy into truths about who we are as a species. Modern science reads odd compulsions as mere idiosyncrasy, glitches resulting from inheritance or environment that signal only damage or else particular solutions to particular developmental problems. As a result, perversions are back in the side show, a collection of curiosities at psychology’s fringe. Scattered researchers still dedicate their careers to studying sexual aberrations, but the findings are likewise scattered: fragments of information about genetics, brain functioning, and cognition.

Yet the topic still fascinates, both because perversion is uncanny and because it is not alien to us. In The Other Side of Desire, Daniel Bergner, a journalist who has written well-received books about Sierra Leone’s civil war and Louisiana’s Angola prison, approaches deviance with a reporter’s notepad. He selects four areas: foot fetishism, sadomasochism, pedophilia, and an obsession for amputees. In each case, he finds and follows a devotee. In the process, Bergner does what science cannot: He illuminates peculiar longings. His method is at first descriptive and finally poetic. The message of the book is in the interplay among personal narratives that prove alternately bizarre and mundane.

Surely the oddest of Bergner’s topics is attraction to amputees. The exemplar is Ron, who from age 5 has felt the appeal of women with misshapen and missing legs. An advertising man, Ron photographs cripples in his spare time. Psychotherapy has helped Ron, and the useful therapist was one who found no harm in Ron’s pursuing what he loved.

In time, Ron courts Laura, who lost both her legs when an automobile ran over her. Before the accident, Laura had aspirations to become a psychiatrist and, later, a fashion model. With Ron’s help, she approximates her dreams, posing for porn magazines (for readers who share Ron’s tastes) and counseling the mentally ill. Ron’s enthusiasm for Laura is expressed in conventional terms: “And like the cherry on the cake is that she’s a double amputee, which brings me such happiness and pleasure and joy.” Obscure lust leads to domestic bliss. At times, Ron seems to see his obsession as a virtue, since it has served to restore Laura’s self-esteem. Of the couple’s meeting, he says, “It sounds kind of silly, but she was a bud about to bloom.”

In contrast, the man Bergner calls Jacob is tortured by his erotic attraction to women’s feet. Often what makes a symptom is less the nature of a wish or belief than the manner in which it is held. Jacob experiences his longings as pathology and is tortured by them. The mere mention of feet arouses him. Of weather forecasts, he complains, “Imagine if snowfall was measured in breasts and you were the only man with that sick desire.” Jacob has found a psychiatrist, Fred Berlin, who agrees that perversions must be brought under control. Berlin prescribes Jacob a drug that suppresses male sex hormones. His fixation muted, Jacob runs a therapy group for men with mood disorders. Jacob is married, but his shame is such that he never tells his wife of his proclivities.

What makes our attention oscillate between these narratives is the focus on feet. Why is passion for their absence preferable to lust in their presence? Perhaps the sickness in deviance lies not in the object of desire but in the view of the self, as perverted rather than simply different.

Or perhaps it is merely medical authority that defines disease. In Bergner’s deft sketches, the doctors  he interviews seem as narrowly absorbed as their subjects. Of Berlin, who suppressed Jacob’s foot fetish with libido-squelching drugs, Bergner writes, “[I]t sometimes seemed he was driven, consciously or not, to medicate aberrant lust out of Jacob’s life.”

Effectively, these paired sketches—of Ron, who (with professional help) takes pride in his fetish, and of Jacob, who subdues desire but holds onto the shame—divide the perversion problem in two. We may not know how deviance arises, but we can decide how we respond to it as a component of the self. Implicitly Bergner favors accommodation, making a virtue of necessity.

Of course, this approach works only for perversions that cause no harm. Bergner complicates the moral calculus by introducing Roy, who has touched his first wife’s pubescent daughter sexually. (Here, too, the social surround is conventional: Roy is remarried to a woman who recalls, “One of the nicest things he ever said to me was that when he met me God was giving him a second chance.”) Bergner does not ignore the contrast between pedophilia and perversions that lead to consensual sex; he sees molested children as victims. But in the context Bergner offers, the quality of Roy’s obsession cannot seem especially strange. Judging by measures of penile engorgement, Bergner reports, normal heterosexual men are significantly “aroused by female pubescents and, less so but markedly, female children.” Though Roy’s actions are heinous where Ron’s are harmless, Roy’s desires are more mainstream than Ron’s. Bergner seems to be asking what defines perversion—displaying deviance or causing injury.

But, then, injury has its complexities. The Baroness, a dominatrix, specializes in extreme pain—for example, roasting a man on a revolving spit one foot above glowing coals. A former theater costume designer and now an impresario of sadism, the Baroness is a true female paraphiliac, taking as much pleasure as she provides to her submissive subjects. (Often their service is mundane—vacuuming, for instance.) The Baroness has a fine empathic ear, anticipating her clients’ needs and fulfilling them in vigorous fashion. She casts her calling in therapeutic and moral terms: “I have the power to change people. I get to do so much good.” Like Bergner’s other subjects, the Baroness enjoys a staid marriage to a man who proposed to her in the Rainbow Room between dances to the swing band.

Faced with the high drama of idiosyncratic lust, modern science speaks with a quiet, not to say confused, voice. There is still truth in Freud’s claim that we all bear a touch of the perverse. Shown erotic videos, Bergner writes, women undergo “swift vaginal engorgement to images of all sorts of human sexual activity.” Scenes of bonobo chimpanzees humping increase women’s vaginal blood flow. But this equal-opportunity arousal is more in brain and body than in mind. Measures of genital response correspond poorly to women’s reports of excitement. Evidently “what women want” is largely a cerebral matter, and on that level, convention rules. The Baroness notwithstanding, exceedingly few paraphiliacs are women.

Men’s desires are more focused. Male homosexuality has a strong genetic component. (Less is known about female homosexuality, but the genetic contribution may be weaker.) Bonobo intercourse has no appeal for men. In general, the penis and the mind are in reasonable agreement; men recognize when they’ve been turned on. Part of what saves men from pedophilia is the very vigor of their sexuality; most men are strongly drawn to adult women, albeit in a promiscuous way. When asked what they visualize when they climax, few men say it’s the partner they’re with.

These disjointed observations raise more questions than they answer. If female arousal is more mind-based, shouldn’t diverse experiences have led women, and not men, to seek out idiosyncratic love objects? If the penis rules cravings in men, why aren’t more of them child molesters? The answer might be that socialization, judgment, and morality can corral desire; but then you would think that psychotherapy should be especially effective at redirecting pedophiles’ leanings. Some of the doctors Bergner interviews do hold out this hope, but only drugs that blunt sex drive have a track record.

Given the limitations of science, resonant journalism may be the best way to approach paraphilia, and Bergner’s book has a musical quality. The vignettes form a sequence of theme and variations, a counterpoint of exotic and banal in which outlandish longings alternate with bourgeois aspirations and bland uxoriousness. The juxtapositions give rise to a host of paradoxes and conundrums. Who provides true therapy, physicians or dominatrixes? As sexual beings, Ron and the Baronness are strangely constrained *; and outside the realm of their obsessions, they sound dull. At the same time, these two often seem freer, less bound by convention, more joyful, more aware of others’ needs, and arguably nobler than the doctors intent on correcting deviance. Nor is the contrast with doctors only; after a century of Freudianism, how many of us refine this part of the self, the sexual, with the assiduousness of Bergner’s happier subjects?

Finally, paraphilia bears on the central issue of human psychology, free will. We don’t choose our desires, and our ability to redirect them is limited. Midway through the book, a sex researcher remembers wondering, in preadolescence, why people kiss. This question, which led to her career, remains unresolved. The normal is as puzzling as the perverse. What we cannot know about Ron, Roy, Jacob, and the Baroness is what we do not know about ourselves.

To read an excerpt from The Other Side of Desire, click here.

Correction, Jan. 30, 2009: This sentence mistakenly referred to Roy instead of Ron. (Return to the corrected sentence.)