What Is Truly Perverted?

How my book on sexual deviancy got a moral message.

A woman is voluntarily dominated at a dungeon party during DomConLA on May 12, 2013 in Los Angeles. Who decides if this is perverted?

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

When I first sat down to write my latest book, Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us, I imagined the final draft as rather different from what it actually ended up being. I’ll leave it to readers to decide whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. It’s certainly not unusual for authors to do an unexpected about-face as they go deeper into the writing process. But with Perv, the subject matter of sexual deviance (or some of it, anyway) was an especially thorny landscape for me to navigate. When you venture into scientific research on, say, rape, pedophilia, and bestiality—and you can’t avoid them in a science book on sexual deviance—things get heavy fast. As a reader, I’m usually averse to an authorial air of unbridled rage, and I generally prefer to take a lighter tone in my own writing. So, that was a bit of a problem, since like any other person with a soul, such subjects break my heart and can make me quite angry.

Yet I figured I could just tiptoe around these darkest of topics, spending most of my time on more lighthearted fare, such as, I don’t know, the great mystery of why Fifty Shades of Grey scratched such a needful itch in the titillated minds (and loins) of countless middle-aged suburbanites. Perv could simply be an exploration of the most fashionable science in the area, juxtaposed with a brief history of sexology. It would be a whistle-stop tour of strange studies and empirical scandals, a more risqué version, perhaps, of what Mary Roach did so effectively with Bonk a few years back. And there is, indeed, plenty of the carnivalesque to be found in my new book. Did you ever hear about the lovelorn Australian teenager who couldn’t stop sticking his fingers into … well, just read it. But it’s also more than just bizarre high kinks—er, high jinks.

I’d written many essays on sex before, both for Slate and Scientific American, and I knew going into Perv that people have, to put it mildly, strong feelings about sexual deviance. I tackle salacious topics whenever I think there’s something of genuine intellectual merit there, but stirring up controversy just for the sake of doing so is anathema to me. And somewhere along the way in writing Perv, it did, in fact, occur to me that some blurry moral philosophy was radiating from much of the research material that I’d gathered. Taking too delicate an approach, one in which I deliberately sidestepped important moral questions with casual black-and-white answers was beginning to feel a little too cowardly to me as a writer. “Wait a minute,” I’d say to myself after reading about how a given sex act in one society was celebrated there as “romantic” while people would go to prison in our own for the very same thing. “How, exactly, is that harmful?” For example, compare the case of Kaitlyn Hunt, the Florida teen who recently pled no contest to a raft of criminal offenses stemming from a sexual relationship with her 14-year-old girlfriend, to a form of institutionalized lesbianism in Lesotho, in southern Africa, described in the mid-1980s. Prior to marriage, some young women courted pubescent girls, and the two then formed an intense romantic bond. These “mummy-baby” relationships, as they’re called, provided not just opportunities for sexual experimentation but also emotional support for girls with unstable family lives. If we can’t show how a given sex act is harmful to the individuals themselves, then why do we punish those who do it? Moreover, why do we hate and stigmatize those who merely think it, or even those who simply raise the question to encourage a deeper analysis of the issues?

After consulting with my editor, I decided to write a book that directly challenged the ethics and logic of some of our most deeply held sexual assumptions. I’d also write a book that invited readers to have a tête-à-tête with their own secretly perverted selves, hopefully getting them to shake hands with, or even embrace, that frightened, shadowy figure. For such an unlikely reconciliation to ever occur, however, I’d need to provide readers with the antidote for any hypocrisy, prejudice, and bigotry getting in their way. As a gay man who’d swallowed those very poisons, I knew exactly what that antidote was: Science-based logic. And so Perv became, in the end, a science book offering retaliation by reason against the unexamined judgmentalism in all of us.

Over the 18 long months in which it was in production, Perv therefore evolved from being a light scientific treatment of weird sex to a book with an actual moral message. And that message turned out to be embarrassingly obvious, really. As a society, we’ve been dawdling over the irrelevant questions of what’s “normal” and “natural” for far too long. To make any real moral traction, we must abandon the rhetoric of righteousness and instead turn our efforts to clarifying, using science rather than scripture, laws, or even (and especially) our own gut feelings, how a sexual act or orientation is harmful to those involved. In my book, at least, doing harm is the only thing that makes a person a pervert.