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The Sexual Deviant in All of Us
Flags make tiring lovers. 'They are always silly and joking around,' says one lady who is 'in a relationship' with a flag called Libby. The Eiffel Tower is an altogether more stable lover, as her (it is a her) partner, Erika Eiffel, will attest. Erika is a flighty bisexual; her previous lover was the very manly Golden Gate Bridge. And don't get me started on Eija-Riitta Eklof, who married the Berlin Wall, only to be brutally widowed in 1989.
These people are objectophiles, erotically drawn to inanimate objects. They, perhaps, are easier to discuss at dinner parties than formicophiles - literally, ant lovers - who are turned on by very small creatures, which they put on their ... No, perhaps not. Then there are ornophiles (birds), savantophiles (mentally challenged people), chasmophiles (lovers of rock fissures), and so on. I like the stygophiles, who are aroused by the thought of going to hell, but I think I'll give the climacophiles - they have orgasms while falling down stairs - a miss.
Human sexuality is a carnival of improbable delights. The ones I have just listed are extreme rarities, but add in foot, shoe and underwear fetishism, sadomasochism, voyeurism and countless others and it becomes clear that many - perhaps most, perhaps all - of us are pervy in one way or another. That, says Jesse Bering, is a great truth we must eagerly embrace.
Bering previously wrote Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? and The God Instinct. He is a gay psychologist and atheist - three attributes that are important in understanding this book. Atheism, because he blames religion for the sexual oppressions of the past; psychology, because that is how he sees the world; and, most important, his homosexuality, because the success of gay liberation for him forms a template for the acceptance of sexual variations.
What he calls the erotic outliers must, like gay people, be brought in from the cold and released from shame, not least because we are all erotic outliers. We can solve, he claims, some of the most troubling problems of our age by pursuing an amoral study of sex.
This is a very entertaining book. Bering takes us on a wild ride through the history of kinks and our usually negative responses. He starts out with an early odd attachment of his own to a Neanderthal, a picture of whom he saw in one of his father's anthropology textbooks - 'In those pre-internet days, he was the only naked man I had at my fingertips.' He goes on to trace the use of the word 'pervert' from the 6th-century writings of Boethius to its late-19th-century use by thinkers such as Havelock Ellis, a man who, Bering delights in pointing out, had urophilia, a fixation on female urine.
By then, the medieval link joining sexual deviance with atheism had, more or less, been broken. But, for Bering, the almost equally pernicious 'naturalistic fallacy' remained. In this, there was a natural form of sex - presumably missionary-position and child-bearing - and all others were perversions of this ideal. Commonly, this also entailed the insistence that these perversions were chosen rather than innate, an idea still embraced by the more swivel-eyed homophobes.
Then there is the yuk factor. The most interesting chapter in this book is Damn Dirty Apes, in which Bering deals with the ways we find sex acts disgusting. Gay men particularly suffered from this because of anal sex, but, as he convincingly shows, all sex can seem yukky depending on the condition of the observer. He quotes a Berkeley study in which the same questionnaire about what they would or wouldn't do sexually was given to two groups of straight male students. One group answered unaroused; the other had been told to watch their favourite porn without climaxing prior to answering. The first group was pretty vanilla in its answers; the latter group was up for sex with oldies, threesomes, sadomasochism, urophilia and even rape and paedophilia. Lust - eager, willing and frequently criminal - changes everything.
Paedophilia, however, is also part of the erotic carnival, so should that, too, be liberated? Bering does point out that many adults say they were unaffected or even enjoyed sexual contact in childhood. But his overriding principle is 'do no harm', and the repeatedly proven risk of harm is always great when children are involved.
He makes the further point that being a paedophile is not the same as acting as one, and, if the problem is to be tackled, we should remove the moral stigma from an unacted inclination, the better to treat it. There is evidence that child porn reduces rates of molestation, so seized child porn could be given to paedophiles, or virtual porn could be legalised. This would be, to say the least, controversial.
Entertaining and fascinating as all of this is, there are three big things wrong with this book. First, there is the absurd utopianism of the idea that we can ever be freed from our sexual hang-ups and that such a liberation would produce a better world. Second, Bering's moral reasoning is philosophically jejune - either he is badly edited or he is unclear about whether morality is solely in us or, somehow, out there in the world. Third, though in sober mood he writes well, he keeps indulging in flights of fancy phrase-making that do not work.
Read, however, as an entertaining catalogue of the erotic carnival and as a humane plea for tolerance, Perv will give you a warm glow, thought not - and Bering apologises for this in advance - an orgasm.
One of the conditions Jesse Bering covers in his book is anasteemaphilia, an attraction to dramatically different heights. Baudelaire claimed to have a keen interest in female giantesses and dwarves - but, as he also said he had eaten the brains of a child and had a pair of breeches made from his father's skin, his boast should be taken with a pinch of salt, says Bering.
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