Perv: The Sexual Deviant in Us All
by Jesse Bering
Scientific American/Farrar Straus & Giroux. 268 pages, $26.
THIS BOOK by Jesse Bering follows closely upon the publication of his earlier book of essays, Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? And Other Reflections on Being Human. Like its predecessor, Perv is a serious but irreverent examination of the variety and history of human “Perversions.” The new book examines a vast amount of research on sexual activities that lie outside the realm of those generally regarded as “normal” by mainstream society. As in his earlier book, Bering—who is openly gay—intersperses personal stories of his own departures from the norm with his research to delineate his thesis: there’s a “Perv” lurking in us all.
Perv provides an overview of “paraphilias”—defined broadly as any departure from the sexual norm—of which he claims there are over 500. They range from the more common ones, including the eight that are listed in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM): exhibitionism, fetishism, frotteurism, pedophilia, masochism, sadism, voyeurism, and transvestite fetishism. But Bering doesn’t neglect the more arcane examples, such as zoophilia, necrophilia, podophilia, and pygophilia, which is an erotic obsession with the buttocks. Others include anasteemaphilia (attraction to people of dramatically different height), psellismophile, nebulophile (“someone whose most passionate moments involve masturbating in the foggy mist while listening to a person stutter”), and titillagnia (erotic arousal from tickling), whose extreme form is the desire to tickle somebody to death.
Bering does a good job in describing these paraphilias and offers enlightening tidbits on their history. For example, acrotomophilia is an erotic fascination with amputees, and apotemnophilia is a fascination with having one’s own arm or leg removed; both can be traced back to the late 19th century. Foot fetishism, or podophilia, spiked among men in the late 20th century in areas where syphilis was rife. Needless to say, homosexuality has been associated with Perversion in many cultures, especially those controlled by monotheistic religions. Bering argues that the “disgust factor” associated with male homosexuality is often reduced to a dread of anal sex.
The author adopts a nonjudgmental stance when describing the various paraphilias he has unearthed, but draws the line with desires that involve harming other people against their will or forcing them to do something. What is immoral is the absence of consent. He then offers two examples that test this principle: the case of Armin Meiwis, who “found a willingly edible sexual masochist”; and that of a woman who before her death volunteered her corpse for consumption.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, there is considerable variation between males and females. For example, sexual imprinting based on an early life experience is quite common among men, while “women’s remembered accounts of some definitive childhood experience they believe to be linked to their adult sexual arousal are rare.” Psychologist Meredith Chivers found that both straight and lesbian women exhibit “vaginal vasocongestion”—an increased blood flow to the genitals, a response specific to female sexual arousal. Based on her research, this differs from sexual arousal for men in that it also occurs in response “to naked pictures of [their]nonpreferred gender.”
Reading Perv may have the side effect of enhancing your sense of “Pervdar” in everyday life. While reading the book I happened to catch an episode of Grey’s Anatomy in which a male patient required surgery on his inflamed penis, which he had stuck into a beehive. Had I not just read about the condition known as melissaphilia—an erotic fascination with bees—I would have thought it was just an arbitrary plot element. Bering’s research goes a long way toward validating the book’s subtitle, which hints that all of us are “sexual deviants” of one kind or another.