Hint: it probably applies to YOU.
Psychologist Jesse Bering is a man after my own heart. His book, Perv: the Sexual Deviant in All of Us, attacks the modern attempt to label sexually uncommon or misunderstood behaviors as inherently deviant and dysfunctional by exploring the history of the concept of sexual deviance and tracing the use of the terms 'fetish,' 'paraphilia' and 'perversion.'
Like my own writing, Bering's work is intended to defend many of the individuals shunned by society and labeled as “perverts,” and to provoke questions about our views of sexual deviance.
As psychology and science grow in knowledge about sexual behaviors, we find that there are far, far, far more individuals out there interested in aspects of sexuality we formerly believed were rare than we ever thought possible.
Did you know that the term “pervert” was originally applied to atheists?
This tidbit of history, one of the many delightful details in the book, set the stage for the society we live in today, where anyone engaging in socially unacceptable behaviors can be called a pervert.
Perversion was first used as a clinical term during the 19th century and was used in this manner to some degree in Freudian and psychodynamic literature. For the most part, it has now fallen out of clinical use and is viewed as a stigmatizing, subjective term. However, in some fields, such as the sex addiction industry, the term and concept are still used.
In 2001, Patrick Carnes, father of the sex addiction industry, published an article in which he defined perversion as “eroticized rage” — an expression of people’s anger with social conventions and a key factor in what he refers to as "sex addiction."
The clash between social and cultural norms and an individual person's preferred sexual behaviors or desires may very well create distress, dysfunction, and conflict, but that is a social issue, not a medical one. There are many, many sexual behaviors that are perfectly acceptable in one environment or culture, but not in others (more on this in just a bit). This is merely a reflection of cultural differences, not something that can be used as scientific evidence of a sexual disorder.
Bering believes that, to the contrary, such attacks on sexual deviancy reflect underpinnings of “moral panic” driven by fear and lack of understanding.
Such panics are based on the notion that our sexual thoughts, fantasies, and desires, even if never acted upon, are sinful and character deficits.
In reading this, I thought of the many sex addiction proponents who assert that sexual fantasies are the equivalent of “relapsing” and that even one’s thoughts must be kept under strict control in order to prevent an otherwise inevitable slide into degeneracy and uncontrolled sexual behavior.
Why are we so afraid of sex?
Why are we so quick to label sexual behaviors as “perverse,” deviant and disturbed?
Bering offers many reasons for people’s instinctive desire to think of sexual differences as pathological or diseased.
One of the best answers points to the research of homophobia which revealed that there is a positive correlation between an individuals’ endorsement of homophobic statements and their physiological arousal reaction to homosexual porn.
In other words, people who are homophobic may express strong fear and anger towards homosexuality because they are conflicted about and afraid of their own secret homosexual desires.
So ... the next time you hear or see someone expressing their fear of sexual deviance, one hypothesis is that whatever kink they find most troubling might actually be the sexual behavior they secretly find most exciting and tempting.
In fact, many of the strongest advocates of sex addiction treatment are themselves self-identified former sex addicts, and the hypothesis above quite possibly explains why they believe so strongly in their arguments — even though what they believe isn't based on scientific or empirical data — and why they react so strongly to critical challenges of their beliefs from professionals like myself.
These are people who fear sex because of their own past experiences. The idea that sexual desire is a force to be battled against, and defeated via sex addiction treatment, seems to be the thing they cling to in order to keep their own sexual desires under control.
So when someone like myself, or Bering, comes along and challenges their notions, they often feel we are attacking their very identity and the thing they use to create an illusion of internal control.
As Bering argues well, their negative beliefs about sexual behaviors and sexual fantasies aren't rational arguments, but rather arguments based in fear and disgust.
A key component of Bering’s argument is that “normal” sex is an empty concept. Normal is relative. What is normal in one culture, might be abnormal or even illegal in another. In our culture, an individual who has a need for sex four or five times a day could easily be labeled “hypersexual.” In fact, daily sex/orgasm (just once a day mind you) is often included as a symptom of hypersexuality in many definitions of sex addiction.
But, in Africa, a tribe called the Aka believe that frequent sex at this level is necessary in order to create healthy children. Transport these individuals to our country, put them in front of Western therapists, and let’s see how quickly their sexual behaviors are called excessive and evidence of disease — rather than evidence of different cultural attitudes towards sex.
In 1896, Manhattan psychiatrist Allan Hamilton published an article titled Civil Responsibility of Sexual Perverts, in which Bering reports that Hamilton argued that psychiatrists must report homosexual individuals to the legal system in order to forcibly remove them from their homosexual relationships.
Today, website Kink.com (NSFW) in San Francisco represents a marvelous example of “civilly responsible perverts.”
This group took over a historic building in San Francisco known as The Armory, has created a nonprofit foundation and dedicates a large portion of their building to the public for community use. They stand in direct, vocal and visible contrast to the notion that those involved in sexually "deviant" behaviors are inherently immoral and untrustworthy.
Bering is optimistic in his hope that our society will continue to embrace new levels of acceptance and openness. He ends his book with a powerful statement that society is changing dramatically and rapidly as the Internet and new research quickly prove that many of our beliefs about sexuality are based on myths and subjective fears.
We stand at a crossroads, Bering argues, and before us is a road never traveled.
It is a cultural path, where we can minimize the degree to which these morally-based and judgmental beliefs about sex can be used to pathologize, stigmatize, shame and shun people. To walk this path requires that all of us acknowledge our own secret “perversions” and from that self-knowledge practice greater acceptance towards the different (but not necessarily "sick") desires of others.
David J. Ley, Ph.D. is an internationally recognized expert on issues related to sexuality and mental health. His second book, "The Myth of Sex Addiction," triggered a firestorm of debate around the concept of sex addiction, allowing people to finally challenge the hype behind this pseudo-disorder. His latest book, "Ethical Porn For Dicks: A Man's Guide To Responsible Viewing Pleasure," uses a question/answer format to offer men a non-judgmental way to learn to view pornography responsibly.
This article was originally published at Psychology Today. Reprinted with permission from the author.