"As a sex writer, Jesse Bering is fearless―and peerless." ―Dan Savage
"You are a sexual deviant. A pervert, through and through." We may not want to admit it, but as the award-winning columnist and psychologist Jesse Bering reveals in Perv, there is a spectrum of perversion along which we all sit. Whether it's voyeurism, exhibitionism, or your run-of-the-mill foot fetish, we all possess a suite of sexual tastes as unique as our fingerprints―and as secret as the rest of the skeletons we've hidden in our closets.
Combining cutting-edge studies and critiques of landmark research and conclusions drawn by Sigmund Freud, Alfred Kinsey, and the DSM-5, Bering pulls the curtain back on paraphilias, arguing that sexual deviance is commonplace. He explores the countless fetishists of the world, including people who wear a respectable suit during the day and handcuff a willing sexual partner at night. But he also takes us into the lives of "erotic outliers," such as a woman who falls madly in love with the Eiffel Tower; a pair of deeply affectionate identical twins; those with a particular penchant for statues; and others who are enamored of crevices not found on the human body.
Moving from science to politics, psychology, history, and his own reflections on growing up gay in America, Bering confronts hypocrisy, prejudice, and harm as they relate to sexuality on a global scale. Humanizing so-called deviants while at the same time asking serious questions about the differences between thought and action, he presents us with a challenge: to understand that our best hope of solving some of the most troubling problems of our age hinges entirely on the amoral study of sex.
As kinky as it is compassionate, illuminating, and engrossing, Perv is an irresistible and deeply personal book. "I can't promise you an orgasm at the end of our adventure," Bering writes, "but I can promise you a better understanding of why you get the ones you do."
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Jesse Bering is the author of The Belief Instinct and Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? His writing and research have appeared in Slate, Scientific American, New York magazine, Cosmopolitan, The Guardian, and The New Republic, among other publications, and have been featured by NPR, Playboy Radio, and more. Bering is the former director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen's University, Belfast, and began his career as a professor at the University of Arkansas. He lives in Ithaca, New York.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
WE’RE ALL PERVERTS
Gnothi seauton [Know thyself] —Inscription outside the Temple of Apollo at Delphi
You are a sexual deviant. A pervert, through and through.
Now, now, don’t get so defensive. Allow me to explain. Imagine if some all-powerful arm of the government existed solely to document every sexual response of every private citizen. From the most tempestuous orgasmic excesses, to the slightest twinges of genitalia, to unseen hormonal cascades and sub-cranial machinations, not a thing is missed. Filed under your name in this fictional scientific universe would be your very own scandalous dossier, intricate and exhaustive in its every embarrassing measurement of your self-lubricating loins. What’s more, the records in this nightmarish society extend all the way back to your adolescence, to the days when your desires first began to simmer and boil. I’d be willing to bet that buried somewhere in this relentless biography of yours is an undeniable fact of your sex life that would hobble you instantaneously with shame should the wrong individual ever find out about it.
To break the ice, I’ll go first. And how I wish one of my first sexual experiences were as charming as inserting my phallus into a warm apple pie. Instead, it involves pleasuring myself to an image from my father’s old anthropology textbook. This isn’t even as admirable as those puerile stories about a teenage boy masturbating to some National Geographic–like spread of exotic naked villagers breast-feeding or shooting blow darts in the Amazon. No, it wasn’t anything like that. For me, the briefest of heavens could instead be found in an enormous and hairy representative of the species Homo neanderthalensis. I can still see the lifelike rendering now. The Neanderthal was shown crouching down, pink gonads dangling teasingly between muscular apish thighs, while with all his cognitive might this handsome, grunting beast tried desperately to light a fire in a cobbled pit to warm his equally hirsute family (what looked to be a perplexed woman from whose furry breasts a baby feverishly suckled). The Neanderthal was in fact too brutish for my tastes, but in those pre-Internet days he was the only naked man I had at my fingertips. Well, the only naked hominid, anyway. One must work with the material one has.
So there, I said it. In my adolescence, I derived an intense orgasm (or twenty) from fantasizing about a member of another species. (In my defense, it was a closely related species.) You may have to rack your brains for some similarly indecent memory, or then again, maybe all you need to do is roll over in bed this morning to remind yourself of the hairy specimen of a creature that you brought home last night. Either way, chances are there’s something gossip-worthy in your own sexual past. Maybe it’s not quite as odd as mine. But I’m sure it’s suitably humbling for present purposes. What makes us all the same is our having had certain private moments that could get us blackmailed.
Granted, most of us will never share our own lurid tidbits about our most unusual masturbatory mental aids or the fact that there’s a distinct possibility we had the tongue of a Sasquatch in our nether regions last night (or ours in its). What usually gets out is only what we want others to know. That’s perfectly understandable. We have our reputations to consider. I might never be allowed again into my local museum for fear I’ll debase one of the caveman mannequins, for instance. The problem with zipping up on our dirtiest little secrets, however, is that others are doing exactly the same thing, and this means that the story of human sexuality that we’ve come to believe is true is, in reality, a lie. What’s more, it’s a very dangerous lie, because it convinces us that we’re all alone in the world as “perverts” (and hence immoral monsters) should we ever deviate in some way from this falsely conceived pattern of the normal. A lot of human nature has escaped rational understanding because we’ve been unwilling to be completely honest about what really turns us on and off—or at least what’s managed to do the trick for us before. We cling to facades. We know one another only partially. Much of what lies ahead, therefore, concerns what you don’t want the rest of the world to know about your sexuality. But relax, that will be our little secret.
Again, however, I’d urge you to come clean in the confession booth of your own mind. And really, just a small unburdening of your erotic conscience will do for now. Reach far, far into the abyss of your wettest of dreams. Or perhaps it was only a fleeting, long-forgotten secretion, a lingering gaze misplaced, a furtive whiff of an object redolent with someone you once craved, a wayward click of the mouse, a hypothalamic effervescence that made you tingle down below. Nevertheless, even if you settle on one of these relatively minor examples, each embodies a corporeal reality specific to you … a “shocking,” incontrovertible deed of physiology or an outright commission of lust that you’ve never shared with a single person, maybe not even yourself until now.
Whatever it is, once it’s laid bare for all the world to see in your declassified government report, a faultless testimony in inerasable ink, this unique venereal data point will undoubtedly register in the consciousness of someone, somewhere out there as evidence of your sexual deviance, or perhaps even your criminality. Just look around you or think of all the people you know. In the unforgiving lair of another’s critical eyes, you have now been transformed irreversibly into a filthy, loathsome pervert. And that’s the feeling, this fetid social emotion of shame, that I want you to keep in the back of your mind as you read this book. We’re going to get to the bottom of where it comes from, and we’re going to do our best to smother it with reason in our efforts to stop it from hurting you and others in the future.
This feeling doesn’t just make you a guilty pervert; more important, it makes you a human being. Blue-haired grandmothers, somnambulant schoolteachers, meticulous bankers, and scowling librarians, they’ve felt it too, just like you. We tend not to think of others as sexual entities unless they’ve aroused us somehow, but with the exception of those people spared by certain chromosomal disorders, we’re all innately lewd organisms. That’s easy to grasp in some abstract sense. But try putting it into practice. The next time you’re at the grocery store and the moribund cashier with the underbite and the debilitating bosom sweeps your bananas across the scanner, think of precisely where those uncommonly large hands have been. How many men or women— including her—have those seemingly asexual appendages brought ineffable bliss? This isn’t an exercise in the grotesque; it’s a reminder of your animal humanity. A concupiscent beast has roamed under all skins … even that of the grumpy checkout lady.
Yet the best-kept secret is even bigger than this unspoken universality. It’s this: exploring the outer recesses of desire by using the tools of science is a pinnacle human achievement. It’s not easy, but digging into the darkest corners of our sexual nature (that is to say, our “perversions”) can expose what keeps us from making real moral progress whenever the issues of equality and sexual diversity arise. With each defensive layer we remove, the rats therein will flee at the daylight falling at their feet, and the opportunity to eradicate such a pestilence of fear and ignorance makes the excavation of our species’s lascivious soul worth our getting a little dirty along the way.
* * *
We’re not the first to use the grimier realities of human sexuality to grease our way into some deeper truths. They may not have been scientists, but many artists and writers have touched on related psychological processes that were insightful and even foretold future research directions. In his 1956 play, The Balcony, for example, the French playwright Jean Genet showed how people who are inebriated by desire experience cognitive distortions motivating them to engage in behaviors that in a less aroused state of mind they’d perceive as obscene. Genet’s story revolves around the daily affairs of a busy brothel in a town on the brink of war. Run by an astute madam named Irma, the whorehouse is a sanctuary in which high-profile local officials are free to drain away their carnal excess. Once they’ve done so, they can get on with the business of being “normal” and respectable public figures defending the town from the enemy. Irma’s house of illusions has come to serve some colorful patrons, including the town judge, who feigns to “punish” a naughty prostitute, a bishop who pretends to “absolve the sins” of a demure penitent, and a general who enjoys riding his favorite (human) horse. “When it’s over, their minds are clear,” Irma reflects after these men visit her establishment. “I can tell from their eyes. Suddenly they understand mathematics. They love their children and their country.” The lustful human brain, Genet understood in a way that contemporary scientists are just now starting to fully grasp by using controlled studies in laboratory settings, is simply not of the same world as that of its sober counterpart.
One point I’d like to make crystal clear at the outset of our journey is that understanding is not the same as condoning. Our sympathies can take us only so far, and entering other minds isn’t pleasant when it comes to certain categories of sex offenders. Furthermore, it’s one thing to wax theoretical about sexual deviance, but another altogether to be the victim of sex abuse in real life or to know that someone we love, especially a child, has been harmed. Yet while it’s a common refrain to liken the most violent sex offenders to animals, whether we like it or not, even the worst of them are resoundingly human. As unsettling as it can sometimes be to lean in for a closer look, their lives can offer us valuable lessons about what can go wrong in the development of a person’s sexual identity and decision making. “I consider nothing that is human alien to me,” said the Roman philosopher Terence. I feel the same way. And Terence’s credo is one I intend to adhere to closely when it comes to some of the characters we’ll be meeting along the way.
I’ll do my best, anyway. For while there’s no doubt that the most terrible rapists, child molesters, and other more banal classes of sex offenders were around in his day, Terence didn’t know of the hundreds of extravagant “paraphilias” (or sexual orientations toward people or things that most of us wouldn’t consider to be particularly erotic) that scientists would eventually discover when he confidently uttered those words more than two thousand years ago. Even he might have had trouble finding common ground with, say, “teratophiles,” those attracted to the congenitally deformed, or “autoplushophiles,” who enjoy masturbating to their own image as cartoonlike stuffed animals.
Understanding the etymology of the word “pervert,” oddly enough, can help us to frame many of the challenging issues to come. Perverts weren’t always the libidinous bogeymen we know and loathe today. Yes, sexual mores have shifted dramatically over the course of history and across societies, but the very word “pervert” once literally meant something else entirely than what it does now. For example, it wouldn’t have helped his case, but the peculiar discovery that some peasant during the reign of Charles II used conch shells for anal gratification or inhaled a stolen batch of ladies’ corsets while touching himself in the town square would have been merely coincidental to any accusations of his being perverted. Terms of the day such as “skellum” (scoundrel) or reference to his “mundungus” (smelly entrails) might have applied, but calling this man a “pervert” for his peccadilloes would have made little sense at the time.
Linguistically, the sexual connotation feels so natural. The very ring of it— purrrvert—is at once melodious and cloying, producing a noticeable snarl on the speaker’s face as the image of a lecherous child molester, a trench-coated flasher in a park, a drooling pornographer, or perhaps a serial rapist pops into his or her head. Yet as Shakespeare might remind us, a pervert by any other name would smell as foul.
For the longest time, in fact, to be a pervert wasn’t to be a sex deviant; it was to be an atheist. In 1656, the British lexicographer Thomas Blount included the following entry for the verb “pervert” in his Glossographia (a book also known by the more cumbersome title A Dictionary Interpreting the Hard Words of Whatsoever Language Now Used in Our Refined English Tongue): “to turn upside down, to debauch, or seduce.” All of those activities occur in your typical suburban bedroom today. But it’s only by dint of our post-Victorian minds that we perceive these types of naughty winks in the definition of a term floating around the old English countryside. In Blount’s time, and for several hundred years after he was dead and buried, a pervert was simply a headstrong apostate who had turned his or her back on the draconian morality of the medieval Church, thereby “seducing” others into a godless lifestyle.
Actually, even long before Blount officially introduced perverts to the refined English-speaking world in all their heathen fury, an earlier form of the word appeared in the Catholic mystic Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy in the year 524.* Like Blount’s derivation, the mystic’s pervertere was a bland “turning away from what is right.” Given the context of Christian divinity in which Boethius’s treatise was written, it’s clear that “against what is right” meant much the same then as it does for God-fearing people today, which is to say, against what is biblical.
So if we applied this original definition to the present iconoclastic world of science, one of the world’s most recognizable perverts would be the famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. As the author of The God Delusion and an active proselytizer of atheism, Dawkins encourages his fellow rationalists to “turn away from” canonical religious teachings. (I’ve penned my own scientific atheistic screed, so I’m not casting stones. I’m proudly in possession of a perverted nature that fits both the archaic use of the term, due to my atheism, and its more recent pejorative use, due to my homosexuality.)
Only at the tail end of the nineteenth century did the word “pervert” first leap from the histrionic sermons of fiery preachers into the heady, clinical discourses of stuffy European sexologists like the ones you’ll be introduced to soon. And it was a long time after that still before “pervert”—or “perv” if we’re being casual—became slang for describing the creepy, bespectacled guy up the road who likes to watch the schoolgirls milling about the bus stop in their miniskirts while he sips tea on his front porch.
This semantic migration of perverts, from the church pews to the psychiatric clinic to the online comments section of news stories about sex offenders, hasn’t occurred without the clattering bones of medieval religious morality dragging behind. Notice the suffix -vert means, generally, “to turn”: hence “con vert” (to turn to another), “re vert” (to turn to a previous state), “in vert” (to turn inside out), “per vert” (to turn away from the right course), and so on. But of all these related words, “pervert” alone has that devilishly malicious core—“a distinctive quality of obstinacy,” notes the psychoanalyst Jon...
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