Is an attraction to short, large-breasted women under 20 a sexual orientation? It could be, according to Jesse Bering, the author of the new book Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us.
When a person is turned on by activities, objects, or physical traits that are outside of “the norm”, clinical psychologists call these erotic responses “paraphilias”. Some are well known and politically controversial, such as paedophilia. Others are extremely rare but no less inconvenient to those who experience them, such as melissaphilia: an erotic attraction to bees.
In his book, Bering treats the reader to a diverse and entertaining collection of stories of non-normative sexuality, ranging from medieval trials for man-on-beast sex to a sadly touching story about a man whose life is a constant struggle because of his erotic response to sneezes.
Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us, available in hardback for $19.97 on Amazon.
In this book you will find stories about urophilia and coprophilia (arousal due to urine or feces, respectively) and acrotomophilia (a sexual attraction to amputees), as well as the many and various forms of objectophilia that are possible, including a woman who has a serious emotional and sexual relationship with a flag named “Libby”.
You will also learn that you have most likely been using the word “paedophilia” incorrectly. As a scientific term, paedophilia refers to people who are only attracted to prepubescent children. For those attracted to pubescent children it would be called “hebephilia”, while for those who are attracted children in their late adolescence it is called “ephebophilia”. This is not to imply that these distinctions are (or should be) legally important; but it’s nice to get the actual scientific terms correct.
Of course, these paraphilias can also occur in combinations, as Bering playfully notes: “any psellismophilic nebulophile (someone whose most passionate moments involve masturbating in the foggy mist while listening to a person stutter) can see that.”
All of these examples make the book sound like quite a playful lark, and in some ways it is; however, behind all of the story-telling Bering has a much more profound and important message to convey.
The people who experience these desires never chose the objects of their erotic attention. In a scientific and technical sense, these paraphilias are sexual orientations. As Bering observes in the book, “a paraphiliac’s brain orients him to an atypical erotic target (or activity), just as other people’s brains orient them to the normal suspects”.
For many people, it’s a little uncomfortable to use the term “sexual orientation” to refer to something as steeped in political issues as pedophilia, or as outright bizarre as chasmophilia (an arousal from nooks or crevices other than those found on the human body). Most people are used to understanding sexual orientations as being both very broad and limited in variety: people are gay (homosexual), straight (heterosexual) or bisexual.
But paraphilias have a great deal in common with what people normally think of as sexual orientations. Paraphilias arise very early in life, and are inflexible: neither by will nor by circumstance will they change over time.
They are also very narrow. This is why paraphilias are more like sexual orientations than they are like “preferences” or “tastes”. In the same way that a gay person is overwhelmingly more aroused by people of the same sex than anything else, a melissaphile is overwhelmingly more aroused by bees than anything else. Sexual arousal is completely or significantly dependent on the object, or action, or situation that is the target of the orientation.
So, is an attraction to short, large-breasted women under 20 a sexual orientation? Not if it’s just a flight of fancy. Not if you simply have “taste” for that type, but are able to find other people attractive as well.
However, if you are exclusively attracted to short, large-breasted women under 20 and absolutely cannot be turned on by anything else, then it is possible that it could be your sexual orientation.
The primary recurring theme throughout Bering’s book is his desire to approach the topic from a scientific perspective. Of course, the topic of sexual desires is messy, and is fraught with political tensions and complications. To his credit, Bering addresses these issues head on.
Perv is an extremely nuanced book that is worth reading even apart from the titillating and eye-popping discussions of weird sex. It explores important questions about the relationships among choice, “naturalness” and moral judgment. It talks about the amazing difficulty that can arise when trying to draw the line between right and wrong, or between “normalcy” and pathology, based on ideas such as “harm” or “distress”. Again and again, he asks the reader to question where our intuitions about sexual morality come from, and whether they are justified.
Do not jump to conclusions, however. Bering neither attacks nor defends paedophilia, or any other politically fraught sexual desire. Instead, he dives right into a discussion of the “messy” issue from all angles, and in the process gets the reader to appreciate some of the truly complex tensions that come up when trying to understand sexuality.
Given all of the problems that Bering obviously has with the way people currently judge and respond to “sexual deviancy”, I asked Bering what an ideal world would look like to him: How should society think about, and deal with, people’s many and various sexual desires and orientations? What would an ideal world look like?
“I think it would be an acknowledgment that there is tremendous sexual variation, and an acceptance of sexual variability. Also, a far greater distinction than we make presently between the psychosexual compatibility of individuals and the actual behaviors and action: a division between desires and behaviors. Finally, there should also be a much clearer and more sophisticated conversation about the notion of harm. That idea of harm was a recurring theme in the book… We should not simply assume that harm occurs because we would experience harm, but really listen to other people’s subjective perception of harm, and their interpretation of their sexual experience.”