How sexual perversion became the new norm

“One person's perversion is another’s normality.”

Perv: the Sexual Deviant in All of Us
Jesse Bering
Doubleday, 320pp, £16.99
The Pleasure’s All Mine: a History of Perverse Sex 
Julie Peakman
Reaktion Books, 352pp, £25

In 2007, in front of a small group of invited guests and a camera crew, a wedding took place on the left bank of the Seine in Paris. The bride was a 37-year-old American former soldier called Erika and the groom was a French feat of engineering called the Eiffel Tower. The marriage was consummated after the ceremony when the bride lifted her trench coat and straddled one of the groom’s steel girders. Erika was the more sexually experienced of the pair, having previously been in a relationship with San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Her first love affair had been with Lance, her archery bow; she has never been sexually attracted to a human being.

Erika La Tour Eiffel, as she now calls herself, is the one of the world’s 40 recognised “objectophiles”. In the American science writer Jesse Bering’s new book Perv – the British edition of which comes out in February next year – her condition is described as being akin to fetishism, in so far as an object has been invested with erotic appeal. But while the fetishist finds a shoe or a lock of hair arousing because they stand in for a human being, the objectophile is drawn to the object as an erotic target in itself. In addition, objectophiles, many of whom are autistic, believe that their love is reciprocated. “What does your beloved object find most attractive about you?” a researcher asked a number of objectophiles. “Well,” replied one woman, who is in a relationship with a flag called Libby, “Libby is always telling me she thinks I am funny. We make each other laugh so hard!”

I don’t wave at flags, despite their fun-loving side, but I’d be lying if I said I couldn’t see the appeal of the Eiffel Tower. Erika’s husband ticks all the boxes: tall, stable, glamorous, evidently not going anywhere in a hurry. As far as Erika is concerned, the tower is unlikely to let her down. Eija-Riitta Eklöf, on the other hand, a Swedish objectophile who married the Berlin Wall, now considers herself a widow, as does the poor woman who tied the knot with the Twin Towers.

If there were a party game where we could all hook up with an architectural structure, I would certainly tip my bonnet in the direction of the Eiffel Tower. Except – and this is where it gets trippy – Erika doesn’t see the Eiffel Tower as a man at all; she thinks of the 324m erection as female and considers herself in a lesbian relationship. Now that really is perverse.

There are, Bering says, 500 identified “paraphilias” and all of us, whether we like it or not, fit into the spectrum at some point. A paraphilia is defined as “a way of seeing the world through a singular sexual lens”, which cannot be repaired or, in the absence of a lobotomy, easily removed. It’s a genetic and not a moral failing. The cheery chap who does your dry-cleaning might be a plushophile who lusts after stuffed animal toys and spends his weekends looking for sex at “ConFurences” while dressed as a Disney creature. Or he could be a formicophile, who gets his pleasure from the feeling of ants and snails crawling over his erotic zones. But so long as he’s not harming anyone, and does your dry-cleaning on time, why does it matter how he reaches his peak?

Both Bering and the British historian Julie Peakman, in The Pleasure’s All Mine, argue that the concepts of “normal” and “perverse” are meaningless to begin with. “One person’s perversion is another’s normality,” writes Peakman, whose book is grounded in a critique of the work of the hugely influential 19th-century sexologists Richard von Krafft-Ebing (who popularised the terms “sadism” and “masochism” in an 1886 book) and Havelock Ellis, who in 1897 co-authored the first medical textbook on homosexuality, entitled Sexual Inversion.

The term “pervert” originally referred to an atheist, which means that strictly speaking the world’s biggest perv is currently Richard Dawkins. Today we take heterosexuality to be synonymous with “normal” sex but when the term was first used, in 1892 by Dr James G Kierman, it was linked to “abnormal manifestations of the sexual appetite” in both sexes. In Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary in 1901, “heterosexual sex” was defined as “an abnormal or perverted appetite towards the opposite sex”. Until recently, masturbation and oral sex were considered shameful perversions and if a woman experienced desire at all in the 19th century, she was seen as a nymphomaniac.

Bering suggests that we are so focused on weighing up which desires can be seen as “natural” (ie, also evidenced in the behaviour of non-human creatures) and which are “unnatural” (not performed by birds, fish or animals) that we have lost sight of the real question: is the expression of the desire harmful, to yourself or anyone else? And since when did we take our sexual advice from crayfish and penguins?

Our “syphilisation”, to adopt James Joyce’s term, is obsessed by the kookiness of sexologists. The authority of Krafft-Ebing gave way in the middle of the last century to that of Alfred Kinsey (played by Liam Neeson in the 2004 biopic), founder of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, and the word of Havelock Ellis was displaced by that of Masters and Johnson (whose relationship is currently being dramatised by Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan in the Channel 4 series Masters of Sex). We love the idea of men and women in white coats plotting out sexual categories – but the problem, according to Peakman and Bering, is not the presence among us of objectophiles, exhibitionists, formicophiles and tranvestites; it is the morality of those who have turned lonely individuals into self-loathing pariahs. How did we become, Bering asks, “the insufferably judgmental homonids that we are” and why don’t we empathise with, rather than judge, others?

Jesse Bering and Julie Peakman are probably the most tolerant people who have ever lived, next to the Greeks who inhabited a libertine utopia where every philia, from bird sex to incest, was given the green light. The obstacles to their arguments lie, obviously, in the abuse of children by paedophiles and animals by zoophiles. As far as the latter is concerned, Bering suggests that the same people who are exercised about whether a sheep has given its consent to sexual congress with a farmhand are less bothered about whether the sheep has signed a form saying it would like to be served up with mint sauce on a Sunday.

With children he is less flippant, and the most challenging chapter in Perv is on the varying age of consent (14 in Chile, 13 in Argentina, 12 in Mexico, 18 in Turkey, 15 in Sweden, and so on). Peakman adds that much of our treasured children’s literature, from Peter Pan to Alice in Wonderland, might be said to come from paedophilic imaginations.

The difference between Peakman and Bering is one of position. While Bering uses humour to take a vertical plunge into the depths of the psyche, Peakman stays horizontal, giving an overview of all the nonsense that has been written about sex from the ancient to the modern worlds, and adding some of her own: “It is not so much that the internet has contributed to sex in the 21st century; to a large extent it is sex.” Neither book makes easy reading: Peakman’s because it is lazily written and she has no rapport with the reader, and Bering’s because he takes us into the worlds of those who have not so much been hiding in the closet as quivering in the panic room of a building in a David Lynch film.

But the reader faces other challenges too. Some of us (or all, if Bering has his way) might feel uncomfortable stirrings of desire as we recognise our secret selves on the page; most will feel disgust or the urge to laugh. Once “the disgust factor” kicks in, Bering argues, social intelligence disappears. Desire and disgust are antagonists but they are also bedroom playmates; disgust towards the object of desire is a not uncommon post-coital reaction. As de Sade wrote, “Many men look upon the sleeping woman at their side with whom they have just had intercourse with a feeling as if they could at least thrash [her].” The secret to our success as a species, for Bering, is the way we have kept our disgust under control in the face of bodies that snore, smell, leak, swell and sprout unsightly hairs.

As the open-minded millionaire Osgood Fielding III puts it in Some Like It Hot, when told he has mistakenly proposed to a man, “Well, nobody’s perfect.”

There’s the rub: an illustration for Alfred de Musset’s erotic novel Gamiani (1833)

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Power Games

Photo: Getty Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.