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

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Former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith: Theresa May is the Tory leader Labour should fear

George Osborne is not inevitable as the next Tory leader – and Theresa May could be the one to see him off.

Some people believe that Theresa May has had her day as a Tory leadership contender, but she is a woman who has been underestimated throughout her career. Furthermore, as Angela Merkel, Tessa Jowell, Margaret Hodge and Harriet Harman will tell you, we are in the day of the (slightly) older woman politician. And, while Margaret Thatcher was certainly not an advocate for more Tory women, her legacy is a Conservative party who would not find it impossible to countenance another woman in charge. Could that be May?

Throughout her political career, May has never been seen as “a rising star”. She was involved in politics at Oxford University having gained a place from her grammar school, but was not particularly pushy or sparkling future leader material. She worked in banking for a period and was a councillor in Merton. She fought two unwinnable seats before finally getting elected to parliament in 1997. So no easy, gilded rise through the party for her. Being on the receiving end of some of the misogyny found in all parties’ selection procedures may have been the spur which led her to declare the Conservatives the “nasty party” in her famous 2002 conference speech as party chair under Iain Duncan Smith’s leadership. She is a bit of an outsider, willing to argue that her party had to change and to reach out beyond its natural supporters. She is no Robert Halfon-style, blue-collar Conservative, but nor is she a “posh boy” – perhaps the perfect positioning for a future leader.

Thatcher prided herself on being an ‘honorary man’ – no feminist solidarity for her. However, May is much more comfortable supporting other women – she is an advocate of the Tory party’s efforts to find more women candidates. As party leader, she might well find ways to appeal to the older women who tend to vote, but have not always been attracted by the “calm down, dear” machismo of the current  Tory leadership.

A winning party leader will have to command the political centre-ground. May is no rightwing ideologue. She shows little passion for eye-catching policy announcements and has rarely, in recent years ventured beyond her Home Office brief to express strong views or a sense of the direction she would like to take the country in. The British public may not be attracted by demagoguery, but they will need a clear idea of what a May leadership would believe in and do. This could be an even greater barrier to actually getting elected within the Conservative party to begin with. For example, May has largely avoided the issue of Europe. She did make a speech last year criticising the stifling effect of European Union regulation, but the context was interesting. Some saw this as an attempt to broaden her appeal within the party, but it was also made at the time when she was attempting to win support to opt back in to a range of EU justice and home affairs measures including the European arrest warrant, which the government had opted out of in a grandstanding gesture. She may have to make ideological gestures to win  Tory support, but is fundamentally pragmatic.

However, that is not to say that she is not willing to be brave in taking on those who she feels need challenge. Her “nasty party” speech was one such example, but more recently she was willing to offer some home truths to the Police Federation at its conference. This was certainly at a time when the Fed was already weakened by internal divisions and the police was dogged by scandal. But, as any Home Secretary knows, the conference can be an unpleasant and surly event and it shows mettle to take them on in this arena.

Her time as one of the longest serving home secretaries is a double-edged sword for an aspiring Conservative leader. Being Home Secretary is a serious and difficult job – holding onto it for as long as she has means that nobody could doubt her credentials to take one more step up the ladder. Dealing with the security, cross-government issues and “events” which are the bread and butter of Home Secretaries is possibly a better qualification to be Prime  Minister than the more controlled environment of the Treasury. However, the all-encompassing seriousness of the role also makes it more difficult to win support as a future leader or prime minister. Being Home Secretary with the current policy portfolio is essentially about stopping bad things from happening. It does not leave a lot of time to make the wider political arguments or to engage in the “hopey, changey’” thing which many would look for in a future leader.

She has made mistakes – alienating the civil service in a particularly cavalier shifting of the blame onto senior Border Force official Brodie Clark for supposed weaknesses in border security when the fault was in her policy decisions. She has shown bad judgement and a lack of imagination in sticking with a crude immigration cap which achieves the double whammy of being impossible to deliver and perverse in the impact of trying to.

There is no doubt that May is not a clubbable or particularly warm person so has not built up a cadre of enthusiastic supporters. She has lost some good ministers from the Home Office, like Nick Herbert and Pauline Neville-Jones, suggesting that she may not excel at building the sort of team spirit needed to win a leadership bid and maintain the ‘machine’ necessary to be a successful leader.

However, she has built her career so far on not being a “natural” for each of the political jobs she has held. She has outperformed expectations and has some of the ingredients necessary to move the Tory party on from the dilettante gentleman, amateur approach of David Cameron. It is a record and an approach which just might attract both the party and those voters who Labour so desperately needs to win back. Don’t write her off yet.

This essay is from Face-Off, a series of linked articles by Progress on the next Conservative leader.