On the pervert in all of us

First aired on Q (7/11/13)

Are you a pervert? According to psychologist and award-winning columnist Jesse Bering, we are all sexual deviants on some level. In his new book Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us, he argues that we should use science, logic and reason to re-examine our prejudices towards today's erotic outliers. Rather than condemning activities that we personally find distasteful as "abnormal," Bering contends that instead we should consider whether a particular sexual practice or proclivity is causing harm.

In a recent interview on Q, Bering told guest host Piya Chattopadhyay that he was drawn to write about the subject because "it's one of the major moral issues of the day, when we're talking about sexual deviance."


Bering added that growing up gay in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., influenced his interest in the subject. He recalls at the age of eight or nine overhearing people talking about AIDS as a "gay plague" and referring to the disease as "God's clever way of ridding the world of queers." Even at that early age, he knew he was gay, and so took it to heart that "society saw me as essentially evil because of something I had no control over."

Bering pointed out that the word "pervert" originally had nothing to do with sexuality. It was first used in the 17th century to refer "to someone who went against what is right...someone who violated biblical canon." But by the end of the 19th century, "Victorian-era psychologists and sexologists began using word 'pervert' to refer to people who were perceived by the majority of the population to have a sexual orientation or sexual desires that went against what is right."

It's common for terms like normal and abnormal, right and wrong, to be used when it comes to discussing sexuality. That tendency comes "from deep-seated, evolved, or ancestral sexual biases," Bering said, and these biases are not rooted in anything rational. In one of the chapters of his book, he discusses the "powerful emotion of disgust," which he calls "the blind, visceral engine of hate." If people have a "gut-level aversion" to certain sexual practices, he said, "it makes them immediately go to the moral question. These intuitions tell us nothing about the moral reality."

Bering would like to see a more inclusive sexual morality that moves away from framing the discussion in terms of "what is natural" and instead move "toward defining in very clear terms what is harmful." But he acknowledged that it can be "uncomfortable" to think about certain topics. He cited zoophiles, who are sexually aroused by animals. Scientific studies of physiological arousal have found that "as much as one per cent of the human population is more attracted to other species than they are to human beings," he said.

Bering believes that there has to be more education about the science of human sexuality. "I think that we are still struggling to come to grips with the fact that there are sexual minorities that can't help the way they are, basically," he said. "We are morally evaluating them as if they have a conscious choice."

Bering covers many paraphilias (sexual arousal to objects/situations) in his book. The literal translation of paraphilia is "love outside of the norm," he said. He went on to say that there are "547 distinct paraphilias. Some are incredibly rare -- only becoming sexually aroused in the middle of a tornado or while falling down the stairs, or while looking at somebody who's shivering from the cold."

Though these proclivities may seem odd to most of us, Bering said that the people who identified with the unusual sexual response patterns can go back in time and pinpoint the origin of their paraphilia. It's usually linked to "a specific event in childhood between the ages of four and nine."

Many people hide their deepest sexual desires out of shame, and that brings "a lot of personal distress," Bering said. "There are lots of things that we can't act on, in terms of gratifying our signature erotic profile. And we go to our graves, basically, never sharing this with anybody."

According to Bering, where sexual desire is concerned "a lot goes unsaid." His book is "an attempt to drive home the things that go unsaid."

Recent highlights: