Nasty Stuff

Can Pedophiles Help Themselves? A Book’s Provocative Take on Sexuality

That and other provocative questions about human sexuality are raised by Jesse Bering in his new book, Perv. He talks to Rachel Kramer Bussel about bestiality, sexual norms, and foot fetishists.

David Elliott/Getty

With his new book Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us, Jesse Bering forces readers to face topics that can make even the most libertine amongst us squeamish—namely incest, pedophilia, and bestiality. He covers medical attempts to “cure” homosexuality, age of consent laws, highlights of scientific sex research, and argues that, like it or not, we’re all perverts of one kind or another. The Daily Beast discussed with Bering just how bad bestiality is, “virtuous pedophiles,” the furor over that risqué pre-twerking Miley Cyrus Vanity Fair photo, and what he considers the strangest of the strange in the land of out-there perversions.

One of your main arguments is that we should judge sexual deviance based on the harm it causes, not on our disgust, which is subjective. Why is this a better way of looking at the topic, and is harm not also a subjective concept?

Both disgust and harm are subjective, you’re right. But using disgust as a guidepost for our moral reasoning about what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to sex is inherently problematic. I’m gay, and as a result I find female genitalia—sad to say—aversive. Note that I could lie and say I’m simply indifferent to vulvae, but like many gay men, I find the idea of sex with a woman off-putting, just as many straight men find the thought of having anal sex with another man disgusting. Who is “correct” in this case? The heterosexual who isn’t disgusted, or the homosexual who is? Which of us has the moral authority to see the other as a “pervert” or “sexual deviant” on the basis of our getting sick to our stomachs at the thought of the other’s desires? When it comes to harm, by contrast, a person’s subjective pain and suffering eclipses all. Full stop.

Through this harm lens, you compare some cases of bestiality to how we treat animals being raised and killed for food. Do you think our squeamishness about interspecies sex is more at play when it comes to modern bestiality laws than our interest in protecting animals from harm?

For anyone with a moral conscience, both are at play. But in some cases of bestiality, we presume that harm has occurred when it isn’t quite so obvious. Consider a zoophilic woman (a paraphilia in which the person is aroused more by non-human animals than by human ones) who derives sexual gratification by gently masturbating her horse upon seeing it with an erection, and who would stop doing so if she senses its slightest discomfort. Now contrast this woman’s behavior to that of a man who painfully electroejaculates his prize stallion by using a high-voltage anal rod to acquire its expensive semen for monetary purposes. The first case, most would say, is “creepier,” while the invasiveness and pain is clearer in the latter. Yet it’s only the zoophile who is, under most jurisdictions, committing the crime. I’m all for consent when it comes to sex but it’s odd how we seldom ask for an animal’s consent before killing it for our dining pleasure.

It was hard for me not to read your writing on pedophilia as sympathetic to pedophiles, since you argue that pedophilia is a sexual orientation and “Telling a pedophile that he needs to be attracted to grown-ups, not kids, is like telling a lesbian that she just hasn’t found the right guy…” Is it possible to denounce the criminal actions of some pedophiles without denouncing pedophiles themselves?

Of course it is. We use the word “pedophilia” as though it’s a verb, synonymous with child abuse and molestation. It’s not. There are pedophiles who molest children, and there are non-pedophiles who molest children. There are pedophiles who understand that their sexual orientation (and I use “sexual orientation” in the scientifically correct sense of whatever a person’s brain and genitals “sexually orient” to the most) would damage children terribly if their desires were ever acted out. So I’m as sympathetic to those “virtuous pedophiles” as I would be to anyone who would put a vulnerable person’s welfare ahead of their own sexual feelings. Child sex abuse is horribly frightening and those who offend should indeed be punished. But unless you can, right now, choose to be aroused by an eight-year-old, it’s not hard to see that these people have no choice over their incredibly unfortunate sexual orientation. Our demonizing those who are handling their tremendous burden in life so admirably due to factors that are beyond their control makes zero sense to me.

You mention the famous Miley Cyrus Vanity Fair shot by Annie Liebovitz of her clutching a sheet as a case of moral panic about children’s being sexualized run amok. Do you feel we’ve gone too far in the name of protecting minors from being sexualized?

To insist that a 15-year-old girl, as Cyrus was at the time of that infamous shoot, is “sexualized” by society because an internationally acclaimed artist photographed an innocuous image of her in the semi-nude is simply sad to me. It’s also to imply that a teenage girl is inherently an asexual organism and that society is simply imagining a carnality in her that isn’t there, which is patently false, from a biological perspective. I think our intentions are good in trying to protect adolescents from exploitative, if not downright lecherous, adults. But the implicit idea that human sexuality erupts like a sort of boil at the stroke of midnight on a person’s eighteenth birthday is delusory, and quite simply, very weird.

Your being gay clearly informs your take on the medicalization of homosexuality. Do you think it’s made your more empathetic to some of the types of deviants you profile?

It may seem like eons ago, but I remember a time when, in much of society, being gay was no better than being a pedophile, sexual sadist, or zoophile. Had I come out of the closet as a boy during the height of the HIV epidemic in the mid-1980s, I would have been met by the wrath of suburbanites convinced that AIDS was a divinely inspired “gay plague.” It didn’t matter that I’d never even had gay sex, the mere fact of being known to have such desires would have ruined me in every possible way. So I understand what it’s like to be hated not for anything you’ve done, but for what you simply are. Judge others for the demonstrable harm they’ve caused others—for anything else, it’s pure bigotry.

You mention that even though there’s plenty of interest in studying topics like paraphilias, there are ethical and practical complications in terms of how to conduct some of these experiments. What are would you most like to see more research on?

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That’s a tough one. The scientist in me would love to better understand the origins of fetishes and paraphilias. Freud dominated this scene for ages, but there are many other theories; the trouble is they’re just as untestable as the Oedipal complex. Many men with paraphilias, and some women, believe that they were “sexually imprinted” in early childhood. A middle-aged acrotomophile (amputee fetishist) was convinced that he became this way by becoming aroused as a boy while looking at images of naked amputees in his physician father’s textbook. Another thought that his attraction to sneezing men stemmed from having hay fever as a boy. Scientifically, you can’t really determine the etiology in a proper fashion, since (fortunately) parents aren’t going to volunteer their infants to be randomly assigned to an experimental condition meant to see who ends up with a paraphilia later on. But within ethical boundaries, I would like to see more research on the genetic heritability of different forms of sexual deviance.

Out of all the paraphilias you cover in the book, which one was the most surprising to you?

Of the 547 known paraphilias on record, I still can’t get over the fact that “podophilia”—foot fetishism—is by far the most common paraphilic form of “sexual partialism” out there, which is an erotic preoccupation with a part of the body that exceeds even one’s sexual interest in the genitals. Perhaps it’s just my feet (if you ever have the misfortune of seeing them, you’ll understand), but I’ve always found feet to be the least attractive part of the human body—if you overthink it, they’re like some bizarrely apportioned terrestrial hands, knuckles and all. But there are loads of people who are really, really into feet. It may turn my stomach, but who cares? Unless they’re bashing someone over the head with their feet or causing demonstrable harm by trampling over another’s welfare, let the podophiles rejoice in their foot lust, I say.