The Sexual Deviant In All Of Us: Instinct Interviews 'Perv' Author Jesse Bering
Jesse Bering, PhD, is a master of pushing readers into corners.
According to his new edifying and provocative book, Perv, there’s probably at least one person in the world who’s really into that specific scenario, taken literally. Philosophically speaking, however, the openly-gay evolutionary psychologist's career of imploring readers to think intellectually about thought-provoking topics is what I and a large fan base have come to appreciate. In Perv, which has just hit stores, Bering feeds readers a healthy diet of current research, evolutionary examples, cross cultural studies, and, perhaps most importantly, wit to put what we think about sexual “deviance” under the microscope of rationality. All of this is wrapped in an easy-to-digest and often humorous page-turner, as readers of his previous title, Why Is The Penis Shaped Like That?, have come to expect.
Members of the LGBT community were (and still are!) considered sexual deviants by individuals, cultures and governments around the world, so we, if anyone, should be able to relate to Bering’s encouragement for a rational discussion about various paraphilias. During my own rational conversation with Bering on Perv, the acclaimed author (who regularly contributes for Slate, the New York Times, Scientific American and many others) touches upon the book’s foundational philosophy, reveals which sexual orientation community might be next to fight for civil rights and explains a bit about the latest research on the evolutionary nature of homosexuality. Grab some popcorn and dive in to what, at least for me, was a mind-expanding chat with one of the world’s leading thinkers.
First, a primer:
A sampling of the dozens of documented paraphilias Bering covers in Perv (of the approximately 541 paraphilias researchers are aware of):
Acrotomophilia: arousal to amputees
Agalmatophilia: arousal to statues
Apotemnophilia: arousal to oneself as an amputee
Climacophila: arousal to falling down stairs
Coprophilia: arousal to feces
Formicophilia: arousal to insects
Nasolingus: arousal to sucking on a person's nose
Nebulophobia: arousal to fog
Objectophilia: arousal to a particular inanimate object
Psychrophilia: arousal to being cold and watching others who are cold
Transvestic Fetishism: arousal to female garments touching the male's skin
Xylophilia: arousal to wood (not the slang "wood," btw)
Paraphilias we cover in this conversation:
Asexuality: a person who does not experience sexual attraction
Gerontophilia: arousal to the elderly
Hebephilia: arousal to pubescent aged children, approximately 11 - 14
Pedophilia: arousal to prepubescent children
Sadism: arousal to causing physical and psychological pain
Zoophilia: arousal to nonhuman animals
So, what was the impetus behind writing Perv?
The ultimate answer for me is the fact that I faced tremendous discrimination growing up gay in the 1980s when there was horrific anti-gay attitude surrounding the "gay plague,” AIDS. People thought you were inherently evil if you were gay, and god was punishing you. It left psychological scars, knowing I had to hide an aspect of myself that was the core of my being. I was afraid of being rejected, ostracized, friendless. A lot of gay youth, even now, grow up feeling that way.
But while we’re getting better at identifying those issues for gay and lesbians, we’re not really extending that in a logical fashion to other categories of sexual deviance, people who are living and hiding now. They have it even worse than homosexuals. They can’t really share it with other people, these more deviant desires. The more I got to learn about the paraphilias, the more obvious it became to me that these are legitimate orientations, just like we think of gay, straight and bi. You have no control over it once it’s locked in place.
The more proximate answer to the question is because of that background I have interest in human sexuality. I’m an evolutionary theorist trained in developmental psychology and evolutionary biology, and writing magazine articles about sex. A lot of the more interesting moral conversations that were generated were tied to the extreme cases, really pushing people into corners, forcing them to be rational thinkers when it came to sex.
On a quick side note, since I have one of the world's foremost evolutionary psychology experts on the line, what are your thoughts on the theory of homosexuality having a genetic and evolutionary advantage historically because of our unique ability, resources and freedom to help raise our nieces and nephews (aka the Uncle theory)?
I just rejected it outright. For a long time, it had rhetorical value that made intuitive sense. There wasn’t a lot of supportive data for it. There’s some data coming out now that are more supportive of that interpretation. Researchers are arguing that ancestral homosexuality would’ve been more like what we know as transgenderism in men. These men were basically like women but a third gender. If you look at those populations, if they were the model for ancestral homosexuals, that actually translates to some inclusive genetic benefits to close genetic kin. But it’s still very much an open question at this point.
Along with this “origin of homosexuality” debate that the anti-gay movement uses as a boiler plate argument against equality, we also find ourselves having to defend against “slippery slope” claims. Are you worried that Perv might concern LGBT activists by appearing to put homosexuality on the same plane as other sexual orientations/paraphilias?
I would imagine they would misinterpret or misunderstand the crux of the argument. I think they would be concerned, perhaps legitimately, about being conflated with these more deviant types of paraphilias or fetishes.
We have all these stereotypes we’ve been operating with for some time. I think the most salient worrisome one is pedophilia. The homophobic ultra conservatives often uses that against the gay community. But I’m also putting it alongside heterosexuality.
We’ve been understandably adverse to having these more logical scientifically minded conversations because of the political interpretations. But I don’t think it should scare us away; we shouldn’t be bullied by the emotional rhetoric that has forced us to not think very deeply about the similarities between all human erotic profiles. There are those that include pedophilia, zoophilia, sadism, whatever, that are intrinsically harmful. But again, one of the major points of the book is that we’ve got to distinguish between psychosexual orientation and actual behavior that can cause harm.
Which group or groups of the paraphilias, if any, could you see mounting a viable campaign for equal rights in the near future?
That’s a great question. I think you find these grassroots movements within some of the really fringe ones you wouldn’t expect to even have that courage. I think social media and the Internet is galvanizing these groups.
Asexuals now have a social identity like gays and lesbians, they want to be folded into the community.
But I’ve written objectively, in terms of the science, about zoophilia. I’ve said multiple times that it’s a difficult subject for me to talk about because I’m an animal lover—not in that sense [laughs]—but I’m very concerned about animals and animal abuse. However, the real issue is looking at the individual cases and being able to really identify where harm occurs. If an animal mounts you, the question of consent is not that the human is raping an animal. Because I take this amoral approach to these types of questions, members of many groups see me as an ally. They follow me on Twitter. They’ve begun tagging on a Z to LGBT to make LGBTZ.
There’s a group of people who feel that zoophilia is misunderstood and they say they’re not sadists. They’re trying to educate the rest of society about their particular psycho sexual orientation. I see them as having a much more significant battle getting people to even listen to them than the gay and lesbian community, but I think it’s important for everyone’s voice to be heard, to be understood and not live in the shadow of ignorance.
Actually, after reading Perv and understanding your emphasis on harm and consent when thinking about paraphilias, I researched how harm and consent might relate to zoophilia, specifically. I found that there’s definitely an active discussion going on regarding how to determine that.
Yeah. I suppose like everybody else I err on the side of caution. It’s revealing to me that we’re not as preoccupied with the question of consent with animals when it concerns other types of possible suffering for them. We don’t ask for consent before we slaughter them for food. We don’t ask for consent before we subject them to horrendous biomedical testing. It’s not that people don’t necessarily have a problem with those things, it’s just that it doesn’t bother us as much as it does when it involves sex with animals. I think it’s easy for people to forget we are animals and that other species also have sexual desires as well.
I think the difficulty is that whereas human beings are much more likely for whatever reason to be developmentally imprinted on whatever [they’re sexually aroused by], including other species, other animals aren’t likely to be as imprinted on human beings sexually. There might be some segment of the human population that are more attracted to other species than they are to other people, but that doesn’t mean the paraphilias will match across species.
Near the end of the book, you mention a chimpanzee who was raised by humans and enjoys human porn…
Yeah, she was a sign language chimp. She was an infant captured in Africa and sent to the U.S. to be raised as a human being. I can’t recall if she was attracted to other chimps, but she was definitely attracted to human men.
Me too! [Laughs] Another topic examined in Perv is the role that disgust factors into apprehension toward anything that’s not “vanilla” heterosexual sex. Going further, does disgust play a part in current sex crime legislation in the U.S.?
Absolutely. I think it’s one of the leading factors that is not appreciated in terms of its psychological significance in moderating legislation, in terms of our rationalization about why something’s wrong.
I wrote this article on Chick-Fil-A, and you find a different tone of conversation [about Chick-Fil-A] when you go to the really extreme conservative websites. It’s all about how disgusting and nasty anal sex is and why homosexuality is wrong because it’s gross. It’s that moral dumbfounding problem—there’s no unpacking of why it’s harmful or bad, aside from ‘it’s gross.’ These are conversations that people are probably having that gays and lesbians are not aware of. There are buddy-buddy conversations being had that really make an impact in terms of laws and lives.
Are you aware of any paraphilia-tolerant legislative changes in the works anywhere in the world?
I think that the psychiatric community and their perspective on what is acceptable and what is not acceptable and deviant and so on informs legislation. Psychiatry as an establishment and its view on sexuality is influential. It facilitates protection for minorities in the workplace and in the rest of society. The rest of society goes to psychiatry for their legislation when it comes to protection. They trust them, but psychiatry itself is flawed. Sometimes the reasoning even there is inaccurate. The good thing is that psychiatry is becoming much more lenient in the sense of moving toward questions of harm and away from questions of just normal and natural.
What are your thoughts on the recent story about the 15-year old who died from suicide after streaking on a football field and being threatened with being listed on a sex-offender registry for the offense?
I'm not aware of it, but based on the information you provide the principle’s actions are completely shameful. To criminalize an act like that from a 15-year old as a potential harm to society? To threaten him with being listed in a sex offender registration would bring the assumption that he is a dangerous member of society for the rest of his life. Even the threat of that is so powerful in terms of contemporary society and the stigma associated with it. Yeah, he [the principal] has blood on his hands.
Do we need to reevaluate our sex offender registration laws?
I didn’t go too far into my research as far as sex offenders go, but there is a lot of debate among sociologists in particular about the efficacy of the sex offender registry, whether there really is demonstrable evidence that this does reduce harm, or just compounds the problem by somehow identifying somebody as having an essential evil. Don’t interpret me as excusing the crime, but it’s easy to understand how being permanently labeled as a sex offender and having no way to escape that social identity would lead to sort of a "fuck you" to society and a misanthropic approach to other people. It might be like shooting ourselves in our foot by not focusing more on helping them to understand, first of all, why it’s wrong what they did, to refrain from those actions in the future, and, if they were driven by a paraphilia that made them much more likely to commit a crime, they need to be aware of what to do to control themselves. They need to understand that they have no control over their orientation, but they have control over the actions.
I want to make it clear, too, that I think it’s very important to differentiate between pedophiles and child sex abusers. Those are not identical terms. Up to half of all child sex offenders are not technically pedophiles, and not all pedophiles commit child sex abuse. At the moment, in terms of contemporary society and what we’re concerned about now, we use the word pedophile or pedophilia to refer to anybody who commits a sex act with anybody under the age 18 or whatever. But it’s a clinical term. Assuming pedophiles are the only risk to children is a mistake—someone who’s not attracted to children can still be a risk sexually if that person has some inhibitory problem or if they’re inebriated or whatever. So, just knowing who’s a pedophile and who’s not is not necessarily going to eliminate child sex abuse.
Are you optimistic about the U.S. in specific evolving toward a more rational approach to these issues?
Slowly, begrudgingly. One of the reasons I wrote the book and the other stuff is to get people on the same page in terms of the scientific constructs and what we’re dealing with because we use terms so inappropriately without understanding what they mean.
Many sexual minorities like to invent words to describe themselves and resent any scientific pigeonholing into a particular category. They want to shake that off. But that’s detrimental to actual progress because we need people to be educated about the basics. The more we try to evade scientific classification, the less people will understand. Everything’s kind of a mess, then. It’s important to have the same vernacular. I also understand that that’s not the way some people think, morally. I think we should have the freedom to reason on our own terms, but we need to start on the same point. I’m just trying to get people to the starting point.
But to answer your question, I think it’s possible. I think we will move in that direction. But I think we need to be much more aware of why we’re not willing to listen to logic or be exposed to scientific clarification, and why disgust, emotions, anger and other types of things shut down the possibility for actually making moral progress.
Speaking of those who are unwilling to listen to logic, have you experienced any fascinating criticisms or rejections of Perv yet?
Whatever criticism I get would be from people who haven’t read it but heard about it from word of mouth and are told that I’m arguing something I’m not. People already call me a NAMBLA spokesperson, an apologist for bestiality, anti-women … people can assume whatever they want. The only thing I advocate is to be clear, intellectually-consistent thinkers, to be humane, and to evaluate people on the basis of what they’ve done, not who they are, in terms of things they can’t control.
What would your direct message to those who may be struggling with paraphilias be?
The nature of paraphilia, the fetish, is very important here.
There are some paraphilias, of course, that are extremely stigmatized. I think there probably are lots of people who are living totally miserable lives, whether it’s [due to paraphilia’s involving] animals, the elderly, kids, whatever, especially with mandatory reporting laws for some of these paraphilias, like pedophilia. Even if they haven’t done anything to harm a child, if they tell a psychiatrist in many places, many states, it’s mandatory for the psychiatrist to report it to the authorities. To unburden themselves to get appropriate information so they know how to handle their own psychological existence and not act on them in a way that would harm others and them is very difficult, almost impossible.
This is an example of how we actually are making progress and thinking rationally about these things, the fact that there are foundations. Dan Savage, in his podcasts, mentions from time to time Virtuous Pedophile, for people who are pedophiles or hebephiles and they understand that it’s harmful intrinsically for any sexual encounter whatsoever with a pre-pubescent child. There are some shadowy areas in morality when we talk about 16 or 17 year olds, but for younger children, they can’t act on it, so I think they need to understand how they can navigate through society without causing harm. There are groups that give plenty of information and support to people who are struggling with a socially inappropriate inherently harmful orientation, how to still have that and still be relatively happy and good people. You can be a pedophile and be good, they’re not mutually exclusive. It’s very difficult to think that way. People assume that a pedophile is some immoral evil monster, but there are some pedophiles who understand it’s terrible and would never do something like that to a child.
My advice would simply be to draw that very clean line between thought and action. Be very wary of any self-delusory biases in terms of interpretation of harm. Often times, arousal can warp our decision making. I think that the more people understand that, the less likely they will be to find themselves in decisions where they cross that line.
Are there any juicy excerpts that didn’t make the final cut of the book?
There were some cross-cultural studies that were a little too uncomfortable, stuff like genital mutilation. In trying to understand that in the broad framework in which I’ve been operating in terms of the subjective interpretation of harm, it gets really difficult. There are women, for instance, in African societies who are advocates themselves of female genital mutilation. That’s not a popular position. That’s a book in and of itself.
Hmmm… could that be your next book? I’m dying to know what you have in the works!
That’s an excellent question. I don’t know, to be honest. I’m taking a little break from writing a book. I don’t want to write a book until I have something that I feel is interesting to say. It’s an 18 – 24 month process to write a book. Writing Perv drained the fucking life out of me. I know what I’m getting into now in terms of these things, and that I really need to be passionate about what I’m writing. I want to feel like I can say something new and original and worthwhile.
Bering recently promoted the new book on Conan: