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Relationships • Sex

What is Sexual Perversion?

The term ‘sexual perversion’ first came into use in the 19th century to describe erotic practices taken by psychologists to lie outside of the bounds of healthy, emotionally mature or sane behaviour. Though our ideas of acceptable sexual conduct have now expanded considerably, the idea of sexual perversions (these days commonly referred to as ‘paraphilias’) remains active in diagnoses – and is typically focused on eight main behaviours:

– Necrophilia: sex with the dead.

– Bestiality: sex with animals

– Paedophilia: sex with children

– Frotteurism: rubbing genitals against a non-consenting person.

– Exhibitionism: exposing genitals to a non-consenting person.

– Voyeurism: non-consensual observation of nudity or sexual activity.

– Fetishism: arousal by items of clothing in the absence of their owner.

– Sadism: arousal by causing non-consensual suffering (including rape and murder).

On looking at the list, what emerges as the common element is a lack of mutuality; an absence of consent. A sexual pervert is – first and foremost – a person only able to achieve erotic satisfaction with another being who is in some way not fully involved, present, willing or able to understand what is unfolding: because they are dead (necrophilia), an Alsatian (bestiality), five years old (paedophilia), trying to read the newspaper in the train (frotteurism), on their way to the shops (exhibitionism), having a shower in the hotel opposite (voyeurism), their tennis shoes have been stolen from them at the club (fetishism) or they have been tied up and held at gunpoint (sadism).

We might then ask why consent should have come to seem so untenable. Why do sexual perverts have such a dread of mutuality? Somewhat paradoxically given how shocking they can be to other people, the answer is fear. Whatever else they are, the sexual pervert is always at heart, and in their essence, terrified.

Vassily Kandinsky, Houses in Munich, 1908

The nature of their chosen erotic activity can then be read as an attempt to contain or gain mastery over the specific element that frightens them. A rapist is someone labouring under an acute fear of being rejected who opts to evade the entire issue of mutuality by monstrously denying their victims any chance to say no to them. An exhibitionist is someone so petrified that another might like them that they render themselves conclusively – and safely – repellent to every onlooker. The necrophiliac is so scared of a living encounter that they limit themselves to finding solace with corpses. The paedophile achieves distance from their fear of their own inadequacy and immaturity (and the humiliation that a fellow adult might mete out to them on perceiving it) by searching out an infant. The zoophile sidesteps the perils of being misunderstood by recourse to a creature from another species. The fetishist finds a way out of their fear that a whole person might slip out of their grasp by holding tight to someone’s stolen pullover.

All sexual perversions have in common a dread of the challenges that lie within ‘normal’ sex: the challenge that another might judge us, abandon us, crush us, misunderstand us or indeed show us a degree of tenderness and care which is profoundly unfamiliar (and threatens to plunge us into memories of early deprivation). Sexual perverts aren’t just ‘not very turned on’ by standard intercourse; they suffer from a mortal terror of what might happen if they were ever to be in the arms of an equal, if they were to have to put their organs near someone who was really alive or might like them or could say ‘yes’ and therefore, at another point, ‘no’. However shocking and abhorrent they might be, the sexual pervert is ultimately looking to both have sex and feel safe in a deeply damaged mind in which three-dimensional connections with others has come to seem unfeasibly fraught. 

If we have been spared an interest in sexually perverted activities, it isn’t because we are either especially good or admirably moral, it is simply because we have been treated in such a way that we can trust in reciprocal relationships, we can dare to have faith in intimate contact with other humans; we have somewhere along the way been saved by love.

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