You may have recently seen the soft-spoken Jesse Bering on Conan recalling the strangest of sexual fetishes. Be it arousal from falling down the stairs (Climacophilia) or feeling steamy from rolling around in stones and gravel (Lithophilia), nothing surprises the Western New York author and psychologist. That's why Dr. Bering just wrote Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us, which unloads the morality of all things sexually weird.
Being a pervert is more than just what initially springs to mind. Armed with an academic backbone, the former psych professor adds a dash of humor to his research, many of which are learned from written reports. Bering has studied them extensively, and said he developed immunity to shock, in the process. His writing style is not an undergrad snorefest, so his book is getting a lot of much-deserved hype. Sex research is a touchy topic. Jesse believes cracking someone’s desires helps understand them fully. He spoke with us about the depths human erotic imagination, “objectum sexuals,” and how he views homophobes as types of pervs.
VICE: What is a perv in your eyes?
Jesse Bering: If I could rewrite the definition for the word pervert based on my own criteria, it would be a person who intentionally causes sexual harm to another. Note that this definition applies not only to the obvious examples—rapists, child molesters, those who abuse animals, and so on—but also to those whose bigotry causes harm to sexual minorities. A homophobe is a perv in my book, for instance, by dint of his or her invasive, voyeuristic preoccupation with the private sexual lives of an innocuous minority.
What kind of weird things did you find in your research?
Well, when you set out to read everything that’s ever been written about the subject of sexual deviance, you quickly develop a sort of immunity to shock. But some of the more memorable case studies included a morbidly obese Australian teenager who’d developed ulcers on his body after he failing to bathe properly; he came to, essentially, fall in love with these bubbling cankers, masturbating to the image of a beautiful woman who was sucking on his fingers while he inserted [them] into his festering wounds. Disturbing, yes, but also a testament to the power of the human erotic imagination. Then there was the Indian man with an insect paraphilia (“formicophilia”) who could only get off by placing slugs and beetles around his testicles and anus; and the young actor from London who thought his hay fever as a boy led to his sexual attraction to sneezing men.
Are there more male than female pervs or is it about the same?
In terms of people with certifiable paraphilias and fetishes—and by that, I mean in the clinical sense of either requiring or being largely dependent on something outside of the norm for their sexual gratification—it’s an overwhelmingly male phenomenon. Most sexologists believe that there are 99 paraphilic men to every one paraphilic woman.
Don’t misunderstand this to mean that women don’t have their share of “kinks”—they do. But one of the most important discoveries in modern sex research is a sex difference: women are more easily aroused by a broader range of erotic stimuli than are men, who, by contrast, are more likely to have a specific “type” of person or sexual activity that arouses them. This represents a lifelong, immovable pattern of male desires. In extreme cases, this male pattern becomes a paraphilia, where, sadly, the person has very limited options. An “acrotomophile” (amputee fetishist) may only be able to be aroused by, say, women missing a leg below the left knee. Those missing the right leg leave him limp.
Is it unexpected to be aroused by things like knismolagnia (being tickled), psellismorphilia (stuttering), and melissaphilia (arousal from bees)? What is the weirdest fetish you've come across?
According to a recent forensic resource by the psychiatrist Anil Aggrawal, there are 547 documented paraphilias. Some of them—actually, most of them—are quite carnival-like. But it’s important to remember that these more exotic manifestations of sexuality might be represented by just one lone figure in the universe: a single, sad, lascivious soul who can only, just to give two random examples, have an orgasm while fondling a mouse (“musophilia”) or while rolling around in ferns (“pteridomania”). It’s virtually impossible for me to pick the weirdest, since so many of them would fit the bill for truly bizarre. I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes in this literature, from a sex research pioneer named Wilhelm Stekel—who, incidentally, coined the word “paraphilia” in the 1920s. “Variatio delectat! How innumerable are the variations which Eros creates in order to make the monotonous simplicity of the natural sex organ interesting to the sexologist.”
Is there such a thing as abnormal sexuality?
There is, yes, from the perspective of statistical frequency. But one of the core arguments in Perv is that it’s an error to infer morality from normality. Normal is only a number; and it’s one devoid of any intrinsic moral value. That’s the province of harm alone.
What about fetishes like xylophilia (wood), actirasty (the sun's rays), agalmatophilia (an attraction to statues) or stygiophilipa (the thought of hellfire and damnation)? How can inhuman objects or impossible fantasies create sexual desire?
Someone with an object fetish is aroused not by the object itself, but by the fact that it has made physical contact with the body of a desirable person. For instance, a brand new pair of Nikes from his local Foot Locker isn’t going to be particularly appealing to the average shoe fetishist; rather, he wants a pair that has been worn by a particular individual whom he craves. Whether it’s shoes, panties, hearing aids, rubber swim caps, you name it, the fetish object, in this sense, is transformed in the fetishist’s mind into a sort of sexual surrogate for the person he lusts after. The object has absorbed the “essence” of this attractive other.
But such object fetishists are very different from the more rarefied “objectophiles” (also known Objectum Sexuals), who actually are attracted to particular objects in and of themselves, regardless of their contact with another person’s body. There are the well-known, sensational cases, such as that of Erika Eiffel, a professional archer who married the Eiffel Tower and was convinced that the French landmark was a female who had similar feelings for her. More commonly, objectophiles fall in love with everyday things, such as chairs, flags, and dinnerware, believing that they are in complex romances with these inanimate objects. Since many objectophiles are on the autistic spectrum, a condition characterized by difficulties in the social domain, this may underlie the phenomenon somehow, and there’s also a related psychological trait known as “object personification synesthesia,” in which “person” and “object” blend to create the perception of objects endowed with mental states, including sexual desires.
You say as long as you're not hurting anyone, and there's no distress, let your freak flag fly. If you let your inner perv run wild, what is your fetish?
I’ve certainly had my share of fleeting deviant desires. In Perv, I relay how my first masturbation experience involved an overly muscled Neanderthal specimen depicted in one of my father’s old 1960s-era college textbooks—great body, horrible face. This was before the internet, alas, so closeted gay boys like me had to work with the material we had. I do have a bit of an exhibitionist streak in me. Otherwise, I suppose I wouldn’t be writing books like these. But overall, I’m lamentably dull in bed—I mean, aside from making my diaper-clad partner bleat like a goat while I twist my nipple clamps and recite the Lord’s prayer, but that just seems so vanilla that it’s hardly worth mentioning, really.
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