This post originally appeared in VICE UK
Are you a deviant? Are your sexual fantasies normal, or are they the sign of a deeply disturbed little mind? That was the question posed last week by the Daily Mail, a newspaper whose own fantasies, for the record, seem to revolve around side boob, "dangerous curves," jailbait, and murder victims.
Anyway, the question posed by the Mail is more important than you might think. Psychiatrists have wrestled with what they call " paraphilia" (being aroused by unusual things, people, or situations) for more than a century. Until recently, the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a kind of bible for American psychiatrists) declared that all people with a paraphilia were suffering from a mental disorder. Before 1973, that list included homosexuals. People have been imprisoned or sectioned on the basis of their supposed deviancy, with diagnosis regularly used in the US "as a legal basis for sentencing and/or committing sexually motivated criminals to psychiatric care."
The fifth version of the DSM, published last year, is slightly more liberal. It distinguishes between paraphilias and paraphilic disorders. So, your paraphilia only becomes a troubling "disorder" if it causes "distress" or harm to yourself or others. As Slate's Jillian Keenan put it, "Happy kinksters don't have a mental disorder. But unhappy kinksters do."
The idea seems to be that it's all fun and games until you cross some arbitrarily drawn line in the sand, at which point you become a potentially dangerous pervert. The thing is, pretty much every type of sexual desire can cause distress or harm to others, regardless of the kinkiness involved. Why fixate on kink? How can you even determine what is normal or paraphilic in the first place?
Canadian researchers tried to answer this question in a study published at the end of October, titled "What Exactly Is an Unusual Sexual Fantasy?" His team got 1,500 adults to respond to an online questionnaire asking them to rank 55 sexual fantasies and describe their favorite. Yet few of the fantasies they looked at were rare in the population, and most were actually pretty common.
There are a ton of problems with this study. The people questioned were volunteers, so probably more willing to talk about kink in the first place. The list of sexual fantasies was limited to just 55, when a quick scan of the larger porn clip sites reveals several hundred categories and sub-categories of porn available. If you're trying to find out what an unusual sexual fantasy is, but don't allow people to express their enthusiasm for any unusual sexual fantasies, it's debatable how useful your study is going to be.
Still, the study is good enough to show that, as the authors suggest, "Care should be taken before labelling a [sexual fantasy] as unusual, let alone deviant." That care hasn't been taken in the DSM-5, which happily talks about conditions like "exhibitionistic disorder," "fetishistic disorder," "sexual masochism disorder," "sexual sadism disorder," "transvestic disorder," and "voyeuristic disorder." BDSM is classified as an abnormal fantasy even though we're living in a post–50 Shades of Grey world. The DSM is still extravagantly fond of labeling things "disorders."
Defending this sort of position, Medscape claims that, "The new approach to paraphilias [separating paraphilias from paraphilic disroders] demedicalizes and destigmatizes unusual sexual preferences and behaviours, provided they are not distressing or detrimental to one's self or others." But then, if you don't want to attach a stigma to something, why mention it in the first place?
Besides, for several of these fetishes, you're fucked either way. "Transvestic disorder", according to the new DSM-5, "identifies people who are sexually aroused by dressing as the opposite sex but who experience significant distress or impairment in their lives—socially or occupationally—because of their behavior."
Given that it's basically impossible to prove why people do things, it's not hard to see how the "transvestic" diagnosis could be applied to huge swathes of trans people, and since the trans community are still stuck at the ass-end of the discrimination train, most could probably be described as "experiencing significant distress," which would classify them as having a mental disorder. For communities—like the trans one—that are already marginalized and have already had to listen to their preferences be categorized as unnatural, further distinctions that run along these lines are unhelpful, alienating and hurtful.
All this is happening in a wider culture that seems to have a real problem coming to terms with its sexuality. David Cameron spent a chunk of this government struggling to stop porn on the internet, apparently unaware that porn is why the internet was built in the first place. Mainstream media have spent the last decade desperately trying to airbrush every woman in culture into the same preternaturally titted, hermetically-skinned, post-pubescent fuck fantasy—FHM can barely even cope with the idea of a black woman, let alone something really deviant, like, say, I don't know, naturally occurring body hair. When something as mild as Fifty Shades enters the dull missionary-fuck-and-a-cigarette world of the press, journalists erupt in a fit of giggles, like kids looking at a naughty magazine in the playground.
How is it possible that in the 21st century, we're still studying people who like spanking for signs of some dark deviance? We're all into a whole range of stuff sexually but our society remains fixated on categorizing as much of it as possible as "abnormal". Why can't we just admit that kink is normal and healthy? Are the people who are trying to express their sexuality really mentally ill, or is the real sickness in the repressed culture that's so terrified of them?
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