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BOOK REVIEW: Perv by Jesse Bering

Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of UsPerv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us by Jesse Bering
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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“Perv” is an examination of human sexuality outside the norm. As one might expect from the back blurb mention of a woman who was aroused by the Eiffel Tower, the book provides many a revelatory “things-that-make-one-go-HUH?” moment. The author’s humor–and willingness to offer cringe-worthy personal confessions–makes the book all the more readable. (e.g. As an example of the author’s humor: “As an adolescent male, you’re basically an ambulant sperm factory with an incompetent foreman…”) The book is in the vein of Mary Roach’s “Bonk” (something about sexuality triggers the urge to go monosyllabic), but Bering carves out his niche in deviant territory, while Roach’s book provides a more balanced look at the subject (although both books exploit anomalies to make for interesting reading.)

There are two ways in which this book wasn’t the one I expected, one of which is entirely my fault for reading too much into some words in the book blurb while ignoring others. I think the author and/or publisher must take some responsibility for the other as the subtitle itself leads one to expect a different emphasis in the book beyond the first chapter. First, I expected more insight into why people engage in these behaviors. Are there explanations rooted in our evolution? Does a given act result from some cross-wiring in the brain? There’s a cursory mention of science in the book’s description which led me to expect it to go much further beyond a cataloging of anomalous sexual behavior. To be fair, the author does back load an interesting discussion on the role of theory of the mind into the last chapter and there is some of this discussion throughout. However, the book spends much more time on history and semantics than I expected. Semantics sounds boring, but there are some fascinating insights into how words came to be used, and how usages have changed over time. (Also, the reader may be surprised at the huge vocabulary of “-philias” [objects of love / attraction] that’s not unlike the more well-known one for “-phobias” [fears.])

The second way this wasn’t the book I expected was that—owing to the subtitle “the sexual deviant in all of us”—I expected much more discussion of widespread but unconventional sexual proclivities (e.g. exhibitionism, voyeurism, dominance / submission, role-play.) Instead, Bering spends a lot of time discussing rare fetishes for materials, animals, objects, etc, and also extremely high-profile (but also rare) proclivities such as pedophilia and vovarephilia (cannibalistic arousal.) One can see the appeal from the book selling perspective. Said emphasis provides a lot of WTF and giggle-inducing moments to keep up the reader’s interest. However, if you’re expecting drilling down into [no double entendre intended] why people engage in these activities, mostly you’ll get playful variants on “the heart wants what the heart wants” and not so much insight into whether there are unseen Darwinian mechanisms at work or whether there’s some synaptic cross-wiring. I doubt this is a conscious attempt to avoid dealing with the un-PC ramifications of finding some deviant behaviors to be explicable in terms of brains that are operating within expected parameters while others may only be explained in terms of something not working as usual. I doubt this because Bering seems quite willing to take the book in uncomfortable directions. I’m not certain that there’s not an unconscious bias away from considering the “why” questions because it risks putting one in the cross-hairs even if one reports in an objective and non-judgmental way. (Perhaps there’s a lack of scientific findings to report for the same reason.)

Still, while I didn’t get the book that I expected, there were some surprising bonuses to weigh into the mix. Bering provides interesting food-for-thought on a few topics. One of these is what he calls the “naturalistic fallacy,” which is the idea that whether an activity can be considered acceptable depends upon whether one sees it elsewhere in nature (i.e. besides humanity.) This has been used over the years to divide acceptable from unacceptable “perversions”—often by people who had little to no idea what activities are or aren’t seen across the animal kingdom. (We do, after all, see monkeys literally throwing their poop.) Another challenging area of consideration is whether society’s extreme distaste for pedophilia leads us to write laws that actually exacerbate child abuse and exploitation (e.g. completely CGI [computer generated imagery] pornographic material is illegal, and—according to the author—there is reason to believe that–were it not—exploitation of children would decline.)

The book consists of seven chapters. An introductory chapter sets up the idea of sexual deviance and its changing definitions. Chapter 2 is about the many ways in which people manage to overcome their instincts toward disgust in order to engage in sexual activities. Chapter 3 looks at various forms of hypersexuality (e.g. nymphomania) and the changing definitions over time—and the biases contained therein (i.e. it was once thought to be a condition only females could experience.) Chapter 4 considers various paraphilias—i.e. unconventional sources of arousal. Chapter 5 deals with the subjective experience of many of these sexual behaviors and how that brushes up against societal norms. Chapter 6 delves into the topic of age and attraction discussing pedophilia, hebephilia, ephebophilia, teleiophilia, and gerontophilia. Of these, the vast majority of people are teleiophilics (attracted to full-grown adults) with hebephilic and ephebophilic tendencies not being uncommon (i.e. attraction to pubescent or post-pubescent youths.) Much of the discussion is about pedophilia and the legal entanglement of pedophilia and ephebophilia. Chapter 7 delves into the science and psychology in a way that I wished the rest of the book had.

There are no graphics in the book. It does have both chapter end-notes and bibliographic notes (the former being more foot-note like elaborations and the latter being mostly sources.)

I found this book interesting. It was more historical and semantic (dealing in the terminology of deviant sexuality and its changing nature over time) and less scientific and psychological than I expected, but it was still loaded with interesting information and insights. I’d recommend this book with the provisos mentioned, i.e. that it might not be the book you expect and may deal much more in rare proclivities than one expects.

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