There are discomfiting questions about ourselves like why women’s bodies respond to even forced sexual contact with physical arousal or why all men’s bodies show some level of physical arousal towards adolescents. These are definitely not polite dinner party conversation but they are scientifically demonstrated reality, and couldn’t being brave and logical enough to address these questions help us make sense of ourselves and each other and how to evolve as a human society?
Jesse Bering thinks so, and in his book Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us, his well-researched answers (read it and find out) have to do with our evolutionary past, and how our belief of right and wrong behavior can be in conflict with our biological human nature.
Not all of the book is so heavy. In fact, its tone is light-hearted and cheeky like if Oscar Wilde was a Ph.D in psychology giving a spiel about human sexuality, and personal wink-nudge moments abound, along with puns so bad they’re good. In fact, coming from more serious nonfiction books about sex and psychology, it took me a while to figure out what kind of book this was. And its type is both its strength and weakness.
Andrew Solomon, who wrote one of the greatest books about human nature to come out in my lifetime, Far From the Tree, spoke in a New York Times interview about Oliver Sacks, the famous neurologist who wrote some of the most interesting books of the past several generations. Solomon criticized Sacks for what he perceives as a “hey, check out this weird fascinating thing up next” attitude, something he also later criticized in Bering’s Perv. The thing is, Perv is a totally different type of book than Far From the Tree or Sacks’s Awakenings or Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat.
Those books follow specific people and those close to them, showing us an up-close example of a relationship or psychological oddity – we get to know them by name while we are shown how they relate to the larger issue at hand. Perv doesn’t spend quality time with any one person. It combines Bering’s eloquent ideas and appropriately inappropriate sense of humor with major research into psychology, sexuality, and history to make connections and conclusions, using anecdotes and examples that are short and general.
Particularly interesting were ideas about reproductive cost and their effect on amenability to mate, which could help explain why up to today men are the ones pining and bringing flowers, while women are more choosy; ideas about how disgust is overcome depending on horniness; and ideas about flexibility in what you’re aroused by being so different in men and women, which could explain why talking about and accepting “weird” sex stuff is so much easier for women than for men. And all of the ideas fit Bering’s theme of progressing and evolving our ideas of “right” and “wrong” by examining their origins and what their effects are in the modern world.
There is also a wide variety of salacious examples from people who form loving relationships with worn, used boots to people who can only really orgasm while they are falling down stairs.
But ultimately, the book is more a collection of essays than stories, building up a thesis which is that (no spoiler here – this is spelled out for you in the introduction): morality needs to be based on ideas of harm done to others, not religion or tradition or personal disgust; it is only actions that can be judged and punished to build a better society, not private thoughts, fantasies, or desires; and we need to individually have the introspection and courage to accept all of our drives as part of our human nature, and root out our intolerance, even though beginning with intolerance is natural.
This is a beautiful idea, and one at the heart of the tension between evolution & self-knowledge, our humanity’s basis in both body and soul. Often I wanted to applaud a particular point made hard and well. Unfortunately, I do wish there had been more stories and real people, and a little less argument construction. Jesse Bering Ph.D is brilliant and funny and can articulate an amazing sentence up your ying-yang like nobody’s business while he throws in a joke about articulating up your ying-yang. But sometimes I couldn’t help but feel I’d rather be looking into a window already than up at his soapbox still.
Nevertheless, Perv never lost my interest, and there are so many game-changing ideas here, all collected into one fun read sure to provide date-night conversation that there should be enough to trip any smart, inquisitive person’s trigger (or float their boat, as the case may be).
THE HIGH FIVE QUOTES:
| “Apologies should be applied only to the things we’ve done wrong, not for who we unalterably are.”
| “There are exactly 7,088,343,858 people on the planet. If all but one of these individuals were to experience harm in exactly the same way from a certain sex act, that solitary person is nevertheless just as right (or just as wrong) as all the others combined.”
|”Digging into the darkest corners of our sexual nature (that is to say, our ‘perversions’) can expose what keeps us from making real moral progress whenever the issues of equality and sexual diversity arise.”
| “You’ve got to lean in as we’ve been doing here. It’s not always pretty up close, but it’s better than remaining at a distance, where the important issues can appear deceptively simple.”
| “‘I consider nothing that is human alien to me,’ said the Roman philosopher Terence. I feel the same way.”
|”I think I might have to draw a firm line with all this at juvenile goats, though. They’re just kids, for God’s sake.”
because HIYOOOOO – Ed.
Note: No one ever pays me anything to review or link to any books.