My mother didn't like to be touched, but my beautiful ama—which means nanny in the parts of Asia where I grew up—would brush my teeth and hair before slipping under my blankets to read me the Bible. I went to boys' schools for nine years, including a Catholic one with the requisite sadistic nun who punished me for being left-handed. I came to sexual maturity in Korea, where the most visible models for a sexual life were thousands of bar girls who tried to entice American GIs by dressing like slutty hippies.
So yeah, I'm twisted. Put on a tie-dyed miniskirt and mother me while turning the pages of the Book of Matthew with your left hand, and I'm all yours.
All of which makes me the perfect target audience for Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us, the new book by Jesse Bering, author of Why Is The Penis Shaped Like That? A kinky Malcolm Gladwell, Bering stuffs his pie with lots of juicy scientific and anthropologic nuggets that are fascinating just for sheer weirdness. In parts of New Guinea, for example, eight-year-old boys give older men blow jobs on the theory that "semen is a magical substance that will transform them into mighty soldiers." In one district of Egypt, the fastest way to a girl's heart is putting your cum in her food. In ancient India, Hindus found that "the subtle interplay of advance, retreat, assault and defense" made them horny. (This was also true in Seoul as recently as the early 1970s, where I once tried to stop a man from dragging a woman into his cab just before the midnight curfew. When the woman started yelling at me, I noticed men dragging women into cabs all down the street.)
The point is, much of our sexual morality is as arbitrary and culturally conditioned as the kind of spices we use in our food.
But when Bering turns his focus on the differences between men and women, the data starts to resonate in ways that can illuminate anyone's life. Men are perverts by a wide margin, of course—the ratio is 99 to 1 (except for sadomasochism, where it's only 95 to 5). Bering's entirely reasonable theory is that men evolved to be obsessive about propagating the species and perverts got that obsession diverted onto something odd like shoes or amputees or even bees—the possibilities are almost endless. Typically, this diversion occurs before the age of 10.
For us horny dudes, the good news is that women are pervy in a different way—when they're hooked up to machines that measure genital blood flow, they get turned on by women, men, even other species. This made their lives easier in the days when they got jumped by everything that moved and Astroglide was unavailable—or so the theory goes. Getting to watch two women make out at parties is just one of the modern fringe benefits.
This is true of animals, too—when sheep are raised with goats, the male sheep can only get it up for goats, but the females are happy to "go both ways."
But for the purposes of this column, the most useful material centers on sexual disgust, which in recent years seems to have been elevated to a political principle in the Republican Party. Bering comes at this from a surprising angle: Given that the human body is full of fluids and smells and germs, he asks, how do humans overcome their disgust long enough to reproduce? Especially when genetic survival teaches us to avoid icky things that could make us sick?
His fascinating explanation: "Lust and disgust are antagonistic forces in an emotional balancing act that serves to push us toward orgasm."
So if I'm reading him right, disgust helps you crank that sexual volume knob to 11. This idea contradicts almost everything we're taught about romance and trust and mutual respect between the sexes, but Bering supports it with a variety of studies. When non-horny male and female undergrads are asked to consider drinking breast milk or swallowing cum, for example, they don't find the idea appealing. But ask them when they're in a horny mood and those things suddenly seem oddly attractive. But they're still grossed out by nonsexual stuff like rotting fish, which shows that only disgusting sexual stuff cranks up the volume.
Another example: When men were shown pictures of women in clothing and told that one slept around a lot and another very little, they preferred the one with fewer partners even though the promiscuous one was prettier. But when the guys saw those same models naked, they instantly changed their minds.
In evolutionary biology, Bering explains, the theory is that we learned to suppress our disgust responses in order to get more shots at reproduction. Which explains the mental fog that comes over horny men. You're not just thinking with the little head, brother, you're optimizing your chances for genetic survival. (And the honorary PhD goes to Mickey Gilley for "Don't the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time.")
Then there's the "terror management theory," which argues that disgust with sex is in direct proportion to our fear of death, but sex also makes us "symbolically immortal." So sex is the cure for the fear of death. Works for me.
Here's where politics enter the picture. As history has shown, demagogues can easily manipulate the disgust response to their advantage. In Nazi Germany, comparing Jews to rats and roaches made it much easier for people to kill their neighbors. In the United States, conservatives who hate homosexuals tend to focus on bestiality, AIDS and the role they imagine excrement plays in gay sex.
But in defense of our conservative brothers and sisters, science shows that this response is widespread. Even hardcore liberals show more disapproval of gay sex when questioned in a stinky room, Bering tells us. And the sense of violation conservatives seem to feel at the thought of perversions is oddly similar to the feeling women have after being raped. "The most common way of managing the damage," Bering writes, "is to channel the harmful, caustic emotions outward—away from the self—and toward those perceived to be responsible for sullying the self."
This explains the ridiculous and tyrannical idea that things other people do in private affects anyone's marriage but their own. The problem, Bering argues throughout the book, is that disgust also distorts our moral and legal thinking. When Czechoslovakia achieved freedom from the Soviet Union, he points out, porn became so popular that even kiddie porn was widely available—and scientists found a "precipitous drop" in sexual attacks on children as well as rape in general. Other studies also have shown that wide availability of porn is correlated with a drop in sex crimes. Yet conservatives motivated by disgust and abstract morality have spent lifetimes arguing the exact opposite.
Even our totally reasonable revulsion with pedophilia backfires, Bering argues. Since studies show that child rape can be reduced by letting pedophiles ease their urges with child porn, he suggests the use of computer-generated images to avoid the legal and moral problems with using images of real children.
In this case—and throughout the book—Bering argues for the only truly decent moral standard: Does it cause harm? In the case of pedophilia, especially where it is forced or violent, it often causes enormous harm. And sometimes even the mildest shoe fetish can cause emotional suffering, especially in a society that finds such behavior disgusting.
But if it causes no real harm, Bering argues, leave the poor perverts alone. Even better, extend a friendly hand. Because let's face it, the fear of sex and rage for purity usually ends up hurting the perverts. Not only do they internalize society's harsh judgements, but there's a long sadistic history of attempts to "cure" them. For instance, little girls who masturbated excessively were subjected to clitoridectomy, radiation "therapy" or confinement in mental institutions—in America, not Saudi Arabia. Not to mention the eternal epidemic of gay bashing. Bering calls this an example of "moral sickness, not moral health," and he's right.
My only quibbles with the book are the profusion of cutesy jokes and puns. He can't tell the goat story without adding, "They're just kids, for God's sake." When he tells us that a rapist's urges might have come from being hit in the head with a hoe, he has to add "of the farm tool variety, just to avoid confusion." He also doesn't give much support to his subtitle about the "the sexual deviant in all of us," which seems to be more a mixture of marketing pitch and wishful thinking than fact.
And I'm not going to hold my breath for the kinky masses to answer his call, at the end of the book, to stop hiding their secrets and come out of the closet already. That's a lot easier for the modern LGBT community than for a guy who's into amputees or bees—though there was that recent episode of Grey's Anatomy where a man comes into the hospital after fucking a wasp's nest. "But that's just one thing," his loving wife tells the doctors. "There are 500 things about him that are so much more important."
P.S. I was just kidding about the left-handed nanny in the tie-dyed miniskirt. Really, any nanny is fine.
Cover image from PERV: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us by Jesse Bering, published in October 2013 by Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2013 by Jesse Bering. All rights reserved; Mitchell Bach (Jesse Bering photo)