Frances Wilson reviews a pair of new books about sexual perversion: Julie Peakman’s The Pleasure’s All Mine: a History of Perverse Sex and Jesse Bering’s Perv: the Sexual Deviant in All of Us:
The difference between Peakman and Bering is one of position. While Bering uses humour to take a vertical plunge into the depths of the psyche, Peakman stays horizontal, giving an overview of all the nonsense that has been written about sex from the ancient to the modern worlds, and adding some of her own: “It is not so much that the internet has contributed to sex in the 21st century; to a large extent it is sex.” Neither book makes easy reading: Peakman’s because it is lazily written and she has no rapport with the reader, and Bering’s because he takes us into the worlds of those who have not so much been hiding in the closet as quivering in the panic room of a building in a David Lynch film.
But the reader faces other challenges too.
Some of us (or all, if Bering has his way) might feel uncomfortable stirrings of desire as we recognise our secret selves on the page; most will feel disgust or the urge to laugh. Once “the disgust factor” kicks in, Bering argues, social intelligence disappears. Desire and disgust are antagonists but they are also bedroom playmates; disgust towards the object of desire is a not uncommon post-coital reaction. As de Sade wrote, “Many men look upon the sleeping woman at their side with whom they have just had intercourse with a feeling as if they could at least thrash [her].” The secret to our success as a species, for Bering, is the way we have kept our disgust under control in the face of bodies that snore, smell, leak, swell and sprout unsightly hairs. As the open-minded millionaire Osgood Fielding III puts it in Some Like It Hot, when told he has mistakenly proposed to a man, “Well, nobody’s perfect.”