Perverts weren’t always the libidinous bogeymen we imagine when we think of the term today. Sexual mores have certainly shifted dramatically over the course of history and across societies, but the very word ‘pervert’ once literally meant something else entirely to what it does now. For example, the peculiar discovery that some peasant during the reign of Charles II used conch shells for anal gratification or inhaled a stolen batch of ladies’ corsets while touching himself in the town square would have been merely coincidental to any accusations of his being perverted (though it wouldn’t have helped his case). Seventeenth-century terms such as ‘skellum’ (scoundrel) or reference to his ‘mundungus’ (smelly entrails) might have applied, but calling this man a ‘pervert’ for his peccadilloes would have made little sense at the time.
Linguistically, the sexual connotation feels natural. The ring of it — purrrvert — is at once melodious and cloying, producing a noticeable snarl on the speaker’s face, while the image of a lecherous child molester, a trench-coated flasher in a park, a drooling pornographer, or perhaps a serial rapist pops into one’s head. Yet as Shakespeare might remind us, a pervert by any other name would smell as foul. For the longest time, in fact, to be a pervert wasn’t to be a sexual deviant; it was to be an atheist.
In 1656, the British lexicographer Thomas Blount included the following entry for the verb ‘pervert’ in his Glossographia (a book also known by the more cumbersome title A Dictionary Interpreting the Hard Words of Whatsoever Language Now Used in Our Refined English Tongue): ‘to turn upside down, to debauch, or seduce’. No doubt all of these activities occur in your typical suburban bedroom today. But it’s only by dint of our post-Victorian minds that we perceive these types of naughty winks in the definition of a term that was floating around the old English countryside. In Blount’s time, and for several hundred years after he was dead and buried, a pervert was simply a headstrong apostate who had turned his or her back on the draconian morality of the medieval Church, thereby ‘seducing’ others into a godless lifestyle.
If we applied this original definition to the present iconoclastic world of science, one of the most recognisable perverts in the world today would be the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. As the author of The God Delusion (2006) and an active proselytiser of atheism, Dawkins encourages his fellow rationalists to ‘turn away from’ canonical religious teachings. As I’ve written my own scientific atheistic screed, I’m not casting stones. I’m proudly in possession of a perverted nature that fits both the archaic use of the term, due to my atheism, and its more recent pejorative use, due to my homosexuality.
Only at the tail end of the 19th century did the word ‘pervert’ first leap from the histrionic sermons of fiery preachers into the heady, clinical discourses of stuffy European sexologists. Today, the term is more likely to be used less as a diagnosis and more as an insult, hurled at the likes of sex offenders. This gradual semantic migration of perverts, from the church pews to the psychiatric clinic to the online comments section of salacious news stories, hasn’t occurred without the clattering bones of medieval religious morality dragging behind. Notice that the suffix -vert means, generally, ‘to turn’: hence ‘to convert’ (to turn to another), ‘to revert’ (to return to a previous state), ‘to invert’ (to turn inside out), ‘to pervert’ (to turn away from the right course), and so on. Of those, ‘pervert’ alone has that devilishly malicious core — ‘a distinctive quality of obstinacy’, as the Australian psychoanalyst Jon Jureidini has called it in the paper ‘Perversion: An Erotic Form of Hatred or Exciting Avoidance of Reality?’(2001). He goes on: ‘petulance, peevishness … self-willed in a way that distinguishes it from more “innocent” deviations’.
A judge accusing someone of ‘perverting the course of justice’ is referring to a deliberate effort to thwart moral fairness. Similarly, since the modern noun form of ‘pervert’ is synonymous with ‘sex deviant’, the presumption is that the person thus described is a deviant by his (or her) own malicious design. In other words, he is presumed to have wilfully chosen to be sexually aberrant — that’s to say, to go against what is right.
It’s striking how such an emotionally loaded word, one that undergoes almost no change at all for the first 1,000 years of its use, can almost overnight come to mean something so very different, entirely eclipsing its original intent. Exactly how did this word ‘pervert’ go from being a perennial term for the ‘immoral religious heretic’ to referring to the ‘immoral sexual deviant’?
One key reason for this shift can be found in the work of the British scholar Havelock Ellis, who back in 1897 popularised the term ‘pervert’ in his descriptions of patients with atypical sexual desires. Earlier scholars, among them Richard von Krafft-Ebing, the Austro-German psychiatrist regarded by many as the father of studies in deviant sexuality, had already sexualised the term, but Ellis’s accessible writing found a wider general audience and ultimately led to this meaning of ‘pervert’ becoming solidified in the common vernacular.
The provenance of the term in Ellis’s work is still a little hard to follow, because he initially uses ‘perverts’ and ‘perversions’ in the sense of sexual deviancy in a book confusingly titled Sexual Inversion (1897). Co-authored with the gay literary critic John Addington Symonds and published after Symonds’s death, the book was a landmark treatise on the psychological basis of homosexuality. In the authors’ view, ‘sexual inversion’ reflected homosexuality as an inside-out form of the standard erotic pattern. That part is easy enough to understand. Where the language of Ellis and Symonds gets tricky, however, is in their broader use of ‘sexual perversions’ to refer to socially prohibited sexual behaviours, of which ‘sexual inversion’ (or homosexuality) was just one. Other classic types of perversions included polygamy, bestiality, and prostitution. The authors adopted this religious language not because they personally believed homosexuality to be abnormal and therefore wrong (quite the opposite, since their naturalistic approach was among the first to identify such behaviours in other animals) but only to note that it was salient among the categories of sexuality frequently depicted as ‘against what is right’ or sinful. Theirs was merely an observation about how gays and lesbians (‘inverts’) were seen by most of society.
Curiously enough, Ellis, the scientist of the pair, and the one usually credited with christening homosexuals as sex ‘perverts’, had his own unique predilection. Ellis’s urophilia — a strong sexual attraction to urine, or to people who are in the process of urinating — is documented in his various notes and letters. In correspondence with a close female acquaintance, Ellis chided the woman for forgetting her purse at his house, adding saucily: ‘I’ve no objection to your leaving liquid gold behind.’ He gave in to these desires openly and even fancied himself a connoisseur of pisseuses, writing in his autobiography: ‘I may be regarded as a pioneer in the recognition of the beauty of the natural act in women when carried out in the erect attitude.’ In his later years, this ‘divine stream’, as he called it, proved the cure for Ellis’s impotence: the image of an upright, urinating woman was the only thing that could turn him on. And he was entirely unashamed of this sexual quirk: ‘It was never to me vulgar, but, rather, an ideal interest, a part of the yet unrecognised loveliness of the world.’ On attempting to analyse his own case (he was a sexologist, after all), Ellis concluded: ‘[It’s] not extremely uncommon … it has been noted of men of high intellectual distinction.’ He was also convinced that men with high-pitched voices were generally more intelligent than baritones. That Ellis himself was a rare high tenor might have had something to do with that curious hypothesis as well.
Ellis was among a handful of pioneering sexologists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who had set out to tease apart the complicated strands of human sexuality. Other scholars, among them Krafft-Ebing and Sigmund Freud, as well as Freud’s early follower, the Austrian psychologist Wilhelm Stekel, were similarly committed to this newly objective, amoral empirical approach to sexual deviance. Their writings might seem tainted with bias to us today (and in fact they are) but they also display a genuine concern for those who found themselves, through no doing or choice of their own, feeling aroused in ways that posed major problems in the social conditions under which they lived.
With their inverted pattern of attraction, homosexuals became perverts in essence, not just louses dabbling in transgressive sex
The early sexologists found themselves confronted by angry purists who believed that their novel scientific endeavours would bring about the collapse of cherished institutions such as marriage, religion, and ‘the family’. Anxieties over such a ‘slippery slope effect’ have been around for a very long time and, in the eyes of these moralists, an objective approach to sexuality threatened all that was good and holy. Conservative scholars saw any neutral evaluation of sex deviants as dangerous, for it legitimised wicked things as ‘natural’ variants of behaviour and lead ‘normal’ people to embrace the unethical lifestyles of the degenerate. Merely giving ‘horrific’ tendencies such as same-sex desires their own proper scientific names made them that much more real to these moralists, and therefore much more threatening. To them, this was the reification of sexual evil. For instance, in 1897 William Noyes, a psychiatrist at the Boston Lunatic Hospital, wrote a scathing review of Ellis and Symonds’s Sexual Inversion in which he chastised the authors for ‘adding 300 more pages to a literature already too flourishing … Apart from its influence on the perverts [homosexuals] themselves no healthy person can read this literature without a lower opinion of human nature, and this result in itself should bid any writer pause.’
Looking back, it’s evident that Ellis and Symonds’s careful distinction between homosexual behaviour and homosexual orientation was an important step in the history of gay rights. It might seem like commonsense today, but these authors disentangled the two elements, which in turn informed our modern understanding of homosexuality as a psychosexual trait (or orientation), not just something that one ‘did’ with the same sex. Their contribution to the way psychiatrists’ think about homosexuality had long-lasting implications for gays and lesbians. On the positive side, homosexuals were no longer perceived (at least by experts) as fallen people who were simply so immoral and licentious that they’d even resort to doing that; instead, they were seen as having a psychological ‘nature’ that made them ‘naturally’ attracted to the same sex rather than to the opposite sex.
On the negative side, this newly recognised nature was also regarded as inherently abnormal or flawed. With their inverted pattern of attraction, homosexuals became perverts in essence, not just louses dabbling in transgressive sex. Whether or not they ever had homosexual sex, such individuals were now one of ‘those people’. Also, once homosexuality was understood to be an orientation and not just a criminal behaviour, it could be medicalised as a psychiatric condition. For almost a century afterwards, physicians saw gays and lesbians as quite obviously mentally ill. And just as one would treat the pathological symptoms of patients suffering from any mental illness, most clinicians believed that homosexuals should be treated for their unfortunate disorder. Needless to say, such ‘conversion’ treatments, in all their shameful forms, didn’t involve encouraging gays and lesbians to be themselves.
The die had also been cast for the disparaging term pervert and its enduring association with homosexuality. Not so long ago, some Neo-Freudian scholars were still interpreting anal sex among gay men as an unconscious desire in the recipient (or the ‘bottom’) to nip off the other’s penis with his tightened sphincter. ‘In this way, which is so characteristic of the pervert,’ mused the influential South African-born psychoanalyst Mervin Glasser in the paper ‘Identification and its Vicissitudes as Observed in the Perversions’ (1986), ‘he [is] trying to establish his father as an internal object with whom to identify, as an inner ally and bulwark against his powerful mother’. That might sound as scientific to us today as astrology or tarot cards, but considering that Glasser wrote this 13 years after the American Psychiatric Association formally removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders, it shows how long the religious moral connotations stuck around, even in clinical circles. Glasser’s bizarre analysis of ‘perverts’ was the type of thing a gay man could expect to hear if he ever sought counselling for his inevitable woes from living in a world that couldn’t decide if he was sick or immoral, so simply saw him as both.
Today, the word pervert just sounds silly, or at least provincial, when used to refer to gays and lesbians. In a growing number of societies, homosexuals are slowly, begrudgingly, being allowed entry into the ranks of the culturally tolerated. But plenty of other sexual minorities remain firmly entrenched in the orientation blacklist. Although, happily, we’re increasingly using science to defend gays and lesbians, deep down most of us (religious or not) still appear to be suffering from the illusion of a creator who set moral limits on the acceptable sexual orientations. Our knee-jerk perception of individuals who similarly have no choice whatsoever over what arouses them sexually (be they paedophiles, exhibitionists, transvestites, or fetishists, to name but a few) is that they’ve wilfully, deliberately, and arrogantly strayed from the right course. In other words, we see them as ‘true perverts’. Whereas gays and lesbians are perceived by more and more people as ‘like normal heterosexuals’ because they didn’t choose to be the way they are, we assume that these others somehow did.
As a society we’ve become so focused on the question of whether a given sexual behaviour is ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’ that we’ve lost sight of the more important question: Is it harmful? In many ways, it’s an even more challenging question, because although naturalness can be assessed by relatively straightforward queries about statistical averages — for example, ‘How frequently does it appear in other species?’ and ‘In what percentage of the human population does it occur?’ — the experience of harm is largely subjective. As such, it defies direct analyses and requires definitions that resonate with people in vastly different ways.
When it comes to sexual harm in particular, what’s harmful to one person could be not only completely harmless to another but might even, believe it or not, be helpful or positive. A gay Muslim who dies only to find himself in an afterlife thronged with 72 beautiful female virgins, as the Qur’an promises its faithful, will be in hell, not in heaven. One man’s angels are another’s demons.
Morally, all that matters is whether a person’s sexual deviancy is demonstrably harmful
And it’s not just overtly physical sexual acts that can be experienced differently in terms of harm but also entirely ethereal sexual desires. For the religiously devout, this whole conversation is a lost cause. Yet once one abandons the notion that one can ‘commit’ a sin by thinking a thought, it becomes quite clear that sexual desires — no matter how deviant — are intrinsically harmless to the subject of a person’s lust, at least in the physical sense. Mental states are ‘a mere breath on the air’ as the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote. Sexual desires can, of course, be thought bubbles with thorns and wreak havoc on a person’s own well-being (especially when they occur in the heads of those convinced such thoughts come from the devil and yet they just can’t stop having them).
Still, it’s only when this ‘mere breath on the air’ is manifested in behaviour that harm to another person might or might not occur. Treating an individual as a pervert in essence, and hence with a purposefully immoral mind, because his or her brain conjures up atypical erotic ideas, or responds sexually to stimuli that others have deemed inappropriate objects of desire, then becomes medieval in both its stupidity and its cruelty. It’s also entirely counterproductive. For example, research in the 1980s on the ‘white bear effect’ by the social psychologist Daniel Wegner and colleagues at Trinity University in Texas has shown that forcing a person to suppress specific thoughts leads to those very thoughts invading the subject’s consciousness even more than they otherwise would. (Whatever you do, don’t — I repeat, do not — think about a white bear during the next 30 seconds.)
Our critical evaluations should fall upon harmful sexual actions with the heaviest of thuds, but not upon a pituitary excretion that happens to morph into an ethereal image in the private movie theatre of someone’s mind. Morally, all that matters is whether a person’s sexual deviancy is demonstrably harmful. If it’s not, and we reject the person anyway, then we’re not the good guys in this scenario: we’re the bad guys.
Excerpted from PERV: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us by Jesse Bering, to be published October 8th by Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2013 by Jesse Bering. All rights reserved.