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by Robert M. Young

There are so many positions, perspectives and ‘takes’ on perversion that it is difficult to find one’s bearings whether as a private individual or as a psychotherapist. I cannot hope in the course of one talk to arrive at a clear position, much less persuade all of you that it is a convincing one. I will say, however, that I feel sure that one has to bring several perspectives to bear on any conclusions that are even potentially convincing. Foremost among them, in my opinion, is the moral perspective -- which is not, I hasten to add, the same as a moralistic perspective.

The press has of late been full of moral debates about homosexuality, in particular, about the propriety of making Dr Jeffrey John and Canon Gene Robinson bishops in Anglican and Episcopalian dioceses. You may take the view that this is nothing to do with psychotherapeutic ideas about perversion. After all, homosexuality (more precisely, ego-syntonic homosexuality) was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association in 1973, twenty years after a previous edition of DSM said that it was a pathology. If, however, you are miserable about your homosexuality you still get a diagnosis in that and successive editions of the DSM. This leads to a second perspective which I suggest is essential to working out one’s own position, that is, the fact that concepts of perversion are historical. They have changed through time and have done so rapidly in recent decades as a result of agitation on the part of gays, lesbians and others formerly labelled perverts and by those sympathetic to them. There have always been such people in prominent places in public life, including politics, culture, business and the clergy, but they have only recently been ‘out’ -- members of the UK Cabinet, MPs, entertainers, entrepreneurs, clerics. Another index of the historicity of sexual practices is the percentage of heterosexuals who practice oral and non-penetrative sex. This percentage has quadrupled from the twenties to the eighties between 1950 and the present, while the percentage practicing anal sex is not on the rise and hovers at under ten per cent (Wellings et al., 1994, pp. 164-5).

I was awake and listening to the radio during the ordination of Gene Robinson a fortnight ago. Those who objected to it said that homosexuality was ‘unnatural’. Indeed, one of those allowed to put opposing position during the ceremony began spelling out why this was so in graphic anatomical detail but was asked by the presiding person to desist, followed by a quick and somewhat embarrassed agreement between them that they knew what was meant. Another opponent of the ordination said that men and women’s bodies ‘fit together’ and produce children and long-term relationships. Same gender relationships, he said, do not and are a departure from Holy Scripture. Here we find appeals to biology. Gays and lesbians’ are committing ‘unnatural acts’, and their body parts do not ‘fit’ together. This at first seems to be only common sense until you recall the gratifications gained from oral, anal and manual sex for those who indulge in these practices. Against that we find the prohibitions of religious and secular laws (Sex Laws on-line; Posner and Silbaugh, 1996). Muslims, Jews Catholics and various other religious denominations strongly abominate same-sex relations, masturbation and various forms of adultery and fornication, some to the point of execution. The laws of various states and countries do likewise, though there is a current trend among the United States to reduce the list of illegal sexual acts. When I was a boy you could be imprisoned for many and executed for some. You still can, but the list is shrinking.

Staying for a moment with religious debates, it is worth noting that they are currently before us because of a relative liberalization of religious thought. We may be troubled by the illiberality of some of the clergy, but 50 Episcopalian Bishops did turn up to Gene Robinson’s ordination, though, of course 36 did not, including several gays who are still in the closet. Some 200 other US religious leaders endorsed his being made a bishop. In this whole matter what struck me most was the statement by Bishop Robinson that the service was not about him. He said, ‘It’s about so many other people who find themselves at the margins and for whatever reason have not known the ear of the Lord’s favour. Our presence here is a welcome sign for those people to be brought into the centre’ (Guardian 3 November 2003, p. 1). In my opinion that’s a proper Christianity talking.

My list of perspectives is getting pretty long: morality, history, religion, biology, law -- both religious and secular. To complete the list before expanding on it, I’ll add philosophy, civil rights, life-style and -- oh yes -- psychoanalysis. None of these are mutually exclusive, e.g., philosophers arrogate to themselves the right to debate the boundary between nature and culture, psychoanalysts and psychotherapists debate the parameters of human nature, and libertarians argue that consensual acts are nobody else’s business (McWilliams, 1996). And then there is a whole lot of special pleading and rationalization. I had a patient who could only orgasm in the context of spanking his partner -- hard, so he could see the imprint of his hand on her bottom when they next met. He called this ‘just a bit of fun’ and managed to find quite a few women who would take part. I had a clergyman who indulged in mutual masturbation with people who were not fully consenting, i.e., were not of age or were a bit dim, but he claimed it ‘didn’t count’ because they only did it when drunk. Another went to darkened rooms where people could do what they liked with no names and no recognition. This made what occurred somehow non-existent - outside history -- and certainly reduced shame. One feature of perversions which these two patients exemplify is that they involve ‘the necessity of a particular object of behavior for the person to achieve arousal and satisfaction, thus interfering with the development or maintenance of an intimate relationship between two whole, responsive, loving individuals’ (Reinisch, 1991, p. 157). The behaviour must be necessary, not just preferred, for it to be classed as a perversion (p. 160).

Next I’ll mention pornography on the internet (see also Young, 1995, 1996a, 1998, 2000). I don’t know about you, but my ‘In’ mailbox has recently become stuffed with sex-related emails. Not only am I offered a bigger penis as well as bigger breasts but also all sorts of pills to give me tremendous and sustained erections. I am also offered every perversion imaginable and several I had not imagined. Fetishisms abound. I submit that the internet is producing a large increase in deviant sexuality for the simple and obvious reason that one no longer needs to take the pornographic magazine to the cash till, enter a so-called ‘private shop’ or receive an envelope or package in the post that might elicit curiosity from people in one’s household. Internet porn is, for most purposes, properly private. I say ‘for most purposes’, because the police have ways of looking deep into your hard disc if they want to and coming up with deleted materials and traces of web sites visited -- as some paedophiles have learned. You may say that various spam filters can spare one the emails offering porn, but those sending them have become clever in adding nonsense between letters in the ‘Subject’ line or deliberately mis-spelling words to outwit the filters. Moreover, if you are a psychotherapist, censoring sex-related words will severely restrict your reception of material of potential clinical and theoretical interest.

There is a big shift. Ease of access lowers the threshold and makes deviant sexuality, at least in its virtual form, much more easily accessible. The potential tariff for gaining access to it has been dramatically lowered. When I was an adolescent there were powerful strictures against masturbating, but, according to Kinsey, 92% of males (Kinsey et al., 1948, p. 499) and 62% of females Kinsey et al., 1953, p. 142) did. More recent studies report that 94% of males and 60-80% of females masturbate (Reinisch, 1991, pp. 95-6, 17). We did this in a period before Playboy made masturbation so much easier. There was also a powerfully homophobic culture, yet everyone I knew well went through at least a period of same-sex experimentation. I have a patient, a would-be Orthodox Jew, who is guilt-ridden by his masturbation. I have another, a devout Christian, who was also guilt-ridden by his masturbation over decades. I have tried without success to discover if religious people masturbate less that irreligious people. I doubt it very much.

Here are some data about pornography from a recent essay in The Guardian: ‘In its hardcore form, pornography is now accessed by an estimated 33% of all internet users. Since the British Board of Film Classification relaxed its guidelines in 2000, hardcore video pornography now makes up between 13% and 17% of censors’ viewing, compared with just 1% three years ago… In the US, with the pornography industry bringing in up to $15bn (8.9bn) annually, people spend more on porn every year than they do on movie tickets and all the performing arts combined. Each year, in Los Angeles alone, more than 10,000 hardcore pornographic films are made, as against an annual Hollywood average of just 400 movies (Marriott, 2003, p. 45). I take all this to mean that deviant sex is hugely on the rise.

I now turn to Freud and to ideas about perversion in the history of psychoanalysis. I hope you are not among those who think that psychoanalysis is intolerant of sexual deviation. Some psychoanalysts and psychotherapists are, too be sure, but Freud did not consider homosexuality or perversion to be illnesses (Abelove, 1986, pp. 59, 60). As for deviant sexuality in general, he wrote, ‘No healthy person, it appears, can fail to make some addition that might be called perverse to the normal sexual aim: and the universality of this finding is in itself enough to show how inappropriate it is to use the word perversion as a term of reproach. In the sphere of sexual life we are brought up against peculiar, and, indeed, insoluble difficulties as soon as we try to draw a sharp line to distinguish mere variations within the range of what is physiological from pathological symptoms’ (Freud, 1905, pp. 160-61). So, if there is a boundary, it is a blurred one. If you read his Three Essays on Sexuality (1905) with care you will see that he begins with sexual deviance followed by infantile sexuality, which is initially polymorphous. He only ends up at ‘The Transformations of Adolescence’ in the last essay. Norms are to be found in the context of individuated developmental narratives and are by no means statistically in the majority.

On the other hand, he did consider the perversions to be signs of arrested development. More specifically, he argued that the symbolism of each deviant practice pointed to a fixation at a particular stage of psychosexual development, according to the stage of the libido theory (Nagera, 1981), whether it be oral, anal, phallic or an unresolved Oedipus complex. Freud regarded ‘any established aberration from normal sexuality as an instance of developmental inhibition and infantilism’ (Freud, 1905, p. 231). He also had model of deviance which could be called ‘norm and deviation’. For him it was a perversion if the lips or tongue of one person came into contact with the genitals of another or if one lingered over aspects of foreplay which, as he quaintly put it, ‘should normally be traversed rapidly on the path towards the final sexual aim’ (Freud, 1905, pp. 151, 150; cf. p. 211). This conjures up the image of a stopwatch as a potential diagnostic tool. By the way, oral-genital contact is still illegal in several US states, including Texas (Posner and Silbaugh, 1996, p. 70).

Even so, I have to say that I find Freud’s position pretty enlightened, but it won’t do at all for a number of gay and lesbian writers. What I admire about Freud is that he was writing nearly a century ago and set out to strike a balance between the biological reductionism of the libido theory and the fact (not then widely acknowledged) that people got up to all sorts of things which defied the moral norms of the time and made nonsense of any putative conflation of the moral norms and statistical ones. Most people are not, he insisted, ‘normal’. He wrote in 1903, ‘I advocate the standpoint that the homosexual does not belong before the tribunal of a court of law. I am even of the firm conviction that homosexuals must not be treated as sick people, for a perverse orientation is far from being a sickness. Wouldn’t that oblige us to characterise as sick many great thinkers and scholars whom we admire precisely because of their mental health?’ (quoted in Abelove, 1986, p. 60). The goal of therapy was to help people, if they sought it, to move beyond the fixation implied by their sexual fantasies and practices.

Many sexual deviations speak their meaning, e.g., my spanker was wreaking vengeance on his domineering mother who belittled his father. My priest could not achieve a mature sexual relationship because of the early death of his father and his being brought up by a domineering grandmother and was stuck in a safer pregenital adolescent practice. I had a patient who arranged things so that he was very little overlap between his time in bed and his wife’s. He would go to bed before her and rise early and masturbate to pictures of lesbian lovemaking on the internet. In this way of life his penis was not at risk. Watching lesbians make love aroused him, but no penetration was called for. Fetishisms involving degradation or humiliation are also often rather transparent, though the events in the patient’s past occasioning the need to be put down are individual and often hard to fathom. I am thinking of chastisement, submitting to domination, golden showers (being peed on), being shit on or having someone shit into one’s mouth, so-called coprophagia. A death wish can underlie unprotected casual sex, but so can the desperate desire to have a place in a comradely community of HIV positive men.

Turning now to theories about perversion, Masud Khan, who wrote vividly and prolifically on the subject (Khan, 1979; Rayner, 1991, pp. 169-76), links the fetish to Winnicott’s concept of the transitional object, which in normal development is a healthy instrument for moving from the breast to the whole field of object relations. The fetishist is stuck in the transitional space. Khan identifies a pathogenic relationship to the mother as the common factor in all perversions and describes perversion as ‘the ego’s attempt at a reparative solution to the environmental failure in early ego development… Perverse people insert an object, phantasy, drama or fetish between themselves and their object of desire’ (Pajaczkowska, 2001, pp. 58-9). It employs a ‘technique of intimacy’ rather than achieving intimacy itself.

The leading recent author on perversions, Robert Stoller, makes several points. First, he claims that all perversions involve the eroticisation of hatred. He defines perversion as ‘the erotic form of hatred’. Similarly, Kleinians believe that all perversion is in the thrall of the death instinct (Pajaczkowska, 2001, p. 51). This implies that at the heart of all deviant sexual practices lies an inversion of the moral order: fair is foul and foul is fair. Many people practicing deviant sex would cry ‘foul’ about this and call it rampant pathologization and moralism. I will argue at the end that we should take this allegation on the chin and live and work with it as moral beings. Put bluntly, I think we are inescapably in a profession deeply involved in making moral judgements and must do so with respect to every allegedly perverse practice but do so with great care.

A common definition of perversion is pseudo-maturity, gaining sexual gratification from a substitute object because one is afraid of the appropriate, mature one. According to Stoller (1975), all perversions involve immaturity. He claims that every perversion, like every neurosis, is a compromise involving holding onto some connection with a mature object. In every choice of sexual practice one gets as close to genital sexuality as the person can manage, whether it involves panties, tampons, hosiery, shoes, bras or whatever. Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, an orthodox Freudian psychoanalyst (1985), dwells on the putative pervert’s attempt to substitute an immature sexual organ for a grown-up one, and describes the dishonesty of trying to pass a little penis off for a daddy one, without bearing the pain of passing through the Oedipus complex and coming to terms with one’s limitations and ambivalence.

Stoller offers critical analyses of fetishism, rape, sex murder, sadism, masochism, voyeurism, paedophilia. He sees in each of these ‘hostility, revenge, triumph, and a dehumanized object’ (Stoller, 1975, p. 9). On the subject of homosexuality, however, he is a champion of pluralism: ‘What evidence is there that heterosexuality is less complicated than homosexuality, less a product of infantile-childhood struggles to master trauma, conflict, frustration, and the like? As a result of innumerable analyses, the burden of proof… has shifted to those who use the heterosexual as the standard of health, normality, mature genital characterhood, or whatever other ambiguous criterion serves one’s philosophy these days… Thus far, the counting, if it is done from published reports, puts the heterosexual and the homosexual in a tie: 100 percent abnormals’ (Stoller, 1985a, quoted in Burch, 1993, p. 97; see also Burch, 1993a).

Another gem from Stoller is: ‘Beware the concept “normal”. It is beyond the reach of objectivity. It tries to connote statistical validity but hides brute judgments on social and private goodness that, if admitted, would promote honesty and modesty we do not yet have in patriots, lawmakers, psychoanalysts, and philosophers’ (Stoller, 1985a, p. 41, quoted in Burch, 1993, p. 98).

I hope you will agree that from Freud to Stoller there have been relatively liberal positions inside traditional psychoanalysis. However, the group of recent writers whose work I shall now sketch want to go much, much further than Freud’s tolerance of deviance, while labelling perversion a developmental fixation. The key claim is that the relevant framework for considering these issues is that sexuality is inside the symbolic order, subject to the dynamics of social and cultural forces, not purely -- and some would say not even significantly -- an expression of instinctual needs.

The lesbian co-authors of a recent challenge to orthodoxy, Noreen O’Connor and Joanna Ryan, put forward the long-term goal of ‘eschewing all forms of naturalism in psychoanalytic thinking’ (O’Connor & Ryan, 1993, p. 246). Notice that they are denying any significant role to biology. Moreover, increasingly sophisticated theorizations of gay and lesbian views on gender identity have reached the point where they can claim that the exceptions to normality overwhelm the rule of normality, and fetishists are also making increasingly bold claims about what other members of the society have in common with them.

Arguments for this approach are found in the writings of the eminent French psychoanalyst, Jean Laplanche, co-author of the classic, The Language of Psychoanalysis (1983). The list of erogenous zones specified by the libido theory is accepted by him: mouth, anus, urethra, genitals. However, they are described less biologistically as places of exchange between inside and outside (Fletcher, 1989, p. 96). Moreover, any bodily zone can take on a sexual level of excitement, as can ideas. This claim finds support from Freud’s last writing in 1938, where he said that the whole body is an erogenous zone (Freud, 1938, p. 146). The traditional understanding of perversion is an alteration or deviation from the fixed, biologically determined order of privileged zones, culminating in genital intercourse to orgasm. But, says Laplanche, if we refuse to accept this spontaneous unfolding of a unitary instinctual program, sexuality itself can be seen as polymorphous and therefore, to put it ironically, perverse. He expresses this starkly by saying that ‘the exception - i.e., the perversion - ends up by taking the rule along with it. The exception, which should presuppose the existence of a definite instinct, a pre-existent sexual function, with its well-defined norms of accomplishment: that exception ends up by undermining and destroying the very notion of a biological norm. The whole of sexuality, or at least the whole of infantile sexuality, ends up becoming perversion’ (Laplanche, 1970, p. 23). John Fletcher, a gay activist and scholar, puts this in symbolic terms, terms which increase the range, scope and flexibility of sexuality: ‘The whole of sexuality as a mobile field of displaceable and substitutable signs and mental representations is a perversion of the order of biological needs and fixed objects’ (Fletcher, 1989, pp. 98-9). If perversion is ubiquitous, it cannot be called exceptional; it is commonplace, the rule, normal: hence ‘“perversion” as “normal”’ and the pejorative connotations of the term become obsolete.

Writing about bisexuality and lesbianism, Beverly Burch takes a similarly line in opposition to biologism and in favour social constructivism. She says that ‘Lesbianism and heterosexual identities are social constructs that incorporate psychological elements’ (Burch, 1993, pp. 84-85). These differ from one woman to another and have manifestations and sources as varied as individual biographies. The unity of heterosexual theory does not live up to the diversity of sexual orientations (p. 85). She places sexual orientations on a continuum and argues that any point on it might be defensive, but ‘no position is necessarily or inevitably pathological’ (p. 91). She surveys the literature and finds a relativism of theory to match her relativism of developmental pathways: ‘The point is that no one view is complete, and there are divergent routes on the way to final object choice. The road is not a straight one toward heterosexuality, and we cannot regard other destinations as a wrong turn’ (p. 97).

In his very insightful book entitled The Transformations of Intimacy (1992), the sociologist Anthony Giddens eschews naturalism and biologism in his concept of sexual identity and argues for something very flexible which he infelicitously calls ‘plastic sexuality’ (‘malleable’ might have better conveyed the sense of voluntarism he is advocating). He argues that throughout the sexual sphere there is much more pluralism than is granted by conventional people and the theorists of orthodox psychoanalysis. An example is his citing of a finding that 40% or more of married men in the United States have regular sex with other men at some point in their married lives (p. 146). He advocates the replacement of ‘perversion’ by pluralism or ‘neo-sexualities’. In her useful short account of Perversion, Claire Pajaczkowska concludes that perverse sexuality is universal (p.3).

There is a another recent and militant version of the de-naturalization of sexual difference. It is called -- assertively -- ‘Queer Theory’, the leading exponent of which is the feminist lesbian theorist Judith Butler (1990). ‘According to Queer Theory, the word “perversion” is nothing more than an unpleasant and moralizing anachronism that should be analysed in terms of its history, or else should be taken up and used ironically as an emblem of the stigma of social disapproval. Thus the contemptuous term “pervert” becomes a badge of pride rather than a stigma, and homosexuality is simply one of a range of polymorphous sexualities, which differ from heterosexuality only in terms of social recognition, definition and approval’ (Pajaczkowska, 2001, p. 7). ‘Scapegoats receive projected and disowned fears of the darker side of “normality”, and are made to feel ashamed, dirty and sinful’ (Ibid.). Note that the tables have been turned, and we are witnessing a triumphalism and celebration of deviance as better than bland, ‘normal’, plain vanilla sexuality (Ibid.). Labelling someone as a pervert is not a diagnosis but a reification, ‘a replication of the objectification and dehumansation that is attributed by the orthodoxy to perversion itself’ (Pajaczkowska, 2001, p. 9). Moreover, proponents of Queer Theory not only challenge concepts of normality, they also want to treat the more basic concept of gender as a social construct.

This is heady stuff. The dissidents seek to jettison the theory of psychosexual developmental stages known as the libido theory, as well as the central concept in Freud’s philosophy of human nature, the Oedipus complex, which Freud called 'the core complex' or the nuclear complex of every neurosis. In a footnote added to the 1920 edition of Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, he made it clear that the Oedipus complex is the immovable foundation stone on which the whole edifice of psychoanalysis is based. He wrote, ‘It has justly been said that the Oedipus complex is the nuclear complex of the neuroses, and constitutes the essential part of their content. It represents the peak of infantile sexuality, which, through its after-effects, exercises a decisive influence on the sexuality of adults. Every new arrival on this planet is faced with the task of mastering the Oedipus complex; anyone who fails to do so falls a victim to neurosis. With the progress of psycho-analytic studies the importance of the Oedipus complex has become more and more clearly evident; its recognition has become the shibboleth that distinguishes the adherents of psycho-analysis from its opponents’ (Freud, 1905, p. 226n). I quote this passage in full to make it clear just how high a price is being asked of psychoanalysis by those who seek to abrogate biologism and naturalism from our idea of human nature, to get rid, once and for all, of the idea that biology is destiny. They would cut the heart out of psychoanalysis by excising the Oedipus complex.

Few psychoanalysts will willingly go this far. Indeed, Kleinians argue that unless one works one’s way though the Oedipus complex, one cannot attain insight, the ability to reflect deeply upon oneself. They argue that that to work trough the Oedipus complex is to work through the paranoid-schizoid position with its splits, punitive guilt and virulent projective identifications, and to attain the depressive position where splits are healed, guilt is reparative and one takes back the projections. Ron Britton writes, 'the two situations are inextricably intertwined in such a way that one cannot be resolved without the other: we resolve the Oedipus complex by working through the depressive position and the depressive position by working through the Oedipus complex' (Britton, 1992, p. 35).

This way of looking at the Oedipal situation also offers a way of thinking of self-knowledge or insight: 'The primal family triangle provides the child with two links connecting him separately with each parent and confronts him with the link between them which excludes him. Initially this parental link is conceived in primitive part-object terms and in the modes of his own oral, anal and genital desires, and in terms of his hatred expressed in oral, anal and genital terms. If the link between the parents perceived in love and hate can be tolerated in the child's mind, it provides him with a prototype for an object relationship of a third kind in which he is a witness and not a participant. A third position then comes into existence from which object relationships can be observed. Given this, we can also envisage being observed. This provides us with a capacity for seeing ourselves in interaction with others and for entertaining another point of view whilst retaining our own, for reflecting on ourselves whilst being ourselves' (Britton, 1989, p. 87).

I find this way of thinking about maturation so helpful, indeed, so inspiring, that I cannot go the whole way with the dissidents. Just what is the right mix of explanatory factors, especially of biology and social and cultural forces, remains undecided, but I am convinced that there is a mixture and that the problem cannot be solved by legislating away biology and nature from human nature. Some of the dissidents are willing to jettison the idea of human nature, as well. I am not (Young, 1996b).

However, as I approach my conclusion I can offer a way of mitigating the harshness of judgments of behaviour which is labelled perversion. As I and others have often noted, the term ‘perversion’ is an insulting epithet, but the term ‘perverse’ is something else again. I now want to dwell on what may at first sight appear to be an esoteric distinction between three terms - ‘pervert’, ‘perversion’ and ‘perverse’. ‘Pervert’ is a label, based on behavioural criteria. I believe that its use violates the civil rights of sexually deviant - often dissident - people. I deplore its use. ‘Perversion’ is an exquisitely ambiguous term, floating between ‘pervert’ and ‘perverse’. In practice I find that it tends most often to be used by people who are orthodox Freudians and who still adhere to the libido theory, but I also think it is definitely not obsolete among most people who work in the sphere of sexuality. Its use is almost as much resented by people who are not sexually ‘straight’ as is the term ‘pervert’. It is often unclear whether its use in a given context is defiantly psychoanalytically orthodox, as it is in Chasseguet-Smirgel’s book Creativity and Perversion, which I edited and published. When the American co-publishers pleaded that the title be changed to spare them a barrage of PC criticism, she dug her heels in. Nearly a decade later the eminent lesbian writer, editor and producer, Mandy Merck, collected her essays under the defiant title Perversions: Deviant Readings (1993). There is, by the way, an alternative term -- ‘paraphilia’ -- meaning love of something beyond or outside the usual, but I have seldom seen or heard it used (Reinisch, 1991, p. 157).

In my opinion, the real area for serious future thought is the perverse. I hope and trust that even the most dissident or deviant person, when he or she is not being militant or on the defensive, will grant that there is a way of thinking which is perverse and would not want their love and lovemaking to merit that adjective. Rather that squabble over how long a bit of foreplay has to be to be kinky, we need to look at sexuality in a more subtle way. Let me recall some of the characteristics of the perverse, as spelled out in some ‘Reflections on Perverse States of Mind’ by Margot Waddell and Gianna Williams (1991). Perversion of character involves ‘the distortion and misuse of psychic and external reality: the slaughter of truth’ (p. 203). Perverse states of mind involve ‘a negativistic caricature of object relations’. There is an unconscious ‘core phantasy of the secret killing of babies instead of parenting babies - an oblique form of attack on the inside of the mother’s body… In this frame of reference, perversity has no connection with descriptive aspects of sexual choices - it can be equally present or absent in heterosexual or homosexual relationships alike’ (p. 206). They conclude that this approach is ‘scintillating with possibilities for better understanding the nature of perversity as an aspect of character, as distinct from sexual behaviour or choice. It wholly subverts the current propensity to attach labels of “perverse” or “non-perverse” to categories of relationships - e.g., homosexual or heterosexual - and places the distinctions, rather, in the area of psychic reality and meanings as represented by different states of mind’ (p. 211). So, even when faced with behaviour which appears on the surface to be inherently perverse, one is still faced with the clinical task of coming to understand the inner meaning, the object relations in the unconscious, before diagnosing it as pathological or merely deviant.

I find it easier to imagine gay and lesbian relationships meeting the criterion that the unconscious phantasy be a loving one than I do relationships in which some fetishistic practices predominate. I also believe that there is reason for concern about the growing boldness with which fetishistic practices are discussed - even flaunted - in the media. While I am in favour of public debate about all matters sexual, I also fear that the veneer of civilization is under threat when the line between apparently loving and apparently grotesque or cruel practices is in danger of disappearing altogether.

Many practitioners of deviant sexualities do not believe that they have a problem, and most do not seek psychotherapeutic help. The perversions are felt to be the solution and not a problem. Nevertheless, they often feel shameful and keep the practice secret and feel dirty, sinful or afraid (Pajaczkowska, 2001, p. 63). I saw my spanker for over a year -- analysing his depression -- before he told me about his spanking, and he did it for years with prostitutes before seeking to persuade his girlfriends to take part in it.

As I have tried to show, there are many dimensions to how we think about perversion. Different people will attach different weights to the eight parameters I have mentioned -- moral, historical, legal, religious, philosophical, civil rights, life-style and psychoanalytic. Others will pronounce a plague on most, if not all, of those houses and claim the right, as they see it, to construct their own sexuality and sexual practices. Some of these are against the law and unacceptable to nearly everyone, for example, rape and paedophilia, but even paedophilia has its apologists. Others are seen by practically everyone as so disgusting or so painful that they are shunned and or condemned, for example, being shit or peed on or into one’s mouth, inflicting severe pain, burning, scarring. Then there is a long list of practices which will attract some, put off others, amuse some and leave others cold. Bestiality, domination, bondage (Willie, 1995), leatherwear, shiny plastic clothes, wet, shaved, hairy, shemales, exhibitionism, cross dressing, uniforms, sex toys, pregnant, lactating, scarred, amputees, fisting -- the list is as long as the imagination is inventive. At the mild end lie practices which are common, some very common, for example, oral and anal sex, rimming (licking the partner’s anal area), anal masturbation (once strongly recommended to me by a Tavistock consultant), attraction to big or small breasts, enhancement or diminution of sexual parts by injection or surgery, talking dirty, use of pornographic videos. That list is long, too. I list gay and lesbian sex separately, because their advocates have to a considerable extent, by energetic campaigning, persuaded many, if perhaps not yet most, of us that they have a place on the continuum of practices and relationships that people have a right to.

‘Sexual preference’, ‘sexual orientation’, ‘neo-sexualities’, ‘sexual dissidence’ (Dollimore, 1991), ‘plastic sexuality’ (Giddens, 1992): all of those phrases have a growing and defensible place in the discussion of sex, a place that was certainly not granted when I was growing up. As I said, avowedly gay and lesbian people have many accepted public roles. The head of a school attended by a child of mine was gay. A lesbian and a gay person have recently been heads of a leading psychotherapy training organization in London (though neither is ‘out’), and it and others increasingly accept openly gay and lesbian candidates (Ellis, 1994). I mentioned earlier the role of gays and lesbians in politics, the clergy and other places in the pubic sphere. In England I think of the prominent rabbi and broadcaster Lionel Blue, columnist and sometime MP Matthew Parrish, entertainer Julian Cleary, sometime Labour Ministers Chris Smith and Peter Mandelson, gay activist Peter Tatchell, Canadian singer KD Lang. I dare say that there are analogous people in Ireland. Fetishisms, domination and S & M are displayed and celebrated on television, in mainstream magazines and in pubs, bars and clubs. Where will it all end

To illustrate this concern, I will quote at length the conclusion to an article in the Sunday Times Magazine section, written nearly a decade ago in association with a prime-time television programme. The article is entitled ‘Forbidden Fruit’: ‘For those who choose to express their sexuality through the perversions, horizons open quickly and easily. Gas masks, for instance, are advertised regularly in fetish magazines like Shiny International, which share shelf space with mainstream pornography in sex shops and pornographic book stores. There are East German models, there are Israeli models, there are even models which have replaced the original gas filter with a penetrable rubber flap, allowing the wearer to fellate his or her partner without removing the mask.

‘For those who wish to meet, there are now 19 regular and well attended fetish clubs in the UK, culminating in Skin Two’s annual Rubber Ball, which is attended by more than 2,000 people. And, through the clubs and magazines, individuals can exchange interests and techniques, learn how to refine and practice their desires, and place advertisements and buy and sell specialist paraphernalia ranging from collars and chains to fully functional erotic furniture. In New York, there is a new club, The Meat Tunnel, which is hung with carcasses of dead animals. And for those with more clandestine interests, there are even specialist pornographic publications, ranging from Where the Young Ones Are for paedophiles to Amputee Love for those who can only become aroused in the company of disabled people.

‘But nestling between the untroubled baby machines of Eden and contemporary practitioners of the most hard-core perversions, there is a third category of individuals - comprising most of the adult population. Taught from birth that our sexuality should be a natural, uncomplicated expression of simple biological destiny, we wonder why aspects of it should seem so circuitous and feel so charged with guilt and uncertainty. Running scared from the city of perversions, we, like the wife of Lot, can’t help looking back, transfixed, at images which reflect, in purified form, aspects of our common selves.

‘Last month, when I visited one of London’s largest and hardest fetish clubs, I was welcomed with the greeting, “Home of the brave and land of the free”. Jostling upstairs through the gothically jostling crowds, in an atmosphere heavy with sexual release and the muffled sounds of flagellation, I caught sight of a woman on the stage grinding furiously at her metal knickers with an industrial sanding machine. White hot sparks flew from between her legs and curved in an arc through the smoke-filled air. Brave, perhaps, but free? No more or less than the rest of us’ (Andreae, 1994, p. 35). 

This brings me to my conclusions. The fact that people who practice deviant or dissident sexualities and are increasingly claiming that it is their civil right to do so does not, as I see it, solve the question of whether or not their sexual preferences and practices are the appropriate concern of psychotherapists. First, they are legitimate concerns for us if people come along troubled enough to ask us to help them sort out what they perceive to be sexual difficulties, and this can include guilt and anxiety about deviant things they don’t want to change. That may change in the course of the therapy, of course. Finding the line between respecting someone’s sexuality, bringing it into question and illegitimate moralization and pathologization is not always, or even usually, easy. Some therapists and analysts are not even trying. I once heard the eminent Kleinian, Hanna Segal, say at a lecture that it is so remarkable that homosexuals call themselves ‘gay’, given how sad they are. I assure you from my own clinical experience that one can work with a gay or lesbian person who comes for other reasons without riding roughshod over his or her sexual identity. My advice is to keep an open mind, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. On the other hand, I reserve the right to insist that harming others, inflicting severe pain or injury or humiliation or degradation are wrong -- morally wrong -- and I will seek to analyze the object relations in their inner worlds and, if appropriate, alter such behaviour. If they want to insist on their right to carry on doing such things, all I can say is that they come to therapeutic sessions with me voluntarily, and if they are affronted by my (actually quite slow and gentle but nevertheless forthright) advocacy of moral norms, they are free to go. A useful analogy is the oft-asked question, ‘Would you take on a Nazi or a racist?’ My answer is that I would, but I would openly seek to cure them of their destructive traits and achieve a more wholesome and tolerant character structure. Much pornography and many perversions are very likely to have as their inner world unconscious phantasy domination, control, ways of avoiding real intimacy and related untoward and/or destructive feelings. Some do not. Except in very obvious cases it is an empirical question, one to be addressed in psychotherapy or psychoanalysis. Call it brainwashing or coercion if you like, but I am delighted that my spanker does straight sex now. He is married, and they have a child. My vicar has chosen celibacy over mutual masturbation with unsuitable partners. We are both sad that he did not manage, after considerable effort, to feel at home making love to women. My watcher of lesbian porn has altered his sleeping pattern and makes love to his wife and not to his fantasies and his fist. I should add that these therapeutic goals were brought by those patients when they entered therapy. They sought these changes.

I am content to see the boundaries of perversion expand, albeit cautiously, insofar as those inhabiting that emotional space do so lovingly, but I want to keep the perverse, that is, manifestations of the death instinct, strictly confined. They merit our compassion and, if sought, our therapeutic skills, but are, in my opinion, morally beyond the Pale. 

Note: I am aware of having been silent about female perversion. Until recently little had been written about it, and I am not au fait with what little has, even though I published Welldon (1988); see also Kaplan (1991) and Gamman (1994).

Annual Guest Lecture, Irish Institute of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, Dublin, 15 November 2003. The text draws on an earlier article, ‘Is “Perversion” Obsolete?’ (Young, 1996).


(Place of publication is London unless otherwise specified.) 

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