Perv – the sexual deviant in all of us, by Jesse Bering
Author Jesse Bering grew up as an insecure gay boy during the AIDS crisis of the 80s and knows a thing or two about what it feels like to have a sexual orientation that the “silent majority” very loudly disapproves of. Although things in the US and most western countries have changed dramatically since then, he has kept a healthy dose of anger and mistrust against similar moral panics.
He puts his scepticism and scientific expertise to good use in analysing the problems around the people who are as ostracised today as he was in the 1980s, including paedophiles and all those with other kinds of “abnormal” sexual orientations, technically described as paraphilias.
Sexual orientation – a concept which only emerged in the late 19th century – can easily be measured today (the author has great fun describing how it is done with male subjects) and it has become clear that in boys it is fixed by the age of 10. Thus there is no way to cure a paedophile of his orientation, just as one cannot straighten out gay people.
What society could do, but has failed to do so far, is to recognise that people with certain paraphilias have a problem and need help addressing it. Harm reduction, rather than moral, naturalness or normality, is the key issue in Bering’s argument. Podophilia (foot fetishism) isn’t likely to harm anybody, but paedophiles need help to live with an orientation that would inflict suffering on children if they lived out their secret urges.
Currently, society tends to label them evil (contrary to the scientific evidence showing that they haven’t chosen their orientation) and heaps so much shame on them that some resort to child murder rather than risking exposure of their sexual transgression.
Bering points to scientific evidence showing that in places where child porn was temporarily legally available, child abuse was less prevalent than when it wasn’t, suggesting that such material, repulsive as it is to the rest of us, doesn’t encourage transgression but rather provides an outlet and reduces crime.
These findings create a first-class philosophical dilemma – would it be ok to recycle confiscated child porn to offer it as a pressure valve to known paedophiles who might otherwise go out and stalk children? Even though the making of that material presumably harmed children in the past? And does it make sense to incarcerate “hands-off” offenders, i.e. people whose only crime is to have indecent images stored on their computers, if these very images may have stopped them from doing worse?
A possible solution that the author appears to support would be to allow computer animation material to be produced and consumed. Strictly following the harm reduction idea this would make sense, as nobody is harmed in the production of such footage, and if it helps to reduce actual harm to actual children, it must be a good thing, right? Now try explaining that to the media outlets with the biggest megaphones …
Combining passion rooted in his own experience with an impressive writing talent, Bering has distilled a difficult subject matter into a fascinating book. It may still take a few decades until society (any society on the planet, really) is ready to extend evidence-based policy to the unspeakable issues addressed here. If Bering’s book helps to speed up progress just a little bit, it will be remembered as a huge achievement.
I admit that the cover design is kind of clever, but it might create problems if you do your reading on public transport ...
PS: as I usually do, I also tried posting a version of this review on the amazon UK page of the book. Strangely it hasn't shown up there.