Working Out The Kinks With Sex Writer Daniel Bergner

Daniel Bergner, the author of the discussion-inspiring piece "What Do Women Want?", has a book on fetishes called The Other Side of Desire, so he submitted to Salon's Sarah Hepola... for an interview.

Bergner's book, as reviewer Lisa Zeidner tells it:

Structured as a series of elegant portraits, The Other Side of Desire considers four people possessed by paraphilias: sexual deviations that make "vanilla sex" distasteful or downright impossible.

Bergner's book considers whether deviation from the sexual norms of society are biologically innate or cultural (sound familiar?) and looks into other fetishistic behaviors alongside the portraits of a foot fetishist, a dominatrix, a pedophile and a man with an amputee fetish. Although not sympathetic to all the people he portrays (particularly the pedophile), Bergner is, apparently, looking for some answers to larger questions than why one guy gets off on feet.

In the book you mention how some fetishes may be informed by the culture and times.

Yes, it's very interesting — one of the sexologists I spent time with pointed out that if by looking at pornography one tries to trace the evolution of fetishes, one can see real changes, and those changes can be linked to shifts in the way we live our daily lives. Fetishizing hair is something that was much more prominent when women and mothers would sit in front of the mirror and do their hundred brushes of their locks every night. Or rubber fetishes, he pointed out, were more prominent when training pants were made of rubber.

Bergner seems to be saying that fetishes, like a lot of sexuality, are social and cultural, rather than some inherent problem — and he doesn't seemingly exempt pedophiles from that definition.

But he is unwilling to exclusively bad experiences as a cause for fetishistic behavior, unlike some of the psychoanalysts he cites in the books:

I also talked to other psychoanalysts who were very reluctant to assign any cause at all to the behavior. I mean, what is perversion? As one analyst in the book describes it, perversion is the sex that you like and I don't. Oral sex was once seen as a perversion.

In other words, he doesn't believe that every dominant or submissive is acting out childhood angst in some Freudian way, which is actually sort of an enlightened view of people with alternative sexualities — whom many people seem to regard as in need of saving from their psychological problems.

He also thinks that part of the desire to ridicule fetishists stems from an internal fear that our own sexuality might be beyond our control.

We're so quick to ridicule and regulate lust, probably because the forces of eros often make us uncomfortable about ourselves. We can handle desire, so long as it's moderated. When lust gets out of control, as in the cases of these public figures, we leap to purge it from our presence. It's as though we're trying purge our own psyches, rid ourselves of our own powerful longings, make sure our own desires don't overtake us.

He also talks a little about what he sees as some of the reasons men get tagged as perverts for certain behaviors and women don't, and vice versa.

You mention that there are very few true female sadists. Why is that?

Well, that's my understanding, and it seems to be true. There are very few women with paraphilias, in general, by which we mean outlying sexualities. But then, is that really true or are they just perceived differently? For instance, men who flash in public get arrested, and women who show their breasts get applauded.

There is also a difficulty outside of the way in which fetishism is perceived, and the way in which women and men are relatively free to express their desires outside of a socially-specified range of "normal." Women are still struggling to define "normal" sexuality as something other than a limited range of partners within a short series of monogamous relationships culminating in marriage without being labeled as "slutty" or "abnormal" — for women with desires even more diverse from some arbitrary social norm, the difficulty in accepting and admitting to one's desires is bound to be exponentially higher.

Sexual Perversity In America [Salon]

Related: What Do Women Want? [New York Times]
The Ways of Some Flesh [Washington Post]

Earlier: What Women Want? To Talk About What Women Want
More Women Talk About What Women Want

Image via goodreads