Jesse Bering’s latest book is very ambitious, attempting to cover nearly the entire gamut of sexual orientations and paraphilias known to science. But this is not a text book. It is written in a conversational style that at times (unfortunately) uses modern pop culture references that date the book even as it reaches the book stores. At its heart, this book is a plea for understanding and tolerance for sexual minorities and paraphiliacs. The title promises to show that we are all “deviants” of one sort or another, but ultimately fails, as he attempts to draw upon misguided ideas from our pre-scientific and sexually prudish past as his evidence. As he delves into modern sexology, it becomes clear that most people are really quite boringly vanilla. Oh… but those wonderfully “perverted” erotic outliers that he describes make the book worth the read.
Reading the book was like ‘homecoming week’, as Bering references and mentions many of my favorite (and not-so-favorite*) sexologists: Anne Lawrence, Michael Bailey, Ray Blanchard, Meredith Chivers, Milton Diamond, James Cantor, Kurt Fruend, Richard Green, Ken Zucker, *John Money, and *Charles Moser.
Given that Bering attempts to cover the full range of modern research into sexual orientation and the paraphilias for a wider lay readership, his text necessarily skips along the surface, never dipping too deeply, like a stone skipping over the surface of a pond. I found the book fun to read, but often wished it went deeper into each of the subjects. But then, this book wasn’t really written for me, though there were a few hints of deeper import.
One of those deeper ideas, was a restrained, yet clearly scathing underneath, criticism of the trend in modern psychiatry to evaluate the paraphilias based on its supposed “normality” or lack of it. Digging deeper, he criticizes Wakefield’s ideas of dysfunction and pathology based on evolutionary selected function. (My reader may recall this from my essay on Anne Lawrence’s exposition on why autogynephilia was such a dysfunction.) Instead, Bering would see an evaluation of paraphilias, especially by our larger culture, based on a metric of harmfulness. (Here, I totally agree… as I already touched upon in the essay I referenced above.)
In keeping with his plea for understanding, in the hopes of generating tolerance in his readers, Bering touches upon the nature of intolerance, how we find sexual interests that don’t match our own to be “disgusting” and why that comes about. The book would be worth reading for this alone. I have to admit, I thought I was inured to just about every paraphilia out there… but Bering managed to squig even me.
No book so broadly covering sexual orientation minorities and paraphilias would be complete without covering transsexual and transgender experience and the research concerning them. Gratifyingly for me, he gets it (mostly) right. Bering takes note of the two types of MTF transsexuals and their relative percentages in different cultures, “There’s one big difference between male-to-female (MTF) and female-to-male (FTM) transsexuals, however, and this is the fact that whereas the vast majority (around 75% in the West) of the former are “heterosexual,” nearly all of the latter are “homosexual”, referencing Anne Lawrence’s research in a footnote.
Bering also takes note of the other differences between the two, briefly discussing the two types of MTF transwomen and the controversy surrounding Blanchard’s research and Bailey’s book, “The Man Who Would Be Queen”.
Here’s where that considerable conflict I spoke of earlier rears its ugly head (and really, it’s all gotten quite brutal, complete with harassment and social-media wars between the opposing theoretical camps). Whereas it’s clear enough to most researchers that homosexual transsexuals aren’t erotically motivated to permanently transform themselves into women (or men, in the case of FTM individuals) but simply want to rid themselves of the horrible gender dysphoria that has gnawed at them their entire lives (more often than not, these are individuals who’ve lived as very effeminate males or very masculine females since their early childhoods), some prominent sexologists believe that it’s a different story altogether for heterosexual MTF transsexuals (who tend not to have as many stereotypically “effeminate” characteristics as their homosexual MTF cohorts). Thus, although it’s often misunderstood, the controversial theory that I’m about to describe applies only to one specific subcategory of transgender individuals: those born as biological males, who have a female gender, and who’ve only ever been attracted to females.
The controversy over the “real” motivations of these biological males who are attracted to women dates back to 1989, when the psychologist Ray Blanchard postulated the existence of a paraphilia involving “a male’s propensity to be aroused by the thought of himself as a female.” He called this “autogynephilia.” To Blanchard and others, heterosexual MTF transsexuals want to become women not so much to relieve their gender dysphoria as to actually incarnate their erotic target. … But Blanchard didn’t just pull his autogynephilic theory out of thin air. … In any event, if Blanchard is correct, then autogynephilia is basically a more pronounced form of transvestism; it’s not the clothes alone that arouse such men but the entire character and essence of the woman they seek to bring to life. … Blanchard’s theory of autogynephilia is one of the most battle scarred in all of modern sex research. … But valid or not, the very idea of autogynephilia is about as benign a paraphilia as I can possibly think of. (Essentially, one is aroused by oneself as an idealized member of the opposite sex.) Whether their “real” motives are erotic or the result of gender dysphoria, the personal distress so often experienced by any transsexual is the result of living a life ensconced as a harmless minority among an intolerant majority.
Thus, Bering makes it clear that the science has shown that HSTS, both MTF and FtM, clearly do not have (directly) erotic motives to transition, and expounds on how autogynephilia paraphilically motivates non-HSTS MTF transsexuals, but makes it abundantly clear that all transsexuals are deserving of respect and tolerance. Importantly, it is in the footnotes that we see Bering supporting the theory, as printed on the bottom of page 163:
In her memoir, “Mirror Image – The Odyssey of a Male-to-Female Transsexual” (… 1978), the now-adult MTF Nancy Hunt describes her adolescent feelings as a boy in this way: “I was feverishly interested in girls. I studied their hair, their clothes, their figures… brood[ing] about the differences between us. I seethed with envy while at the same time becoming sexually aroused – I wanted to possess them as I wanted to become them. In my night-time fantasies, as I masturbated or floated towards, sleep, I combined compulsions, dreaming of sex but with myself as the girl” (60). And in her rather deliberately titled book, Men Trapped in Men’s Bodies: Narratives of Autogynephilic Transsexualism (… 2013), the self-described autogynephilic transsexual therapist Anne Lawrence provides many similar anonymous accounts of an underlying erotic motivation as shared by her heterosexual MTF patients.
I would recommend PERV for my readers, to gain a broader perspective on paraphilias.