The future of perversion


The task of understanding sexual deviance, and those forms of it referred to as “perversion”, is twofold. First, we must attempt to understand why and under what conditions certain behaviors are proscribed. Second, there must be an understanding of the motivation that encourages individuals to engage in or identify with such behaviors. These two levels of concern are related, but rarely in ways that are either simple or direct.

Attempts at answering these two questions are often the meeting point of naive functionalisms, psychobiologisms, or mechanistic behaviorisms. Functionalist and psychobiological perspectives tend to assume that the reproductive consequences of heterosexual intercourse are the manifestation of evolved drives associated with species survival (Symons 1979). When confronted with the reality of sexual practices that have little or no direct relation to reproduction, these approaches attempt to locate the specific experiences of individuals that alter or divert this essential, phylogenetic predisposition. This is consistent with the nineteenth-century conception of perversion as a pathology of sexual appetites that alter nature’s initial intent (Stoller 1975; Kaplan 1986).

My own view, in contrast, rests comfortably within social constructionist perspectives, where considerations of sexual behaviors, like most other behaviors, must be viewed in terms of their origins within the sociohistorical process and their derivation of legitimacy from the cultural practices of their time and place. This constructionist perspective views the emergence of def initions of sexual normality and deviance within the context of the evolving discursive practices of social life. Correspondingly, constructionists view individual motivation not as the adaptations of unchanging human organisms to changing circumstances, but as occasioning fundamental changes in the capacity of individuals to experience and act upon sexual desires (Foucault 1978; Simon and Gagnon 1986; Irvine 1990).

Sexual deviance also presents embarrassing problems for social constructionists who, like adherents to all other social learning approaches, are often embarrassed by the appearance of sexual behaviors that persistently

violate powerfully held social expectations. The failure of “oversocialized” conceptions of human behavior, those that see the individual as merely being “stuffed” with cultural meanings, is not that they fail to deal with the imperatives and varieties of biological requirements. This is the position taken by Wrong (1961). Wrong’s position continues the legacy of the Romantic Tradition in its unexamined acceptance of an inevitable, fundamental and tragically unresolvable conflict between the individual as a creature of “nature” and the individual as critically dependent upon social life. In part, the inability of social orders to produce universal conformity may lie in their inability to consistently chart character-shaping adaptations at the individual level, where practices of individuation in social life and variations in genetic endowment, under all circumstances, have a potential for generating deviance. This is present in conditions of anomie where the issues of the fairness of collective justice must compete, often on less than equal terms, with the issues of the fairness of what is experienced as personal justice (Durkheim 1893).

The embarrassments of having substantial numbers of persons display effective resistance to powerfully held social norms need not only be explained by approaches that locate the origins of deviance or perversion in hormonal variations or the direct consequences of infant/child experiences that are remote to societal influence. Rather, it is possible to view such outcomes as derivative of numerous developmental contingencies that, at many points of development, could have produced a markedly different outcome. The profoundly contingent nature of human development is clearly reflected at all levels of that development, physical and psychological. As Luria observed with reference to biological evolution:

What exists is the almost accidental product of a purposeless historical process. A given visual system or a given device for gene regulation is but an exceptional sample of all visual systems or gene regulatory devices that could have come into being…. The organisms that actually exist are like a group of islands that are but the peaks of a submerged mountain chain. The species and organ systems that we currently see are the adaptive peaks of an ever changing profile. It is the diversity and uniqueness of biological types and devices that make them phenomenologically significant.

(Luria 1975:359)

The same note of contingency describing all biological life forms that occur over time, as against those that are designed, must apply to the species of human being to a degree unmatched by any other species. Moreover, with increased population size and diversity of experiences, what were once inconsequential differences at the level of the individual become significant determinants of behaviors and patterns of behavior.

While sensitive to the factors that might differentiate the deviant from the non­deviant, this constructionist approach requires that individual differences be understood in the context of what is inevitably a greater abundance of common endowments and shared experiences. A common source of misapprehension is the tendency to seek a singular origin or cause for seemingly uniform outcomes. Another equally influential source of misapprehension is the questionable assumption that what are viewed as dramatic effects must require equally dramatic causes. It is also important to acknowledge the possibility that relatively small differences might account for the display of both conforming and deviant sexual behavior. The “normal” or “typical” sexual deviant may be as rare a phenomenon as the “normal” or “typical” sexual conformist.