Sexual perversity in America

Author Daniel Bergner talks about extreme erotic behavior and why we have more in common with sadists and fetishists than we might like to believe.

Published January 27, 2009 11:23AM (EST)

A Wall Street retiree wearing a red latex bodysuit and a black hood is strapped to a table while electric shocks surge into his penis. Talking to Daniel Bergner in his new book, "The Other Side of Desire," the man compares his masochistic ecstasy to having onion skins stripped off his psyche.

"Is this a weird way to deal with life?" he asks Bergner at one point. "Consider the man who bought Mark McGwire's seventieth home-run ball for three million dollars. Who's weirder?"

In a series of four stories, Bergner grants us entree into dark worlds of extreme lust and longing: there is the foot fetishist wracked by shame, the dominatrix so turned on by inflicting pain on others that she once roasted a man on a spit, and the stepfather capsized by lust for his 12-year-old stepdaughter. There is even a love story involving amputee fetish. But what's remarkable about Bergner's book is not the way these tales shock or confound or titillate (though they do those things sometimes), but how sympathetic their plights and hungers become. Bergner, whose previous books include "God of the Rodeo," about convicts in Louisiana's Angola prison, is a keen storyteller but above all a humane one, and in his hands, these characters do not seem like freaks so much as shadows of ourselves.

A New York Times Magazine staff writer, Bergner spent four years compiling "The Other Side of Desire," delving into vast psychiatric research and fascinating anthropological studies along the way -- from a tribe in Papua New Guinea that instructs young boys to fill themselves with semen by performing blow jobs on male teens to recent eye-opening research on female desire, all of which he weaves throughout the narratives. (The latter topic was the subject of Bergner's recent Times magazine cover story, "What Do Women Want?") Struggling to find answers among an ocean of conflicting data and evidence, the sex therapists become as much a focus of the book as the afflicted. They remind us of the frustrating imperfection of science as we try to unlock the riddle at the core of these tales: How is our sexuality created, and why do we want what we want?

Salon spoke with Bergner on the phone from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The first character we meet is a foot fetishist. Can you tell us about him?

Jacob is an Everyman in a sense: this devoted father, successful businessman. But he has, from a very young age, been powerfully attracted to women's feet. He lives in a northern city, and when the weatherman talks about "feet of snow" it can drive him mad with desire. He's got a great relationship with his wife, but he's too ashamed to tell her. He doesn't want her to be tainted by it.

And one of the questions becomes, where does this foot fetish come from? What are the theories?

The debate breaks down, to be a little simplistic, between forces of nature and forces of nurture. The doctor he seeks out, a compassionate psychiatrist named Dr. Berlin, puts the emphasis on the purely biological. At the other end of the spectrum are psychologists who put much more stress on our experience. One psychologist thought -- well, Jacob had severe reading disabilities as a little boy. Being called on in the classroom, looking down at the exact moment when he felt anxiety, when he felt such an intense charge, might have resulted in the eroticization of the objects he saw. That might sound far-fetched, but I do think there's something to the idea that experience plays a significant role in how we become who we are sexually.

And why are feet a common fetish?

There are all kinds of theories. One is that they are very rich in smell, and smell plays such a big part biologically in terms of our animal ancestry and our sexuality.

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.

One of the most poignant things about Jacob is how alone he feels. You would think one of the things the Internet would provide would be a brotherhood of people who feel the same way.

There were times with Jacob, especially toward the end, when I did step out of my journalistic role and say, "What would happen if you brought this up to your wife? Are you really so alone -- don't you realize there are other people out there?" And he just couldn't hear it. The shame was so strong. That might be hard for people to understand, because foot fetishes sound so benign, even comical. But I think what has to be understood is that, for all of us, sex is this shame-prone realm. If you think about being very different in that realm it might help explain why he insists on secrecy and can't even find solace in the fact that, yes, the Internet would suggest there are plenty of people not unlike him.

Do you see that potent shame as being something that is particularly American?

The anthropologist Margaret Mead would tell us that other cultures have a far different attitude toward lust. Mead was probably partly right, but my guess is that the private place of eros within us, no matter the culture we live in, is prone to shame, because eros is a force that cultures all over the world regard with some degree of fear and attempt to constrain.

In reading his story, and a lot of these stories, I kept thinking of political falls from grace -- Eliot Spitzer, Larry Craig, Mark Foley. In each of their scandals, there was such a potent mix of denial, shame, lust. How did working on this book inform how you saw those scandals?

Though of course there was plenty of humor in the predicaments of these politicians -- who can forget Spitzer's socks? -- and plenty to worry about with Foley, there was also plenty to sympathize with. 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.

On the opposite end of the shame spectrum is the story in your book about a dominatrix known as the Baroness, who is not the least bit embarrassed about her desires.

I do see her as a counter to Jacob. Where he is consumed by shame and self-loathing she completely embraces her erotic self, to the point where she's evangelical about the S/M world. She was a rare glimpse at someone who becomes orgasmic through inflicting pain. There are plenty of paid dominatrixes out there, but only a few who are getting that level of direct sexual charge from their work. And then to watch the people who came to her was fascinating, because what they were after seemed very much universal -- that is, having sex take them to deep places within themselves.

I found myself so curious about how the Baroness became this way. One psychoanalyst you spoke with talked about how sadism and masochism might be brought about by some "lack of parental bond, some wounding absence or brutality." Did you think that was that case?

I don't know. 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.

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.

If it's true, one of the theories is that men's sexuality is more visually driven and therefore more prone to misdirection. Women's sexuality is more emotionally driven, less prone to aberrant directions. But there are a lot of unknowns. This is complex terrain, and there's still so much that's unexplained and maybe inexplicable.

The third character is someone who gets in trouble for giving in to his overwhelming desires. Tell us about Roy.

Roy was arrested and pled guilty to fondling his 12-year-old stepdaughter and making some very explicit propositions over the Internet to her. His story was disturbing to me in all kinds of ways, not the least of which is that, during the time I was spending with Roy, my daughter was the very same age as Roy's victim. There were parts of Roy's personality that made me distrustful of him. For a long time he added a year or two to his victim's age to make it sound less horrific. On the other hand, he was desperately wanting to understand what had happened, how far he was from other men, why he had lost control. It was this fascinating glimpse inside a man for whom sexual urges got way beyond control.

One of the things that makes Roy's case so interesting is that he falls in this blurry area on the continuum. When he's given tests intended to uncover and mark his sexual preferences, he shows a desire for 15- to 16-year-old girls slightly more than for adult women -- according to therapists who work with sex offenders, if that's outside the norm, it's barely so. It was a real indication that the psychological boundaries are a lot less clear than we'd like to think. All the people in the profession expressed that to me. We all want there to be a clear line, and there just isn't.

Somebody from his office even says, "Everybody has these thoughts. The only thing that separates him from you and me is we didn't act on those thoughts."

And his boss takes him back, despite the arrest, despite the articles in the local paper. He thinks there's something's fundamentally good about him.

His story really brings up the way in which we're mixed up about desire and young women. On one hand, we're very protective of them. On the other hand, there are, say, American Apparel ads.

The American Apparel ads -- even after I spent a year and a half with Roy's treatment group, the American Apparel ads still stun me in their brazenness, their direct appeal through the sexualizing of young women. They are an emblem of this schism in our society. In one way we blatantly eroticize young women -- girls, really -- and then we flee from that eroticizing, we condemn it, and we act as though we've been clear all along.

After spending so much time with a male pedophilia group, what did you think about the treatment they received?

The men in Roy's group were receiving thoughtful care. Since finishing the book I've checked in now and then on Roy's progress, and so far as I know, he hasn't reoffended. Do treatment groups like his work with all sexual abusers of children? No. Do the other methods, like aversive conditioning or psychoanalysis? They're surely no more effective. But a significant percentage of these men can be helped. Very few, if any, are monsters. You know, I began my reporting of that story by contacting a prominent victim's advocate. She would repeat what I just said even more emphatically: They are not monsters. In fact, she would say, they are us. Not that we all would do what Roy did, but that such urges lie within us.

The last story in the book is about amputee fetish, one of the more baffling fetishes. How do you explain it?

I wouldn't dare explain it. [laughs] There's so little research about it and what there is seems very conflicted. But there was so much to me that was fascinating about it, and about the questions it raises.

Like what?

Well, let's look at it through the perspective of Laura. She's a beautiful young woman, but she's in a horrific car accident and loses both her legs. For a long while, her life seems to her completely over. She would rather be dead. She thought of her beauty as what she had. She sees herself as utterly destroyed.

When she first finds out that there are men drawn to amputees, she's wary, but she's also wondering why she hasn't been told about this by any of her surgeons or therapists. Eventually she marries Ron [a photographer powerfully drawn to women without legs] and she feels ultimately incredibly lucky to have met him, but there are moments still -- and these were some of the most painful moments of our discussions -- when she would confess that there would be times she felt like less of a woman. She wondered if she could attract a "normal" man. She knows she shouldn't think that way and knows that desire is subjective and tells herself that being drawn to a woman without legs is no different than being drawn to a woman with large or small breasts, and yet she can't fully think her way past that, and she sometimes feels diminished.

But there is something incredibly sweet about their finding each other. With her as his muse, he leaves his career in advertising and becomes an art photographer. And with his support, she goes back to college and graduate school and now counsels the mentally ill. They have a complete relationship, intensely physical and loving, both. And it reminds me of how mysterious attraction can be -- how you can have something about yourself that feels so painful, and yet you might be able to find someone who not only doesn't mind that but is actually attracted by it. It's beautiful that you could find the person who fits you like that.

By Sarah Hepola

Sarah Hepola is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, "Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget."

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