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Welcome to the Scientific American podcast Science Talk hosted on October 29th, 2013. I’m Steve Mirsky. On this episode—
Jesse Bering: I mean I think an important point here is to define pervert and what we mean when we use that term. It’s a very loaded term now.
Steve Mirsky: And that is scientist and author Jesse Bering. He’s a psychologist and the former Director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queens University Belfast. He now lives and writes in Ithaca in upstate New York where he produced his latest work PERV: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us.
As I said the last time Jesse was on the podcast, the discussion that follows is at times frank, and let’s call it earthy. So if you have sensitive sensibilities just, just turn back now.
Jesse and I spoke at Scientific American.
Okay Jesse –
Jesse Bering: Yes.
Steve Mirsky: Jesse Bering, when are you going to, when are you going to write a book that I can read on the subway again without having to cover the cover?
Jesse Bering: I’m working on it. Yeah, I’m working on it.
Steve Mirsky: This is PERV: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us, and for some reason that for the life of me I cannot figure out, there’s a picture of a sheep on the cover.
Jesse Bering: Yeah. That was, I mean that was the publisher’s idea, but I, I went along with it obviously. I think it’s kind of like a Warshak test in terms of what people see with the sheep on the cover. It’s got multiple meanings. I do talk about zooaphilia, so it’s got that much more explicit meaning of beastiality of course.
But also it’s the sort of innocence, the lamb on the cover too, and a lot of people see that.
Steve Mirsky: That one never even occurred to me.
Jesse Bering: Well that says a lot about you Steve actually.
Steve Mirsky: You know you bring up an interesting point, interesting to me anyway, and I’ve heard, there’s been some discussion of this, but it’s always made me wonder why there wasn’t more concern on the part of the various people who you might think would be concerned about such things, about the interspecies relationships on Star Trek.
I mean technically –
Jesse Bering: Mmmm. That’s beastiality.
Steve Mirsky: That’s beastiality, right.
Jesse Bering: That’s a good point. Yeah. But I mean even in reality in terms of our history, historical relations with Neanderthals and interbreeding with other species, that is technically zooaphilia or beastiality. Maybe not zooaphilia, but it is beastiality in that sense.
Steve Mirsky: Technically, although we’ll cut them slack because they didn’t have –
Jesse Bering: At least they were hominid species.
Steve Mirsky: Exactly.
Jesse Bering: And the Star Trek I’m not entirely sure where they would fit in the taxonomy, but –
Steve Mirsky: Humanoid, I think, but that’s a whole different bit of nonsense.
Jesse Bering: Humanoid. Yeah. Yes, yeah.
Steve Mirsky: Yeah, you talk in the book about your own interesting relationship with images of Neanderthals.
Jesse Bering: Oh right. Yeah. My first experience, yes, was with seeing a nude Neanderthal male that was quite attractive, physically, except for the face really. The face wasn’t too appealing. But in terms of musculature and body morphology it was very human like, and it was arousing to me as a young boy. Yeah.
Steve Mirsky: Now one of the interesting things about this very interesting book is –
Jesse Bering: Oh and I do want to point out that was before the invention of the Internet of course, that I was limited in terms of my ability to find nude males in that, my father’s anthropology textbook that contained an image of a Neanderthal was the only thing I could find.
Steve Mirsky: Right. ‘Cause you had, what did you say in the book, you had copies of Men’s Fitness piling up?
Jesse Bering: I did, yeah. That was a, that was a slight collection of mine, the Men’s Fitness magazines. I thought that my mother would get a hint by that, but she didn’t apparently. It was very homo erotic. There were lots of things in there that really struck a chord with me as an adolescent.
Steve Mirsky: The book discusses –
Jesse Bering: We’re going right into this aren’t we?
Steve Mirsky: Oh yeah. Yeah. To some degree it’s very culturally and temporally dependent what is considered normal and what’s considered a perversion.
Jesse Bering: Well there are cross, major cross cultural differences in terms of sexual deviance and what is considered to be inappropriate or harmful, or offensive, and it does raise a lot of deep meaningful philosophical questions in terms of human sexuality.
If one culture sees something as entirely harmless or normative and another sees it as criminal and antisocial, which society is correct in that sense? Is there an objective criterion for determining what is okay and what is not okay in terms of human sexuality? It raises all sorts of interesting questions philosophically to me in terms of human morality.
And I think that’s why I’ve been a – it’s sort of – for multiple reasons I’m interested in sex, but I think for, for, the biggest reason is because it really sort of taps into these deep constructs of the evolution of morality.
Steve Mirsky: And the moral question now that I think most people who would consider themselves to be very open minded would be is anybody getting hurt?
Jesse Bering: Exactly. Yeah. But even that’s a difficult question. I mean to me I think that we’re spending too much thinking about these questions of what is normal and what is natural, and not enough time thinking about what is harmful.
So I think that we need to move the discussion toward the question of harm, but also do a better job in terms of defining clearly what is harmful, because what’s harmful to one person is not harmful to another person.
If an incredibly beautiful woman came and gave a lap dance to me right now I would probably be traumatized in many ways, but I know that you might not be. A heterosexual male or my straight brother, or my lesbian friends wouldn’t be traumatized by that experience, but I wouldn’t particularly enjoy it and I would find it invasive and not terribly a positive experience.
Steve Mirsky: Right. It’s Kate Upton specifically.
Jesse Bering: Kate Upton, yes, because I would imagine most heterosexual males find her incredibly sexually attractive. I appreciate her aesthetic beauty of course; she’s a knockout, but she’s not sexually arousing to me.
Steve Mirsky: And ironically you know her uncle is a very conservative Republican congressman.
Jesse Bering: I didn’t know. That’s interesting, yeah. So, so what’s harmful to one person is not harmful to another person, and I think that is problematic when we’re thinking about both the sort of clinical diagnosis that involve this issue of harmfulness to another and also the legal system in terms of what is harmful.
Because if you just sort of throw out this question, this issue of harm and just generalize that to everybody, I think that’s, that becomes very, very complicated, again philosophically.
Steve Mirsky: And yet there would seem to be a moral imperative to protect certain individuals from harm who are not in a position to protect themselves.
Jesse Bering: The most vulnerable members of society, obviously. And there are lots of dark issues that I got, that I went to with Perv in terms of sex with animals ____, sex with children, sex with the elderly, sex with individuals that have different types of disabilities. Those are very important issues, and I think that we have to think about them very carefully and understand the nature of the questions that we’re asking at a level that applies to the individuals engaged in these actions, and really be able to identify what is harmful to one person.
So I suppose if I had to put a label on it I would be considered a sexual libertarian in the sense that human sexuality is the business of the individuals involved in the act. And, but we do have a, we do have a moral mission basically to protect people that maybe misjudge their own intentions or what is consensual to them at the time, and then sort of regretting that later.
So, and I completely appreciate the fact that these are really complicated issues. But –
Steve Mirsky: You talk in the book about - since we’re talking about this particular subject maybe we should discuss the case in the book, the one that Dr. Schlessinger on the radio got involved with, that study.
Jesse Bering: Right so. Right, so there were, this was a study that came out in the late 1990s by Bruce Rhind, who is a psychologist who labels himself an expert in intergenerational sexuality. So he’s particularly interested in major sort of gaps in age and maturation between the sexual partners, which includes –
Steve Mirsky: George Clooney and anyone.
Jesse Bering: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, something like that. But also I mean in terms of the more sort of delicatory pedophilia sort of an extreme example. But also adolescents having sex with people that are above the legal age of consent. So you get somebody that’s 16 or 17 having sex with a 20 or, 20 year old or 21 year old, and the extent to which that’s harmful to the younger party that’s involved in the relationship.
Steve Mirsky: Right. We’re not talking about a ten year old and a 30 year old.
Jesse Bering: There’s a big difference between a six year old and a 16 year old.
Steve Mirsky: Right.
Jesse Bering: Or a seven year and a 17 year old that’s having sex with somebody that’s 20 or 21 versus somebody who is 50 or 60 or something like that.
Steve Mirsky: Sure. And as you talk in the book, I mean different countries have wildly different ages of consent.
Jesse Bering: Right. Right.
Steve Mirsky: Chile used to be 20, and now it’s what 16 I think. If forget.
Jesse Bering: I think it’s, yeah, it’s definitely gone – I mean and they go in different dir-, they go both, historically within societies, the age of consent goes, has fluctuated both increasing and decreasing, and they range from, anywhere from 12 to 21.
Steve Mirsky: And at one point one of them was seven I think.
Jesse Bering: Oh the State of Delaware. That was in the United States actually. This was during, this was sort of prior to the Civil War, sort of around that time in the mid, in the mid 19th Century or so.
Steve Mirsky: We would all agree now that that’s nuts.
Jesse Bering: That’s absurd. I mean it’s like it’s mind boggling that any, that Delaware would have a legal age of consent of seven. It’s just, it’s just unconscionable. But, but they did.
So I think with the exceptions of those extreme examples aside, when you’ve got difference and stuff like in some societies it’s 16, in other societies it’s 20 or 21. Who is right? Who is wrong? You realize this sort of arbitrariness of sexual maturation in terms of what is, when in adolescence you’re prepared to engage in sex, in sexual activity with somebody that’s on the other side of the legal line.
So I think it all has to do with the power differential of course, perhaps the degree of the age discrepancy. But you know to me these are interesting questions again because I guess they sort of tap into these philosophical questions. And then a lot of academics are not interested or prepared to go there. They wouldn’t touch these, touch these questions with a ten foot pole.
If you think about, if it’s all a question of sort of mental preparedness and sort of emotional maturity, then why, why is it legal to have sex with somebody with Down’s Syndrome that’s 18, who has the mental abilities of an eight or a nine year old. These are questions that I don’t think that we’re asking. I think that we should probably look at them probably a little bit more closely.
Steve Mirsky: So the Rhine study specifically?
Jesse Bering: Yes. The Rhine study suggested that for adolescence that had with legal adults, and these, again these were not children but these were like I don’t know 16, 17, eight-, 16, 17 year olds that were having sex with people that were in their 20s or something like that. They did not suffer any sort of egregious mental damage or sort of emotional problems as a consequence of that consensual sexual activity with an older partner. And when I say consensual I mean in the psychological sense of that word consensual, not in the legal sense of the word consensual.
Because legally in the United States, of course, you can’t consent to sex unless you’re a certain age. But psychologically consent is not an age bound question, it’s a question of mental willingness essentially. So the big, the big factor in terms of suffering psychological damage long term was the fact that these people did not give consent to having sex with somebody that was a legal adult.
But people that were 16, 17 that were having sex with slightly older partners, but on the other side of the legal line, did not serve long term psychological damage. But Laura Schless-, Laura Schlessinger who you mentioned, with her conservative talk show sort of stumbled upon these findings in the late 1990s, and they were published I should say in Psychological Bulletin I believe, which is the flagship journal of the American Psychological –
Steve Mirsky: Association.
Jesse Bering: - Association, so it was a really good journal. It was vetted by experts and they sort of verified the quality of the research itself. But she found that, she thought that it was sort of a pedophilia sort of apologia, that it’s awful that anybody would suggest that it’s okay essentially or it’s not damaging for older adolescence to have sex with somebody that’s 20 or 21, or something like that.
And it became a scan-, it became a major scandal. It became, Congress found out about it. They basically sort of passed a legislation condemning the research itself saying despite these empirical findings it’s still categorically harmful to have sex with somebody under the age of 18 if you’re, if you’re a legal adult. It doesn’t matter what the science says. If it’s, if they’re under the age of 18 basically, it’s got to be harmful.
And of course no Senator or Congressman would go against the grain and want to be looked at as a pervert in sort of saying oh it’s okay to have sex with somebody that’s 16 or 17. There’s no harm done.
Steve Mirsky: Right. So they’re all just voting on it to get it –
Jesse Bering: Right. It’s a, it became a much more moralistic type of issue rather than a scientific issue.
Steve Mirsky: Right. Although there was one abstention.
Jesse Bering: There was one abstention, and I can’t remember the, I can’t remember his name, but he was actually a politician that had a background in psychology that was able to actually look at the data and interpret it more objectively than this sort of knee jerk emotional reaction.
Steve Mirsky: I, it’s one of the footnotes. I’ll, when you buy the book and read it, you’ll find it.
You know since we’re talking about the politicians right now, this is strictly my personal view, but if you were to ask me who is the biggest pervert in the country –
Jesse Bering: Right now?
Steve Mirsky: Yeah. Right. Right now. Who’s the biggest pervert? You know, I would say Rick Santorum. Now this is a guy who conceives of himself.
Jesse Bering: I think Dan Savage would agree with you.
Steve Mirsky: Yeah, probably. Now Santorum would think Dan Savage is a pervert.
Jesse Bering: Yes, exactly.
Steve Mirsky: But when I see Santorum it seems that he is incredib—, he thinks about sex more than anybody else in the country. He’s based his entire political career on castigating people for having the wrong kind of sex.
Jesse Bering: Right. Right. And I think, yeah, so I think, I mean I think an important point here is to define pervert and what we mean when we use that term. It’s a very loaded term now. But historically the word pervert had nothing to do with human sexuality. It was all about religion. If you were perverted, basically that meant that you were going against the word of God. So an Atheist was a pervert.
And that’s how the word was used for centuries until the sexologists in the late 19th Century, Havelock Ellis in particular, Krafft, Krafft-Ebing, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, another Austrian German psychiatrist started using the word pervert, pervert to refer to people whose sexual orientations, or whose sexual, psycho sexual identity basically went against the normative pattern in terms of the sort of conventional sort of pseudo religious sort of interpretation of sex or reproductive purposes, heterosexual activity.
And so I think when we’re talking about perversion, to me it’s critical to define it in the sense of if we’re going to use this sort of in the covent-, in the way that it was used historically as going against what was right - that was the proper definition – I think that we need to think about perversion in the sense of action or behavior and not just in terms of desires or a psychosexual identity.
Because you can’t, to me you can’t be perverted if you’re just, if you just have a set of thoughts. To me perversion should be limited to antisocial behavior, sexual behavior that causes genuine harm to another. That is a true pervert.
Steve Mirsky: I mean if we went by thoughts we’d all be in prison for murder.
Jesse Bering: If you – absolutely, yeah. And you know I think lots of people if you, if you really sort of unpeeled the layers and looked at people’s sexual desires you’d find a lot really interesting things in terms of what turns people on.
Steve Mirsky: I mean you mentioned Havelock Ellis and you talk about it in the book. Now here’s a guy who publicly is describing what is normal and yet, considers his own rather interesting sexual interest to be perfectly harmless.
Jesse Bering: And it was really. I mean he, he, so Havelock is right.
Steve Mirsky: Yeah, it is harmless, but it’s still, it’s not what everybody would find arousing.
Jesse Bering: So Havelock was a, he was a British sexologist in the late 19th Century, during the Victorian Era actually, and he had a very sort of liberal approach to human sexuality, and he was one of the first to sort of look at sexual deviation from an amoral, not immoral, but from an amoral scientific perspective and really just try to understand it.
He was much more sympathetic to homosexuals than a lot of people at the time. He just saw it as sort of a natural expression of human sexuality, and he was one of the first to look at homosexual behavior in other species, for instance, in other cultures.
But he, he was the one that is most, that most people sort of associate with coining the word pervert as applying it to human sexual deviance. But it’s interesting because he, like you said, he had his own sort of interesting pecophelios in the sense that he, he was attracted to women who were, he was attracted to women who urinated while standing upright. That was really the only thing that could turn him on. He was a urophile. He called the pezzusas. That he, this was the only thing that could cure his impotence basically, was to look at women who were standing up while urinating in the toilet.
And he didn’t see anything wrong with it. He didn’t have any shame associated with it. It was just the thing that he liked, and he thought that lots of men throughout history were attracted to women that were urinating, and he talked about it quite openly.
So it was interesting that the man who coined the word pervert was a urophile and that was the thing that really turned him on.
Steve Mirsky: There’s another fascinating thing in the book about a lot of these insights or gains just by interviewing people, and there’s this guy and he’s, he’s heterosexual, he’s got a kind of regular job, everything seems cookie cutter suburban regular guy about him except it turns out he’s really turned on by the idea of having sex with an amputee.
Jesse Bering: Right. So he was an acrotomophile, this is what an amputee fetish is known as in properly in the paraphilia literature.
Steve Mirsky: And his wife plays along.
Jesse Bering: Well that was an interesting case because he, he, his father was a physician and from his earliest, his earliest sexual memory was basically flipping through the pages of his physician father’s textbook, textbooks and looking at images of attractive women that were completely naked, but they had various amputations. This was his first exposure to a naked woman, basically, and his first memory of being sexually aroused when he was a young child.
When he grew up he went into the Army and I think he served overseas for a while. He, this was I think during World War II, he was looking, he was hiring prostitutes that had amputations, and that was the thing that really turned him on.
When he got back to the states he actually found a woman that had, she had a cancerous tumor or something in one of her legs I think and she had to have an amputation, and he fell in love with her. And he was attracted to her originally because she had this amputative leg, but he also fell in love with her as a person.
She got very upset one day, however, when she found sort of a stash of amputee related porn and, because he had, he had never had this conversation with her about why he found her attractive to begin with, and she was very self-conscious about it.
Steve Mirsky: Right, and she probably she feels objectified.
Jesse Bering: Absolutely. And she, and he was, I think he was an accountant or a lawyer or something like that. Like you said, a very sort of, from all appearances leading a very normal life story.
And he, she made a big deal about it essentially because she felt like he was using her for her weird, for this weird fetish. And he cut off his penis in the end [laughter] because – I shouldn’t be laughing actually. This is a horrible story. But the psychoanalyst sort of looking at this case pitched it in this sort of psychoanalytical interpretation of Freudian analysis of the Oedipal complex and castration anxiety that he looked at these women when he was a child as basically relieving his castration anxiety by, they were martyring their own limbs, so therefore he could save his own penis.
And when his wife took away his only outlet for sexual expression, which was amputation, looking at this pornography or having sex with her, all of a sudden this Oedipal complex sort of re-emerged in his 40s and he cut off his own penis.
So some really complicated psychology going on here. Never ending source of questions and issues.
Steve Mirsky: That’s, that’s ama – I was actually thinking of the other guy who was, during the interviews he realized –
Jesse Bering: Oh that guy?
Steve Mirsky: Yeah.
Jesse Bering: That’s a different story.
Steve Mirsky: That’s a much milder case.
Jesse Bering: Slightly milder. Yeah, so this was a guy that, another amputee fetishist who –
Steve Mirsky: And his wife was not an amputee, but she would make believe –
Jesse Bering: No. She would simulate having an amputation while they were having sex in different ways. And she was, she went along with it, and she was kind of happy to do this for him because this turned him on.
But he didn’t know where this sort of attraction to amputees had come from, but in interviewing him and sort of further reflection about his early childhood experience with women and so on, he remembered being a child about the age of six or seven or so and sitting under a table where the neighbor, an attractive woman, a neighbor was visiting them and she had a cast. And she was having – so he was basically under the table at her feet with, she had this cast on her leg, and she was having a conversation with her husband.
And he said something pretty innocuous like, when is it coming off. And he, of course, the husband was referring to the cast, but he interp-, the child interpreted this as the leg.
Steve Mirsky: The entire leg.
Jesse Bering: Yeah. And somehow this became eroticized to him because it was like sort of the smell of the cast and the fact that her leg coming off – again, this is Freudian interpretation that somehow this relieved his castration anxiety. And from that point forward he had this intense desire for women that had amputated legs.
Steve Mirsky: Right. And this case ends more happily.
Jesse Bering: Well he married a woman that didn’t have an amputation but she, like we said she was happy to kind of play the role of having the amputation in bed.
Steve Mirsky: Right. Nobody cuts anything off.
Jesse Bering: No. No. No severed penis in this case.
Steve Mirsky: Makes me think – I don’t think it’s in your book, but a few years ago a lot of press in the city here, the coach of the football team, the New York Jets, it came out that he, he’s a foot fetish guy. And this was a big story, but only for like two days because he was having these oh text messages, I don’t remember what it was, but it’s all with his own wife.
And I think because – this is my theory – because he’s engaging in this somewhat out of the ordinary activity, but with his own wife, it wasn’t lascivious enough to really capture the public’s attention.
Jesse Bering: Right. But it was enough to – and I think it’s awful actually that it would be made, it would be scandalized in some sense, that this is something to make fun of or it was shocking because, I mean can you think of anything more harmless than having a foot fetish. I mean it’s podophilia in that sense of having an attraction to somebody’s feet.
I mean who cares? I mean it seems, I think it’s shameful for us as a society that we would make an issue of something as completely harmless as that, especially between somebody in his own personal life with his wife.
Steve Mirsky: Right. Well that’s the key. I mean I think had he been having relationships –
Jesse Bering: With a goat or something.
Steve Mirsky: Well yeah, certainly with cloven hooves.
Jesse Bering: Yes.
Steve Mirsky: But with, let’s say with a dozen women around the country every time the Jets would fly to another city he had somebody there, then it might have been a two week story. But because it’s just so he’s texting his wife, who cares? It’s a two day story.
Jesse Bering: Yeah. We’re, I mean I think that the public, I mean we’re the bad guys in that scenario. We’re not the good guys.
Steve Mirsky: Right. Yeah, because we’re the voyeurs.
Jesse Bering: Absolutely. Yeah. He has nothing to be ashamed of. I think we have much more to be ashamed about the fact that we are making a bigger issue about this than it deserves.
And like I say in the book, we, and the subtitle of the book is We Are All Sexual Deviants. And I think that’s true. If you, if you really get inside people’s heads deeply enough, or look at their Internet browsers or something like that, or look at whatever physiologically arouses them at some point in their history, their autobiography, you’ll find something that’s quite interesting, that’s deviant from the normative.
Steve Mirsky: Give me an example of something that maybe people would think of as completely innocuous that would still be considered – I mean like the foot fetish one of them.
Jesse Bering: Well one of the example that I give in the book is the, a case of Czechoslovakian identical twins. These are, these are gay, these are gay males that are in their early 20s and they are porn actors basically, and they’re known for having really explicit Triple X rated sex on film with each other. They’re having full blown anal intercourse.
And the knee jerk reaction to that is that’s just wrong. That’s just obviously wrong. It’s disgusting. How can siblings have sex like that. But if you force people to really sort of articulate why it’s wrong, they really run into a mental block in terms of explaining why it’s wrong. There’s actually a psychological term for this. It’s called moral dumbfounding. It feels wrong. At a gut level it feels, it’s aversive to us and its gross, but we can’t really explain why it’s morally wrong.
And in this case there’s no threat obviously of any sort of genetic defects of impregnation as the consequence of having sex. They’re both consenting adults. They both are happy and completely romantically inclined toward one another. In fact, outside of the porn studio they consider themselves to be romantic partners. They’re each other’s lives basically and they’ve dated each other. They see each other as being their spouses, and they don’t have a problem with it. Society has a problem with it.
But if you force people to really explain why it’s wrong, people struggle with that.
Steve Mirsky: Right. You get the response, well it’s just obviously wrong.
Jesse Bering: It’s just obviously wrong, yeah. But if you, if you strip away all the, if you’re really sort of scientifically oriented and scientifically minded and you take away all the religious components associated with sexual deviancy, it becomes really hard to explain why we have a problem with it. Something like that. So that would be one example I suppose.
But another example would be - I give the case of - and this was actually based on a study where they, looking at this question of moral dumbfounding and asking people to explain why they think something that feels intuitively or at a gut level to be wrong is wrong, and this is necrophilia, a necrophilia club where people like having sex with corpses. But they only have sex with the corpses of members, of fellow members.
So once somebody in the necrophilia club dies, then the other members, or a particular person in that group will have sex with the corpse of the former member. And they, they preemptively eliminate any possible cause for moral concern.
So the person having sex with the dead body is wearing a condom. The person who is having sex with the dead person is, doesn’t have any problems with their own sexuality, so they’re experiencing not personal distress from being a necrophile.
The family members are either perfectly accepting of the necrophilia of the person that’s died, or they don’t have any family members. So they eliminate every possible sort of counter criticism for why it would be wrong. And yet when people are asked what do you think of this, is it wrong? Well it’s wrong. It’s definitely wrong, but I can’t really explain why.
Steve Mirsky: See now let’s say you have a thing for redheads, don’t you feel much better?
Jesse Bering: Right. Yeah.
Steve Mirsky: Right. It’s just what could be more –
Jesse Bering: Dead redheads are different ____.
Steve Mirsky: Right. Exactly. Live, well that’s the old line about politicians.
Jesse Bering: Oh yeah.
Steve Mirsky: Right. They’ll win unless they’re – well this was when all politicians were male. They’ll win the election unless they’re found with a live boy or a dead girl.
Jesse Bering: Dead girl. Yeah. I remember that one. That’s certainly true. Or a goat in bed or something. A sheep, like the cover of my book.
Steve Mirsky: Oh that’s a fascinating study actually. In the book you talk about the sheep and goat babies who are raised by the other species’ parents and what happens.
Jesse Bering: Cross rearing, right. Right. So one of the major hurdles with sexual, with researching sexual deviancy is the fact that you can’t really do controlled experiments because it’s completely unethical obviously and you can’t take a –
Steve Mirsky: With humans, yeah.
Jesse Bering: With human beings you can’t take a perfectly healthy group of infant children and like expose them to one set of conditions and a control group and expose them to another set of conditions, and wait for 18 years and see who grows up to be sexually deviant or a pervert.
But you can do that with animals in some cases, and you had to look at sort of the development of sexuality in other species.
And this particular study that you’re mentioning involves baby sheep and baby goats, and at birth they were switched so that they were raised by the opposite species. And what, what the researchers found essentially was that the male sheep and goats, these ungulates, grew up to only be sexually aroused by the adoptive species of the opposite sex. So the baby goats were, grew up to be, the baby male goats grew up to be adult males that could only get aroused by sheep. And the baby sheep, the baby male sheep would only grow up to be aroused by the female goats.
Steve Mirsky: But the females.
Jesse Bering: But the females would go both ways. The females would be sexually aroused by either the sheep or the goats. So it didn’t matter who they were raised by or their developmental experiences. They were basically sort of impervious to the developmental experiences, even if they were completely identical to the males.
So what that suggests, at least in those species, is the fact that there’s much more sexual fluidity with female sexuality than there is for male sexuality. Males seem to be much more influenced by their early developmental experiences in terms of what they become locked into, or the sort of circumscribed nature of their sexual arousal, which is why presumably with human beings at least, if you generalized this across species anyway, the paraphilias are a much more male centered phenomenon than it is a female centered phenomenon.
I mean the DMS 5 if you look at all the paraphilias, sexual paraphilias, this is an overwhelmingly male psychiatric condition.
Steve Mirsky: Straight or gay?
Jesse Bering: Straight or gay. Yeah, absolutely.
Steve Mirsky: Let’s talk just a little bit, because it’s so fascinating about, I forget the technical term, people who are in love with devices or objects like –
Jesse Bering: The objectiphiles. Yeah.
Steve Mirsky: The objective Eiffel Tower or your iPhone.
Jesse Bering: Right. So it’s easy to, it’s easy to confuse those people with fetishes, to people who have like a panty fetish or something like that. But the difference is that somebody with a fetish, like a sort of your conventional sort of round the mill panty fetishes, they are attracted to the category of panties in the sense that they have made phys-, the panties have made physical contact with an attractive person that they find sexually appealing.
So somebody with a panty fetish isn’t going to go to Victoria Secret and purchase a pair of panties and masturbate to a completely new pair of panties. They want a pair of panties that have been worn by a woman that they find to be sexually attractive.
So that’s very different from the objectophiles, which you are talking about. The objectiphiles are people who are aroused by a particular object, not a category of objects. So they’re aroused by this set of panties whether it’s new or used, not panties as a whole because they detect a personality basically, including a sexual personality in the object.
Steve Mirsky: Well let’s get away from panties because when you think of panties you think of a human body.
Jesse Bering: A traditional, yeah.
Steve Mirsky: Let’s talk about –
Jesse Bering: Yeah, so the objectiphiles are attracted to like tables, or chairs, or ladders, or flags, or the Eiffel Tower. And it is the particular object that they find to be sexually attractive and having a romantic relationship with this object. And they find, they see it as a reciprocal romantic relationship. They view the object as having sexual feelings for them as well.
So Erica Eiffel is probably the best known example of an objectophile. This is a woman that she married the Eiffel Tower. She adopted the last name, and I think they’ve since gotten divorced, but I’m not entirely sure about that. And she was technically, she was bisexual in the sense that she viewed the Eiffel Tower as being a woman, or being female, not a woman, but having a female essence.
But she’d always had relationships with the Golden Gate Bridge, I believe, in San Francisco, and that was a male to her.
And she, so she went both ways in that sense of being bisexual objectiphile.
Steve Mirsky: There’s a great storyline in I think it’s the show Boston Legal where one of the lawyers is trying to have a relationship with a woman, it’s a male lawyer and a woman who has a thing for some new electronic gadget that she’s bought. I forget what exactly it is.
Jesse Bering: Not just a vibrator?
Steve Mirsky: No. Oh no it’s like a smartphone or a clock radio. I forget. And it’s, they can’t really make it work at first anyway. They might give it a try later. I forget. I haven’t, I was not a religious watcher of that program. But it gets in the way of their relationship because she’s got this thing with this thing.
Jesse Bering: Hmm. Yeah. I mean I suppose, I don’t if she would be sort of certifiably diagnosed as an objectiphile but that’s – I mean but these people can have, they can have sex with other human beings as well. It’s just that their primary arousal response is to objects.
And one of the actually interesting findings it seems with the case studies at least is that it, they seem to be, many of the objectiphiles seem to be on the autistic spectrum, or have Asperger’s Syndrome. And some of them sort of in relation to that have what’s called a personality synesthesia where in a more traditional sort of synesthesia you find people that see colors when they look at letters or something like that and get that sort of interesting sort of merging of sensory stimulation.
But for people that have this personality synesthesia they basically see personalities in objects or they confuse sort of the human spectrum with the object spectrum. The animate with the inanimate spectrum. And this, sort of this merging of the two categories.
Steve Mirsky: Fascinating stuff. The book is PERV. Read it and find out just how boring you really are probably, or maybe find out that you, you have some things that you always considered to be completely innocuous that the rest of the world might not.
Jesse Bering: I hope so. Everybody’s got a bit of a sexual deviant in them.
Steve Mirsky: Jesse Bering’s book PERV: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us is available through that free Audible.com audio book offer I told you about at the beginning of the podcast. Just go to www.audible.com/sciam and go to Jesse’ Web site, Jessebering.com to see Jesse’s recent appearance on the Conan O’Brien Show. It was the funny.
And that’s it for this episode. Get your science news at our Web site www.scientificamerican.com and check out the collection of Scientific American eBooks just $3.99 each available for Kindle, the endangered Nook, and the iBook thingamajig. You can find them by going to our Web site, then clicking on Products on the right near the top. And then on Scientific American eBooks. The latest eBook just came out. It’s called, The Changing Face of War.
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