When I met with psychologist and author Jesse Bering in October 2013, I asked him when he intended to write a book that I could read on the subway without the cover bringing me unwanted attention. The title of Bering's 2012 book—Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?—was bad enough, even though it offered up fascinating insights into the evolution of anatomy. But that was nothing compared with the pitchforks-and-torches looks from people who spied me perusing his more recent work, Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us. Bering's response to my entreaty was, “I'm working on it.” I'll believe it when I see it. [Editors' note: Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux publishes Bering's books.]
In addition to the eye-catching verbiage, the cover of Perv features a picture of a sheep. “That was the publisher's idea,” Bering told me. “I went along with it, obviously. I think it's kind of like a Rorschach test in terms of what people see with the sheep on the cover. It's got multiple meanings. I do talk about zoophilia in the book, so it has that much more explicit meaning of bestiality, of course. But also, the lamb represents innocence. A lot of people see that.”
I confessed that the connection to innocence never occurred to me. “Well, that says a lot about you, actually,” he joked. At least, I assume he was joking. I mean, I like a nice wool jacket, but that's as far as it goes.
Bering was kind enough to dedicate Perv to me. And to you. And, well, to any reader brave enough to crack the binding. (Still talking about the book here.) The dedication reads, “For you, you pervert, you.” That notion would have been even more accurate in 1948, when Alfred Kinsey published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. In Perv, Bering notes that Kinsey's research revealed that “75 percent of adult American males were technically ‘sex deviants’ according to the mental health criteria at the time.”
If the vast majority of guys were thus abnormal, what's normal? We all have our little peccadilloes, which may include things that sound like various parts of the word “peccadilloes.” “One person's lewd exorbitance,” Bering writes, “is another's slow Monday morning.” Indeed, the book is tumescent with the expected exorbitances: foot fetishists, amputee adorers, Lycra lovers and S&Mers (who aren't just fans of my initials) will all find themselves dissected (nonnecrophilously) within Perv's pages.
The book's surprises, to my innocent self anyway, come in discussions of people who develop strong attachments to nonliving things. You might think you love your old Dodge Ram (no relation to the sheep on the cover), but what you and your pickup share is a pale imitation of the true, deep and abiding intimacy experienced by objectophiles.
Don't assume that the objectophile's love for that new iPhone feels sadly but necessarily unrequited, either. Bering notes that such people may have a neurological condition called object personification synesthesia, “which causes them to perceive personalities and emotions, including sexual desires, in inanimate objects.” Before you borrow that smartphone, you might want to ask where it's been.
Objectophilia extends beyond mere consumer products. Bering tells the story of a Swedish woman who in 1979 married the Berlin Wall. “Today she considers herself a widow,” Bering writes. Although I bet she'd admit that trying to have a meaningful conversation with her beloved was like talking to a husband.
Then there's the case of the American woman who goes by the name Erika Eiffel because she (to her satisfaction) consummated a relationship with the towering Paris landmark. It's her second structural situation: she was previously involved with the Golden Gate Bridge. That affair no doubt took a toll.