PROBLEMATIC SEXUAL BEHAVIOR
History knows of some human cultures which accepted nearly all forms of sexual behavior as divinely inspired and therefore natural. These cultures were not necessarily liberal or permissive in the modern sense, but they had room for many different erotic tastes. Individuals were usually left alone to pursue their personal sexual interests and were punished only when they violated the rights of others.
However, our own Judeo-Christian culture is built on quite another tradition. The ancient Israelites as well as the early and medieval Christians believed that the only natural purpose of sex was procreation, and therefore they were extremely intolerant of any nonprocreative sexual activity. For example, the Bible reports that in Israel male homosexual intercourse and sexual contact with animals were punished by death, a custom which survived for more than a thousand years in Christian Europe. Even today, many states in the United States continue to treat these harmless behaviors as crimes.
The traditional Christian doctrine was summarized in the 13th century by the theologian Thomas Aquinas who declared that God allowed sexual intercourse only
• for the right purpose (i.e., procreation),
• with the right person (i.e., the marriage partner), and
• in the right way (i.e., by means of coitus).
Any sexual activity that did not meet this triple standard was "unnatural" and sinful.
In modern times, when the church lost much of its influence to the state, theologians were replaced by psychiatrists as the new experts on sexual behavior, but the old doctrine persisted. It was merely translated from religious into medical language. What once had been called unnatural was now described as unhealthy, and sin became sickness. In the 19th century, psychiatrists introduced the concept of "sexual psychopathology" (i.e., sexual sickness of the mind) and began to speak of sexual "deviations", "aberrations", and "perversions".
Obviously, the terms "deviation", "aberration", and "perversion" imply the violation of some undisputed norm, a wandering from the correct course, a turning away from the proper path, a corruption of what is right. Indeed, centuries before they were introduced into psychiatry, all three of these words had already been used by Christian moralists to denounce heresy and disbelief. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the new sexual deviations, aberrations, and perversions turned out to be the same sexual heresies that had already been condemned in the Middle Ages. While modern psychiatrists no longer cared about procreation, even for them the sexual norm was still the "right" kind of coitus with the "right" person. Every other form of human sexual expression was termed pathological and perverted. However, if there was no difference in substance, there was a difference in style. The various "psychopathologies" and "perversions" were now methodically listed and categorized under fanciful new names, and this gave the whole enterprise an aura of scientific objectivity. The following abbreviated catalogue may serve as an illustration.
Just as before, people could deviate from the norm of "approved" coitus mainly in two ways:
1. By choosing the "wrong" sexual object.
2. By choosing the "wrong" sexual activity.
For example, a male was sexually "perverted" if, instead of choosing a nonrelated female of his own age, he chose
• himself (autoeroticism),
• another male (homosexuality),
• two or more females at the same time (troilism),
• a close relative (incest),
• a child (pedophilia)
• an old woman (gerontophilia),
• an animal (zoophilia or bestiality),
• a dead body (necrophilia),
• a statue (pygmalionism),
• an inanimate object (fetishism),
Needless to say, these "perversions" became aggravated when they appeared in combination, as for instance when a young man chose a boy (homosexual pedophilia), or when he chose the dead body of an old woman (gerontophilic necrophilia). However, even if a man chose the "right" sexual object, he could still prove to be perverted if, instead of engaging in simple coitus, he derived his sexual satisfaction mainly from
• observing nudity and sexual activity in others (voyeurism),
• exposing his own sex organs (exhibitionism),
• rubbing his body against that of his partner (frottage),
• engaging in oral intercourse (oralism),
• engaging in anal intercourse (analism),
• hurting or humiliating his partner (sadism),
• being hurt or humiliated by his partner (masochism),
• wearing clothes of the other sex (transvestism),
• stealing something (kleptolagnia),
• setting fires (pyrolagnia),
• playing with his own or his partner's urine (urolagnia),
• playing with his own or his partner's excrement (coprophilia).
Again, these perversions were aggravated in combination, as for instance when someone preferred anal intercourse while inflicting pain on his partner (sadistic analism), or when he liked to be insulted while playing with his partner's urine (masochistic urolagnia).
By the same token, the height of sexual perversion was reached when someone preferred the "wrong" sexual activity with the "wrong" sexual object. This was the case, for example, when a man engaged in oral intercourse with several women at the same time (oralistic troilism), or when he publicly masturbated into the soiled diapers of his baby daughter (exhibitionistic coprophilic incestuous pedophilic fetishism). Finally, all of these perversions and possible combinations of perversions could be rendered even more serious by an "excessive" sexual urge, called "satyriasis" in males and "nymphomania" in females, or "erotomania" in both sexes.
As we have already mentioned, the above catalogue or system of perversions is by no means complete. Different psychiatrists usually had different lists of their own, and these were often much more extensive. Moreover, their terminology was not always consistent and uniform. Thus, "homosexuality" was sometimes also called "contrasexualism", or "psychosexual hermaphroditism", or "uranism", or "inversion". Sometimes a distinction was made between male and female homosexuality, the former being called "pederasty" and the latter "sapphism", or "tribadism". On the other hand, some psychiatrists disapproved of too many distinctions. Consequently, they did not recognize certain special perversions, such as "pygmalionism" or "transvestism", but simply subsumed them under the more comprehensive term "fetishism". After all, as they pointed out, statues and clothing are inanimate objects and therefore "fetishes".
It must further be noted that not all perversions were considered equally bad. For example, "fetishism" was more easily tolerated than "homosexuality" which, in turn, was more acceptable than "incest". However, there was never a lasting consensus as to what constituted the worst perversion, i.e., the most frightful sexual psychopathology. At times, "autoeroticism" was seen as the greatest evil; at other times, "troilism" generated the strongest disgust. One day, "exhibitionism" seemed the most dangerous affliction; the day after that "analism" was regarded as the ultimate sexual depravity. And then of course, there were those perversions that directly harmed other people, such as "sadism" (lust murder), "kleptolagnia" (theft), and "pyrolagnia" (arson).
Still, whatever the level of his pathology or its potential for harming others, it was mainly the "pervert" who needed professional help. Indeed, this view followed logically from the very concept of perversion as a sickness. If perverts were sick, they could not really be held responsible for their actions. The proper social response to "abnormal" sexual behavior was therefore not moral condemnation or criminal punishment, but medical treatment.
On the other hand, as soon became clear, almost everyone suffered from some form of perversion, if only to a very moderate extent. Millions of men and women masturbated or fantasized about sexual orgies. Countless people had homosexual impulses or incestuous wishes, and a great number treasured some love letter, hair, handkerchief, or piece of clothing obtained from a beloved person. Many also enjoyed looking at nudity or displaying their own bodies, became aggressive or submissive in their sexual encounters, were fascinated by bathrooms, and loved "dirty" words.
These observations finally suggested that sexual perversions were not bizarre special diseases, but rather exaggerations of "normal" tendencies, i.e., matters of degree. Therefore, more and more psychiatrists came to believe that only exclusive or nearly exclusive wrong sexual choices deserved to be called perverse. Someone who chose the wrong sexual object or activity only occasionally, and who otherwise remained capable of enjoying "healthy" coitus, was not a true pervert. As a matter of fact, some psychiatrists demanded a drastic reduction of the old catalogue claiming that, even in their exclusive forms, such behaviors as "autoeroticism", "homosexuality", "troilism", "gerontophilia", "oralism", "analism", and "transvestism" were not perversions at all. They could perhaps be described as narrow personal habits, but they were clearly outside the province of medicine.
At any rate, in the course of time it was understood that the so-called sexual deviations, aberrations, or perversions were a rather mixed assortment. There were rare and outlandish as well as very common behaviors, blindly compulsive as well as deliberate, harmless as well as dangerous activities, and people began to wonder whether it was really justified to lump them together. Moreover, the notion that they all represented different "psychopathologies" or illnesses seemed increasingly questionable. In short, most critical observers soon felt the need for a thorough theoretical reassessment.
This reassessment was provided by Sigmund Freud with his psychoanalytic theory. Freud described the sexual perversions as manifestations of a "fixated" or arrested "psychosexual development". That is to say, in his view children were born with a powerful sexual instinct, but could not yet give it normal expression. Instead, they were all "polymorphous perverts" (literally, multiform perverts, or perverts of various shapes or stages). Their eventual proper sexual behavior was the result of a gradual, largely unconscious psychological process. However, an interference with this process could lead to a "fixation" and thus the later adult behavior remained immature, i.e., "perverse". (Also see the introduction to "The Development of Sexual Behavior.")
The psychoanalytic view, although originally controversial, gained wide acceptance within a few decades and had a considerable influence on child-rearing practices in Europe and America. Still, many sex researchers also continued to voice their doubts. To them, the whole notion of a "correct" sexual urge which could be "perverted" seemed unscientific and presumptuous. Thus, when in the 1940s and 1950s Alfred C. Kinsey and his associates presented their massive findings on human sexual behavior, they found no use for the concept of perversion at all. In the meantime, Kinsey's sober approach has been followed by many others, and among most American scientists today the words "sexual perversion", "aberration", and "deviation" have fallen into disrepute. There is some discussion of "sexual deviance", but the implications of this term are quite different. (For details, see "Conformity and Deviance.")
Of course, by adopting a more objective and less dogmatic attitude, modern sex researchers do not mean to imply that all sexual norms or standards should be thrown overboard. When it comes down to cases, there is, in fact, considerable agreement that some forms of sexual behavior give cause for concern. This applies especially to behavior that is
• destructive, or
• distressing to the individual.
Clearly, any sexual activity that distresses those who engage in it deserves to be changed. Destructive behavior, quite apart from its subjective effects, can become harmful to other people and must therefore be stopped. Sexual compulsions, even if they harm no one else, lead to unhappiness and frustration.
In many of these cases, the negative behavior can be changed or at least improved by some form of psychotherapy. However, in order to succeed, such therapy must be based on the voluntary consent, or even better, the expressed desire of the maladjusted person. In this area, there is little to be hoped from involuntary treatment. Moreover, any involuntary modification of human behavior raises the most serious ethical questions. Except in truly extraordinary and extreme cases, it does not seem morally justified.
Another question is the criminal prosecution and punishment of destructive behavior which has harmed unwilling victims. Legal protection against sexual assault in all its forms is one of the elementary duties of government. (Whether convicted offenders can or should be treated by psychiatrists is a complex issue beyond the scope of this book.)
By the same token, unconventional sexual behavior without clearly identifiable complaining victims should not be criminalized. Persons with otherwise harmless specialized sexual interests can reasonably demand to be left alone by the police. Their persecution is unfair and ill-advised. (For details, see "The Sexually Oppressed.")