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Books: The Other Side of Desire

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We’ve read — or at least skimmed — hundreds of books about sex in our ten years in the biz, and our shelves are stacked with tomes on everything from gays in the military to the science of seduction. Some educate us, some make us laugh, some make us blush, some make good door-stops — and then every now and then, a book just completely blows us away. Like Daniel Bergner’s The Other Side of Desire. It’s an engrossing, sensitive, intelligent exploration of various forms of lust and longing, and it is by turns shocking and moving — and occasionally even romantic. Bergner hangs his story on four main characters: a foot fetishist, a female sadist, a child sex offender, and an amputee “devotee.” We chatted with him about furries, the Craigslist killer, and the age-old nature vs. nurture debate.

The word fetish gets tossed around a lot these days, and often very lightly. So can you explain what you mean by a fetish or a paraphilia?

I’ll try, but the truth is that even the sexologists don’t quite agree.  A fetish is an object of obsessional lust; Jacob’s, in the opening story, is for women’s feet. And a paraphilia is an erotic longing that falls far outside the norm — a longing, for example, to be burned or beaten, or a yearning to make love with amputees. An interesting thing about the word is that philia suggests love as opposed to simple lust — and I hope people will see that this book is as much about human connection as physical craving.

A few of the people you interview describe fetishes or paraphilia as a gift, because it means the person can experience sex on a level unimaginable to people having so-called normal sex, and maybe have a higher capacity for orgasm. And yet others describe it as a burden, sometimes a torturous one. Were most of the people you interviewed in the former or latter category? And speaking to the people who consider their paraphilia a gift, did you ever wonder if maybe you were missing out on something?

I always wonder if I’m missing out on something.  I think of a sadomasochistic couple I spent time with, Ben and Eliza, and I know I’m missing something.  They took each other, sexually, to places of profound vulnerability, to melting, and then nurtured each other back to the solidity that they needed to exist as functional people in the world.  But for some the erotic charge of the paraphilia seemed to come from shame and self-denial, from isolation and obsessive, thwarted yearning — the most exquisite orgasm in the world probably can’t make up for that level of torment.

Some therapists you interviewed think of someone’s sexual personality and their regular personality as two distinct things, right? Did you buy that? When we read that section, the first thing we thought of was the Craigslist killer’s fiance, and for the first time we kind of understood her a little more.

Dr. Berlin, who I respect immensely, spoke about distint entities.  But no, I don’t feel that way.  The sexual is so central to who we are — I don’t think you can separate it; I don’t think you can deny its crucial power within us.  In this, Freud seems right to me.  Eros is the beginning.  Eros is the core.

It seems like researchers just can’t agree on whether or to what extent a fetish is nature vs. nature. After all the research you did for this book, which side (if any) did you fall on? Do you think we’ll ever know for sure?

As a techno-smitten culture, we seem to think that technology is going to answer the nature vs. nurture question, that we’re going to peer inside the brain and apprehend the origins of who we are, and of course the underlying assumption, in our times, is that our psyches, including our sexual psyches, are mostly determined by biology, are mostly in-born.  But the machinery of brain-scanning is imprecise, and even if we could see and identify every synapse, what would we know?  We still wouldn’t be able to tell how and when and why the neural connections were formed in just that way. No, we’ll never know for sure. But then, I’d better note that there’s self-interest in my saying this.  Answerable questions are kind of dull to write about.

We thought it was really interesting how the foot fetishist made that comment (which he then laughed at himself for, thinking it was hypocritical) that sex with animals was “disgusting.” It reminded us of when we interviewed some furries last year who loved to dress up as “realistic”-looking cats to have sex, but considered people who have sex in over-sized, pink and purple cartoon-like animal costumes to be “ridiculous.” It surprised us, because we always assumed that anyone in the kinky community would be defensive of someone else’s fetish…

I’m just now writing about the psychiatric profession’s attempt to define sexual disorders in the DSM, the diagnostic bible of mental illnesses.  And in the course of reporting, I learned a verb, coined by the sadomasochistic community, “to be squicked,” meaning to be repelled by someone else’s erotic preference and to judge it wrong.  Someone might be into cutting, say, but horrified by face-slapping.  With this term, the sadomasochists acknowledge that everyone, even the hardcore, has subjective and seemingly arbitrary limits.  It’s a cautionary lesson for us all.

What do you think makes one person able to incorporate their fetish into their own life and sex life, and another to consider it a guilty secret?

If only I knew. With Jacob, the foot fetishist, whose mortification destroys him, I stepped out of my journalistic role now and then, and tried to convince him that his lust was harmless, that maybe he could make it part of his marriage.  He couldn’t bear that thought.  His desire, his difference, was too terrifying.

What the hell did people with fetishes do before the Internet?! We guess that’s kind of a rhetorical question — we’re just constantly amazed by how the Internet has revolutionized the kink scene…

Me, too.  And it’s hard not to think that our very erotic consciousness is being changed by the Internet.  There, within the Web, we confront the wild sexual array of who we are as human beings.

Why are women so underrepresented amongst paraphilics? And are there any fetishes or paraphilia that tend to be distinctly female?

Let’s wait on this.  There’s far too little sexual research out there in general, and even less about the particular lusts of women.  Leaving aside paraphilias for a second, an article I wrote about female desire for the New York Times Magazine has turned into my next book, though the book will take a different, more intimate shape than the magazine story.  I’d like to hear from women about the pornography they watch, the erotic existences they create for themselves on Second Life, the fantasies they confide to their journals, this sort of thing.  It would be a way of glimpsing inside desire, without the filter, the distortion of social constraints.  (My email address is bergnerdaniel at gmail.com.)

And fetishes seem to change over time, right? Go through trends? What are some of the most recent additions to the field, and what are some that have gone out of fashion? And why is the foot fetish such a perennial?

Hair fetishes seem to have faded, I was told by a psychologist who has traced these things.  His theory is that young boys no longer watch their mothers or older sisters brushing their tresses ritualistically every night in a transfixing way — and so this fetish rarely develops.  But why are feet such a staple?  Smell is one theory.  We’re animals, and feet are musky.

At what point during the research of this book were you most shocked? And what disturbed you the most?

I don’t know that I was ever shocked.  I seem to be missing the shock-able gene.  But Roy’s story, about his entrancement with his twelve year-old stepdaughter, had me reeling.  My daughter was twelve at the time I was spending with Roy.  It wasn’t easy to go some of the places I had to travel, psychologically, for that story.

We were surprised how many touching love stories there were in the book — the amputee and the devotee, the child abuser and his new fiance. The Baroness [a female sadist] and her husband [who doesn't share her fetish; he lets her practice it with outside parties] in particular seem to have an amazing relationship, but do you think that’s pretty rare — do you think most people with a fetish like that are happiest with someone who shares their fetish?

I do think the Baroness’s story is rare, but I’m glad you asked this question, because, though it may not always seem so by the subjects I choose to write about — prison, war, sex — I’m extremely sentimental.  I’m very susceptible to tearing up at sappy romantic comedies.  And like I said earlier, to me the stories I’ve told in this book are about love as well as lust — and about how the two forces are inseparable.

Having completed this book, do you believe what that therapist told you, that perversion is just sex that you like and I don’t? Or do you think there’s a real qualitative difference between so-called normal sex and some of these paraphilias? (The consensual, legal ones, we mean.)

I’m always listening carefully to those who argue that there are fundamental differences, but to me Muriel Dimen’s cautionary words, “Perversion is the sex that you like and I don’t,” with their emphasis on our blinding subjectivity, are a good place to start when thinking about something as unsettling as sex.  The blinding power of subjectivity is a good premise in thinking about anything to do with human beings.

“The Other Side of Desire” is in bookstores now