Locating Perversion, Dislocating Psychoanalysis

When a happily married man and woman take advantage of the romantic atmosphere of Valentine’s day to spice up their sex-life with the help of a tantalizingly ticklish plumed feather, they might feel a touch embarrassed at first by the daringness of their act, yet no one is likely to dispute that they are creatively pursuing the joys of eroticism. Yet if the same couple were to build sexual confidence as a result of their deeply satisfying experience with the added sensation, and subsequently decide to exchange the feather for an entire bird, they might feel less embarrassed about the act, yet there is no doubt that it would be invariably perceived as perverse. Why is using a plumed feather for sexual purposes regarded as ‘healthy’, ‘normal’ and ‘erotic’, whereas employing a whole bird is unequivocally considered ‘sick’, ‘bizarre’, ‘abnormal’, ‘deviant’ and ‘pathological’? When does the erotic become kinky? How far can our couple extrapolate, quantitatively or qualitatively, on their single feather before entering the realm of perversion? And where shall we situate the bird’s cut-off point? Where lies the object’s boundary that separates the pleasurable play of normal eroticism from the painful pathology of abnormal perversion? A wing? A drumstick, perhaps?

When an attractive young woman in her mid-twenties decides to enter into a sexual relationship with a poor, stupid and ugly octogenarian, she is unlikely to attract the envious gaze of her female peer group, but might instead very well attract the sexological label of gerontophilia, authoritatively defined in John Money’s book as “a paraphilia of the stigmatic/eligibilic type in which the partner must be parental or grandparental in age (from Greek, geras, old age + -philia)” (Money, 1988, p. 202). The best way for the woman to avoid the stigma of pathology would be for the community to believe, or for she herself to create the impression that the man may very well be stupid and ugly, but definitely not poor, in which case the opprobrium of the “gerontophiliac” will presumably give way to the equally dismissive, yet slightly more socially acceptable category of the “gold-digger”. The man, however, will definitely attract the envious gaze of his male peer group, but will simultaneously escape the sexological classifications of paraphilia, if only because there is no proper designation for the reciprocal paraphilic condition of gerontophilia. Money suggests that the opposite of gerontophilia is “paraphilic gerontalism”, “in which a younger person must impersonate a parent or grandparent” (Ibid., p. 202), yet the actual reciprocal condition would of course be “a paraphilia of the stigmatic/eligibilic type in which the adult partner must be so young that s/he could be the person’s (grand-)son or (grand-)daughter”. Instead of being labelled a pervert, the poor, stupid and ugly octogenarian may be called “a dirty old man” by those protecting the moral high-ground, but in the eyes of the majority of the male population he will probably just be deemed “lucky”. What makes the difference, in this case, between a happy, healthy male “normophiliac” and a perhaps equally happy, yet distinctly unhealthy female “paraphiliac”? Why is it perverse for a beautiful young woman to enjoy sex with an ugly old man, yet quite normal for the ugly old man to enjoy sex with his beautiful young girlfriend? Is it because the woman in question actively pursues an unusual, counter-(re)productive and therefore potentially unnatural desire, whilst the man just passively accepts his good fortune? Or is it because the old men who have traditionally constructed the pathologising discourses of perversion do not want to see their own kind being stigmatized in the pages of their sexological handbooks?

However silly the two vignettes described above may be, they capture the gist of the endless (and largely unresolved) debates surrounding the nature and status of perversion that have pervaded psychiatry, sexology and psychoanalysis since the late nineteenth century. For one, the two examples demonstrate how “perversion”—or what psychiatrists and sexologists, following a suggestion by Stekel (1923[1908], p. 156), now choose to dub “paraphilia”— concerns an issue of human sexuality. Virtually all contemporary mental health care professionals, regardless of their training, expertise and epistemological stance, agree that a “pervert” is a (predominantly male) human being whose sexuality is problematic (if not for himself at least for his environment), unusual, bizarre, deviant and (in many cases) transgressive and illegal. As such, “perversion” has come to signify those specific modalities of human sexuality which are fully functional (as opposed to the sexual dysfunctions of impotence and orgasmic disorder, for example), yet fundamentally abnormal (in the statistical as well as the medical sense), and which generally affect some or all psycho-social aspects of sexual life, that is to say involving the components of sexual identity, sexual orientation, sexual fantasy and sexual behaviour.

As a synonym for “human sexual abnormality”, the contemporary notion of “perversion” still largely reflects the way in which the term was appropriated by the medico-legal discourse on sexuality during the late nineteenth century (Lantéri-Laura, 1979), a process which occurred in two consecutive stages. First, the term was transferred from its original socio-religious context, in which “to pervert” (from the Latin “pervertere”) meant “to turn around”, “to turn upside down”, into the general medical sphere, where “perversion” became a synonym for the fourth, pathological modification of a human function—the others being “diminution”, “augmentation” and “abolition”. The function of hearing, for example, was considered “perverted” in patients suffering from acoustic hallucinations: it is not that the patient has partial or complete hearing loss, or that his hearing has become sharper, but that he is hearing “bad” instead of “good” things. Likewise, if the function is appetite, it can be considered “perverted” when the patient is neither excessively hungry nor excessively aversive to food, but insists on eating things that are not “normally” part of the human diet, such as worms, insects or excrement. Following its implantation in the medical domain, “perversion” was then applied by French and German medico-legal experts to the budding research field of human sexuality. Arnold Davidson (2001[1987]) has argued that the scientific extension of the term “perversion” into the sexual realm, which occurred around the same time in France and Germany, took place against the background of a medico-philosophical conception of the human sexual instinct as the essential function of reproduction, responsible for the preservation of the species. Davidson has recognized this perspective in the medico-psychological texts of Paul Moreau de Tours (1844-1908), whose book Des aberrations du sens génésique (Moreau de Tours, 1877) was not only the first psychiatric textbook on perversion but also the main source of inspiration for Krafft-Ebing’s seminal Psychopathia Sexualis, the first edition of which appeared in 1886. Yet it can be traced further back to the work of Pierre Cabanis (1757-1808), whose distinction between the conservative instincts (for self-preservation) and the sexual instincts (for reproduction) influenced a plethora of French and German scholars, including Freud, throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century (Cabanis, 1843[1802]; Bercherie, 1991[1983], pp. 167-169; Valas, 1986, pp. 10-11). Once the human sexual instinct was identified as the reproductive function, the known types of physio-pathological modification were applied to human sexuality, which gave rise to Krafft-Ebing’s notorious four-fold classification of the “anomalies of the sexual instinct”: sexual anaesthesia (a diminution of the sexual function to the point of it being completely abolished; a lack of sexual interest altogether), hyperaesthesia (the increase of the sexual function, as in nymphomania), paradoxia (the sexual instinct expressing itself outside the period of its normal occurrence, as in the case of our “dirty old man” above, or in the case of over-sexed children) and paraesthesia (when the sexual instinct does not seek satisfaction in a reproductive act, i.e. when it defies the intrinsic purpose of its function). (Krafft-Ebing, 1886). The last category included the perversions proper and showed the greatest phenomenological variety of all, as Krafft-Ebing (and other specialists) would prove in a steady stream of ever-expanding descriptions of perverse sexual acts (Oosterhuis, 2000).

This definition of perversion as an aberration of the sexual instinct, in which the reproductive purpose of the human sexual function is literally perverted, posed an unexpected problem when applied to actual instances of human sexual behaviour. Indeed, psychiatrists recognized that their definition might be too encompassing and insufficiently distinctive, insofar as “mild” instances of non-reproductive sexual behaviours were acknowledged as a regular feature of the sexual menu of most “normal” human beings. In order to address this issue, Krafft-Ebing and his fellow sexologists introduced a further distinction between a “true-blue” pervert (“appellation contrôlée”), whose sexual instinct is radically and permanently diverted from the normal procreative act and who therefore only enjoys non-reproductive activities, and a recreational pervert, who is not a real pervert at all, but someone who indulges in “perversities” merely to increase the pleasure and satisfaction of coitus-oriented sexual behaviour. This conceptual and clinical separation between the “abnormal pervert” and the “normal pervert” (Karpman, 1954, pp. 416-457) continued to inform scientific accounts of perversion until well into the twentieth century, and I am quite confident that it still lurks in many regions of contemporary scholarship, even those whose mast-head clearly says “progressive”, “liberal-minded” and “cutting-edge”.

The nineteenth-century definition of the human sexual instinct as the reproductive function, and the associated description of perversion as a “permanent”, “exclusive” and “fixated” deviation from the normal procreative aim of sexuality, also provided Freud with the necessary backdrop for his first essay, on “the sexual aberrations”, of his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (Freud, 1905d). Freud admitted that the “normal sexual aim is regarded as being the union of the genitals in the act known as copulation” (Ibid., p. 149), yet he also conceded that “even in the most normal sexual process we may detect rudiments which, if they had developed, would have led to the deviations described as ‘perversions’” (Ibid., p. 149). As a result of this, he too adopted the sexological distinction between “pathological perversion” and “perverse variations of the normal function”:


In the majority of instances the pathological character in a perversion is found to lie not in the content of the new sexual aim but in its relation to the normal. If a perversion, instead of appearing merely alongside the normal sexual aim and object, and only when circumstances are unfavourable to them and favourable to it—if, instead of this, it ousts them completely and takes their place in all circumstances—if, in short, a perversion has the characteristics of exclusiveness and fixation—then we shall usually be justified in regarding it as a pathological symptom. (Ibid., p. 161).


The reader of these lines cannot fail to note the tentativeness of Freud’s tone and his ostensible hesitancy in making general statements: “in the majority of instances”, “we shall usually be justified” … Like his contemporaries, Freud knew very well that there are instances in which the pathological character does lie in the content of the new sexual aim, even when it appears merely alongside the normal sexual aim and object. Freud would have felt hard pressed to entertain the idea that there are cases of paedophilia that are not pathologically perverse. And most of us today would still feel uncomfortable disputing that our aforementioned bird-lovers, even when they eventually opt for normal, genital intercourse, have definitely crossed the line of subsidiary or preliminary sexual experimentation and sailed straight towards the land of the sick.

What we are encountering here is the intervention of a socio-cultural standard of ethico-legal acceptability, which has (often implicitly) confounded all of the purportedly value-free taxonomies of sexual perversion, whether sexological, psychiatric or psychoanalytic. No matter how hard scholars have tried to avoid discussing perversion with reference to moral principles, they have generally failed to live up to the expectations of an “objective” and “neutral” science. Of course, it may be noted, here, that the nineteenth-century alignment of the human sexual instinct and the reproductive function was already predicated upon a restrictive moral-theological code which distinguishes between “natural”, “evolutionarily advantageous”, “divinely sanctioned” and therefore “acceptable” sexuality (a genital act between two consenting partners belonging to the opposite sex) and “counter-natural”, “evolutionary disadvantageous”, “devilish” and therefore “unacceptable” sexuality (everything else). And so the medico-legal fathers of sexology perhaps forfeited a priori the possibility of ever arriving at an objective scientific theory of perversion. Yet when Freud argued, against the sexologists, that the human sexual instinct is neither unified nor intrinsically geared towards genital copulation and reproduction, but a fundamentally partial drive functioning on the precepts of a polymorphously perverse disposition (Ibid., p. 191), he nonetheless maintained a belief in “the normal sexual aim of copulation”. With the notion of a constitutional polymorphous perversity that presides over the sexual disposition of every human being, Freud would not seem to need a concept of sexual normality in order to describe and explain perversion. For if we accept Freud’s idea, perversion is simply synonymous with the permanent and unrestrained expression of the human sexual instinct. Perversion is no longer a deviation from normality, here. Rather, normality (if such a thing exists) is always a deviation from perversion! If we take Freud seriously, perversion does not require much explanation, since it is part and parcel of each individual’s original sexual make-up. Instead, the real Freudian question would be “Why and how does anyone ever become sexually normal?”. Of course, Freud and his followers have never really been satisfied with the idea that the “pervert”, rather than “becoming” one, has always been one and simply stayed that way. And so the radical psychoanalytic question as to why and how someone would develop into a normal sexual being shifted again to the (much less radical) issue of why and how a pervert remains entrenched in the original mechanisms of polymorphous perversity.

Why did Freud re-introduce the criterion of “sexual normality” as a measure for diagnosing sexual perversion, and as a benchmark for distinguishing between real, professional perverts and fake amateurs? The question shall remain unanswered, here, but I do want to point out that Freud’s unnecessary recourse to a concept of normality, and all its associated moral-theological meanings, seems to indicate, yet again, the difficulty (impossibility, perhaps) of formulating a perspective on perversion without embracing a set of social, moral and legal values. Some theorists, such as Money, make explicit reference to a socio-culturally endorsed value system in order to distinguish the normal from the abnormal. Paraphilia, for Money, is “a condition occurring in men and women of being compulsively responsive to and obligatively dependent on an unusual and personally or socially unacceptable stimulus, perceived or in the ideation and imagery of fantasy, for optimal initiation and maintenance of erotosexual arousal and the facilitation of orgasm” (Money, 1988, p. 216, italics added). Paraphilia is explicitly set against “normophilia”, which is defined as “a condition of being erotosexually in conformity with the standard as dictated by customary, religious, or legal authority” (Ibid., p. 214). The paraphiliac, in other words, is someone whose sexuality is disturbingly non-conformist, defiantly recalcitrant, intolerably dissident. Ironically, the American Psychiatric Association decided to substitute “paraphilia” for “perversion” from the DSM-III onwards because the latter was believed to have too many pejorative moral connotations (American Psychiatric Association, 1980).

Non-conformist progressive psychoanalysts such as Robert Stoller and Joyce McDougall have gone out of their way to expose the flaws and fallacies of theories of perversion that take their lead from a socio-moral concept of sexual normality, yet they themselves have often surreptitiously re-imported such a concept through the backdoor. Here is Stoller at his most polemical: “Normal has no meaning… Where is that normal person or aspect? No analyst has ever recorded such a case, met one as a patient, known one in oneself, one’s loves, one’s relatives, one’s friends, one’s colleagues. I need not elaborate this point; it is obvious, universally known, and usually denied, especially by psychoanalytic theorists of perversion” (Stoller, 1991, pp. 41-42). Since Stoller is a psychoanalytic theorist of perversion himself, but one of the few who has not denied the uselessness of the notion of “normality”, he reminds his readers of his own, earlier definition of perversion: “Perversion, the erotic form of hatred, is a fantasy, usually acted out but occasionally restricted to a daydream… It is a habitual, preferred aberration necessary for one’s full satisfaction, primarily motivated by hostility… To create the greatest excitement, the perversion must also portray itself as an act of risk taking” (Ibid., p. 37, italics added). Immediately following this self-quotation, Stoller sums up his definition of perversion in one sentence: “In other words, [perversion is] sin” (Ibid., p. 37).

Since the 1960s, Joyce McDougall has similarly criticized people in her own profession for uncritically espousing moral criteria in their theories of perversion. Instead of “perversion”, McDougall has favoured the allegedly less pejorative term “neo-sexuality”, thereby emphasizing the creative potential of the condition: “To emphasize the innovative character and intensity of the investments involved, I refer to deviant heterosexualities and deviant homosexualities as ‘neosexualities’” (McDougall, 1995, p. 174). It should be noted, here, that the adjective “deviant” is not a remnant of a previous discourse, but a central component of McDougall’s own theorizing…

If “perversion” is inseparable from a regulatory discursive system of normality, then it could be argued that those theorizing and diagnosing the condition merely pathologize, as authoritative extensions of the ruling ideology, those behaviours that threaten the sustainability of the system, with a view to their segregation and eradication. Such an outlook might throw into doubt the actual existence of the pervert, as an incarnated entity or structure, outside the institutionalised, hegemonic procedures of truth-production, but it would not by definition exclude the possibility of perversion per se, as a dissident, revolutionary sexual power. This is what Jonathan Dollimore has rendered as the “insurrectionary nature of the perversions”:


[P]erversion is a refusal or attempted subversion of those organizing principles of culture which are secured psychosexually, principles which include sexual difference, the law of the father, and heterosexuality. This perspective usually assumes that these struggles are contained, or at least can be explained, by and within psychoanalysis. However, another line of enquiry finds in the insurrectionary nature of the perversions a challenge not only to the Oedipal law, but to the entire Oedipal drama as a theory: perversion comes to challenge the integrity of the psychoanalytic project itself. (Dollimore, 1991, p. 198)


Although Dollimore’s claim, here, that perversion epitomizes a subversive challenge to psychoanalysis (and, we may add, to psychiatry and sexology) has been criticized by De Lauretis (1994) and others for its lack of persuasive argumentation, I believe that the idea is worth pursuing, if only because of the way in which most psychoanalysts have simultaneously maintained a concept of perversion and expressed a certain disappointment with the inadequacy of their theories.

Although my discussion until now has already highlighted various contentious issues with regard to our understanding of sexual perversion, I have only scratched the surface of the muddy waters into which sexologists, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts have often put themselves. Indeed, I have thus far only broached the difficulty of delineating perversion and separating it from what is non-perverse. A much more challenging assignment concerns the explanation of perversion and the definition of the principles and goals of its treatment. Needless to say, treatment principles often follow aetiological considerations, yet in many cases the perceived urgency of a therapeutic intervention has overruled the absence of clear-cut explanations, and in some cases the hypothesis of an acquired developmental trauma (a “vandalized love-map”, in Money’s terminology) has not excluded the “policing” of perversion (Tsang, 1995) via the administration of anti-androgens (Money and Lamacz, 1989). Given the fact that the pervert is sometimes also a “sex-offender”, psychotherapists often find themselves torn between confidentiality and disclosure (if the patient has not been apprehended) or between the role of a health care professional and that of a law-enforcer (when working in a prison setting or for the probation services) (Schorsch et al., 1996). And in light of the lingering definition of perversion as “sexual deviance”, therapists are also inevitably confronted with the ethical dilemma of working on behalf of the patient (making him better equipped to cope with his sexuality, despite the social stigmas and the pathologizing discourses) or on behalf of society (helping him to redirect his sexuality towards the existing standards of normality and thus making him conform to the socio-cultural and legal norm).

As far as explanations are concerned, most contemporary psychoanalysts rely on one (or both) of the two basic paradigms of perversion in Freud’s work, on the one hand that of the partial drives (the polymorphously perverse disposition) and their vicissitudes (Freud, 1915c) and on the other hand that of castration anxiety (the mechanism of disavowal and fetishism) (Freud, 1927e; Rey-Flaud, 1994). Although the paradigms are not mutually exclusive, they have often proved difficult to reconcile (if reconciliation is needed), and they were also relativized by Freud himself as distinctive explanatory frameworks for perversion. In addition, the difficulty with the drive-paradigm is that it potentially makes every human being into a pervert, whereas the fetishism-paradigm excludes one half of the population from the joys and sorrows of perversion, merely by virtue of their not having a penis. Since the day Freud barred women from fetishism (not from sadism and masochism, it must be noted), feminists have of course redressed the balance (see Gamman and Makinen, 1994) and overturned psychoanalytic phallocentrism. Some authors have also explored the possibility of an entirely separate strand of female perversions (Kaplan, 1991) and others have even invented a completely new, specifically female perverse psychic conflict which is played out between the woman-cum-mother and her child (Kelly, 1993; Beier, 1994). The most contentious point of much contemporary theorizing about women and perversion seems to be the question, first raised by Helene Deutsch (1930), although as a postulate rather than a debatable idea, whether women are masochistic, and perhaps more “naturally” so than men (Caplan, 1993[1985]).

Personally, I do not believe in the possibility (nor in the necessity, for that matter) of the divergent psychoanalytic opinions on perversion being combined into a comprehensive, unified psychoanalytic theory of perversion. Perversions constitute a subversive challenge for psychoanalysis, “disrupting that from which they derive, that which is invoked to explain them” and proving “the undoing of the theory which contains” them (Dollimore, 1991, p. 197). The variety of different perspectives, much like Freud’s own complex and inconsistent explanations of male homosexuality (Lewes, 1988), may also show that perversion is not one, but a multitude of structures, behaviours, fantasies, identities and orientations—and perhaps an eternally shifting, yet nonetheless determined structural attempt at dislocating any type of sexual structuration.

Over and beyond the particular challenges posed by perversion to the theoretical and clinical doctrine of psychoanalysis, perhaps psychoanalysts are also challenged in their explanatory power because thoroughbred perverts, assuming that they actually exist, rarely come to their attention. Indeed, Freud’s own cardinal “Contribution to the Study of the Origin of Sexual Perversions” (Freud, 1919e) was, by his own account, “based on the exhaustive study of six cases (four female and two male)”: “two . . . cases of obsessional neurosis”, “a third case which at all events exhibited clearly marked individual traits of obsessional neurosis”, a fourth case “of straightforward hysteria”, and a fifth patient “who had come to be analysed merely on account of indecisiveness in life” and who “would not have been classified at all by coarse clinical diagnosis, or would have been dismissed as ‘psychasthenic’” (Freud, 1919e, pp. 182-183). As Strachey noted, Freud seemed to have forgotten about the sixth case, but we can reasonably assume that he would probably have told his reader if the patient in question was a genuine pervert. What Freud reported, here, without reluctance or disappointment, seems to echo many a psychoanalyst’s personal experience: “real” perverts do not seek the help of mental health professionals, whether psychoanalytically or otherwise disposed. Indeed, the rule is so commonly accepted by the psychoanalytic community that whenever a member claims to have a huge clientele of genuine perverts, he himself is regarded as a strange, possibly perverse exception. Moreover, psychoanalysts have come up with good reasons why perverts do not seek out their company. For as long as they manage to cope with the marginalising and stigmatising finger of their social environment, and for as long as they keep themselves out of the hands of the law, they are generally happy, satisfied people. Why would our “pseudo-avisodomic” couple above, assuming that they are true perverts, decide to ask for help, if they achieve full sexual satisfaction in the company of their bird? And if they do fall victim to social, moral or legal repression, would they really feel that a psychoanalyst might be able to do anything to lift the burden, without taking away the satisfaction that they perhaps barely feel to possess?

In the face of poor clinical materials, the erotic literary imagination has always provided a welcome source of relief. This is not only true for psychoanalysts, but for all theorists of perversion since the dawn of sexology at the end of the nineteenth century. Rather than relying on his own patient population, Krafft-Ebing constructed his two central perversions of sadism and masochism with reference to the literary works of D.A.F. de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. In similar fashion, psychoanalysts throughout the twentieth century have elaborated and illustrated their theories of perversion in constant allegiance to the great (and sometimes minor) works of literature, thereby wilfully exchanging their clinical research laboratory for the museums of artistic representation. The psychoanalytic literature on perversion is no longer satisfied with references to Sade and Masoch, but has explored the works of Flaubert, Baudelaire, Huysmans, Zola, Gide, Klossowski and Jouhandeau (to name but the French contingent) in search of the central coordinates of perversion, or in search of critical evidence to demonstrate that psychoanalytic theories of perversion have been formulated in allegiance to the stylistic and narrative procedures of a particular literary period  (Apter, 1991; Jadin, 1995; Rosario, 1997; Castanet, 1999: Downing, 2003). In this way too, perversion can be seen to dislocate psychoanalysis, insofar as it has driven practitioners outside the familiar setting of their consultation room into the province of the artistic creation, with more methodological difficulties and epistemological pitfalls that any psychoanalyst is usually willing to risk.

All of this shows that perversion (as the name for a certain type of human sexual pathology and its underlying structure) challenges the doctrine of psychoanalysis at three separate levels: clinically, perversion highlights the moral basis of the diagnostic enterprise, thus raising important issues about the ethics of diagnosis in general, and it also defies the purportedly value-free principles governing the direction of the psychoanalytic treatment; theoretically, perversion exposes the limits of the central explanatory paradigms of psychoanalysis, most notably the Oedipus- and castration complexes, the dualistic models of the drives, and the fundamental principles of psychic functioning (the reality principle, the pleasure principle, and that which lies beyond); epistemologically, perversion is the touchstone for the logic of psychoanalytic discovery, since it rarely seems to enter the clinical laboratory, thus forcing the psychoanalyst to consider alternative, “applied” methodologies for probing its source and origin within the confines of artistic representation. Since psychoanalysis is one of the few, perhaps the only contemporary clinical discourse which insists on maintaining the name “perversion”—despite its pejorative connotations and despite the fact that it has been abandoned by psychiatry and sexology—psychoanalysts are perhaps in a privileged position to acknowledge and confront its “insurrectionary nature”, not with a view to taming it but with the purpose of measuring the intellectual significance of insurrection as such. And the fact that psychoanalysts have decided to maintain the term “perversion” is perhaps in itself a sufficient indication that they are also prepared to “be challenged” and “be dislocated”, at each of the three levels of their disciplinary practice.



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