“What are Perversions?” – Emma Lieber

What are we talking about when we talk about perversion?  Are we speaking within a statistical rubric—that is, are we talking about a subject whose sexual practices fall outside some statistical norm?  Are we speaking within a legal discourse, about acts or fantasies that, if enacted, could land you in court?  Or are we talking more broadly about a certain kind of confrontation with psychic law?  If so, is what is at stake a calling forth of, appeal to, or propping up of the law, as some conceptions of perversion have it?  Or is it a swimming in lawlessness, as a term like polymorphous perversity would suggest?  To put it another way, is perversion a narrowing or a widening of the sexual field?  Is it a fixation or a holdup, a delay along the path of so-called normal sexual development?  Or a swerving off of the road entirely?  Are we speaking of something structurally different from other psychic arrangements, or about something that is at the heart of all varieties of sexual experience? Or are we referring to a creative solution to—or a dramatic figuration of—a universal impasse?  These are all undoubtedly good questions, yet in his book, Sergio Benvenuto, like a good analyst, does not respond to them directly; instead he attempts, as he writes, “to slightly modify the questions themselves.”  Without pretending to understand entirely the thrust of this modification, I would say that it has something to do with the position that he maintains with respect to his subject: that is, his own rather perverse refusal to conform to any form of received wisdom or group-think about perversion—perversion being a subjective position that in his view points to the difficulties of reception or communal inclusion itself.

This is important, because it is around perversion that the psychoanalytic community may be most called on to account for what lies behind its assumptions and epistemologies.  This was likely most evident in the dark old days of treating homosexuality as a perversion, though given that the third term in that conceptual marriage is a moralism applied equally to homosexuality and perversion itself, the removal of one sexual orientation from the latter category is hardly a sweeping correction.  Nor is the elimination of perversion as a clinical category because of its history as a moral object—this would constitute merely a repression of the problem.  Instead, I think that Sergio is suggesting, if only obliquely, that the analyst’s moralism is a displaced effect of the ethical articulation proper to perversion itself, and that it is around the ethics that are intrinsic to it that perversion takes up its proper place in psychoanalysis.  Thus our task is to put the ethics back where they belong, that is within perversion itself as a certain kind of ethical confrontation that may crystallize something of the ethical face of psychoanalysis, and if there is any residual moralizing left in the analyst’s stance, then this may reflect the extent to which, as Sergio slyly claims, there is something perverse about psychoanalysis.

At the center of perversion in this reckoning is not only the question of use—as he writes, “perversion does not mean to use the other as object but to use the other as subject”—but also, and perhaps more fundamentally, the question of exclusion.  Perversion puts exclusion into play: it dramatizes the exclusion of the subject, the pain of the child not privy to adult doings.  Thus all the business about the phallus and who has it and who doesn’t may boil down to this: as Sergio writes, “this anguish over the mystery of sexual difference is…also the anguish over our being excluded from what the other feels and is.” Yet if some question of vengeance for this early exclusion is always at stake in perversion, I think the suggestion here is that it is not so much revenge itself that is central but the particularly perverse relation to or even refusal of revenge—that is, the technique of drawing pleasure from restaging the exclusion rather than redressing it.  To Sergio, this is evident in masochism, and in the masochistic overtones of perversion generally, in which my being discarded as a humiliated object “becomes the spring of a peculiar enjoyment because the pleasure of the other—with others—becomes the cause of my subjective enjoyment.”  Perverse revenge, if it can be called that, is thus as he says a kind of “parodic altruism.”

An interesting question then might be what revenge is, or how we can conceive of it, within and outside of perversion, given that as he points out revenge is also undoubtedly at work in so-called normal coitus, in which the door to the parents’ bedroom is finally shattered.  But this is revenge of a different sort.  Maybe in this sense what is at stake is not so much revenge but the parody he refers to.  It seems to me actually that if masochism is a parodic altruism, fetishism might be considered a kind of parodic democratism, a mock revolutionary dethroning—in its insistence that all manner of marginal objects (from feet to buttons to shiny noses to what have you) are the stuff of attention and worship in their own right.  Why indeed should the genitals or other traditionally vested erogenous zones be given such primacy?  There is always a utopianism at stake in questions of exclusion.  Yet of course if we are to take seriously the mechanism of disavowal, this action is something along the lines of, “the king is dead, long live the king.”

This is a kind of parody furthermore that verges on tragedy—and given the emphasis that the book puts on the dramatizations and aestheticizations at work in perversion, generic and Aristotelian terminology are appropriate.  It is further around the idea of tragedy that questions of knowledge come into play—and in fact one of the questions I left the book with was about the place, or the various places, of knowledge in perverse dynamics.  One of the effects of the form of masochism that Sergio refers to as “men who like to be cuckolded” for example is a paradoxical “retaliation against the men who enjoy [the promiscuous woman’s] favors: he, the masochist, knows, while the others…who ignorantly enjoy…the woman’s body,” do not—that is, they do not know that their pleasures have been staged.  Thus “it is essential for the masochist…that the woman be his accomplice, [thereby] enacting the opposite of his experience long ago when he himself was… ‘that stupid kid who doesn’t know.’”  If there is some amount of actual retaliation at play in perversion—retaliation as something that draws satisfaction by rearranging the positions of the players rather than repeating them, or by in some way “enacting the opposite”—perhaps it occurs precisely at the place of knowledge, in which case one might ask why it is around knowledge specifically that a turning of the tables can occur.  In other words, what makes up for the refusal of revenge on the register of the act—the cuckholded man is still not the one fucking—is revenge on the register of knowledge, which may bring to bear perversion’s aesthetic component.  There is always something vicarious or even virtual about knowledge, which compensates us for the distance we must suffer from our various objects.  In this sense maybe knowledge always carries with it a hint of the perverse.

Or maybe I have it all wrong.  Much of the force of Sergio’s intervention is to worry the question of the analyst’s position with respect to perversion as an object of psychoanalytic knowledge, especially given the extent to which his book tends to find that psychoanalytic theory mirrors structurally the objects of its attention.  Analysis is thus a perverse practice in that it “makes one…draw pleasure from the very suffering that is reactualised in analysis,” thereby serving as a curative for perversion by borrowing perversion’s dynamics.  On the other hand this formulation might cast too nobly whatever exists of the analyst’s own rather perverse enjoyment in hearing about the other’s suffering and his sex, or even the fixation on listening itself as a kind of aural phallicization or ear fetish.  My favorite line in the book was: “usually, when someone begins to talk about love, our ears cock.”


Emma Lieber is a writer and psychoanalyst in formation in New York, where she sees patients.  Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Point Magazine, New England Review, The Massachusetts Review, Cabinet, LA Review of Books, and various academic and psychoanalytic publications.  She is currently at work on a book manuscript, The Writing Cure, as well as an edited volume, The Queerness of Childhood: Essays From the Other Side of the Looking Glass (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019, with Anna Fishzon). She teaches psychoanalysis and literature at The New School and Cooper Union and is on the editorial board of The Candidate Journal.

Publication Date:

June 28, 2017

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European Journal of Psychoanalysis