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Perversions Past and Present



Rob Hardy


I always ask my patients what they do for fun, and in thousands of visits I have had exactly one person reply, "Sex." I assume that at least some of the others are having sex for fun, but it isn't something we acknowledge freely, even if the fun is confined (as it was in his particular case) to marriage. Much less do we acknowledge fun in sexual subcategories like masturbation, cross-dressing, or flogging. People have been having sex in such non-procreative and "abnormal" ways for as long as we have records, so that what might be "normal" takes in a lot of territory in the historical view. It is this historical view that historian Julie Peakman has taken in The Pleasure's All Mine: A History of Perverse Sex (Reaktion Books), a substantial, well-illustrated, funny, and thoughtful work that shows how changeable through the times are our discomforts that "other" people are enjoying sex in the wrong way.  




The classic example of such a change is masturbation. Ancient Greeks and Romans may have been disgusted by anyone masturbating in public (as that provocative pedagogue Diogenes was said to have done), but both Galen and Hippocrates thought that men and women needed regular orgasms. Coitus with a member of the opposite sex was the best way to get them, but if that wasn't available, masturbation was thought to be healthful. This changed when the Fathers of the Christian Church took up the issue. Unfortunately for them there was no Biblical proscription against the practice. The Genesis story of Onan is not about how bad masturbation is, but about how bad God thinks that coitus interruptus is when one is supposed to be impregnating one's brother's widow. The church could only teach that orgasms that had no chance for procreation were perversions, just like other forms of sodomy were perversions, and some church leaders felt that any form of sodomy, including masturbation, was liable to the punishment of death. Medical experts joined in, blaming masturbation for asthma, liver damage, insanity, and more. The anti-masturbation and pro-purity campaigns continued into the twentieth century. "Addressing a purity rally in 1910, Irish Christian Sir Robert Anderson of the Criminal Investigation Department related 'a harrowing story of an Eton boy, son of a colonel in the army, a brilliant lad, "always ahead of his class"... who had been reduced to a drivelling imbecile as the result of a secret sin, induced by the sight of an obscene photograph exhibited by a scoundrel whom he met in a railway train." Scientific and sociological study of masturbation over the past decades has shown it to be universal, enjoyable, and healthful, although moralists may still rail against it. "Such is the life cycle of a sexual perversion," reflects Peakman.  




A similar cycle can be seen in the degree of perversion humans assign to homosexuality. The acceptance of the ancient Greeks of homosexual relationships between an older and a younger man has always troubled moderns who find so much else to praise in the ancients. The Greeks did not think so much of the man who had sex with a man of his own age. Manly men of Rome were not supposed to succumb to the advances of other men, but they could, if they did not abandon all self control, responsibly go after women, boys, slaves, other men, and male prostitutes. When Christianity took over, it brought with it the idea that sodomy (variously defined, but sometimes specifically anal sex) was prohibited, because it was not procreative; this made it taboo even within sanctioned marriages, of course. (Oral sex was proscribed for the same reason, even between married people. However, this was not much of a change, as oral sex within Rome was seen as shameful. Since oral sex is now a regular part of many people's pleasure routines, it is yet another example of an activity slipping out of the "perversion" label.) Charges of homosexual perversion proved useful in advancing the power of believers; for example, such charges (quite possibly false) were part of the actions against the Templars in the fourteenth century, and resulted in confiscation of their plunder from the Crusades. There were bawdy houses in eighteenth century England catering to homosexuals. Mother Clap's Molly House in London was raided in 1726 and "... men were caught drinking, carousing, and having sex with each other; their practice was to dress as women and perform mock marriages, giving 'birth' to wooden dolls and Cheshire cheeses." (I consider myself pretty broad-minded, but I recommend we leave birthing Cheshire cheeses in the perversion category.) There is, of course, some resistance to homosexual relationships within America, and in many countries, but Peakman is able to conclude her chapter listing advances since Stonewall, including the removal of homosexuality from any medical definitions of illness. 




Lesbianism has always been male homosexuality's quieter little sister. Greece and Rome had little concern about lesbianism, and although we don't really know any facts about her life, the poet Sappho of Lesbos wrote about female physical affection. When Christianity advanced, it could not draw upon biblical prohibitions on sex between women (as it could on sex between men), but it still fretted over the possibility that women might be enjoying themselves, especially within convents. If a woman used an artificial penis for penetration (one lady admitted that she "made an instrument with a red piece of leather, at the front filled with cotton, and a wooden stick stuck into it, and made a hole through the wooden stick, put a string through and tied it round"), she might be as liable to the death penalty for sodomy as were her brethren.  




There was cross-dressing in Greece and Rome, sometimes for religious festivals and sometimes to fool opponents in battle. The Romans had distrust of leaders like the emperor Elagabulus who dressed like a woman and used make-up. The Bible made it clear to medieval believers that men and women should not wear garments of the other sex, but there were celebration days when men dressed as women as part of the jubilation. Another example of how perversions change: medieval men wore tights, but tights are distinctly for women in our own times. In the eighteenth century, a man might might be forced to wear a woman's clothes as punishment for not standing up to his wife, or for being cuckolded.  




Peakman addresses in chapters here plenty of other perversions, some of which were yucky in the olden days and still are. Necrophilia is one, and bestiality, and pedophilia. The point she makes about these are the same as with the others: there is a degree of distaste or acceptance given a particular society and a particular time. Her intent is to show "how different sexual behaviors were constructed as perverse - by religion and society, in law and medicine - and argues that sexual behaviour is not in itself perverse, but only becomes so when perceived as such by certain groups in society, and that this perception changes over time." Given that this is the case, Peakman argues, despite acts deemed taboo by the church (and not just the Christian church), a rational society needs to evaluate such taboos and see if there is any reason for acts between consenting adults to be criminalized. "Where acts are not harmful to others," she writes, "there is no reason for legislation." If societies are arbitrary and changeable about what they consider perversions, there is good reason to rely on the rule about harm to determine what is actually perverse and what is not. Peakman's book is a good step toward this understanding.



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