Against Nature, What Comes Naturally
Last May, the new DSM-V, the standard for medical and psychological professions in classifying sexual disorders, admitted that there now exists “a subtle but crucial difference that makes it possible for an individual to engage in consensual atypical sexual behavior without making being labelled with a mental disorder.” This shift away from deviance accompanied a rejection by the American Psychiatric Association of a new category of “hypersexual disorder”; but pressure groups, London-based historian Julie Peakman reports as she introduces her survey of what has often been called perversion, have managed to finally remove homosexuality from the list of diagnosed disorders. This struggle to define what is “acceptable” and what is “deviant” comprises this study, promoted as the first one-volume summary of “perverse sex”.
Following Peakman’s scholarship on 18th century British prostitution and pornography, this European-centered presentation peers beyond English shores to look back to classical and biblical reactions to varieties of sex and, given the limits of firsthand evidence for much of history, often relying upon court testimony and scientific or religious examination, personal accounts when a few dare or boast or are coerced into admitting their own indulgences. Peakman’s argument remains clear throughout a dozen thematic chapters. “Normal” does not always equate with heterosexual, male-dominated activities. Standards keep changing. The abnormal alters over time and space.
Despite the unreliability of much of ancient literary or artistic evidence, and the scarcity of trustworthy medieval and early modern accounts for, understandably, a topic prone to secrecy more than display by many of its adherents, the sexual practices uncovered do reveal a similar pattern. For example, as Peakman lists early on, “oral sex, masturbation, homosexuality, lesbianism, transvestism, flagellation, exhibitionism, voyeurism” all have been accepted by ancient peoples, then condemned by Christian societies, and denigrated by those who in recent centuries began to replace the labels attached to such behaviors. As Western culture secularized, these actions were not considered “sinful” so much as “irrational”; the medical profession rushed to prevent the acceptance of such activities as normal.
Changes in the past few centuries show this process unfolding. Around 1710, Onania was published. This purported to prove the harm of masturbation. A first, this pamphlet (which by its 16th edition tripled in length) warned women as well as men about the practice. Yet, two centuries later, the leading sexologist Richard von Kraft-Ebbing dismissed threats to females. “Woman, if physically and mentally normal, and properly educated, has but little sensual desire.”
At the same time, Sigmund Freud purported to diagnose women and their orgasm with his own pet theory. After observation and interpretation by Alfred Kinsey and Masters and Johnson by the middle of the last century, masturbation by either sex became classified as normal again. What Greek or Roman doctors recommended to patients, what Christians condemned, what Enlightenment-era or Victorian physicians diagnosed as a physical or mental disorder, and what modern counterparts judge as “a healthy and necessary alternative to procreative sex” typifies the “life cycle of a sexual perversion”.
Peakman examines same-sex male and female sexuality, and she distinguishes differences in social or cultural reactions. Men tended to, in the ancient world, be accepted if they dominated the homosexual coupling, while the passive partner was seen as weak, often a slave or a boy trapped, perhaps in a power differential. Women were also regarded as passive, and therefore dismissed as subservient. For lesbians, the sanctioned intimacy many females of any sexual preference tended to demonstrate among themselves allowed women to pursue same-sex relationships with less scrutiny by authorities and less danger than male homosexuals. In 1921, an act of Parliament banning lesbianism was never passed. It seemed better to overlook the practice rather than to draw attention by prosecuting it.
A provocative chapter on bestiality enlivens the range of invention. Peakman muses whether this practice was more a question of preference or of opportunity, for what until the last century was a European population with many people growing up much more closely in contact with animals next to them on farms or nearby in villages. Size mattered. Men worked in barns, dairies and fields. As meticulous court documents support, they tended to be caught with their breeches down among mares or sheep, which fit with the males more neatly. Women snuggled in their own rooms in town, cradling smaller cats or dogs. As with homosexuals and masturbators, those who clung to critters were often exposed by peeping Toms and Tammies, who spied through holes in the walls or windows upon their misbehaving neighbors. The crime was often punished by death, both to the creature and the human.
One legendary spin on this, when the fear of the hybrid half-animal/ half-human persisted over many centuries, was the case of Mary Toft. A serving girl of 26 in 1726, she gained the notice of the king’s surgeon, who came to investigate. “In search of fame and fortune, she had inserted various rabbit parts into her vagina with the intention of duping her doctor. She had called in her local physician, claiming to be in labour, and, to his astonishment, out popped the various bits of rabbit.” Understandably, doctors were puzzled and amazed. She later confessed; she served four months.
Peakman returns at the conclusion of many chapters to the need for consent. This proves the crux of the matter. Partners may be assumed to agree, but in BDSM, can one legally go along with one’s own assault? If an animal is a participant in sexual activity, can that creature be said to agree? If so, what does that mean, and how could such consent be determined?
As for necrophilia, the dead partner certainly lost any say in the matter. Pedophilia has had its recent advocates who claim consent exists by those who perhaps may be at the legal age of consent (which varies), but as Peakman notes, attempts by that faction to come out and gain acceptance during the ‘80s in the wake of gay rights movements only resulted in more persecution, as hetero- and homosexual “child-lovers” were marched back into the closet.
The Marquis de Sade emerges as an inevitable spokesman in this debate. In his epigram to Juliette (1797-1801), “he defended its publication stating that he saw ‘unnatural vices’ as ‘the strange vices inspired by Nature’. ‘Natural’ for Sade were all the perversions he described.” Peakman sums up this twist: Sadeian philosophy asserts natural origins for all our actions, so they all logically are natural.
However, as the words sadist and masochist capture for two centuries since, those men who originated these terms celebrated a brutality and an exchange of power where consent may not always be arranged. Peakman reminds us of the Roman males who took sex rather than asked for it. She turns to the plight of the Victorian or Edwardian child unable to resist the predicament of his or her exploitation. “Men had no need to rape starving victims; they merely needed a few pence in their pockets and an eye for a starving child.” As with the desperate or lonely, the inventive or deluded who sought release or comfort in grasping a horse or a cat, so Peakman draws the reader’s attention to those who have been at the receiving end or found a blunt slap regarding bold sexual relationships.
With exhibitionism and voyeurism, the question of victimization now recedes; ironically, Peakman shows how, until very recently, with the advent of the Internet and mass-media, these two activities often depended on the lack of consent of those on display for the delight of Peeping Toms. Their female equivalents in public (and here we can include printed material—this book itself is illustrated with many period examples—and the media) may increasingly show off their vaginas and labias, Peakman finds, but the respective amount of depictions of the erect male phallus lags far behind.
The gender imbalance, she mentions if only as an aside, as to who is looking at whom appears throughout much of the West. Indeed, one limitation of this book is that it does not examine other cultures to offer a broader perspective for comparison and contrast. This is admittedly a hefty volume as it is, yet her coverage for all its lively details rushes by, leaving the reader wanting much more than her many casual remarks when the need to interpret material and not only to collate and paraphrase it arises so often.
As these contents testify, millennia of visual arousal certainly continues to stimulate, even as market demands change and new interests bloom. Research opportunities beckon. “‘Chubby-chasing’ became a hobby for those obsessed with fat. Whether this has to do with the after-effects of post-Second World War rationing or with the current preoccupation with diet has yet to be ascertained.” For all the inherent verve in this subject matter, Peakman keeps a firm control of its impacts, and its contexts.
Near the conclusion, this cultural historian of sexuality wonders if any taboos are left. I learned of a new one. Forty or so people, it is claimed, have “loving relationships with objects” and call themselves “objectum sexuals”. Two of these “OS” women fought over who deserved the Berlin Wall, and they, being polyamorous, agreed to share the wall “as a lover”. Amy had fallen for both the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center, “and grieved the loss of the latter as one would a lover.” Peakman records that these women had in common trauma, rejection, and types of dysfunction.
Therefore, as definitions of (arguably) accepted practice expand to include buildings as objects of affection, the challenge for scholars to comprehend sexual behavior which is not nowadays accepted also grows. Peakman avers how it is “now reasonably common for people to incorporate fellating, fetishism, infibulating or fisting (or at least one of these activities) into their usual role play.” When (nearly?) no part of the anatomy, the natural realm, or inanimate objects may appear beyond the embrace of somebody needing a catch and release, are any areas out of bounds?
In a too terse but necessary epilogue, Peakman considers harmful sex “to the degree of death or bodily harm between consenting adults (sexual cannibalism or sadomasochism); second, vulnerable adults [e.g., those with learning difficulties or Down’s syndrome]; and, third, the age of consent.” As I hinted above, the final category has varied throughout time. While she does not delve into some of these areas with sufficient detail, Peakman advises more monitoring of institutions against abuse, and better support for those who may be at risk of coercion or manipulation.
Finally, as procreation at last appears to be “no longer a sexual necessity (or hazard)” for more men and women, sexual acts themselves gain parity. Peakman judges that any kind of sex becomes a matter of preference. We now enjoy freedom of choice, extended and abetted by a mediating Internet. We redraw intimate boundaries, beyond those of one’s own body and a willing partner (or two) close at hand.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article