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Bergner’s “Other Side of Desire” — part 2 March 9, 2009

Posted by Greg Korgeski, Ph.D. in Uncategorized.

In my first grumpy comments on Daniel Bergner’s recent book The Other Side of Desire, I expressed my concerns about the book.  Briefly, it seems that both Bergner and many of the writers who have reviewed his book played right into the most negative, sensational, and even terrifying pictures of unconventional sexualities.  As a psychologist who have long been a therapist and consultant for persons with kinky or other sexual preferences, it seemed to me that Bergner’s choice of material, and his sometimes dramatic way of presenting it, might do more damage than good to people trying to work out their own sexualities.

Bergner’s choice of subjects was very limited and very, very unusual.  Consider that of his four profiles, one was an unusually tormented man, despite a rather common and even non-kinky fetish  (a foot fetish that he feels makes him a “monster” — tell that to famous foot fetishists such as, reportedly, Quentin Tarantino among many others); another had sexually abused an adolescent, while two others were less tormented/criminal but still rather unusual in their sexual lives.  Without wanting to suggest there is anything wrong with most of their activities (though of course, child sexual abuse is a different thing), these are nevertheless highly dramatic, unusual, and probably not very typical of “real kink” as experienced by most real people.  Sure, there are tons of fetishists, many female sadists in the kink community (though some would say, “never enough to go around”), and of course, too many people who haven’t been able to manage their sexual desires for children or others whom they’ve hurt (though these are not people in the “kink community” by any means, and it’s questionable if they should be discussed in the same essay.)  But the sense of dramatic “monsterism” that emerges in many of their self-presentations, seems excessive.

There is also the issue of whether his subjects who feel they have “problem sexuality” actually do, or rather, whether they merely have preferences that don’t fit the supposed “norm” in American society.  (A norm which can certainly be questioned, and has been as far back as Kinsey’s famous studies.)  As pointed out by Elizabeth on her blog at Sex In the Public Square,

“…he never does come out and argue that the dominant culture in the United States – the world of these four individuals – limits sexual expression in damaging ways.

“Perhaps my nagging dissatisfaction with the book begins with my reaction to Bergner’s title. The Other Side of Desire implies a binary relationship, as if there is a good side and a bad side, a light side and a dark side. But desire is multifaceted, and the lines between acceptable and unacceptable desire are arbitrary and socially constructed. I was hoping for a book that would expose those arbitrary lines, that social construction, and what I read was a book that reveals instead a deep ambivalence about the diversity of erotic orientations and that raises more questions than it answers.”

In his reply to Elizabeth (and others, including my post there), Bergner (same citation) says that he has avoided being an advocate, and he does present himself as trying to balance the many dilemmas in an exploration of this field.  He adds, “I probably didn’t set out to write the book she and others might hope for.”

I suppose that’s fair, to an extent. But I don’t find myself entirely comfortable with Bergner’s defense of his choices as a writer.

Look, the need to write non-sensational journalism about something that has real impacts on the world, that will be cited (or used as ammunition) by many people in our society who participate in personal or organized efforts to suppress, criminalize, or ostracize the sexually different, is not all that hard for a good journalist to understand. It’s not journalistic rocket science to recognize that there are many groups, the same groups that picket and harass hotel chains when they accept conferences of kinky individuals or LGBT groups, who will be delighted to wave Bergner’s book next to their Bibles and proclaim that “it says it right here, these people are child abusers and there are women who literally roast men on spits in that conference!”

I suspect Bergner would be delighted if, say, he were to find he’d won one of the “Sexies” awards for “sex-positive journalism.”  I would guess that he’ll be nominated; if for no other reason than the fact that there just aren’t many great books or articles written about sexuality at all.  But I also suspect that for every person who admires his work, there may be others that feel his book is kind of, well, sex-negative more than positive.  Consider some of the criteria for the “Sexies” award:

* show evidence of fairness in seeking sex-positive sources to respond to sex-negative ones
* ask hard questions about the motivation and background of sources who rely on sex-negative soundbites
* avoid biased or sensationalistic language
* cover newsworthy topics, events, or issues that might tend to be swept under the rug because of
controversial sexual content
* report accurately, respectfully and with nuance on sex research results
* contain fair, accurate, and non-sensational portrayals of sexual subcultures
* keep a clear separation between sex crimes, such as sexual assault or pedophilia, and things that
merely make people uncomfortable
, such as consensual kink, teen sexuality or gay priests; and help
readers who may not be familiar with the issues make the distinction
* specifically challenge sex-negative assumptions or practices in society at large or in a specific
* educate the public as to the diversity of sexual behavior without sensationalizing
* celebrate sexuality as a positive force in human lives

(Bold highlights mine.)

To my thinking, his book has probably not really succeeded, despite his highly empathetic portrayals, in presenting a very positive view of atypical (meaning, not statistically common) sexual preferences.  Child abusers, people who seem to be “monsters” to themselves, and women who roast men alive are hardly what you’d want to bring up in a high school (or even graduate level) class of young people as examples of creative, healthy, “as normal as you or I” sexual expression.  Both by sensationalizing kink and combining child abuse with non-abusive practices, Bergner undermines some of the main goals of sex-positive journalism.  Despite his seeming to be a very caring guy and a great writer in many respects, if I were voting on these awards, I’m afraid it’d be thumbs down.



1. Clarisse - March 11, 2009
gregkorgeski - March 11, 2009

That’s a great interview, Clarisse! Thanks to you and Mr. Bergner for your very thoughtful discussion… I’ll post something about it in my main page later.

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