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First impressions: Bergner’s “Other Side of Desire” February 13, 2009

Posted by Greg Korgeski, Ph.D. in Book reviews.
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This is a new blog which I’ve started in order to help organize some thoughts and observations about psychology and sexuality, particularly so-called “alternative sexualities” and how they are received (often hysterically) in American culture.  So, howdy.

I have a cold today and should stay in bed, but I started reading Daniel Bergner’s new book The Other Side of Desire; and even though I haven’t finished it, I’ve decided to do a first post.  Kind of a “read along.” (I’ll come back and, perhaps, repent, if my initial, rheumy-headed impressions seem premature.)

Tell the truth, my real reason is that I’m feeling kind of incensed.  My frustration at Bergner done drug me out of my sickbed.   Bergner’s book seems, at least in its first pages, to unnecessarily pathologize people’s interest in kink, and that’s disturbing and damaging.

From the very first paragraph, it seems that Bergners may be using the “mystique” of “dark sexuality” to sell his story.  Take his introduction, and his introduction to the introduction.  “‘What,’ the people I write about often ask, ‘are you doing here with me?'” And the “people” he starts out mentioning are convicted persons on death row, the “missionaries, mercenaries, and child soldiers amid the most brutal war in recent memory,” and finally, the poor, obsessed paraphiliacs who somehow have developed their “dark sexualities.”  So right out of the gate, we’ve got murderers, child soldiers, mercenaries… and people who have sexual fantasies, all grouped together with the missionaries.  Were Bergner my therapy patient, I’d be doodling notes to myself by now about the things he links together in his mind.

Bergner uses his book to profile four people who seem to represent “devious” sexuality, including a foot fetishist who sees himself as a “monster,” (a.k.al, “the phantom of the opera”), someone he characterizes as a “rare female sadist” (how many females does he know?  One of the things many, many women enjoy about the kink community is the freedom they feel there to express the sadism that everyone has inside, but that women in particular are generally “not allowed” to express in our culture), a man obsessed with his stepdaughter (effectively reinforcing the “christian” groups’ tendency to rage against kink by linking it to child abuse), and someone erotically attracted to amputees.  It’s not that these are necessarily good or bad examples, but the tone, so far, seems to be rather Victorian.  Or at least, pre-Kinsey.  (I get a bit concerned when I see the word “monster” at least twice while still skimming a book.)

From what I’ve seen so far, judging by some of the interviews or media coverage, it seems likely that Bergner’s approach here is to use the “dark mystique” shtick to sell this thing. Not sure that is the case in his Salon interview, though I wonder if he is doing a “have it both ways” kind of thing here, where he “has to” use dramatic and clearly, in some cases, dangerous examples to satisfy the editors, marketing department or Puritans (kind of the standard, unholy menage-à-trois, that), but then can add his own brand of compassion and empathy and cite nice therapists and researchers and say, “see, they’re not all that bad.”  (Which might suggest a kind of literary sadism and “aftercare” ritual not so different from what his dominatrix subject probably provides.)

I hope I’m wrong about Bergner, so I’ll come back when my cold is better and I’ve read more. Because the last thing we need is more pathologizing of kinky folks. Our culture is already too good at “fake outrage,” in David Sirota’s term (as exemplified by the Michael Phelps Bong Hit Debacle. )   The choice of dramatic examples always prejudices the discussion, and this stuff isn’t “dark” unless you turn out  your mental lights before looking.  Visit any local kink community (in your town or online) and you find, for the most part, people who are sane, creative, loving and whose only statistical “abnormality” is having more than average adventurousness in their sexual expression.

When an author starts out with a kind of “ooh – aah” mystique, and chooses people whom he can present as self-convicted “monsters,” overlaps kink and child molestation in a quarter of his examples, and presents models of clinical suffering over one’s sexuality as possibly the norm in the kink world (which is inaccurate), it doesn’t really matter if he adds lots of talk about “compassion” after the fact.  The damage to the subjects, to the sexually diverse, and to the culture is already done.

(Note: this post revised from the original version.)

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