On Human Sexuality

Published 03 Jan 2017

By definition, what constitutes sexual deviance and what constitutes sexual perversion relate to larger categories of social practice than those that are specifically sexual. This leads us to a useful distinction between sexual deviance and sexual perversion. Sexual deviance might be defined as the inappropriate or flawed performance of conventionally understood sexual practices.

Rape, for example, is an act of sexual deviance that is rarely defined as an act of perversion. Rape becomes perverse only when performed on an inpidual whose inclusion in a sexual act goes beyond the limits of generally conceivable sexual practice or is performed in ways that go beyond the limits of generally conceivable sexual practice. Though we may deplore the behavior, it is possible to comprehend, and even empathically reconstruct, the experience of the rapist or his victim. In the language of the pathologists, such behaviors can be termed a disease of control.

As the character of sexual practice changes over time, so do the boundaries of the definitions of deviance. An excellent case in point is the increasing incorporation of oral sex in the scripting of conventional sexual scenarios. Although the behavior as a matter of organs and orifices remains unaltered, its collective meanings and uses for specific inpiduals demonstrably have been undergoing profound change (Irvine 1995, p. 314).

Perversions, in contrast, tend to be forms of desire too mysterious and sometimes too threatening to the most elementary definitions of desire and satisfaction to be tolerated. Perversion can be thought of as a disease of desire, not only in the sense that it appears to violate the sexual practices of a time and place, but also because it constitutes a violation of common understandings that render current sexual practice plausible. The behavior of the “pervert” is disturbing because, at the level of folk psychology, we have difficulty understanding why someone “might want to do something like that”.

Consistent with this approach was Krafft-Ebing’s use of the term perversion as cited by Davidson (1987). In Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (1876) there is a discussion of anomalies of appetite such as hyperorexia (increases), anorexia (lessening) and of perversions such as “a true impulse to eat spiders, toads, worms, human blood, etc”. Perversions of appetite thus involve not only the desire to eat the unthinkable, but also the desire to eat for unthinkable reasons. The same might be said of “perversions” of the sexual (Irvine, 2002, p. 430-31).

As in the case of deviance, what is considered a perversion is also subject to revision as what constitutes the thinkable changes. Many forms of what for the contemporary world constitute acts of sexual deviance tend not to occur in other social settings not because they are repressed, but merely because they are literally unthinkable. Moreover, the processes through which behavior becomes “thinkable” for a collectivity are not identical to the processes through which behavior becomes “thinkable” to the inpidual.

The logic at essay that links motive and behavior is the complex, almost magical logic of representation, a logic of metaphor and metonymy that meshes personal history with social history. Concerns for the role of the symbolic in the interaction of inpiduals often obscure the importance of the interaction between, and even within, symbols (Irvine 1995, p. 317). Homogeneity of sexual preferences inevitably masks heterogeneity of desired emotional productions, and this perhaps is the level at which, to some extent, we may all be perverts, as even the most conventional may find their sources of sexual excitement fueled by the slightest “whiff” of the unthinkable.

Theories that describe the causes of behavior already presuppose the problematizing of that behavior. It is not theory that renders social practice problematic, but the emergence of the problematic in experience that gives rise to the requirement for theory, as well as the potential for its ability to find a responsive audience. In other words, theories of behavior are themselves behavior and, as such, have essentially the same basic requirements: first, they must be thinkable; second they must be plausible, that is, made either legitimate or explainable in terms of what is held to be legitimizing. In this sense I agree with Canguilhem (1989) when he notes: “[I] t is not paradoxical to say that the abnormal, while logically second, is existentially first.”

One might argue (and many have) that nonprocreative sex—including, but not limited to, masturbation, oral sex, and sex between persons of the same gender— is evolutionary maladaptive because it does nothing to further the lineage of the inpiduals involved and, in many cases, “wastes” energy and precious resources such as sperm. Men, for example, have been admonished against “spilling their seed” by authorities ranging from the Christian Church to such vocal inpiduals as singer/ reactionary/ orange-juice-peddler Anita Bryant. Incidentally, the widely cited biblical reference to the spilling of seed (Genesis 38: 9) does not refer to masturbation, but instead to the practice of coitus interruptus. The verse in question reads:

And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.

In this verse, Onan breaks the Hebrew law of the levirate by intentionally spilling his seed rather than impregnating the wife of his deceased brother. However, the fact that this is but an unfortunate misreading of Genesis has done nothing to stop the onslaught of admonitions against masturbation, or onanism as it is sometimes called. Nor has it prevented the introduction of singularly bizarre remedies for preventing autoerotic stimulation. In 1870, for example, the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet advised “guarding the penis for a time against improper manipulation” by “keeping up slight soreness of the body of the organ . . . sufficient to render erection painful”. Presumably, this was necessary to avoid the insanity inevitably produced by excessive “manipulation” of this popular body part.

Masturbation was also believed to diminish the sexual incentive for men (and women) to marry; the desire for marital sex presumably being lost “when by this means they appease their lustful appetites” (Hunt 1998). Moreover, the pleasure that accompanies the ejection of semen was itself considered an abomination:

The intrinsic malice of pollution [meaning self-induced orgasm of any kind] consists most probably in the intense sexual enjoyment and satiation of pleasure, occurring outside the legitimate bond of matrimony, which the effusion of seed produces— and not only nor principally in the voluntary frustration of the seed itself.

One of the most persistent rationales for the condemnation of masturbation is a misguided belief in the omnipotence of sperm, for “sturdy manhood . . . loses its energy and bends under too frequent expenditure of this important secretion”. An especially novel means of conserving “this important secretion” was practiced by male members of the become pregnant from playing basketball, attending the opera, or dancing, yet seldom are these activities proscribed for that reason alone, at least in modern times (Hunt 1998).

(Throughout its history the Christian Church has periodically attempted to ban all pleasurable activities, including dancing and attending the theater. Perhaps in doing so the Church merely sought to err on the side of caution by eliminating all activities that could reasonably precede sex. Taken too literally, this often prompted some rather absurd prohibitions—on baths, wine, and so forth.)

Why, then, is nonprocreative sex held to a different standard than other “reproductively safe” activities, such as skiing, movie going, or swimming in public? We have already dismissed the argument that views nonreproductive sex as wasting a limited natural resource. Provided that pregnancy is a possible outcome of at least some sexual encounters (and even with modern contraceptive methods, many such opportunities continue to exist), procreation will occasionally occur. We have also argued, based on evidence garnered from observations of one of humankind’s closest relatives on the evolutionary tree, that nonprocreative sex cannot properly be considered “unnatural” if “natural” is accorded its customary meaning (Hunt 1998).

Of course, according to Church teachings, people should be able to rise above such bestial instincts in pursuit of loftier spiritual ideals.

Perhaps nonprocreative sex is taboo because the behaviors themselves are perversions of the “natural” function of the sexual apparatus (which, of course, is implicitly construed as reproduction). This view was succinctly expressed by Dr. Lyttleton (a headmaster at Eton, a prestigious English boys school), who said: All exercise of a bodily faculty for the sake of pleasure and except for the purpose for which the faculty was given is wrong. Notice that the fault here lies not with the pleasure one feels, but with the reason one feels it. It is all right to enjoy coitus (sans contraceptives, of course), but only if one’s purpose is to create another young lad to bolster Eton’s rolls, or a lass to rule the Commonwealth.

Similar application of this principle to other bodily functions would condemn kissing (which is a perversion of the natural gustatory function of the oral cavity) and simple caressing (since this pleasure is certainly a violation of the “proper” function of the touch receptors of the skin, whatever that function might be). The absurdity of this position should be clear. Furthermore, if as claimed here, the elicitation of pleasure is a main function of human sexuality, then the preceding argument is effectively disarmed. That is, perhaps pleasure is itself “[a] purpose for which the faculty was given”.


  • Hunt, A. “The Great Masturbation Panic and Discourses of Moral Regulation.” The Journal of the History of Sexuality (1998).
  • Irvine, J. “Regulated Passion.” In Deviant Bodies: Critical Perspectives on Difference in Science and Popular, edited by Jennifer Terry and Jacqueline Urla: Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995.
  • “Reinventing Perversion: Sex Addiction and Cultural Anxieties ” The Journal of the History of Sexuality (2002).
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