One hot July day in Italy, psychologist and author Jesse Bering (Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?) was on a crowded public bus when he noticed a “man around sixty or so in a cream-colored nylon suit” leering at a 14- or 15-year-old girl in a bikini.
“There was nothing else to it: just a perspiring Italian pensioner staring at a pretty young girl with lust in his eyes,” Bering writes in his newest book Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us. In truth, there was much more to it because on that hot, rank, standing-room-only bus on the Italian Riviera, Perv was conceived. That night, the author sent his literary agent an email suggesting a book about the secret nature of our sex lives—the things that go unsaid.
Bering initially planned on Perv as an elaboration from the posts he writes for his “Bering in Mind” blog for Scientific American and that it’d be “a whistle stop tour of science that’s underway in laboratories.” As such, his first stop was the research library of the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, where he spent two weeks trying “to get a handle on the history of sex research.” It’s a stop that Bering calls a mistake. “I was just overwhelmed by the sheer amounts of things that I had to read,” he says.
But it was also a stop that apparently altered his original approach as his book became not only about contemporary sex research, but about the history of sex research too. As his home office filled with books and articles on deviant sex—“there’s so much out there that you can’t possibly tackle it all”—Bering had to learn what not to read, i.e., anything that was redundant or not essential to the key argument that he was making.
And what was that key argument?
Even Bering didn’t know at first because—like so many books—what he envisioned and what his agent sold to his publisher evolved into something quite different under the guidance of his editor, Amanda Moon. It was Moon who told Bering that he had gathered a lot of interesting facts, but there was no message or moral to the book and it needed one.
Bering stopped and thought about that. What was it that he wanted to get across to the reader? Finally, he decided it was something that he’d struggled with all his life. “We judge people too harshly on the basis of their psychosexual orientation,” he says. “In other words, what they think and not in terms of how they act.”
He wanted to separate behavior from desire, and he wanted to discuss it in terms of harm. “We’re spending far too much time talking about what’s natural, what’s normal, and really not enough time talking intelligently about what’s harmful and defining harm.”
In fact, it’s that definition of harm that might cause more conservative readers to react negatively to Perv, because, as Bering points out throughout the book, what one person or one society or one region of the world considers harmful, another person or society or region considers not only not harmful, but normal and beneficial.
Ideally, the conservative reader who wouldn’t be sympathetic to Bering’s ideas is the very reader he wants to attract. “I don’t want to preach to the choir,” he says. “That’s certainly not what I’m trying to do. I think a lot of the people that I’ll be talking to are in the choir, of course. But I also want to affect people who might be absolutely convinced going into the book that they’re going to disagree with what I have to say and they find themselves surprisingly on the same page with me at the end.”
Bering knows that’s a risk. “People will probably assume things [about me] just on the basis of the title alone.” After all, he assumed things about the man on the bus. And he knows that intellectually, Perv is treacherous territory. “It’s the type of material that people are so uncomfortable with that it just overshadows everything I could potentially do in my career,” he acknowledges. “I knew going in what the risks were, but I thought it was important enough that I needed to write it. If I wasn’t going to write it, I didn’t know who would.”
Suzy Spencer is the author of Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American Sexuality.