Who is Afraid of Perversions?


Professor Timo Airaksinen

Pejorative sexual terms such as perversion, deviant sex, sexual inversion, and unnatural sexual act have recently been under criticism, and such substitutes as paraphilia have been recommended and adopted. The need for such special terms is ironically symptomatic when we, after all, describe certain fringe phenomena of a paradigmatically desirable activity, sex. Sexuality is unique in this sense, why? Violence is a perpetual and fearful social problem, but yet we use no special words comparable to, say, perversion. I argue that sexuality is a distinctively motivating field of desire so that any contact with sexual desire is arousing per se, yet it may feel threatening: we are motivated by strange desires we do not have; we do not want to have them, which constitutes a state of cognitive dissonance and a personal threat. To talk about a perversion or paraphilia is to fight against an enemy that threatens one's ever so fragile sense of normality. The result is persistent fear that is difficult to control, although in some countries we have evidence of progress in recent years.

Keywords: deviant sex, perversion, imagination, fear of sex, vanilla sex, pornography, BDSM

Introduction: The Problem and Its Import

Sex is a private and personal matter, and the way we talk about it is in many ways controlled and subdued; this applies to most cultures as it seems. We may speak of the horror of sex, and more specifically, the horror of deviant sex, variously called unnatural and perverted, or paraphilic sex and sexual inversion.[1] However, all definitions and related discussions of perversions, unnatural sex, and paraphilias are problematic, and therefore for instance Alan Soble (1996, p. 146, p.) dismisses the whole issue in an exemplary manner: "[E]valuating sexual behavior by a criterion of 'healthy sex' is obsolete, superseded by a reverse definition of health in terms of sex. [...] Having sex is healthy, not having is not, and 'healthy sexuality' is as redundant as 'round circle'." He does not discuss deviant sex at all, which is an unconventional but recommendable choice. Instead, he calls voluntary celibacy and other forms of sexual abstinence unhealthy social and psychological states.[2] A conventional liberal strategy is to discuss the issue and conclude that the concept of perversion is best discarded.[3] This does not help much because perversions and the related notions die hard, as Janet Weston writes: "Within forensic medicine, the language of 'perversion' largely fell away but 'paraphilia' took its place. Feminists and gay rights movements from the 1970s began to formulate articulate critiques of this form of abnormality, but it has proved remarkably difficult to dislodge" (Weston, 2020, p. 57). Weston is right, but why is it so difficult to discard? What is the explanation?

Here is a typical sketch of the definition of paraphilia: "A paraphilia is a condition in which a person's sexual arousal and gratification depend on fantasizing about and engaging in sexual behavior that is atypical and extreme. [...] The focus of a paraphilia is usually very specific and unchanging" (Psychology Today, 2019). Think of the idea of "atypical and extreme" above, what does it mean? Sex is a wide field and full of novel avenues to explore. Or should the so-called normal people take care of copulating calmly and sensibly in the sense of business as usual? What about a desire that is exclusively and strongly "dependent on that object," like penis and vagina, for instance?

Such standard definitions fail to draw a line between normal and deviant sex. They make sense only if you read them from an already existing condemnatory standpoint. In this sense they are semantically circular and void, just like Soble says: they condemn what is already condemned and praise what is already called good. Why not first define procreation-style vanilla sex as normal sex and then call everything else deviant? The less it resembles vanilla sex, the more deviant it is - perhaps adding a moralistic condition requiring full mutual respect, co-operative pleasure-seeking, and perhaps lasting love. Alas, all these moralistic conditions are easily satisfied by, say, BDSM.[4] But all this is too well-known to deserve full treatment here. However, this is so well-known, and yet the definitions, as problematic as they are, refuse to die and the classifications of perversion continue to flourish. They are needed, but why?

Think of the terms like unnatural behavior, deviant desire, and perversion; these terms apply to sex and sex only. One may add Freud's favorite, "inversion."[5] Compare this with violence, especially its more extreme varieties; that is another source of anxiety, yet it lacks its distinctive moralistic terminology.[6] To mimic G. E. Moore, violence is what it is and not another thing - unlike sex that is many different things.[7] What would unnatural violence, deviant cruelty, or perverted wickedness be like, if they are not sexually motivated or sexualized as sadistic?[8] We may discuss violence using such semi-fictional terms as psychopathy or sociopathy, but perversity and unnatural sex still are of different and unique nature. Perhaps paraphilia may belong to the same category as sociopathy, that is, "antisocial personality disorder" when paraphilias, as its subtype, are "antisocial sexual disorders"? Indeed, sexual disorders are always antisocial, and this is to say that paraphilia would be a special type of sociopathy. I do not think that this works - sexual problems are unique in the sense that they bring about nausea, horror, and anxiety in a much deeper sense than sociopathy. Sociopaths are never horrible in the same sense as sexual deviants are. We condemn sociopaths but we do not loathe them. Moreover, we have a hard time telling who is a sociopath; it is an open-ended psychological category.[9] We have a hard time telling what kind of disorder it is, which is why I call it semi-fictional, yet we think we easily identify perverts and their perverted dispositions. Therefore, the allegedly neutral term "paraphilia" hides a much heavier emotional and moralistic condemnatory package than "sociopathy." Why have so many experts in the professional fields of law, religion, medicine, and psychology for so long exploited deviants and perverts as their clients or victims?

We must keep in mind that in some countries, homosexuality still is a capital offense. Even in Europe, for instance, Christian Poland condemns it. BBC reports,

In Poland, dozens of small towns have declared themselves free of "LGBT ideology". Politicians' hostility to gay rights has become a flashpoint, pitting the religious right against more liberal-minded Poles. And gay people living in these areas are faced with a choice: emigrate, keep their heads down - or fight back. / Then he [a Magazine Editor] passes me a sticker that came free with his magazine, the right-wing weekly Gazeta Polska. It shows a rainbow flag with a black cross through it. "We gave out 70,000 of these," says Sakiewicz. "And people congratulated us because we Poles love freedom."

It is naïve to suggest that the local gays could fight back in a small town that "loves freedom." What can they do when the attitudes towards them grow aggressive? The point I want to make here is this: The so-called sexual deviancy still is a cultural, social, and moral problem all over the world, and the gains made by the LGBT and BDSM people are wafer-thin on the global scale. I ask, accordingly, why so much anxiety, why so much denial and persecution, to say nothing of the continuing fervent professional interest in this field. Is professional interest parasitic on the popular horror?

We cannot talk about deviant sex without accepting its negative connotations; instead, we may talk about socially unaccepted sex, or u-sex for short - I hope "unaccepted," unlike "unacceptable," does not look condemnatory. This is a symptomatic linguistic problem: no neutral word exists and is so difficult, if not impossible, to coin. In this study, all my examples are only vague references because any more developed empirical cases are beyond the scope of this theoretical study. My purpose is solely to direct the reader's attention in the right direction.Of course, a negative attitude towards u-sex, or sex in general, is not pre-determined and necessary; as I said, one may fight it successfully and societies can be liberated. We may create a moral environment that Alan Soble sketches (above). At the same time, all this requires much effort, and the results tend to be partial, partisan, and fragile.

The Key Principles Introduced

Let us suppose that all people love freedom and, therefore, we need to explain why so many barriers and constraints exist. It would be better to learn to live without them when we discuss and practice sex, each person in his or her preferred manner. I will proceed by introducing a set of principles that apply to the problem of u-sex, but first, I want to mention a basic, governing background prima facie rule in the liberal spirit:

  • If an agent understands what she is doing when her sexual behavior harms the partner or (inclusive "or" here) violates his or her essential rights, it is a crime; if it hurts the agent herself and brings about significant suffering, it is a mental medical condition. In the first case, society punishes, in the second case it provides medical help.

We can add that (1) applies to any and every form of sex, including the desire for and practice of vanilla sex that can cause severe mental conflict and much anxiety and lead to personal and social suppression of sexuality. Nevertheless, humans are genetically sexual beings; we cannot avoid or deny this fact: we are vulnerable to sexual desire and lust.

I will discuss the following principles to describe and understand the nature and import of sexually channeled anxiety: (2) The hyperbolic principle focuses on sexual exaggeration both at practical and narrative levels. (3) The imaginary principle: imagination has its barriers so that some fictional mental narratives become painful or even impossible to bear. (4) The de se reading of u-sexual desire refers to a personal tendency to apply a narrative description to one's own case. (5) The principle of motivation: any sexual description or experience is intrinsically motivating and arousing per se. (6) According to the principle of nausea, a person first identifies something as sexual and then as u-sex; next, she sanctions, condemns, and punishes it. This process turns the original fear and anxiety into nausea and ultimately, aggression. The history of the violent repression of u-sex is disturbing.[10]

The final principle is (7), or the exclusionary principle, alternatively, we can call it an ironic principle: If a person does not feel a given type of sexual desire, she will reject the desire; in other words, indifference is out of the question. The rejection tends to be strong and emotional: one finds it disgusting to think and imagine a sexual desire one does not have. This principle also applies to porn and sex work. We may accept the idea of indifference, as it seems, only if we successfully fight against sexual nausea, or (6). This happens but success is limited, and we still see (7) at work everywhere. I will argue that (7), or the fear of the sexual desire a person does not have, is the core principle that expresses the key difference between sex and u-sex by drawing a demarcation line between them. Notice that for some people and cultures vanilla sex qualifies as u-sex; this applies to some Christian sects. All sex acts are sinful, and hence we conceive in sin, like the Psalmist says: "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me" (Psalm 51:5).

The High Road to Anxiety, Nausea, and Fear

Next, I explain, explicate, and apply the set of principles listed above. Let us start from (2), or the hyperbolic principle. Hyperbole means exaggeration and overstatement including strange and extravagant embellishments; it has a quantitative and qualitative aspect. The terms grotesque and bizarre describe the applications of (2).[11] In other words, when we combine overstatement and its embellishments we will ultimately arrive at the categories of the grotesque and bizarre, that is, at something that contains mutually incompatible attributes in excess, or satisfy the paradigmatic qualifications of weirdness. All this is actualized in the celebration of the grotesqueness of u-sex in media narratives, professional accounts, religiously inspired lore, and folk tales. Gays are a nationwide cultural threat, pedophiles kill babies, pornography makes rapists, BDSM people are criminal sadists and sick masochists, and even voluntary prostitution is slavery.

The lexical antinomy of hyperbole is meiosis, or understatement, underestimation, and, ultimately, irony and sarcasm - when you end up calling what is great (hyperbole) small and insignificant (meiosis). This is a fundamental source of irony: the endpoint of meiosis is what is null and void, or nothingness; but it is intrinsically ironic to call something void when it is not void but something, or to deny the obvious. Of course, we can use hyperbole ironically as well, that is true, but its normal endpoint is grotesqueness, which is devoid of irony: what is grotesque is strange and great. Sometimes grotesqueness is great and impressive in a weird way, like a drag-queen, which indeed is an ironic position and a radical cultural statement. A drag-queen in action is a paradigm of hyperbole. Yet, meiosis is in itself ironic, unlike hyperbole. A sensationally mutilated corpse does not exemplify irony, except if you sexualize the experience. In what follows, I assume that hyperbole applies to all sex, unlike meiosis. Sex is kept as a public secret exactly because of its hyperbolic public appearance. We know it is there but we dare not mention it.

Now, (2) is the principle of hyperbole applied to u-sex. U-sex grows in social imagination until it rears its ugly head, for instance, as they believe today in Russia and Poland, gays will take over and ruin their sacred traditional national culture. Gays become the bringers of doom and destruction. They are ever so seductive and treacherous seeking nothing else but spreading their perilous poison among the young Christian patriots. What they do to their youthful recruits is too abominable to imagine. Or, to take a historical example, those guilty of bestiality should be, according to contemporary criminal law, burned at stake, yet bestiality was common among the European peasants. Or think of the bizarre child masturbation hysteria at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries.[12]

The meiotic principle or the principle of diminution is the sister principle of (2). It does not apply directly to u-sex, so I leave it without a number, but my argument needs it anyway, as we will see. It is interesting that instead of (2), popular sentiment and professional thinking tend to apply the meiotic principle to such major public secrets as torture. Think of the recent CIA torture camps and the sustained use of waterboarding, applied as many as 180 times in a row to a single prisoner, which leads to a permanent mental breakdown.[13] Such extreme cruelty has not been condemned under principle (2) as perverted or unnatural but explained away as a legal and justifiable information gathering and even a practical necessity; this includes a legal ad hoc re-definition of what is torture. This exemplifies the use of the meiotic principle to explain the problem away. Of course, liberals have condemned torture on well-founded moral grounds but, alas, quite meekly and sporadically. The question is: why not assign a torturer a special pejorative name?

The social and legal problem of u-sex has traditionally and even normally been dealt with by violent means, which is to say that violence is not a problem, or that u-sex is a significantly worse problem than violence. I know only one writer who recommended that we solve the problem of violence in terms of sexual liberation. Violence would be the result of too few orgasms, as Wilhelm Reich explained, and applied his theory to Nazism and its cult of violence (Reich, 1973, Ch, VI-VIII). His theories, together with his later mental problems, led him into major trouble with law and psychiatry. He died in prison in the USA in 1957, and six tons of his books were indiscriminately burned by the authorities in 1956.

Why do we not use the meiotic principle in the case of u-sex? Why cannot we just punish, say, pedophiles, and then provide them with the necessary therapy? Instead, we demonize them, punish them, and, most significantly, brand them as perverts. In the USA, they for example must live in specified isolated areas, and display a sign that announces that a child-molester lives here.[14] Why do they not treat torturers in the same way: "Here lives an unrepentant torturer," might be a suitable warning. Here we see the principle of meiosis at work. Sexualized love of children is sick and grotesque, love to kill is not much to talk about. And to say the army sniper has her useful and legal role in the army skips the question. Suppose that a secret service employs compulsive rapists for special tasks, but their legal role does not imply that they are perverts. Moreover, rapists do not always appear on the lists of paraphilias; biastophilia and raptophilia are mentioned as sub-types of sadism, which is a dubious proposition. Rape is too many-sided a phenomenon to permit this type of simplification, sometimes rape is close to consensual vanilla sex, sometimes a bizarre violent act with minimal sexual context. Moreover, the legal and colloquial definitions do not always agree.

The principle of imagination, or (3), says a person is unwilling, or perhaps unable, to imagine every epistemically available possible world, due to typical psychological resistance. Some fictional worlds are simply too grotesque, and for that matter grotesque in a wrong way, to be called in and imagined in any definite and continuous narrative detail; instead, one can as if glimpse at them or visit them briefly and superficially in one's imagination.[15] In other words, one can mention them but not assert them in any narrative detail in one's mental discourse. One may go to great lengths trying to avoid contact with such imagery, which is all too obvious a point to warrant examples. If the nasty imagery is compulsive, one may need psychiatric help to handle the pain. Of course, a mentally healthy person will learn how to cope; but try imagining truly revolting u-sex, and then develop its details in a narrative form, add features and background until it all becomes unbearable. Undoubtedly, major personal differences exist, but certainly some persons are oversensitive to images of sex and especially u-sex. How to explain this is an open question.

Some people enjoy porn but others find it truly sickening and as such impossible to watch. This fear is often rationalized in functionalist terms and studied at that level asking what harm porn produces psychologically and socially.[16] The researchers and writers postulate something called addiction to porn, which makes their worries more understandable: addiction hampers life and destroys persons. Also, a gate theory is popular: porn is a slippery slope to sexual crime.[17] However, the reason why this field of research is so interesting and important is the fear of porn and the nausea it produces. No one asks why so many individuals are horrified by porn although this looks like the key problem.[18]

Pornography is an externalized form of illegitimate sexual imagination, but at the same time, it involves real action, both vanilla and u-sex. My point is simple: some people emotionally resist imagining detailed sexual scenes and narratives, perhaps any type of sex, including vanilla sex and even the sex they may find personally desirable. In the case of vanilla sex porn, the resisters shun away from a voyeuristic experience, as it seems. They may not have anything against vanilla sex, except they abhor their own voyeurism - which indeed is u-sex. Indeed, porn sells a form of voyeurism, but that will change once virtual sex apparatus will allow people to participate in all types of sex acts without real-life responsibilities.[19] Of course, we do not call people who enjoy u-sex fiction perverts but such consumption patterns are often seen as fringe cases of normality, as we saw above.

Ironically, we may not condemn proclivity to, say, violent imagery, or imaginary cultivation of grossly violent acts and events per se; we condemn what it becomes only when transformed via arousal into a u-sexual problem. The person who tolerates and enjoys bizarre imaginary violence, violating (3), may be called a sadist, which is a u-sexual disposition. Rape fantasies are u-sexual mental acts, but the enjoyment of torture narratives initially looks like a non-sexual pleasure and then turns into u-sex.[20] Such a metamorphosis is an ironic instance of the meiotic principle applied to bizarre violence as a social and psychological problem: the image of violence is diminished until it reappears as a perversion, or sadism, which then entails the force of (2). The initial meiosis gives room for subsequent hyperbole, which leads to accusations of grotesque u-sex that is too gross to be imagined. Indeed, the process entails a meiotic metamorphosis of what is to be diminished until it becomes something else that will be intolerable as a perversion in its newly acquired, grotesquely exaggerated guise, under the hyperbolic principle (2). In this way, we transform what we can handle, or violence, into something we cannot, or sadistic u-sex - which is a paradox and a source of ironic redescription. For this reason, we need not give the different types of violent motives by any special, fancy pseudo-scientific names; instead, we turn the fascination of exaggerated violence into an illicit sexual problem. If violence is arousing, it must be sexual - and condemned as such.

Some people feel anxious and nauseous when they face u-sex in fiction, imagination, or real life - and the incumbent culture may fully support them by validating the reaction. Their sub-culture understands, respects, and supports them, channeling and institutionalizing nausea, anxiety, and fear. And of course, they cannot acknowledge the deviants. Why is this so? Let me continue by reviewing (4), or the principle of de se application of desire and lust. The meaning of de se can be explained as follows. Philosophers have shown that,

among singular thoughts in general, thoughts about oneself "as oneself" (de se thoughts, as [David] Lewis called them) raise special issues, and they advanced rival accounts. [John] Perry [. . .] introduces his case with a celebrated example: "I once followed a trail of sugar on a supermarket floor, pushing my cart down the aisle on one side of a tall counter and back the aisle on the other, seeking the shopper with the torn sack to tell him he was making a mess. With each trip around the counter, the trail became thicker. But I seemed unable to catch up. Finally it dawned on me. I was the shopper I was trying to catch." Before his epiphany, Perry has a belief [de re] about [someone, actually] himself (under the individuating concept or mode of presentation the shopper with the torn sack) to the effect that he was making a mess. This, however, is insufficient for him to have the reflexive, self-conscious belief that he would express in accepting "I am making a mess," the one that leads him to rearrange the torn sack in the cart (García-Carpintero, 2015)(my italics).

How does this apply to u-sex and the principle of imagination, (3)? Perhaps one can imagine a personally nauseating u-sex act, but one then refuses to develop it de se, or thinking of oneself somehow involved in it; or one might have a problem with imagining oneself in situ watching and witnessing it knowing what it is - that is, if one is "straight." Suppose a heterosexual person enters a gay bar and witnesses men kissing and fondling each other quite openly. He says to himself, "I see, these people are gay." Then he notices that he could as well be one of them, and such imagery overcomes him when he reaches the idea of completed unprotected male fellatio. In this case, the person may well anticipate the danger and the loss of control that allows the u-sexual desire to grow and invade one's reluctant imagination, like (2) predicts. De se means here personal involvement, or that the linguistic description is understood as referring to me, too. I am a potential participant. I argue that this de se aspect is a key to understanding nausea, anxiety, and anger that follow from (2) and (5): one has a hard time canceling her de se imagined participation that, alarmingly, tends to intensify and grow until intolerable.

To illustrate: When a straight person hears about bestiality, he imagines a bestial act, and he may notice and feel that he is imagining, de se, himself copulating with a cow, which is unbearable. To perceive is to imagine, and in sexual cases, one always imagines de se because sexual thoughts are intrinsically motivating and arousing - in this sense they are unique. According to the principle of motivation (5), all sexual thoughts, perceptions, or mental images are motivating and arousing per se. In other words, if you look at the copulating pair, a man and his cow, you first see the details and you imagine the rest of the act, but then you also tend to adopt a de se attitude that entails your knowing participation or active presence in the situation - but all that requires arousal. This arousal follows from the perception, and then the de se reading follows. This must be understood correctly: all sex entails arousal, which is what sex is all about. The rule is, no sex without arousal. Of course, arousal may be denied or even blocked, but one can still feel its effects, which u-sex makes so alarming.

In the case of torture, one may sympathetically identify with the victim, which is bound to be scary. Perhaps one is sadistically or masochistically oriented, which entails a positive involvement and a special kind of enjoyment. This is a sexual motive related to sadism or S/M (see above). The de se attitude towards perceived or imagined u-sex may indeed be prima facie aversive but at the same time inviting; it is sex after all, and sex is intrinsically motivating and arousing.[21] It follows that even nauseating u-sex is arousing, as it is difficult to miss sex as sex. We are culturally trained to be sensitive to sexuality. And this arousal makes the sexual case de se, unlike violence that is not, as violence, de se.

In sum: Here is a key difference between u-sex and violence: the former obeys the principle of hyperbole, the latter that of meiosis - and the latter tends to collapse into the former case, that is, we sexualize violence and by so doing end up exaggerating it. This is so because one can say that hyperbole, in this case, indicates increasing enjoyment, and thus it is sexual. Yet one may try to extinguish one's violent thoughts if they are initially aversive, but this may not succeed in the case of u-sex because the case is ambiguous, both crypto-pleasant, exciting, arousing, and satisfying but also disgusting, anxious, and dangerous. Such ambivalence is, when fully developed, intolerable and leads to nausea, anxiety, fear, and anger, at first directed against oneself but then immediately projected outside against external culprits, that is, people labeled as perverts.

Concerning u-sexual thoughts, an observer's motivation may not be directed towards the act itself but her thoughts: she wants to have the u-sexual thoughts in a sharper focus along with maximally nuanced contents. This hurts, why? Here is a key question: why does a "normal," straight, and prudish person fail to avoid the de se thought and, on the contrary, fuels it? The answer: sexual thoughts are defined as those that are arousing in a typical motivational manner, and thoughts of u-sex are sexual in that very sense. Think of an S/M show where submissive slaves are whipped, cut with blades, and burned. They claim they enjoy the pain.[22] Why is this skene sexual? No genital play, no copulation, no orgasm or semen, yet everyone assumes that the pleasure is sexual. The typical S/M act need not have sexual content in the conventional sense. Therefore, I suggest that S/M is sexual because of the typically arousing effect of the show. We then define what is sexual, not in terms of the contents of the show, but in terms of the type of arousal, or if arousal is a sui generis feeling, it always is sexual. Sexuality is not about sex organs, not about the content of what people are doing - it is all about arousal, and many different things can be arousing, including violence, when they are sexualized.[23]

Therefore, u-sexual thoughts are de se, or they are somehow personally arousing, however anxious and denied they may be. And the principle of hyperbole, (2), guarantees that they are truly and relentlessly scary. Anxiety as such does not matter much, as examples of vanilla sex and straight people show. They also tend to be anxious, but they still copulate energetically and enjoy orgasms, and one cannot deny that vanilla sex can be wild and even bizarre when a veteran couple is fully motivated. But they need not worry about the situation being bizarre and anxious. All this of course applies to active u-sex practitioners and their intended audiences. Some of them may suffer from deep guilt feelings, but as I said many vanilla sex practitioners do the same: these people condemn what they do, some successfully, some not. They worry about their anxieties. Why is all u-sex labeled as sick and sinful, when anxious vanilla sex is not?

What You Do Not Desire, You Hate

This principle (8) has two versions, a correct and an incorrect one. To make sense of this, we need to hark back to the idea of de se thought and principle (4). We can now reformulate it as follows: (8) If you do not want de se u-sex, you find it nauseating, anxious, and scary. Therefore, one hates sex one does not want, say, sex with a sex worker. Many people experience considerable anxiety when they think of sex work and they insist on banning it.[24] They may report quite lurid and obviously painful imaginary reports to support their negative opinions. Yet, sex with a sex worker may be deeply satisfying if you like such a thing, or if it is your only chance of getting sex; but you may also find the very idea impossible to accept. You then condemn it privately and publicly, most likely publicly by referring to ideally good, loving sex and related moralistic ideals. Bestiality is likely to be a nauseating idea, yet it is difficult to find a solid argument against it; it is mostly harmless and obviously pleasant to the practitioners - why then punishment?

At the same time (7) is deeply ironic: what a person does not have may profoundly disturb and motivate her. Of course, one may say: you have heard, and therefore you have knowledge by description but not by acquaintance of a bad desire, and that is enough to make you unhappy; that is, you hate both the idea that such a thing exists and that you think of it. This suggestion goes in the right direction, yet it does not explain enough. In many cases and different situations I learn about some nasty sexual desires and I, rationally enough, wish they would not materialize, and certainly they should not arrive at my present neighborhood. The extension of this neighborhood varies because even far away cases may disturb me. Nevertheless, the sexually colored desire that I do not have is unique in the sense that it can create panic, nausea, anxiety, and trigger a set of retributive attitudes. Therefore we may feel we need such special terms as "perversion" and its cognate words. Ironically, I am afraid of what I do not have. I am at loss about what to do about my feelings. How does this happen? I do not have the desire but its idea, as an occurring sexual thought, still motivates me, and this is disturbing.

We can explain the irony by referring to de se thoughts, (4). Suppose Chuck, who is a fundamentalist born-again Christian, goes shopping for food but takes the wrong turn at the door and finds out he is wandering around in an adult store specializing in bondage, humiliation, and S/M. He faces a collection of gas masks, rubber suits, toilet equipment, and torture instruments many of them with a strong scatological touch. He is duly horrified and rushes out. The door is locked and he panics. Later on, he sues the shop owner because the door did not have a warning sign and was difficult to open and prolonged his torture. He had an S/M experience, free of charge, which he was unable to appreciate and enjoy. What happened? [25]

Chuck, as I argue, had a sexual experience when he was confronted by certain desires of others he himself did not have. The case is a combination of (4), (5), (6), and (7). In sum: When a person faces a sexual situation, she also has a sexual experience, which as if automatically develops into a de se thought, however unacceptable it is from the personal point of view. This experience is nauseating, anxious, and painful.

Suppose next a perfectly straight person who sees a heterosexual couple having full penetrative vanilla sex on the lawn nearby in full daylight. The observe may react with shame and panic, or amusement, but this is not the point; the point is, the observer will have a de se sexual experience - it is unavoidable. Chuck was in the same situation. Their responses are probably quite different, but both had a sexual experience, a kind of proto-desire or an indirect experience of desire and lust, initially expressed in terms of oratio obliqua, or "I see what they desire," that turns into a thought oratio recta, "This is arousing." Chuck panics, the observer may react differently.

Now, the difference between the observer and Chuck is this: the contrafactual de se case may not be painful to the observer, he is not like Chuck to whom the case is traumatic; I mean the thoughts, "I could have the desire I do not have," and then "If I had the desire, I would hate it." Notice that the observer has the vanilla desire experience he is just witnessing. The point here is that the observer does not care or worry about the feeling, lust, desire, and motivation entailed by seeing the copulating vanilla couple on the lawn; it is what he would like to do himself, although perhaps not publicly, and thus he feels vicarious shame. Chuck rejects his experience and is unable to image himself, according to (3), wearing one of those rubber suits and going through a vigorous toilet training session accompanied by a sound whipping - this is an impossible de se narrative. But he still entertains a sexual thought that contains these mentioned elements plus arousal; and to have them all as a de se thought and desire, even if it is impossible, disturbs him profoundly. "I am not like that" somehow alludes to "I am like that" in an unacceptable manner.

Saved by Magical Thinking

Perhaps Chuck cannot consciously entertain the relevant S/M narrative, deliberatively and at will; but this is not to say that it would not occur to Chuck, however briefly and dimly, and this is enough for a panic reaction to emerge. And even the idea that this would happen, were he to enter the shop in question, is a source of anxiety and nausea. "What if I wanted, how would I feel?" is all that is requires to disturb Chuck and make him lose his sense of safety and demand punitive action against the shop. A contrafactual conditional works like magic: "If such shops were illegal, they would no longer threaten me." What he would like to believe is that they could no longer intimidate him by their sheer existence, but because the law does not guarantee their disappearance, the law cannot provide full safety to Chuck - except in a magical sense. Yet, he insists that we need a law against such shops as if this somehow provided safety for him. The same happens in the case of such intrinsically pejorative terms as perversion, and to a lesser degree with pseudo-scientific terms like paraphilia: they provide magical linguistic protection against vice, sin, and depravity by condemning them. Perhaps we can say they are linguistic fetishes. They protect the good and normal people from bad and deviant desires and ultimately from those who desire, or carry the sick virus and infect others, especially the youth. As I said, this is magical thinking, but it has its roots in human sexuality.

Joel Feinberg, in his comprehensive study, Offence to Others (1985), offers a liberal moral theory concerning the varieties of sexual experience and their social evaluation. His "A Ride on the Bus" catalogs and illustrates those human experiences that "are harmless in themselves and yet so unpleasant that we can rightly demand legal protection from them" (1985, p. 3). Stories 13-33 are sexually loaded, something like my examples of Chuck and the copulating pair in the park - his list deserves a classical status. In my story, the copulating couple forces the passer-by to confront a sexual scene. Feinberg writes, "To be forced to suffer an offense, be it an affront to the senses, disgust, shock, shame, annoyance, or humiliation is an unpleasant inconvenience, and hence an evil, even when it is by no means harmful. [...] Their victims are wronged even though they are not harmed" (1985, 49).

However, unwitnessed offenses occur, too. In this case, the problem is the person's belief that may be true or false, namely, one believes that u-sexual acts occur unwitnessed behind the wall of his rooms, and he may still feel seriously offended. Feinberg writes, "When an unwitnessed person defaces flags and mutilates corpses in the privacy in his own rooms, the outsider is outraged, but he would not claim to be the victim of the offensive behavior. He thinks that the behavior is wrong whether it has a true victim or not, and that is what outrages him" (1985, 67). In the sexual cases, the cause of outrage is not that simple, as I have tried to show because sexual cases are de se. Anyway, the problem is twofold, one's private thoughts are painful, even when they are disconnected to the facts, and the activity itself, if it occurs, is offensive or wrong, or both at the same time. However, the problem is, as Feinberg says, in all these cases the person is offended and suffers from ideas that would affront the senses and produce disgust, shock, shame, annoyance, or humiliation - this is an unpleasant inconvenience. The victim may call the police if he sees something, but what to do with the unwitnessed cases that bother him profoundly? What if my neighbor is a male prostitute, how can I tell? This bothers me no end. In this case, I have only one possibility: only if prostitution in all its forms is strictly illegal, can I get some protection against it as well as against my own anxious thoughts, whether de se or not.

Many juridical arrangements that make porn legal contain a clause that in no circumstances may porn become accidentally visible to a person who does not want to see it. Porn, sex trade, and other vices must be kept under the lid that a person must first intentionally lift if he wants to enjoy the contents. This reasonable attitude is then reflected in both colloquial and learned languages. We speak in terms of unnatural sex, perversions, paraphilias, inversions, and other expressions that simply refer to u-sex. We provide elaborate scholastic classifications. At the same time, we are convinced that we need these terms, they are indispensable, and they are somehow morally, experientially, and scientifically grounded. We cannot imagine or afford life and morality without them because we are convinced that the world of sex and sexuality is something special, in exactly what sense we cannot explain. Yet we keep on trying till the end of time calling religion, science, and law for help. This is the final and ultimate irony of sex and sexuality: people hate perverse sex because they are irredeemably fascinated by it. The desire they do not have, or cannot have, keeps us in its grips. There is nothing else quite like it, for instance, no special terms for extreme, gratuitous cruelty and violence do not exist, sexuality is unique in this sense.

The ultimate, widely accepted hyperbole looks like this: Chuck, in the shop, had a nasty experience, but here the word "nasty" is used equivocally: his experience is nasty, and the desires of others are nasty. These are two different things, but he confuses the two, and therefore Chuck is so disturbed and panicky - he has a good reason to be because the relevant de se thought concerning his arousal is unbearable. It threatens his identity at many different levels, including religious, sexual, moral, etc. He may say he will never recover and thus he has a right to be angry and vindictive. And he has his sympathetic audience.


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[1] Sexual mores vary between cultures, see for instance Herdt (1987), and Berndt and Berndt (1999) Ch. VI; cf. Pearsall (1971). On the Roman Catholic rhetoric for natural sex and against unnatural perversions, for instance, Mirus (2010). See Soble and Power (2008), Parts 1 and 4, for an eclectic collection of ideas and arguments.

[2] See Brotto and Morag Yule (2017).

[3] For instance, Primoratz, 1999, Ch 6. See Airaksinen, 2019, Ch. 11.

[4] See Cunningham (2010), and Newmahr (2011). Kleinplatz (2006).

[5] Freud (1987), pp. 46-47; on the concept of degeneracy, pp. 48-5.

[6] When Mary Midgley says, "Injustice and oppression can be worse forms of wickedness than violence," she does not live in reality (1985, p. 75).

[7] The motto in Principia Ethica (1903).

[8] See Briken et. al (2006). Hallie (1982).

[9] Anthony and Wu (2008).

[10] See Berkowitz (2013).

[11] Edwards and Graulund (2013), Ch. 8: "Queerly Grotesque."

[12] See Foucault (2003), Ch. 9. The term of choice was "self-pollution."

[13] See Human Rights Watch (2015).

[14] Kirk (2015).

[15] See e.g., Nichols (2006), Ch. III: "Imaginative Resistance." A good example is jealousy: an attempt to imagine what the loved one is doing with his or her new lover may lead to extreme consequences as the pain is too much to handle.

[16] See Brown (2020) for a typical alarmist conservative view.

[17] Kutchinsky (1991) argues for a negative conclusion. The functionalist and gate theoretical hypotheses are prohibitively difficult to formulate and verify properly.

[18] See Steele et. al (2013); why not study the compulsive behavior of rejectors.

[19] See Eerikäinen (2014).

[20] The first pages of Foucault (1975) are a proper test case. Some people find such torture scenes fascinating and arousing, most people have a hard time reading them through. A visual test case is the horrifying picture of the Chine torture of "death by thousand cuts" made famous by Georges Bataille. He always carried a picture on him, he as if worshiped it, see Bataille (1943, 2001), and Bladh (2019). Bladh writes "hundred cuts," which may be an unconscious meiotic blunder.

[21] See Janssen (2011).

[22] Airaksinen (2017, 2018); Newmahr (2011).

[23] Soble (1996, p. 142) says we can find sufficient conditions of what is sexual but not necessary conditions. Perhaps sex without arousal is possible, say, routine vanilla sex because of a married duty. But we can say that the necessary condition of sex ties to the possibility of a certain type of arousal. This is a difficult but unimportant conceptual problem.

[24] The problem is that many sex workers say they want to do it. So, the Swedish strategy is to let the workers work but make buying sex illegal. The shop is open but the police watch that no one enters. What about male sex workers? See Bimbi (2007), and Weitzer (2006).

[25] See, Bartel, and Cremaldi (2017).