Many deny that perversions exist. Even despite the fact that today’s dominant psychiatry has re-baptized them as paraphilias — a name change attributable to political correctness, since calling someone a “pervert” today is an insult. In Greek, paraphilia means “wrong love”. It’s better to insult a pervert in Ancient Greek than in Modern English.
Some note that we call perverse any sexual acts we don’t label as “normal.” But the criteria for sexual normality has varied from one era to another. And then, the picture is complicated by the fact that many perversions have no criminal implications, while others lead to very serious incriminations. So we cannot reduce perversions to simply illegal sex. In any case, critics apply to paraphilias the same arguments made by Thomas Szasz against the existence of mental illness in general, that is, that perversions are just erotic variants that our society considers sick. For example, why is klismaphilia, an enjoyment from enemas, perverse?
In fact, when positivist sexology created the concept of perversion in the late 19th century, the main perversion was (usually male) homosexuality. And pedophilia was not particularly taken into consideration at the time. In fact, when I was a boy in Naples in the 1960s I was sent to a Catholic school ruled by monks. Everyone, even parents, knew that some monks were pedophiles; but it didn’t shock anyone, it was considered a “trial” that boys needed to overcome.
Our views on all of this have completely changed.
Yet, psychoanalysts usually believe that perversions do exist. I shall explain in what sense I, too, believe that they exist.
Many analysts who do believe in perversions, however, fall into an ontological error. They say: “The physicians of the 19th century were wrong to consider homosexuality, or oral and anal sex in a couple, as perversions. Thanks to Freud and his followers, we, on the contrary, really know what “perversion” means. Today we know who is perverse and who isn’t.” But this position means that they believe that we can scientifically determine what a perversion is, and that we can state as a truth, regardless of history and culture, what is perverse.
I think that the interesting question is not “what is perversion?” but rather “what do we really mean today when we qualify someone as paraphilic?”
It’s a bit like when we discuss whether to allow marriages between gays and lesbians. The point is to understand what “matrimony” means today. Until about 50 years ago, matrimony was a legal recognition mainly regarding the raising of offspring. In recent decades, the sense of marriage has radically changed. Marriage today, even between heterosexuals, is first of all a legal protection for each member of the couple. It is this change in the sense of the concept of marriage that has introduced the question of whether it should be granted to homosexuals.
So, what do psychiatrists and psychoanalysts consider perverse or paraphilic today? On this point, the diagnostics of analysts coincides with the diagnostics of the DSM-5. And yet we could easily show how incoherent this type of diagnostics by DSM is, because it applies contemporaneously two conflicting philosophies: one is utilitarianism and the other a form of Aristotelian-Darwinian functionalism.
The philosophy of utilitarianism is based on the criterion of individual pleasure or displeasure. Whatever enhances the pleasure or reduces the displeasure of myself or others is good; whatever does the opposite is bad. Indeed, the DSM’s basic diagnostic criterion is whether or not a subject suffers from Distress or Social Impairment.
The other philosophy is a form of functionalism which today adopts and adapts more of a Darwinian language: illness is something that doesn’t correspond to the function that the biological evolution of life would have selected. This philosophy, however, should lead to considering homosexuality a disorder, since it does not favor reproduction. But this is something that cannot be said today. In short, when today’s diagnostics addresses paraphilias, it doesn’t really know what it’s talking about.
Let’s set aside naturalist functionalism and focus on the utilitarianist ethical criterion, which is after all what Freud started from (Lustprinzip). An accurate analysis would lead us to conclude that perversion is not ego-dystonic as all neuroses are, but that it is rather a hetero-dystonic sexuality. That is, the pervert derives a “special” sexual enjoyment by in some way using the other’s subjectivity. He uses the other not as object, but as subject. What we mean by perversion is solitary sex practiced with the willing or unwilling help of an other subject.
The term “other” is more than ever problematic. Here I shall limit myself to distinguish between what I would call the “actual others”—the concrete subjects I am dealing with—and what Lacan calls ‘the Other’ with a capital O, which is not actual or existent, but “symbolic”, a place and not a person. I shall call it here the capital Other. The perverse use of the subjectivity of the actual other, or of the capital Other, is dystonic with the desire or the enjoyment of the actual other. As we can see, the concept of “perversion” is ultimately an ethical concept. And perversion is seen as an unethical sexuality, insofar as it does not adjust to the other as ethically defined by utilitarianism.
The point is that the pervert needs this actual other and/or this capital Other in order to enjoy. Some perversions seem above all to exploit other concrete subjects. The sadist needs the victim’s suffering; the exhibitionist needs the woman’s shocked or disgusted reaction; the voyeur needs the sexual pleasure of the lovers he is peeping on; the pedophile needs the child’s sexual desire or need for love; and the transvestite needs others to desire him as a woman. In other perversions, on the other hand, the actual other is only called upon as an accomplice, and the subjectivity that is supposedly exploited is that of the capital Other, like in fetishism or masochism. The masochist needs the wrath and the anger of the Woman—with a capital W. We can say, as Freud grasped, that the fetishist imaginarily returns to the Woman her phallus and power. The actual women who lend themselves to fetishist and masochist games play the powerful phallic capital Other.
Analysts usually see perversion as a subjective structure dominated by a process other than repression, denial or disavowal. Repression and disavowal are both fundamental processes of anyone’s unconscious. Freud developed the concept of disavowal to explain fetishism. The fetishist—specialized mainly in feet and shoes—would unconsciously deny what he actually knows, that women lack a penis. How then to extend this disavowal mechanism to all so-called perversions? What does a sadist or a voyeur, for example, disavow?
We can say that in every perversion recognized as such today, two knowledges are at play, one I would call “empirical and collective,” and the other “erotic and private.” Perversion consists in the fact that the latter knowledge disavows the former. I would suggest the following schema.
Now, this disavowal leads to a specific relation with the Law. The pervert is someone who utilizes the ethical law to capture his own pleasure. In other words, he needs the law so that he can transgress it. If there is no law to transgress, he finds no pleasure. Perversion thus perverts the sense of the law, which is no longer something that regulates and limits our enjoyments, but rather becomes the specific condition to obtain enjoyment.
As we know, in both Saint Paul (Epistle to the Romans) and in Lacan, the law not only limits the satisfaction of our desires, but is also the matrix of our desires. I desire something precisely because the law forbids it. We can say that the pervert also makes use of the law in order to desire and enjoy.
And, since the Law is the relationship with the sufferings and enjoyments of the actual others and/or the capital Other, perversion is a specific modality for the sexual use of others and of the capital Other.
Let us consider as an example: visual perversions. The exhibitionist needs the gaze of the actual other to shock her into reawakening her desire and horror. The voyeur needs the gaze of the capital Other: he does not enjoy simply by seeing others enjoying sex—something he could get from any porn show—but enjoys instead his very exclusion from the scene he is attending as the capital Other. While in exhibitionism the perverse subject produces something uncertain, half way between enjoyment and suffering, in the actual other, in voyeurism, he exploits the suffering of the capital Other.
Another example, pedophilia. Here the child is assumed to find pleasure as the sexual partner of the pedophile. But we know that this is not the case. In pedophilia, the child is supposed to derive pleasure from sex only as the capital Other, but this Other does not exist. Indeed, most pedophiles claim to have been “seduced” the first time by an actual child. The pedophile derives pleasure from the disconnection between two ”othernesses”. On the one hand, the naive child who knows nothing about sex, and on the other the revelation of sexuality in the child. The pedophile believes in a convergence of the two languages with the lustful angel.
We can therefore say that the perverse subject finds enjoyment always thanks to the suffering or irrelevance of the actual other. If the actual other suffers, then the capital Other will enjoy.
However, when I say that perversion today is a perverse use of the Law, and that we are dealing with an ethical dystonia, a doubt assails me. If this is actually what we mean today by perversion, can we say that an entity, something that represents a perverse structure, corresponds to this at once ethical and psychiatric judgment? For example, if we take all those who have no religious faith, does this common feature designate a specific subjective entity? When we say that all perverts basically use the law—that is, the other’s subjectivity—to enjoy without having the actual other’s enjoyment as their goal, are we saying, then, that there is a thing that is perversion?
In short, do we call fantasies and sexual acts perverse because we judge them morally? Or are perverts subjects who use moral judgments to enjoy specific fantasies and perverse acts?
Formulated differently, the question is: does it make sense to talk of a common etiology for all perversions?
From my clinical practice with perverts, or neurotics with perverse traits, I have come to the conclusion that the perverse act generally transforms a fundamental trauma in relation to the other into a form of enjoyment. Every perverse act repeats a trauma—in most cases an exclusion from the enjoyment or desire of the big Other. This is why perversions are reminiscent of tragic dramas: just as a tragedy gives us pleasure by representing and repeating the suffering and defeat of the hero, so do perverse fantasies and acts represent and repeat a scene of suffering and defeat, transubstantiating it into an act of pleasure.
This explains why most pedophiles, for example, were victims of sexual abuse by adults during childhood. What the subject suffered as violence he acts out as a form of pleasure for which a new child will pay the price.
The pervert repeats the trauma, turning passive suffering into active pleasure, because the other inflicts the trauma. I find that this trauma revolves around jealousy, like in the most classic Oedipus. The future pervert usually suffered as a child when he realized his mother was not just his mother; that she was instead someone else’s lover or wife. Behind every perversion, we will nearly always find an experience of exclusion from someone else’s enjoyment.
The pervert is a sort of artist who uses the trauma to obtain pleasure, but at a price: it is difficult or impossible for him to find a real partner. And while the pervert may take advantage of the complicity of various people, he will never really be part of a couple.
There is a well-known joke where the masochist implores the sadist to “please hurt me”, and the sadist responds with a gleeful smile, “No, never!” Gilles Deleuze said it was a stupid joke because a real sadist and a real masochist never meet. If Deleuze was right, it would confirm the pervert’s real ordeal: despite the “sophisticated” pleasures he manages to find, he is, in a certain sense, fated to always enjoy pleasure alone.
Sergio Benvenuto is a psychoanalyst in Rome, president of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Psychoanalysis (ISAP), and a scientific researcher in the Institute of Sciences and Technologies of Cognition at the Italian Council for Scientific Research (CNR) in Rome. He is professor meritus in Psychoanalysis at the International Institute of Psychology of Depth/University of Nice in Kiev. He is also the founder and editor of EJ?. European Journal of Psychoanalysis, published both online and in print.
His latest book, What are Perversions?: Sexuality, Ethics, Psychoanalysis, is published this week by Karnac Books.