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Sylvère Lotringer is a professor of French Literature and Philosophy at Columbia University. Overexposed: Perverting Perversions was originally released in 1987 and has now been republished with a new foreword by Semiotext(e), an imprint that he founded. His home page at Columbia describes this book as "an update on Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality," and the rest of his research is rooted in French theory by well-known figures such as Jean Baudrillard and Félix Guattari. Yet Overexposed is not a highly theoretical work: it is a description of his interviews with a group of therapists who propounded a new treatment for pedophilia, and one patient who received the treatment. This new mode of expunging the desires of pedophiles was created by Seymour Sachs, and the basic idea is a twist on aversive therapy. Rather than try to get pedophiles to associate erotic thoughts of children with pain, however, the idea is to make them associate them with boredom. The method is to expose them to those ideas for a long period of time -- so they get overexposed to the thoughts. Sachs claims that his method is extremely successful, and says he has the data to prove it. A patient explains how he and others fake their reactions to make the therapists think that their treatment has worked, in order to get of the treatment. Since this was going on in the 1980s, and currently in 2009 there are a number of treatments, the success of which is still debated and variable, so we can conclude that Lotringer's claims were overblown. This means that the book is a study in how psychology gets too confident, and the cultural forces that shape it.
Since most of the book consists of interviews, it is easy to read. After the foreword and Introduction, there are ten short chapters devoted to different stages of the therapy, with titles such as "Arouse," "Tease," "Enjoy," "Satiate" and "Deter." Lotringer maintains a fairly even tone as interviewer and discussion, although occasionally one suspects he might be a little sneering or condescending. With his theoretical background, such as his affiliation with Foucault, it is clear that he is very skeptical about the scientific claims of the therapists, and of any of their claims to objectivity. So on his approach, the words of the psychologists are not to be taken at face value, but rather are indications of how power operates in American culture.
Several aspects of the therapy come into focus through the interviews. Lotringer is especially interested in the instruments with which the psychologists measure the men's arousal; they use rings around their penises to see how erect they get. In his quotations from his interviews, he does not shy away from the most shocking parts of his subjects fantasies, although he says very little about what they have actually done -- most of them have convictions for sexual assault or sexual contact with minors. He also asks in detail out more mundane parts of the therapy, such as teaching social skills, and the more technical aspects of the treatment. At points he asks about some of the ideas behind the therapy, and gets fobbed off, told that they do not matter or that the contradiction he is pointing to is only in his mind. Lotringer gives little commentary, and so it is incongruous to characterize his work as linked to philosophical theorizing.
The foreword explains that Sachs went on to form Sachs Screening, Inc. which performed the Sachs Assessment for Sexual Interest, and Lotringer calls him the greatest American specialist on sexual assault. Maybe this is so, but an internet search comes up with no results on Sachs or his test, and several recent textbooks on the subject make no mention of Sachs. This is surprising for a company that is meant to be so successful and dominant. There are no references to any academic articles or books, and so there's no way to relate the therapy to existing literature. It makes one wonder whether Lotringer changed the name of the researcher and the treatment, but this would make little sense. So there's some uncertainty about Lotringer's claims regarding Sachs's influence and current status. This treatment may never have been as important as the book implies.
All this makes Overexposed more of a curiosity than a real contribution to the study of sexuality and perversion. It does not advance our understanding, but it does help indicate what a skeptical social constructionist approach to the treatment of pedophilia would look like. It would emphasize the construction of deviance, the use of power, possibly the implicit or submerged enjoyment of sexually explicit portrayals of children, and the subjugation of the deviant through humiliation. The apparent success of the treatment would be explained away through the desire of the researchers to be successful and the desire of the research subjects to escape the research.
While Lotringer's approach is not particularly convincing here, it is also clear that the cultural forces around sexual assault, child abuse and pedophilia are extremely strong, and so it is very plausible that the supposedly scientific and objective approaches of treatment and psychological theory will in fact be heavily laden with moral assumptions. It is further quite plausible that the moral imperative is so strong that it undermines the scientific ideal that psychology aims to achieve, given that any publication in this area will likely face strong moral scrutiny from people whose minds are already made up. The value for us now in reading Overexposed is to see how supposedly scientific approaches can so easily be perverted by conflicting forces. This is presumably what Lotringer is alluding to when he writes at the start of his new foreword, "The most perverse of perversions aren't always those we might think."
© 2009 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.