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The Other Side of DesireReview - The Other Side of Desire
Four Journeys into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing
by Daniel Bergner
Ecco, 2009
Review by Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D.
May 26th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 22)

The Other Side of Desire tells the tale of four people whose paraphilic sexual desires are located firmly "on the other side." Jacob is a middle-aged salesman who is attracted to women's feet. The Baroness is a successful designer of fetish clothing and is a sexual sadist. Roy, a computer technician, is a pedophile who was sentenced to 20 years suspended after 30 days, with 35 years probation for sexually molesting his 11-12 year old step-daughter. And Ron is a successful fashion photographer who is sexually attracted to women amputees.

In lesser hands, this material would have run the risk of being merely titillating or used as a means of moral pontification, either for or against those 'suffering' from atypical sexual desire. But in Bergner's sure hands, and under his penetrating gaze, The Other Side of Desire avoids these pitfalls and instead masterfully succeeds at a number of difficult tasks. He manages to study the particular people who exhibit these paraphilias and to enwrap them in the concrete texture of their lives. Hence, we come to know Jacob, the Baroness, Roy, and Ron as individual people who have struggled with and often continue to struggle with their sexual urges. This in itself is a tricky business. Does one want to understand and feel sympathy for a sexual sadist or a pedophile? Once again, however, Bergner manages successfully to walk a very fine line. In coming to understand his subjects, Bergner never gets sentimental. Roy really did molest his step-daughter thereby tossing her life, as well as those of his (now) ex-wife and many others, into complete turmoil and disarray. And the Baroness actually achieved perhaps her highest degree of sexual pleasure by roasting a man on a spit for several hours (even though it was with his consent). In another encounter, she "threaded the end of her whip through the hoop ring [her lover] Genevieve wore in her clitoris, then ripped the hoop out through the glistening tissue" (57).Bergner does not downplay these facts or attempt to explain them away. And yet we as readers still feel some connection with these people, disquieting though those feelings may be.

This can be explained in part by Bergner's weaving these four personal narratives within an abundance of contemporary research into sexual desire that shows that the gulf between 'normal' and 'perverse' desire may not be as wide as we typically think. For example, with respect to pedophilia, which is clearly the most morally troubling of the four paraphilias considered here, some research shows that pictures of pubescents and children arouse not only pedophiles. "Teleophiles," i.e., 'normal' individuals attracted to adults, are aroused as well (126-127) -- helping to explain, presumably, the otherwise odd strategy of using pubescent looking girls as marketing devices for the general populace. Of course, one needs to keep in mind here a remark originally made by Aristotle that while a person isn't responsible for their desires, they are morally accountable for how they deal with them. Still, one gets the sense from Bergner's book that the difference between someone with a paraphilia and someone without is in degree only, not in kind. And hence one cannot help but feel some sympathy for Jacob and Roy when they wonder and lament why they were cursed with their particular desires.

Sometimes, however, we make a mistake in trying to find commonalities in people's sexual desires. In wondering why so few women are, like the Baroness, true sexual sadists, Bergner explores the issue of the extent to which men and women may differ in their respective sexual desires. Some readers may already be familiar with Bergner's writing on this issue from a New York Times piece he published recently entitled, "What Do Women Want?" There, and in The Other Side of Desire, he refers us to the work, amongst others, of Meredith Chivers who argues that men and women differ in significant ways in their sexual desire. In one fascinating experiment, she measured the physiological responses of men's and women's genitals while showing them video clips and pictures from a wide array of scenes, both sexual and non-sexual -- from bonobo monkeys having sex, and hetero- and  homosexual human sex,  to people standing in fields. Whilst so engaged, the participants were asked whether the scenes they were witnessing sexually aroused them. From this Chivers discovered that men tend to be what she calls "category specific:" if they are heterosexual, then they respond physiologically only to depictions of women and to heterosexual and lesbian sex. Moreover, this is what they say when asked: hence, their objective and subjective reactions match. Women, however, display a marked difference between their objective and subjective reactions, typically maintaining subjectively that they are not aroused by something when physiologically they are. Even more surprising, however, is that women tend to be physiologically aroused by a much broader range of things than males: even watching bonobos having sex physically aroused them.

This, of course, raises questions about the basis of sexual desire, which is, ultimately, what this book investigates, whether the desire be male or female, straight or gay, 'normal' or paraphilic. As one would expect, there is a great deal of controversy regarding the answers to these questions covering the gamut from nature to nurture and everything in between. Even covering such well traversed terrain, Bergner manages to add something new by showing how different theories give rise to different treatment options, which, in turn, affect quite dramatically the people we've come to know though Bergner's narrative. Hence, for example, Jacob, who has a foot fetish might well have been told that there is nothing inherently wrong with his desire since it harms no one and that he should be open with his wife about his predilection. Instead, however, faced with Jacob's disgust over his paraphilia, he and his therapist agree to a treatment of chemical castration. Such castration is achieved through anti-androgens that work by preventing or inhibiting the biologic effects of androgens, or male sex hormones, typically by blocking the appropriate receptors in the brain thus obstructing the androgens' pathway. Unfortunately, these drugs are "horribly imprecise," and act like "a club" by "bludgeoning the hormonal foundation of desire rather than addressing specific desire" (24). Hence, while someone can experience some sexual desire while on a drug like Lubron, such desire will typically be faint, if extant at all. The hope is that by removing desire for aberrant objects, such as feet, one can allow for the onset of more conventional longings for genital sex. Amazingly -- perhaps bizarrely -- that burgeoning new conventional desire will then be intensified by prescribing a drug such as Viagra! While one can see readily why such a treatment would be employed for pedophiles, the case is less clear for a foot fetishist. One can imagine, then, a quite different treatment for Jacob that began by accepting foot fetishism and then working with him (and his wife) to an accommodation of his desire.

Bergner has said that examining people with extreme sexual desires will tell us not only about their uncommon desires, but of sexual desire in general. The Other Side of Desire demonstrates the wisdom of his insight.  

© 2009 Robert Scott Stewart

Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy, Cape Breton University


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