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Although the phrase "sexual perversion" was first used only in the late 19th century when the burgeoning field of sexology was in its early stages, notions of 'improper' sexual activity have existed throughout human history. Indeed, as Peakman says, "most sexual acts have been deemed abnormal by someone at one time or another, while conversely, at different times those same sexual behaviors have been deemed acceptable by other groups of people" (7). The Pleasure's All Mine presents us with an absolutely fascinating and detailed look at the history of a wide array of these activities, from masturbation and homosexuality to BDSM, incest, and fisting.
Two main themes emerge from Peakman's work. First, that a radical change occurred in the 19th century with the advent of sexology. Before this time, sexual acts taken to be unacceptable tended to be viewed through the lenses of religion, morality, and popular/cultural opinion. Using such lenses, unacceptable sexual activities during this (long) period were seen to be "unnatural," dysteleological, immoral, and/or sinful. Sexologists, in contrast, began to see such activities scientifically and medically, and took "sexual perverts" as suffering from some illness, often a mental illness. Perverts were now to be "cured", not chastised. While this seems to be a far more enlightened response to atypical sexual behaviors, in many ways it is no better than the system it replaced since both views tend to be sex negative and, in their own, different ways, stigmatize many sexual activities that, arguably, harm no one.
The second major theme of Peakman's book is that people have tended to be illegitimately intolerant of the sexual practices of others, whether they viewed perversions as sinful or the result of mental illness. She argues persuasively that we should stop such intolerance, which in the present context often means that we demedicalize many of the current perversions and paraphilias. Homosexuality is the most obvious example of this. Long thought by mainstream religions and moralists to be an abomination, sexologists, psychiatrists and psychologists continued to believe there was something 'wrong' with homosexuals, and only removed homosexuality from the DSM in the 1970s.
While I agree with the spirit of Peakman's views, she does at times either overstep her case, or misclassify certain behaviors. Consider Chapter 7, which deals with BDSM, on this point. While I concur that BDSM should be demedicalized and freed from both religious and moralistic condemnation, that is true only when BDSM is practiced consensually, as those in the Kink community insist upon, and when the impetus to engage in such behavior really is freed from psychological illness. However, many of the examples Peakman provides in her discussion of sadism follow neither of these, perhaps especially in her discussion of Caligula and Nero in Classical Rome. Caligua and Nero were both morally bankrupt and seemed to have suffered from a variety of mental illnesses. Their travelling about the city stabbing, kidnapping and raping people is completely deserving of our intolerance and is probably not best classified as examples of BDSM.
Aside from this point, I recommend The Pleasure's All Mine wholeheartedly. It is crisply and cleanly written, covers a wealth of material from difficult to find sources, is rigorously researched, and packages all of that in a big beautiful book with 178 wonderful illustrations. I will return to this book again and again as a wonderful resource and, frankly, simply for the pleasure of it.
© 2015 Robert Scott Stewart
Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Cape Breton University on the east coast of Canada. His most recent book, co-written with Laurie Shrage, is Philosophizing About Sex, published by Broadview Press in 2015.