Culture Lust by Angela Carone
Thursday, February 19, 2009
Remember that scene in the 2006 film Little Children when the recently released child molester, played with notable empathy by Jackie Earle Haley , goes swimming in the public pool filled with neighborhood children? A parent sees him and all of the mothers begin screaming and pulling their children out of the water. The kids splash and scramble to get out, so tuned are they to the fear in their mothers' voices. The scene culminates in a magnificent crane shot directly above the empty pool, with the convicted man treading water in its center, facing his accusers as they line the pool's edges, staring down at him. As much as Haley's character sincerely wants to reintegrate into normal society and deny his sexual cravings, what community will willingly have him?
The lonliness and isolation that comes with aberrant sexual desire is one of the shared experiences among the four characters in Daniel Bergner's fascinating new book, The Other Side of Desire: Four Journeys Into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing. Bergner writes about three men and one woman, a foot fetishist, a child molester, a man who is attracted to amputees, and a sadist (the woman), extreme cases to be sure, in order to understand how we all become sexual beings. How do our erotic longings develop and how do we live with them? Bernger also begs the question, what is normal when it comes to sexuality? Is attraction for Britney Spears or Angelina Jolie our barometer for normal? Is watching pornography normal? It certainly is, ummm, popular. Is a foot fetish really all that threatening to society? Where does morality enter into this? Obviously, when child molestation is involved, morality and the law become crucial arbiters of social norms. Bergner explores these questions and many others by also interviewing therapists, psychiatrists, scientists and researchers all with different ideas about how paraphilia (desire that falls outside the "normal") takes root and the various ways it might be treated.
For example, did Jacob, the self-loathing foot fetishist in chapter one become attracted to feet during an adolescent rush of hormones in which he happened to be looking at a female classmate's foot, thereby imprinting this sexual craving for the rest of his life? Should he be treated with drugs to contain his desires, even if they stamp out all sexual desire? Jacob loves his wife and has been married for years, but refuses to integrate his fetish into their sex life because he thinks it's monstrous. Bergner, a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine , presents his subject objectively, but as a reader you can't help feeling for Jacob. He wants so badly to be free of his desire, which is so strong that he is tortured during the summers when sandals abound, but also in the winter, when hearing people talk about snowfall in terms of feet can arouse him.
It shouldn't be surprising that parts of this book are difficult to read. The sadist, a fashion designer of latex clothes ( natch ) living on the Lower East Side and known in the S-M community as The Baroness, has inflicted some serious pain in her day. Her community of submissives are all consensual adults subjecting themselves to what most would call torture for erotic pleasure. How does one find sexual pleasure hogtied to a bar and slowly roasted over an open fire for three hours? I'm not being facetious, I seriously wish I understood and, clearly, so does Bergner. Most disturbing, is the case of Roy, charged with sexually molesting his 12-year-old stepdaughter. Bergner includes the story of another woman, victimized as a child, whose abuse was severe and went on for years. Since reading it, I'm truly haunted. Bernger explores a lot of the research being done on male desire. Interestingly, what emerges in studies of "normal" male attraction is a common erotic response to young women, as in female pubescents. Bergner suggests this isn't that shocking when you consider the flood of images around us. Just spend the next 24 hours noticing every form of advertising in your environment - billboards, television, and pop-up ads on the web. Now think of those ads and how they shape erotic norms in the context of Roy and other men who become attracted to pre-pubescent girls. It's an uncomfortable thread to follow. I'm not in any way suggesting it's a direct causal relationship, but perhaps an influential one.
I dont think this book is for everyone, but I will say if you're hesitant because of the mix of dark subject matter, know that Bergner spends equal time in the light of research facilities, universities, and psychiatric offices. He also respects his four subjects and therefore presents them as whole human beings, immediately familiar then shockingly Other. Bergner writes like a novelist but reserves a journalist's objectivity and curiosity. I couldn't put the book down. If you want to learn more about The Other Side of Desire and Bergner's ideas, listen to his interview on All Things Considered or watch this video .
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