Ill-Defined Harm: A Review of Jesse Bering’s Perv

by Jason Stotts


Let me start by saying that overall, I enjoyed Jesse Bering’s new book Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us.  Bering does a great job of parsing psychological studies and medical texts in a way that’s easily readable and interesting.  In fact, overall I recommend Perv and think that most people will really enjoy it.  There were even parts that I loved, like in his preface where Bering talks about some of his hard times in his past and says “This book, you might say, is my retaliation by reason.”  I fucking love that line.

In Perv, Bering has two major enterprises: First, he wants to show us that our apparently unique sexual proclivities are actually shared by quite a number of people (you’re more normal than you realize). Second, he wants to elaborate an ethical principle for when perversions are moral or immoral.

For his first enterprise, I think Bering does a really good job.  Consider this passage:

“The problem with zipping up on our dirtiest little secrets, however, is that others are doing exactly the same thing, and this means that the story of human sexuality that we’ve come to believe is true is, in reality, a lie.  What’s more, it’s a very dangerous lie, because it convinces us that we’re all along in the world as “perverts” (and hence immoral monsters) should we ever deviate in some ways from this falsely conceived pattern of the normal.  A lot of human nature has escaped rational understanding because we’ve been unwilling to be completely honest about what really turns us on” (pg. 5).

This is spot on.  This is precisely why it’s so important that people with “unusual” sexual desires be open about them: it creates a safe space for others to come out and lets us know how many other people share our desires.  This is precisely why being gay is accepted now and it wasn’t 50 years ago: some brave souls had the courage to come out and weather the storm to create a safe space and live their lives authentically.  It turns out that most of our “unusual” desires are not so unusual after all.

The problem with Perv is where Bering tries to elaborate an underlying moral framework with regard to perversions.  It is here that his lack of philosophical training emerges.

He starts well enough: “We’ve become so focused as a society on the question of whether a given sexual behavior is evolutionarily ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’ that we’ve lost sight of the more important question: Is it harmful?” (21). So far, so good.  But, what does “harmful” mean?

First, he’s clear that whatever “harm” is, it cannot merely be in the mind: “Still, it’s only when this ‘mere breath of air’ is manifested in behavior that harm to another person may or may not occur.” (22) So “harm” must be an action.  Moreover, it must be able to be clearly explained: “It’s far easier to assume that all sex [sic] deviants including even some of those who’ve committed crimes, are immoral than it is to show, case by case, how they’ve caused measurable harm.” And, if we want to avoid moral dumbfounding, we must be able to elaborate the reasons why something is immoral (31).

Bering then uses the hypothetical of the necrophilia club and tells us that those who oppose it use some kind of presumption of harm reasoning.  Even after being told that no harm would come to anyone “people still insisted that somehow or another, someone, somewhere, must be getting harmed” (32). He notes that “the damage might even be seen as inflicted on symbolic bodies” (like the church or country), but rejects this saying: “Likewise, pain and distress can occur only at the level of a subjectively experiencing organism (human or animal) in possession of pain receptors and a nervous system able to register emotional trauma, not at the level of an abstract entity without a brain.” (33).  This, it seems to me, indicates that “harm” is either physical pain or emotional pain: that harm = pain.   Moreover, that harm, must happen to an individual and not some abstraction.

Now, Bering takes a weird turn.  He’s been trying to elaborate a moral principle to show when “perversions” are moral or immoral and he is trying to use the idea of harm to underlie this principle.  He then says: “But the concept of ‘perversions’ (or ‘going against what is right’) is entirely a phantom of the moralizing human mind” (66).  He continues, “Oddly enough, a healthy does of moral nihilism is the antidote for so many of the social ills connected to human sexuality.”  Moral nihilism, in case you don’t know, rejects the idea that there could be any kind of truth to morality.  What?! Wasn’t Bering trying to elaborate a moral principle?  These things are clearly not compatible.  In fact, this is the same error Nietzsche made: assuming that all morality was anti-life because christian morality is anti-life and then throwing it all away.

Interesting, even though Bering seems to now be arguing against any moral enterprise, he seems to have not given up on elaborating his moral principles and continues: “In my opinion, the only important point to weigh when trying to decide what is or isn’t sexually appropriate is, again, that of harm.” (88).  But Jesse!, you just told us that morality isn’t even possible and now you’re back to your quest of elaborating a moral principle?  Also, now you’re talking about “appropriateness” instead of immorality?  Is that some kind of substitute?  I guess we’ll have to see.

In the next chapter “It’s Subjective, My Dear” Bering again seems to be suggesting that “harm” is nothing more than pain and, therefore, couldn’t be the basis of an objective principle: “Sadism isn’t the only paraphilic category for which the question of harm can get murky […] a universally objective reality simply doesn’t exist in the present domain; what’s harmful to me isn’t necessarily harmful to you, and vice versa.” (142). Wait: but if harm is pain and sadism and masochism involve pain, do they also involve harm? If they do, they’re immoral.  But you’re trying to tell us how they aren’t necessarily immoral.  Is all harm pain, but not all pain harm?  I guess I don’t understand what harm is after all.

So, is there any objective basis we can use, Bering? “The best predictor of subjective harm—past, present, and future—he found, is the minor’s lack of consent.” (145). Well, that sounds like you’re saying that doing things to a person against their will and where they find this harmful is objectively harmful, especially with relation to children and sexuality.  That does sound like the beginning of a moral principle.  Do you have anything else to say about morality? “Morally, all that matters—and allow me to reiterate that because I feel it’s quite important, all that matters—is whether a person’s sexual deviancy is demonstrably harmful” (166). You’ve really got me confused now!  Is there or is there not an ethical principle at work here?  Are we ethical nihilists?  Is there any meaning to “harm”? I guess we need to press on. Surely we’re about to arrive at an answer that will clear all this up.

In arguing against the idea of using normalcy as a standard for what is moral in sexuality, Bering says: “I hope you’re able to see clearly now, by the way, why the issue of ‘normalcy’ is so morally vacuous and why the question of harm must instead prevail before we can ever hope to make any real ethical progress in these debates” (199).  While we can agree that normalcy is a problematic term in morality and that it cannot be a real standard (consider that if were, if Jews were “non-normal” in a population, then they would be immoral and you could take action against them), we have to worry about how real the idea of “harm” is when what that is has not been elaborated at all!  It is harm of one’s relationship with the christian magical sky-friend?  Is it harm of one’s purity?  Is it harm of one’s shiny soul?  Is it harm of one’s body?  Is it harm of one’s mind?  Is it harm of one’s long-term interests in life?  Without an ethical framework in which to ground harm, the concept is meaningless.

It’s clear that Bering wants to rule out at least some of these, saying: “In adopting a patently false but stubbornly clung-to mythology of human sexuality [from christianity] that makes demons out of natural drives, we’ve entered a stage of moral sickness, not of moral health.” Agreed.  But you’ve yet to elaborate what moral health would be.  At the very best, you’ve given us some of what it is not and a vacuous principle that we might or might not be supposed to believe, depending on if we take your comment about moral nihilism seriously.

Unfortunately, that’s all Bering has to say on the matter.  This leaves us terribly unsatisfied in his second major enterprise in his book.  I don’t know what harm is, I don’t know what moral framework Bering wanted to tap, and I’m not even sure he thinks that morality is a thing, although he frequently argues for it and against different kinds of it.

While there is not much to justify this, I get the idea that Bering believes that as long as perversion don’t cause harm, then they are moral.  Unfortunately, there’s a lot we don’t know.  Are these perversions simply morally acceptable (they don’t hurt me, but neither do they help) or are they actually moral (they make my life better)?  This “harm” he talks about, what kind of harm is it?  Is it simply bodily pain?  Is it economic harm?  Does the harm have to be real harm or can it be only apparent harm?  That is, does it actually have to harm me (whatever that is) or do I merely need to think I was harmed?  Does the harm have to be to others or is self-harm a problem? Does my consenting to self-harm change anything?  There are simply too many questions here that come from Bering’s failure to define what harm actually is.  Simply telling me that perversions are fine when there is no harm is not particularly instructive if we can’t understand the core concept.

While you might think this criticism is misplaced, given that Bering was writing about perversions and not the morality of perversions, the latter is a recurrent theme that he relies on in order to argue that perversions should be more socially acceptable. If it turns out that his principle is flawed, that’s a problem with one of the major themes of his book.

Now, I think that Bering can still save his enterprise, but he needs to commit himself to one of two things: creating a new moral framework that can account for a theory of what a good life is (in order to understand an account of harm) or to explicitly commit himself to an established moral framework and ground his theory of harm there.  You simply can’t use the word “harm” outside of the context of a moral framework without ending up with an empty term, as we’ve seen.  Either way, once he grounds his idea of harm, his enterprise will be much improved.  He could also argue for moral nihilism, but then he would have no reason to object to me rounding up all the perverts and executing them: after all, if there is no morality, such a thing wouldn’t be immoral.  And, yet, Bering does seem like he wants to resist at least this outcome and so he must choose a moral framework to ground his enterprise and give it some substance; substance that it so desperately lacks.

If I can make a suggestion, I think that you take on the position of Eudaimonism, which, if you’ve never heard of it, I could hardly blame you.  The position, though, insists that it is the good and rich human life that is the goal of morality.  This is fleshed out through an account of human nature and of the ways that this is achieved, which we call virtues.  When it comes out, my own book Eros and Ethos will give a full account of it, especially as it relates to sex, but in the mean time I’d be happy to talk with you about it.  You can also see the origins of Eudaimonism in Aristotle, especially his Eudemian Ethics.  But, on the basis of eudaimonism, you can give a full account of harm in the context of the agent’s life and how even bodily pain, as in BDSM, can be perfectly consistent with a good life.  You can also fully elaborate how harmful christianity has been and give a robust alternative to it.  After all, you cannot successfully tear down the old idols until you have new ones to raise in their place, as people need to believe in something.  If we’re lucky, the new thing will be something real: their own happiness and rich lives.

Overall, I still recommend Perv and found it very interesting.  Unfortunately, the depth it was striving for was just unrealized.

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