Eating is one of our great inner drives, and it is not at all surprising to us that other people like eating things that we do not, or even that they eat things that disgust us. Sex is one of our great inner drives, too, and while all of us realize we don’t perform every single act in the sexual smorgasbord of our species, we find some of those acts by others pretty repellant. We also tend to be curious about them. Daniel Bergner, who has previously written about Sierra Leone’s civil war and Louisiana’s Angola Prison, turns his journalism to exploring inner worlds with The Other Side of Desire: Four Journeys into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing (Ecco). The journeys are those of a foot fetishist, a female sadist, a child molester, and an amputee devotee, with side views of even stranger trails. These lives will seem peculiar to most readers, but from Bergner’s pen, they are not completely foreign. All of us have our drives and our kinks, even though they may not extend to these extremes. Bergner stresses commonality, and extends (and engenders) compassion and sympathy. There is some humor here but no leering. There are also few firm answers about how these people came to their puzzling enthusiasms, but there are appealing accounts of how they made peace with them without ruination of their lives or those of others.
Start with the most distressing, the child molester. Roy was convicted of groping his preteenage stepdaughter. There is no question that molested children are victims and their molesters are criminals, and this is the one segment of the book that covers a perversion that causes harm. Roy’s current wife knows of his past, and says, “One of the nicest things he ever said to me was that when he met me God was giving him a second chance.” Roy’s workplace knows, too. His boss says, “Everybody has these thoughts. The only thing that separates him from you and me is we didn’t act on them.” It turns out that researchers agree. Bergner has incorporated the views of clinicians and sexologists in his reporting of such cases, and describes the testing procedure used to evaluate levels of excitement by genital swelling and by brain scans. When Roy took the test, he was attracted to adult women, and slightly more attracted to adolescent girls. This is within “ordinary male desire,” as knows anyone who looks at magazine ads featuring teens trying to sell us any sort of product. There is no evading (or resolving) a nature-vs.-nurture argument, but studies of pedophile’s brains do show some differences, and, for instance, pedophiles are three times more likely than others to be left handed. That desire might be determined genetically or prenatally seems undeniable. What society should do about such offenders is still, of course, a troubling question. In the 1960s, “masturbatory reconditioning” was proposed; when the offender (in those days, the homosexual, but also the pedophile or fetishist) came close to bringing himself to orgasm, he was supposed to focus intently on a “normal” stimulus like a Playboy centerfold. This has been “quietly abandoned.” Roy himself, with credible introspection, gets to groups, keeps a journal, talks to himself positively, carefully follows all the rules of his 30 year probation, and tentatively requests increases in privileges.
Less worrisome is the foot fetishist. Jacob, a decorous and otherwise conventional man, is afflicted by an erotic attraction to women’s feet, and is tortured by it. He does not want to share his obsession with his wife, whom he loves deeply. It is not just that looking at feet or imagining feet as sexual vessels is a bother to him. He hates winter, for the weatherman will talk about how many feet of snow will be coming. “Imagine,” he complains, “if snowfall was measured in breasts and you were the only man with that sick desire.” He hates spring, because of sandals and flip-flops. The undesired arousal could get so intense that he might have an orgasm with mere visual, not tactile, stimulation. Jacob finds a psychiatrist who agrees that as troubling as Jacob finds his symptoms, they must be brought under control. A drug to suppress testosterone is in order, with the idea that somehow desires are programmed into the brain and lust could simply be obliterated. Ideally, the right dose would lop off the fetishism and leave regular sexual feelings and desires intact. It’s not the way things turned out. “No matter where you go,” he confides to Bergner, “there are people, and people have feet. Unless I lived in a center for amputees. That would be peace.”
Possibly, but then there are others who would find the same sort of excitement in such an environment. Ron from age five has felt drawn to women whose legs are misshapen or missing. His explanation is that it goes back to some primordial urge to hunt down the wounded animal, but he isn’t aggressive (and anyway, the explanations for all of these strange conditions turn out to be maddeningly unsatisfactory). Ron photographed cripples in his spare time because he gets an erotic zing from them. The therapist who helped him the most through his issues is the therapist who advised him that there was no harm in what he was doing. Unlike Jacob, he could come to terms with a fascination others might find shameful, and found the ideal woman, in his words: “She was smart, she was cute, and she had no legs.” They were married for nineteen years and ended the marriage for the same sort of ordinary reasons other people end theirs. He began to court another woman who lost her legs in an auto accident. The marriage is successful, and with his help his wife is counseling the mentally ill and posing for magazines targeted at the many men who share Ron’s tastes. She explains to Bergner at the breakfast table, “We have all the regular things that keep people together,” whereupon her husband adds, “And like the cherry on the sundae is that she’s a double amputee, which brings me such happiness and pleasure and joy.” And she accepts the shared attraction, wondering if an inexplicable preference for amputated limbs is really different from an inexplicable preference for any other sort of body type.
The one woman profiled here is the Baroness, a dominatrix who specializes in extreme pain, and also in latex fashions. Unlike the dominatices-for-hire you can find in the Yellow Pages, the Baroness takes real sexual pleasure in making her subjects submit, even if the submission is merely doing her vacuuming. Like some other subjects here, she has a conventional and satisfying marriage, in this case with a man who proposed to her in a dance hall between swing band sessions. He has no interest in submissive play, and he admits he cannot understand her fascination with domination, but he allows her to engage others in it. It seems to be the case, research shows, that people with paraphilias (essentially every character profiled here with a fascination for the unusual) do have higher potential for orgasms than the rest of us. The Baroness says that the orgasms she gets with her husband in ordinary marital sex are “spikier” but the ones with her submissives are far longer and deeper, and they leave her “half-blind, mostly deaf, mute, slack-jawed.” One of her acquaintances remarks about going to her parties, “The first few times, it was like we needed a checklist. Clothespins. Ankle restraints. Wrist restraints. Ball weights. Leash. Collar. Gag. Masks. Opera-length rubber gloves. Carabiners. Flogger. Whip. Lighter. Locks. Keys. It’s great to go fetish-shopping at Home Depot.” Her husband says that there are social obstacles in living this way, but if offered the chance to give it all up without missing it, they wouldn’t take the offer: “This brings us too much. We wouldn’t trade this for the world.”
Some of the extremes covered here are tough to read about, but others that obviously make the fetishists happy and fulfilled are impressive by the degree of joy the participants thereby derive. While Bergner never flinches, he also never fails to extend a humane understanding. What could be a freakshow turns out to be an appealing look at characters who have peculiar longings that are beyond their control and beyond anyone’s complete understanding. There are mysteries in their behavior, but you can read their stories and wonder about the mysteries of your own sexual behavior. Why, as one researcher wonders in the book, do people kiss? We are all practice that intimate behavior, we all enjoy it, we think it normal, and we are no closer to understanding its “why?” than we are to any understanding any of the behaviors this surprising book describes.
© 2009 Rob Hardy. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.