Book Review: Perv by Jesse Bering

Today I’ll be reviewing a book which has received a lot of praise and attention – Perv by Jesse Bering. Bering is an award-winning columnist and psychologist who has written two other books on sexuality and psychology. In Perv, he addresses the subject of “sexual deviants”, or “perverts”. He argues that practically everyone is a “pervert” in one way or another, that describing things as “normal” or “abnormal” in the medical world is ultimately dangerous, and that we should instead focus on the amount of harm a certain behavior brings rather than what’s “normal” or not.

Each chapter deals generally with a specific subset of “perverts”, including (but not only) transvestites, sadists and masochists, object and amputee fetishists, incest, zoophiles, and finally, saving quite possibly the most taboo for last, pedophiles. Not expecting much, I was pleasantly surprised by the neutrality he used to discuss the subject. Right off the bat, in the introduction, Bering writes this:
“Our knee-jerk perception of individuals who similarly have no choice over what arouses them sexually (pedophiles[…])is that they’ve willfully, deliberately, and arrogantly strayed from the right course. We see them as ‘true perverts’ […] whereas gays and lesbians are perceived by more and more people as “like normal heterosexuals” because they didn’t choose to be the way they are, these others (somehow) did.” Thus acknowledging that pedophiles, along with other “perverts”, did not necessarily choose to be the way they are. He also goes on to talk about the seemingly moral but empty tautologies that are used against “perverts” such as “it’s wrong because it’s just nasty”.

A little more than halfway through the book, Bering begins to address chronophilia in more depth. While I had been pleasantly surprised before, I was shocked in a good way to read the next few pages. Bering surprised me by boldly stating that “research has also revealed that not every child who has a sexual encounter with an adult is traumatized.” Something I appreciated is that he does not just say this “outrageous” thing and leave it at that. He explains that trauma may still occur later on down the road. He compares a child who has experienced sexual activity with an adult to a “ticking time bomb” – “there’s a marginal chance that it won’t detonate at all, but if it does, it’s often catastrophic.” As to the likelihood of this “ticking time bomb” detonating, Bering cites Rind’s studies: “The best predictor of subjective harm – past, present and future – he found, is the minor’s lack of consent. Obviously, there’s consent in the legal, underage sense of the term, but there’s also consent as a mental state (basically, the feeling of wanting to do something) that occurs regardless of age.”

Bering also poses the question, “When, exactly, does ‘childhood innocence’ end?” “At what precise moment in time, for instance, did you lose yours? Perhaps you never had it, or perhaps you never lost it. Few of us are so naïve as to believe that it happens at the stroke of midnight dividing childhood from legal adulthood, anyway, especially given that such a line is culturally arbitrary.” And takes a critical look at the black-and-white of the “age of consent” law. “There are problems with the hard-line approach to this emotional immaturity argument as well.” Bering explains. “Being with someone with a developmental delay isn’t a crime, so long as the person is over eighteen and ‘consents’. So if we’re really trying to protect the vulnerable from sexual harm due to their mental immaturity, then using chronological age, rather than mental age, seems like an odd way to go about it.” My question is, how do we go about assessing mental age? Obviously, it’s a little more challenging than knowing the number of years, months, and days someone has been alive.

The second-to-last chapter, “A Suitable Age”, takes an even deeper look into chronophilia. Bering begins the chapter by comparing a person’s sexuality to a slot-machine, with each slot representing a defining characteristic of their sexuality. The last slot, he describes, represents “age orientation”, and if that slot lands on “pedophile” or “hebephile” for you, well, that just sucks. He also discusses one of the arguments made against treating hebephilia as a disorder. He cites Jerome Wakefield, who suggested that for a trait to be considered diseased, it must be biologically dysfunctional – “that is, the trait must be at odds with evolutionarily adaptive response.” And explains that “It was due in no small part to these reproductive realities that the APA ultimately rejected a proposal to add hebephilia to the DSM-5.” However, as a disclaimer, Bering adds that by following this logic, being gay should have not been removed from the DSM. He admits that “Even in science, we’re not quite to the point of being able to take an objectively amoral approach to this issue.”

Bering does a good job at maintaining neutrality, presents facts from all sides of the debate, and poses many thought-provoking questions to the reader. The way he writes isn’t dry or technical; he writes casually and even makes (terrible) jokes to keep the reader interested. He discusses much more than I have talked about here, including biological age attraction vs chronological age attraction, androphilia*, the “abused-abuser” myth, and the use of virtual CP. I only have a few very minor criticisms. I was critical about the fact that the subject of female pedophiles was brought up only briefly, writing that “There are very few certifiable female pedophiles. Some sexologists aren’t convinced they exist at all.”, and writes that cases like a teacher having sex with a 17-year-old aren’t really pedophiles (this behavior is more likely to be ephebophilic), and in cases where it is younger children, they are probably not pedophiles, but “timid women who’ve been coerced by pedophilic men into joining them into committing their crimes.” Even though he doesn’t discuss this subject much, it’s understandable as he explains that there’s simply not enough data on these females, and because of the shame associated with being a pedophile that’s not likely to change. “[L]adies won’t exactly be lining up to help researchers to answer it.” He also cites James Cantor’s “distinguishing features” of pedophiles (shorter than average, left handed, attached earlobes, etc.), but Cantor’s research was conducted on criminals who have been convicted of molesting children, and is not necessarily a good representative of non-offending pedophiles. Finally, Bering brings up the topic of religion quite often, and almost always in a negative light. I found it to be off-topic and it may offend some religious readers.
All in all, I found Perv to be an exciting read. My list of appraisals far outweighs my list of criticisms. I would recommend it to anyone looking to learn more about chronophilia or “sexual deviants” in general.

*I’d like to discuss the flip-side of this, “gynophilia”, in my next article. Stay tuned!