Recently the Sydney Opera House in Australia hosted the Festival of Dangerous Ideas which brings together a host of speakers on a variety of controversial topics. Not one to shy away from controversy I attended a couple of sessions including We are all Sexual Perverts by an American psychologist Jesse Bering, whose basic premise was that each person has within them certain desires that others would find offensive and indeed disgusting. Professing himself to be an active homosexual, Bering believes that while society has become accepting of homosexuality (once called a ‘behaviour’ but now popularly referred to as an ‘orientation’) we should consider why we might be less accepting of the approximately 547 other ‘paraphilias’ ranging from arousal by stuffed animal toys (plushophilia), machines (mechaphilia) or even trees (dendrophilia).
While many of the stranger paraphilias raised laughter amongst the audience, Bering also spent time considering more well known philias such as paedophilia and zoophilia (bestiality), posing the question of how we might respond to someone who had a tendency towards these even though they had never acted upon them. Bering believes that all paraphilias should be accepted and respected because the inclination has nothing to do with whether or not the person has committed some kind of social transgression. Interestingly and correctly Bering did state that without belief in some type of divine creator who had mapped out a design for sexuality who were we to judge a person’s interior sexual desires as more or less worthy than our own. Bering admits that his interest in the whole topic is attributed to his own homosexuality and a childhood lived among “conservative and religious” people which had led him to a sympathy for others who find themselves in minority sexual categories.
While Bering was dismissive of Christianity I could not help but think how much the ancient Christian understanding of the human person, original sin and cooperation with grace could offer genuine consolation. My guess would be that Bering grew up with a Protestant fundamentalist version of Christianity but the philosophically grounded ideas found in Catholicism understand much of what he was saying. Every human person is indeed fallen and this very human struggle is captured by the Apostle Paul who two thousand years wrote “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate”. Bering has not come up with anything new in stating that there are as many perversions in the world as there are people. The Christian fathers and doctors across the centuries have tirelessly reminded the faithful of the struggles inherited through Original Sin; however this is where Bering, representing the secular mindset, and the Church, part ways.
While some people would no doubt find Bering’s ideas about perversion offensive he must be commended for facing human struggles head on. He is also right to state that there is a vast difference between an inclination and an action. Christian theology states that for a sin to be committed there must always be full knowledge and full consent; one cannot accidently commit sin, nor is a fleeting desire to steal my neighbour’s car or commit adultery with my married work colleague a sin. The problem arises when we feed an inordinate desire by dwelling on an idea that we know is wrong or engaging in evil behaviour. Bering admits that he does not like to use the language of ‘evil’ or ‘immoral’ and rightly so, for without God as a standard of morality, right and wrong is only anchored in the arbitrary currents of man-made laws.
What the Christian ideal offers that Bering cannot is the virtue of hope. Even though we are all born with tendencies and challenges that can lead us away from what is true, good and beautiful, by humbly acknowledging our own weaknesses and turning our face towards God, those very same weaknesses can become stepping stones to holiness and lasting happiness. Without hope in God it is correct that at some level we are all disgusting perverts and we can only seek to justify and revel in our perversions. However the Christian message raises a person up. While acknowledging every human weakness (even the ones we are too ashamed to share with anyone) the Church says in the words of the late Pope John Paul II, “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.”