Are We All Sexual Perverts?

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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.”

Bernard Toutounji

Bernard Toutounji

Bernard Toutounji is an Australian Catholic writer and speaker. He writes a fortnightly column called Foolish Wisdom (www.foolishwisdom.com) which examines afresh issues within news, culture or faith. One of Bernard’s favourite quotes comes from Edith Stein who said "All those who seek truth seek God whether this is clear to them or not". Bernard is married to Jane and they have two daughters.

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9 Responses

  1. Great article. Coming from a very prudish Protestant background, I’m still constantly amazed at the realism of the Church. She never cringes at our brokenness…just gently offers the healing compassion of Christ.

  2. Excellent piece. To identify sexual tendencies, interests or practices seeks validation or approval but achieves a locked identification based on the particular sexual content. How sad and hopeless – and nearly cruel – to reduce and lock people to their sexual appetites rather than lift and free them as the Christian concept of person does. Thank you for this perspective.

  3. This is the natural conclusion to relativism played out in human sexuality. I was recently telling a youth that we aren’t far from people protesting that they have a right to marry their pets.

  4. What lots of people are missing is a dive course in Theology of the Body, so they can discover once again the beauty of what we are as human beings.

  5. “… but the philosophically grounded ideas found in Catholicism understand much of what he was saying.”

    Do you mean “underscored”?
    You’re welcome!

  6. Hi,

    “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.”

    I take issue with this claim made by both you an Bering. By a standard of morality, I take it to mean that moral terms like ‘right’ has meaning external to humans. A meaning anchored in or by God. Thus, if something is right on this account, it is so because of some relationship it has to God. But, as Socrates asked, is this thing in question, let’s call it dabbling; is dabbling right because God dictates it is right or is it right independently of God and God, being omniscient, recognizes it is right?

    If dabbling is right because God dictates it is so, what does that mean about the meaning of ‘right’? Well, it means that ‘right’ can at most mean that ‘God wills it’. Most monotheists have no problem with this. Unfortunately, it sort of entails that God cannot be moral; God is amoral; above morality; beyond good and evil, to steal Nietzsche’s phrase. Further, it puts us in a position analogous to the individual trying to figure out what the absolute monarch wants done without the sovereign available to answer questions, save with a few documents he left behind and the mysterious spirit of his words (this is my attempt to write the Holy Spirit into the analogy, not saying it is terribly successful). This seems to get us into the trouble of deciding whose interpretation of the monarch’s document is right and how are we to know. If the document says this guy or these guys are in charge, what happens when they die? Apostolic succession is nowhere written in the document. That’s an addendum written by those who gain from the addendum. Suspicious.

    On the other hand, to suppose that God merely recognizes that dabbling is right, is to give up the game. Presumably, God recognizes that dabbling is right because of some fact about dabbling. If it is something that we cannot come to know, in principle, then this case reduces to the other case. If we can, in theory, come to know the reason God recognized dabbling is right, then we can come to this recognition. Thus, morality can be anchored in something logically distinct from God.

    So, I conclude that if God anchors morality, then either I can discover what God discovered by some means or I have to interpret what God has given us always being suspicious of all interpretations, including my own.

    You have objections?

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