Science writer Jesse Bering has been called “fearless,” “witty,” “madly provocative,” ”smart” and “deeply compassionate.” Yale professor and author Paul Bloom has gone so far as to call him the “Hunter S. Thompson of science writing.” In his latest book, Perv: The Sexual Deviant In All Of Us, Bering uses the tools of science to crack open more than a few taboos, and shows why he’s deserving of the accolades. I recently spent some time with Bering discussing his newest book and its wealth of eye-openers.
DiSalvo: Reading your new book, Perv: The Sexual Deviant In All of Us, feels like being told the truth (and not in hushed whispers) about an ocean of assumptions most people never think to question. Did you feel like you were on a “truth telling” mission writing it?
Bering: I don’t think I ever framed it in my mind in such explicit terms, but now that you mention it, yes. Oftentimes, as I was trying to explain a particularly challenging or difficult topic, I had the image of myself at, say, fifteen or sixteen, a closeted boy straining to understand things that nobody was willing to have a frank conversation about. That’s to say, much of what I write in this book involves what I only wish I had known back then.
One of the themes that comes through is that we feel so sure about the origins and motivations of various sexual behaviors, and for a good many of them there’s no scientific basis for feeling this way – indeed, in many cases science is far from reaching a conclusion. Why do you think we’re so prone to staunchly believing that how we feel about a sexual behavior is automatically true?
It’s certainly one of those areas where everyone has an opinion. But if there’s one thing I discovered while working on this book, it’s that the strength of one’s moral convictions about sex usually reflects the depths of one’s ignorance about the science of sex. The more one learns in this area, paradoxically, the more uncertain one becomes.
Human beings are “stomach philosophers”—we allow our gut feelings to make decisions about other people’s sex lives on the basis of whether or not we’re personally disgusted or uncomfortable with their erotic desires or behaviors. I draw the line at harm, but defining harm can be a slippery matter, too. Since we would be harmed, we presume that others must be harmed as well, even when that’s far from apparent. I joke in the book about how I’d be irreparably damaged if Kate Upton were to pin me to my chair and do a slow strip tease on my lap. Lovely as she is, I’m gay, and not only would I not enjoy that experience, I’d be made deeply uncomfortable by it. My straight brother or my lesbian cousin, by contrast, would process this identical Upton event very differently.
Our acceptance or rejection of others based on their sexuality can have life-changing consequences for them. The fact that disgust is the blind engine of hate is a big problem, in my view. To make ethical progress in these discussions, even the most open-minded among us must abandon the continued harmful delusion that our own visceral feelings mark a clear moral reality outside of our heads. Instead, we must be vigilant about putting our own emotional biases aside when considering other people’s subjective experiences.