ATSA Forum - Vol. XXI, No. 4
Fall 2009  (Plain Text Version)

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In this issue:
 Editor's Note
 President's Message
 In Memoriam: Gail Burns-Smith
 Deconstructing Deviance: They’re all deviant except for you and me, and I’m not so sure about you
 iVigilante? Public Disclosure and New Technology
 Everywhere It Matters:
Working at the State Level to Influence Public Policy

 The Established (but still evolving) Internship at the Shiloh Program
 Vicarious Trauma: What are the protective measures?
 The Interactive Self Management Plan:
Picking Up Where Programs Leave Off

 Book Review: Assessment and Treatment of Sex Offenders: A Handbook
 Book Review: The Other Side of Desire
 Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship
 Board of Directors Election Results
 New ATSA Members
 Paid Advertisement: The GEO Group


Book Review: The Other Side of Desire

 

On the Origin of Sexual Desire:
A Review of “The Other Side of Desire”

Reviewed by Annabree Fairweather & Gillian Kennedy
University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada
annabree.fairweather@uleth.ca / g.kennedy@uleth.ca


The Other Side of Desire: Four Journeys into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing
, by Daniel Bergner (2009, New York, NY: HarperCollins), is an exploration of four unique sexual paraphilias. Each chapter presents the life of someone living with a unique sexual interest and, through their stories, we come to better understand what constitutes the normal and the abnormal, and question where “common” ends and paraphilic begins. Prominent psychologist Muriel Dimen is quoted as saying, “Perversion can be defined as the sex that you like and I don’t” (p. 58).

Annabree Fairweather

Gillian Kennedy  

The first of four chapters opens with Jacob who is tormented by his arousal to feet. Unable to come to terms with his fetish, Jacob delves into his childhood experiences and deep-rooted self-loathing in an attempt to understand his sexual preference. The second chapter describes a female sexual sadist—the Baroness—who shares her experiences as a renowned dominatrix and gives us insight into the sexual and nonsexual interplay between dom and sub that often go unrecognized. The third chapter follows a man named Roy, convicted of molesting his 12-year old stepdaughter. Roy’s story takes us on a journey through his therapy sessions as he struggles to accept what he has done, and the subsequent 35-year probation term he must serve. The final chapter discusses Ron, a photographer attracted to amputees, and his wife Laura, a double-leg amputee. Although, initially, Ron hides his sexual preference out of shame, his desire for a life of openness leads him to disclose his secret. Eventually, he changes from photographing traditional fashion models to working exclusively with amputees, through which he meets his wife Laura. After a near fatal accident leaving Laura without her legs, she discovers a subculture of devotees, a group composed mostly of men who are sexually attracted to amputees. The discovery of a subculture specifically oriented toward her disability prompts her to re-evaluate herself, leading her to personal and sexual renewal.

By exploring the lives of the four protagonists, Bergner tries to discover the origin of sexual preferences. The interviews with psychologists, psychiatrists, and researchers in the field of sexuality provide us with various views on human desire. Some argue that sexual desire is innate or biological, while others argue that experience and development explain different eros. In fact, there is no consensus among experts—the answer to the etiology of sexual desire remains unsatisfactory. Not simply a debate of nature versus nurture, Bergner demonstrates how different theories of sexual preference influence treatment options for patients. From chemical castration to group therapy sessions to self-acceptance, particular conceptions of sexual preferences lead to particular treatments that greatly influence the lives of those seeking help for their often-unwanted sexual desires.

The implications of theoretical notions for treatment can first be seen in the story of Jacob. Fred Berlin, a Johns Hopkins psychiatrist specializing in sexual disorders, believes that desire is driven by nature and, therefore, the best method of treatment is to try and control sexual urges. This biological viewpoint led him to prescribe anti-androgens for Jacob’s foot fetish. In the chapter about Roy, the convicted child molester, we see a different perspective from Patrick Liddle, the Middleton, Connecticut therapist for Roy’s group therapy sessions. Liddle focuses on the acknowledgment of the crime in order to recognize the behavioural patterns leading up to the incident. Only then can Roy learn how to prevent himself from reoffending in the future.

Ray Blanchard and James Cantor of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto have conducted research that demonstrates a strong connection between sexual preference and biology, for example the association between left-handedness and pedophilia. They believe that their research provides strong evidence for the dominance of nature over nurture. Psychiatrist Paul Federoff of the Royal Ottawa Hospital, however, believes that people can change their sexual preferences much in the same way that people can learn a new language. According to Federoff, this notion of learning suggests some kind of biological origin because the individual must already have the predisposition to learn any sexual preference or any language, which will then be fine-tuned by experience. The combination of biological and experiential influences on sexual desire is seen in Federoff’s treatment of his patients. He believes his patients can learn a more typical sexual preference, something he calls a “second language,” with the help of medication and therapy. Bergner’s interviews with researchers, psychologists, and psychiatrists ultimately demonstrate that sexuality, the origin of eros, and the sources of individual differences are far from being fully understood.

During the conversations with his informants, Bergner explained, “I am here with you, at the far edges of experience, in the hope that your stories illuminate truths shared by all of us.” One of his strengths as a writer is his acute sense of respect and humanity, and it is through these virtues that we come to know his subjects. This book deals head-on with sexual interests that are far from the ordinary, yet Bergner’s sensitivity and compassion help us to see the ordinary in each; thus, we are able to relate to the individuals without the taint of judgment or reproach. These insights into personal anguish and the struggle for acceptance could have been twisted into yet another gratuitously exploitative freak show when, in reality, these stories elicit empathy and understanding, and the recognition in another human being of the trials and tribulations of what it is to be sui generis.

The Other Side of Desire is germane to the field of sexual offending. The stories are accessible and intimate, which may provide clinicians with personal insight into the experiences of those living with atypical sexual preferences. Likewise, in these pages clients may be able to find the words for what they are experiencing, or at least find some solace in not being alone. Beyond direct applications, this book could also be used to great effect in the classroom as a tool for discussion. The questions what is normal and what constitutes the perverse are integral to the formation of diagnoses and treatments, not to mention public policy or legislation. It is through challenging these concepts with stories from devotees, fetishists, and others that we can come closer to understanding where that line is drawn. Bergner challenges us to question what a normal sexual preference is; after all, is a preference for missing limbs all that different from a preference for a certain hair colour or body type?

There are a few shortcomings to the book that should be addressed before concluding this review. First, Bergner’s portrayal of conflicting perspectives in the etiology of paraphilias is too black and white. The “nature versus nurture” debate is not so easily bifurcated, with the majority of clinicians and researchers falling somewhere between the two extremes. Giving air time to more moderate perspectives would more fairly represent the current ethos. The only defensible perspective, of course, is that nature and nurture are inextricably linked. Second, the book is less than three hundred pages, and considering it is such a quick read, there could have been more research into the scientific literature of amputee devotees. Ron’s story relies solely on anecdotal experience at the expense of clinical and scientific inquiry and, yet, the other chapters were well-balanced between experts, historical literature, and personal experience.

Finally, the chapter on the female sexual sadist, the Baroness, may not have fit the definition of paraphilia. For one, Bergner dedicated a large part of the chapter to discrediting the use of ‘paraphilia’ being used to describe women’s sexual preferences, establishing that women’s sexual arousal is organized differently than that of men’s. Second, women are grossly under-represented in the paraphilias and, even though this does not necessarily mean it doesn’t exist, the Baroness did not experience any of the misgivings and heartache common to the rest of those in Bergner’s book. It seemed as though Bergner wanted to include a story about a woman with paraphilic sexual interests and, even though the story was enjoyable, it was somewhat contrived.

Despite these small quibbles, Daniel Bergner’s The Other Side of Desire is highly recommended for all who are interested in a deeper understanding of sexuality and its manifestations from an intimate perspective.