Academics have always wanted to disseminate their research to wider audiences, but in recent years those of us working in universities have had to seek maximum public “impact” for our work. What could be better for attracting readers – from the British Library scholar to the San Franciscan flâneuse to the commuter tired of her Fifty Shades – than a sleek, comprehensive, finely illustrated book on sexual perversion? This seductive book traces changing attitudes to a dozen different sexual perversions from the beginning of Western civilisation to the present day. From onanism to sadomasochism, from necrophilia to incest, Julie Peakman reveals how attitudes to illicit and “deviant” sexual behaviours have shifted over the centuries, and must be understood in their cultural contexts of religion, medicine and science. Yet in pulling together such disparate topics, especially those still considered repugnant or titillating, can any book maintain academic rigour and coherence?
The history of sexuality has come of age as a major field of social history, as the January 2014 launch of a seminar series on the History of Sexuality at the Institute of Historical Research attests. Peakman’s recent work on 18th-century sexuality, including pornography and “whores’ biographies”, has established her reputation as a major scholar of the more controversial areas of sexual history. The pantheon of sexual appetites explored here greatly expands our appreciation of the non-normative nature of desire – the rich tastes that lie beyond our contemporary fixation with straight, gay and queer.
The Pleasure’s All Mine usefully begins by problematising heterosexuality, showing how at particular moments it was seen as neither natural nor acceptable. Subsequent chapters deal in turn with desires and activities that have been categorised as deviant, following each from the pre-Christian past through to the present day. Along the way, we are encouraged to consider our own visceral responses to and ethical positions on these sexual behaviours. While we might enjoy a liberal superiority in our contemporary acceptance of the “perversions” she discusses early on – masturbation, male homosexuality, lesbianism and transsexuality – the legalisation of some of these sexual practices is extremely recent.
Society seems superficially comfortable with consenting adult sexuality. But there are some sexual activities that are seen as more perverse today than they were in the past. Sex between adults and children has always inhabited an ambiguous moral zone. Although permissible in certain societies (eg, citizen/slave relations in Classical Greece), it has generally been structured by complex ethical questions of marriage, age of consent and social inequality. As the Western middle-class family reached its idealised peak in the later 19th century, the eroticisation of children entered mainstream culture in literature and art, while at the same time organisations were formed to protect children from sexual exploitation. But it has only been since the 1970s that Michel Foucault’s “perverse” homosexual made way for the “paedophile” to become the monstrous figure in media discourse. Public horror has shut down useful debate about prevention of this crime and open discussion of childhood sexuality.
In an ambitious book that unites compelling subject matter with authoritative style, the author does an excellent job of tracking the multiple and changing attitudes towards non-mainstream sexual preferences. The study is enlivened by many telling examples; in noting, for example, that agricultural labourers were still being sentenced to death in Britain in the early 19th century for the “abominable sin” of having sex with animals, Peakman poses sharp questions about the intersection of morality, ethics and consent. We might find sexual activity with animals repellent, but in what circumstances is it immoral? In the 21st century, the question of how we can determine the consent of animals is now more pertinent than whether bestiality is against God’s will.
While the cover image of The Pleasure’s All Mine manages to be both dreary and prurient, the illustrations within are fabulous, albeit not for the faint-hearted. The expressions of those depicted – in erotic photographs, fine art and pornographic drawings – are revealing. The degrees of composure, alienation and the historically specific ways that pleasure was expressed on the faces of these fantasy or paid-for models tells us a great deal about the gendered gaze and the power to categorise and enjoy varieties of sexual pleasure.
The Pleasure’s All Mine: A History of Perverse Sex
By Julie Peakman
Reaktion, 352pp, £25.00
Published 24 November 2013