An Interview with Julie Peakman
"Sex," says J.G. Ballard in The Atrocity Exhibition, "...is now a conceptual act, it's probably only in terms of the perversions that we can make contact with each other at all." Ballard may have a point, but as far as history goes, humans have been coming up with all manner of sex expression since the dawn of time. The issue just so happens to be what social and cultural time you were in.
Enter Julie Peakman, author of The Pleasure's All Mine: A History of Perverse Sex, who argues that it is precisely these trends in cultural norms that really define what is "perverse" and what is "normal." Think of ancient Rome where masturbation was considered healthy and then in the Victorian era where it was an act that could get you institutionalized. Whether sussing out topics like homosexuality and BDSM, to those that still remain taboo, like bestiality and pedophilia, Peakman is able to provide a well-needed historical context for all things "perverse" (or in her opinion, not perverse at all) and shine a light in the many places we would rather keep dark.
I was fortunate enough to get to talk with Peakman on her book and hear more on what it is we really mean when we talk about "perverse sex."
First off, what is "perverse sex?" That seems like it could be such a fickle category, almost as fickle as "normal sex?"
It certainly is. In the medieval period, people would refer to what we now call perverse sex as "unnatural sex," meaning it was against the laws of nature and the natural laws of God. Later it became known as "deviant," "abnormal" and a host of other titles. Not only does the phrase change over time but the type of sex acts included in the categories change as well. For example, homosexuality used to be seen as acceptable in ancient Greece, became a sin and a capital offense in the medieval period, and in the modern period today is acceptable enough for same-sex people to marry in many countries. Perversity is mutable. People's views have changed so dramatically over time that there is really very little we can still call perverse.
Socially speaking, there tends to be an acceptance to the general complexities of human behavior, yet sexuality seems a point where we tend to stop short at sex. Why do you think this is?
Firstly, I don't agree that there is acceptance in this world. I think half the world is still intolerant of the other half, that's why we have so many wars. Discussion and education are the answers. Sex is part of that intolerance.
What's so interesting about the book, and perhaps what can be a difficult task, is talking about "perverse sex" in the actual range it represents. So this can go from consensual BDSM play or drag, to the realm of official taboo, with something such as child-love or pedophilia. How are you able to balance the history of these extremes, especially when it comes to stickier issues of morality, ethics, and consent?
My approach is one of tolerance as far as possible but we have to put limits to keep vulnerable people from harm. Many people may not agree, but I think most sex between two consenting adults is acceptable. But there are gray areas that need more open discussion -- such as consent to physical harm (how far can it be allowed short of maiming?), amputations (we have plastic surgery after all), and questions of shifting the age of consent. My intention is not to judge but to raise questions to make people think -- and, I hope, provoke discussion.
Most people tend to pride themselves on being relatively open when it comes to sexual matters, especially as one generation moves into the next, but the truth is, we all have a point where we stop. I know Channel 4 just released Secrets of the Living Dolls, which is a look into "masking," aka, men transforming themselves into lifesize female dolls by way of latex body suits, face masks, and realistic female genitalia. It was definitely treated as a joke here, but it also represents a fine border that you talk about in the chapter "From Transvestites to Transsexuals," where cross-dressing for "play" is all right, but anything that strays further from that and into enjoyment is condemned.
I thought the men involved in the program were very brave to speak out about it. Transvestism used to be a taboo issue, and still is for many. And where were the women in this program? Do we know if this is a male-specific experience? So many questions were left unasked, but it was at least a start. There are definitely gender issues involved: women in history who cross-dressed were condemned for usurping the "superior" position of men, while cross-dressing men were condemned for wanting to act the "inferior" role of a woman. Luckily the situation is changing as more people air their views. As sexual difference becomes more visible, it tends to become more acceptable -- at least in the more secular part of the western world.
One of the people in Living Dolls, a man with six daughters, states very purposefully that he masks because he "decided to emulate a sexy female, to basically be what I couldn't have." So it doesn't seem to fit under the supposed category of "perverse sex," but more a reflection of our society's obsession with beauty, youth, and sexual availability. How do you think something like this fits into the work you have done, as well the history of perverse sex? Or does it at all?
I am really calling for the idea that there is no such thing as perverse sex if consenting adults are involved and it harms no one else. It is not my opinion of perversity I examine, but society's attitudes in the past to the present. Many transvestites claim that their cross-dressing had nothing to do with sex per se, it is just a way of bringing out their feminine side.
As for the Living Dolls, it seems much the same contention but the question of sexual feeling was not really explored in the documentary.
The book is packed with these rich photographs and drawings of people acting out on their perversions. I love it, because I think there is a tendency to often refer to sexual deviance as a "new" thing. I can't even think of how many times I've heard of being gay referred to as a thing that is just now happening at this point in time. But these photos and drawings offer evidence that we have always been little perverts, as long as there has been a capability to capture it! Can you talk on the decision of including these visual representations, and how important they are, in so far as history goes?
I had a great time undertaking the picture research and was backed all the way by the publisher at Reaktion, Michael Leaman. He not only put in all the pictures I asked for but all the duplicates I had provided too! It ended up with 178 images, many in color -- many more than I thought we would be able to put in. The production quality of the images is so high and the book is so inexpensive, I don't really know how he has managed it. The publisher obviously has faith that the book will sell! I think the visual art is very important and it gives a sense of the time the images were evoked.
What do you hope that readers will take away from The Pleasure's All Mine?
An open mind.