Authors: Jesse Bering
I’ll do my best, anyway. For while there’s no doubt that the most terrible rapists, child molesters, and other more banal classes of sex offenders were around in his day, Terence didn’t know of the hundreds of extravagant “paraphilias” (or sexual orientations toward people or things that most of us wouldn’t consider to be particularly erotic) that scientists would eventually discover when he confidently uttered those words more than two thousand years ago. Even he might have had trouble finding common ground with, say, “teratophiles,” those attracted to the congenitally deformed, or “autoplushophiles,” who enjoy masturbating to their own image as cartoonlike stuffed animals.
Understanding the etymology of the word “pervert,” oddly enough, can help us to frame many of the challenging issues to come. Perverts weren’t always the libidinous bogeymen we know and loathe today. Yes, sexual mores have shifted dramatically over the course of history and across societies, but the very word “pervert” once literally meant something else entirely than what it does now. For example, it wouldn’t have helped his case, but the peculiar discovery that some peasant during the reign of Charles II used conch shells for anal gratification or inhaled a stolen batch of ladies’ corsets while touching himself in the town square would have been merely coincidental to any accusations of his being perverted. Terms of the day such as “skellum” (scoundrel) or reference to his “mundungus” (smelly entrails) might have applied, but calling this man a “pervert” for his peccadilloes would have made little sense at the time.
Linguistically, the sexual connotation feels so natural. The very ring of it—
—is at once melodious and cloying, producing a noticeable snarl on the speaker’s face as the image of a lecherous child molester, a trench-coated flasher in a park, a drooling pornographer, or perhaps a serial rapist pops into his or her head. Yet as Shakespeare might remind us, a pervert by any other name would smell as foul.
For the longest time, in fact, to be a pervert wasn’t to be a sex deviant; it was to be an atheist. In 1656, the British lexicographer Thomas Blount included the following entry for the verb “pervert” in his
(a book also known by the more cumbersome title
A Dictionary Interpreting the Hard Words of Whatsoever Language Now Used in Our Refined English Tongue
): “to turn upside down, to debauch, or seduce.” All of those activities occur in your typical suburban bedroom today. But it’s only by dint of our post-Victorian minds that we perceive these types of naughty winks in the definition of a term floating around the old English countryside. In Blount’s time, and for several hundred years after he was dead and buried, a pervert was simply a headstrong apostate who had turned his or her back on the draconian morality of the medieval Church, thereby “seducing” others into a godless lifestyle.
Actually, even long before Blount officially introduced perverts to the refined English-speaking world in all their heathen fury, an earlier form of the word appeared in the Catholic mystic Boethius’s
Consolation of Philosophy
in the year 524.
Like Blount’s derivation, the mystic’s
was a bland “turning away from what is right.” Given the context of Christian divinity in which Boethius’s treatise was written, it’s clear that “against what is right” meant much the same then as it does for God-fearing people today, which is to say, against what is biblical.
So if we applied this original definition to the present iconoclastic world of science, one of the world’s most recognizable perverts would be the famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. As the author of
The God Delusion
and an active proselytizer of atheism, Dawkins encourages his fellow rationalists to “turn away from” canonical religious teachings. (I’ve penned my own scientific atheistic screed, so I’m not casting stones. I’m proudly in possession of a perverted nature that fits both the archaic use of the term, due to my atheism, and its more recent pejorative use, due to my homosexuality.)
Only at the tail end of the nineteenth century did the word “pervert” first leap from the histrionic sermons of fiery preachers into the heady, clinical discourses of stuffy European sexologists like the ones you’ll be introduced to soon. And it was a long time after that still before “pervert”—or “perv” if we’re being casual—became slang for describing the creepy, bespectacled guy up the road who likes to watch the schoolgirls milling about the bus stop in their miniskirts while he sips tea on his front porch.
This semantic migration of perverts, from the church pews to the psychiatric clinic to the online comments section of news stories about sex offenders, hasn’t occurred without the clattering bones of medieval religious morality dragging behind. Notice the suffix
means, generally, “to turn”: hence “con
” (to turn to another), “re
” (to turn to a previous state), “in
” (to turn inside out), “per
” (to turn away from the right course), and so on. But of all these related words, “pervert” alone has that devilishly malicious core—“a distinctive quality of obstinacy,” notes the psychoanalyst Jon Jureidini, “petulance, peevishness … self-willed in a way that distinguishes it from more ‘innocent’ deviations.” A judge accusing someone of “perverting the course of justice” is referring to a deliberate effort to thwart moral fairness. Similarly, with the modern noun form of “pervert” being synonymous with “sex deviant,” the presumption is that he (or she) is a deviant by his own malicious design. That is, he is presumed to have willfully chosen to be sexually aberrant in spite of such a decision being morally wrong.
* * *
It’s striking how such an emotionally loaded word, one that undergoes almost no change at all for the first thousand years of its use in the English language, can almost overnight come to mean something so very different, eclipsing its original intent in its entirety. So how, exactly, did this word “pervert” go from being a perennial reference to the “immoral religious heretic” to referring to the “immoral sexual deviant”?
The answer to this riddle can be found in the work of the Victorian-era scholar Havelock Ellis of South London, who is credited with popularizing the term in describing patients with atypical sexual desires back in 1897. Although earlier scholars, including the famous Austro-German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, regarded by many as the father of studies in deviant sexuality, preceded Ellis in sexualizing the term, Ellis’s accessible writing in the English language found a wider general audience and ultimately led to the term being solidified this way in the common vernacular. The provenance of the term in Ellis’s work is still a little hard to follow, because he initially uses “perverts” and “perversions” in the sense of sexual deviancy in the pages of a book confusingly titled
. Coauthored by the gay literary critic John Addington Symonds and published posthumously, the book was a landmark treatise on the psychological basis of homosexuality. “Sexual inversion,” in their view, reflected homosexuality as being a sort of inside-out form of the standard erotic pattern of heterosexual attraction. That part is easy enough to understand. Where Ellis and Symonds’s language gets tricky, however, is in their broader use of “sexual perversions” to refer to socially prohibited sexual behaviors, of which “sexual inversion” was just one. (Other classic types of perversions included polygamy, bestiality, and prostitution.) The authors adopted this religious language not because they personally believed homosexuality to be abnormal and therefore wrong (quite the opposite, since their naturalistic approach was among the first to identify such behaviors in other animals) but only to note how it was so salient among the categories of sexuality frequently depicted as “against what is right” or sinful.
Also Symonds, keep in mind, was an out and proud gay man. The word was merely an observation about how homosexuals (or “inverts”) were regarded by most of society.
Interestingly enough, the scientist of the pair, and the one usually credited with christening gays and lesbians as sex “perverts,” had his own unique predilections. Havelock Ellis’s “urophilia,” which is a strong sexual attraction to urine (or to people who are in the process of urinating), is documented in his various notes and letters. In correspondence with a close female acquaintance, Ellis chided the woman for forgetting her purse at his house, adding saucily, “I’ve no objection to your leaving
behind.” He gave in to these desires openly and even fancied himself a connoisseur of
, writing in his autobiography: “I may be regarded as a pioneer in the recognition of the beauty of the natural act in women when carried out in the erect attitude.” In his later years, this “divine stream,” as he called it, proved the cure for Ellis’s long-standing impotence. The image of an upright, urinating woman was really the only thing that could turn him on. And he was entirely unashamed of this sexual quirk: “It was never to me vulgar, but, rather, an ideal interest, a part of the yet unrecognised loveliness of the world.” On attempting to analyze his own case (he was a sexologist, after all), Ellis concluded, “[It’s] not extremely uncommon … it has been noted of men of high intellectual distinction.”
He was also convinced that men with high-pitched voices were generally more intelligent than baritones. That Ellis himself was a rare high tenor might have had something to do with that curious hypothesis as well.
Ellis was among a handful of pioneering sexologists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who’d set out to tease apart the complicated strands of human sexuality. Other scholars, such as Krafft-Ebing, as well as the German psychiatrist Wilhelm Stekel and, of course, the most famous psychoanalyst of all, Sigmund Freud, were similarly committed to this newly objective, amoral empirical approach to studying sexual deviance. Their writings may seem tainted with bias to us today, and in fact they are, but they also display a genuine concern for those who found themselves, through no doing or choice of their own, being aroused in ways that posed serious problems for them under the social conditions in which they lived.
It’s worth bearing in mind, for instance, that Ellis and Symonds’s
was written on the heels of Oscar Wilde’s sensationalized 1895 gross indecency trials, in which (among other things) that great Dubliner wit was publicly accused of cavorting with a fleet of boys and men in a series of racy homosexual affairs. Taking the stand at London’s Old Bailey courthouse, where the father of his petulant young British lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, had brought charges against him, Wilde famously referred to homosexuality as “the love that dare not speak its name.” The jury sentenced him to two years of hard labor for the crime of sodomy. (Incidentally, although consensual anal sex is no longer a crime in the United Kingdom, the fact that forcible anal penetration, among other acts, is still officially called “sodomy”—as in Sodom and Gomorrah—throughout the industrialized world even today shows just how deeply an antiquated religious morality is embedded and tangled up in our modern sex crime laws.)
What often gets overlooked in Wilde’s account is the fact that “the love that dare not speak its name” referred to a specific type of homosexual relationship. Sexologists today would label Wilde’s well-known affinities as evidence of his “ephebophilia” (attraction to teens or adolescents).
Wilde’s intent in the phrase being especially applicable to courtships between men and teenage boys is clear when one reads his full elaboration on the stand, where he goes on to describe this unspeakable love:
As there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Shakespeare. It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art like those of Michelangelo … It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man, when the elder man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.
Wilde’s description of such a mutually beneficial, intergenerational romance is ironic today, because “the love that dare not speak its name” is now more unutterable than ever. The modern ephebophilic heirs of Wilde, Plato, and Michelangelo are not only mocked and pilloried but branded erroneously, as we’ll see later, as “pedophiles.”
Much like Wilde facing his detractors, the early sexologists found themselves confronted by angry purists who feared that their novel scientific endeavors would open the door to the collapse of cherished institutions such as marriage, religion, and “the family.” Anxieties over such a “slippery slope effect” have been around for a very long time, and in the eyes of these moralists an objective approach to sexuality threatened all that was good and holy. Conservative scholars saw any neutral evaluation of sex deviants as a dangerous stirring of the pot, legitimizing wicked things as “natural” variants of behavior and leading “normal” people into embracing the unethical lifestyles of the degenerate.
Merely giving horrific tendencies such as same-sex desires their own proper scientific names made them that much more real to these moralists, and therefore that much more threatening. To them, this was the reification of sexual evil. In a scathing review of
, for instance, a psychiatrist at the Boston Insane Hospital named William Noyes chastised the authors for “adding three hundred more pages to a literature already too flourishing … Apart from its influence on the perverts themselves no healthy person can read this literature without a lower opinion of human nature, and this result in itself should bid any writer pause.”