Perversity, Polymorphous

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Perversity, Polymorphous

Polymorphous perversity is a Freudian term that signifies a person's ability to experience sexual pleasure in a variety of ways in the entire body, beyond the narrow range of genital stimulation that is consonant with reproduction. Sigmund Freud argued in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905) that polymorphous perversity is a rudimentary stage of childhood sexuality, infants and children can experience sexual pleasure anywhere on the body, and normal development eventually narrows that pleasure to the genital zones, with the aim of ensuring heterosexual sexual intercourse. Noting that barriers to unregulated sexual expression such as shame, disgust, and the sense of sexual morality are absent in childhood sexual behavior, Freud thought that polymorphous perversity was abnormal only if it persisted into adulthood, which it often did, he thought, in lower-class women and non-European peoples. This notion of nonreproductive sexual practices as gendered, lower-class, racialized, and perverse both reflects and extends late nineteenth-century attitudes about empire, race, gender, class, and sexuality.

A value-laden term from a particular cultural moment, the idea of polymorphous perversity validates heterosexual copulation as the most adult and civilized form of sexual behavior while defining nonreproductive sexual expression as childlike, uncivilized, lower-class, and non-Western. However, the behaviors described as polymorphously perverse can be found among adults of all classes throughout history and across many cultures.


Western history is filled with reports of sexual pleasures and practices apart from adult heterosexual reproductive copulation, including the anal and penetrative pederasty of the Greeks; the rape and sexual slavery of men, women, and children that was the prerogative of biblical, Roman, and Enlightenment patriarchs; childhood sexual abuse in arranged marriages among medieval and Renaissance European nobility; and the prostitution and multiple mistresses that absorbed most of the sexual practices disapproved of in the bourgeois marriage bed from the eighteenth century onward.

Shakespeare's Juliet is twelve years old and ready for betrothal by the standards of her day. Prostitution, the world's "oldest profession," has been practiced for centuries by men as well as women, fueled by its customers' desire for sexual practices, including oral and anal sex, fetishism, and dominant and submissive role play, that fall outside the procreative practices that characterize legal marriage. Heterosexual prostitution, which is legal in many countries and tolerated in most, typifies the ways in which polymorphous perversity is acceptable when it operates to uphold other practices, such as the regulation of female sexuality, that are central to traditional patriarchal cultures.


There are many cultures in which polymorphous sexual behavior was or is tolerated under highly regulated circumstances, such as the indigenous tribes of North America, in which men known as berdache dressed as women and were married to other men; South Africa, where miners far from their families established domestic and sexual relationships with other men; India, where in some regions men are allowed to dress as women and have sex with men if they become hijras, live apart, and undergo castration; Papua New Guinea, where adolescent boys may become adults by swallowing semen from adult males; and Brazil, where effeminate homosexuality is tolerated among cross-dressed travesti prostitutes if one partner assumes a traditionally feminine persona and role.


The recent decriminalization of sodomy in Europe and the United States and the legalization of various forms of domestic partnership in Europe, Canada, and the U.S. state of Massachusetts signify both a shift in regulatory attitudes toward polymorphous perversity in the Western world and official recognition of its sexual practices. This has eliminated much of the difference between so-called infantile polymorphous perversity and Freud's "normal" zone of adult sexuality.

see also Infantile Sexuality.


Duberman, Martin; Martha Vicinus; and George Chauncey, Jr., eds. 1990. Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. New York: New American Library.

Freud, Sigmund. 1962. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, trans. James Strachey. New York: Basic Books. (Orig. pub. 1905.)

Kahr, Brett. 1999. "The History of Sexuality: From Ancient Polymorphous Perversity to Modern Genital Love" Journal of Psychohistory 26(4). Available from

Kulick, Don. 1997. "A Man in the House: The Boyfriends of Brazilian Travesti Prostitutes." Social Text 52-53: 133-160.

                                              Jaime Hovey