Sexual Perversion

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Sexual Perversion

Sexual perversion is an old-fashioned diagnostic term that served as a label for sexual activities considered outside the norm of heterosexual sexual desire and activity. This norm was defined as coitus with a person of the opposite sex with the aim of achieving orgasm through genital penetration. Any other type of sexual activity, regardless of the sex of the participants, was traditionally considered perverse.

Sexual perversion appears most famously in Richard von Krafft-Ebing's nineteenth-century medical textbook Psychopathia Sexualis, first published in German in 1886. There sexual perversion is defined as a disease of the sexual instinct, as opposed to sexual perversity, which is defined as vice rather than pathology. Sexual perversion was understood as a deviation of instinct, which means that it refers to predetermined behavior that is invariable as regards both its performance and its object. The sexual perversions delineated by Krafft-Ebing included sadism, masochism, fetishism, bestiality, sexual inversion in men and women (understood either as what is now termed homosexuality, on the one hand, or gender dysphoria, on the other, or both), rape, nymphomania, onanism (masturbation), pedophilia, exhibitionism, necrophilia, and incest.

In psychoanalysis perversion is used exclusively in relation to sexuality. Sigmund Freud used the notion of sexual perversity in his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality [1962 (1905)] to question traditional notions of so-called normal sexuality. He noted rudiments of sexual perversions, such as touching, looking, kissing, and various sorts of fetishism and idealization, in most normal sexual processes. For Freud perversion was limited to sexual activities that either extend anatomically beyond the genital regions of the body or linger indefinitely on activities leading up to coitus without ever arriving at sexual intercourse.

To pervert something is to turn it away from its natural course, but the term has become so exclusively associated with sexuality in the 100-plus years since Freud's Three Essays that calling someone a pervert in the early twenty-first century is tantamount to labeling them a sex criminal. Because sexual perversion carries with it judgments about the naturalness and value of some kinds of behaviors and the artificiality and wrongness of others, it has been replaced in medical dictionaries and diagnostic manuals by the more neutral term paraphilia. Paraphilias are no longer understood as dysfunctional deviations from the normal, as the sexual perversions once were, but are now defined as behaviors centered on sexual arousal with objects or situations where affection may not be reciprocal or returned. The fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-IV-TR (2000) lists the paraphilias as exhibitionism, fetishism, frotteurism, pedophilia, sexual masochism, sexual sadism, transvestic fetishism, and voyeurism. Masturbation and homosexuality are no longer considered to be sexually perverse, but some gendertransgressive behaviors have been singled out and retained, such as erotic cross-dressing. Voyeurism, which Krafft-Ebing did not consider unusual and which Freud related to the essentially healthy scopophilic drive, is considered an atypical sexual disorder in the early twenty-first century, and is often associated with criminal behaviors such as stalking.

One or some of the eight major paraphilias must be a patient's sole means of sexual gratification for six months and cause them distress and interpersonal difficulty in order to be diagnosed as an illness requiring medical intervention. Of these exhibitionism is defined as the recurrent urge to expose the genitals to another person; fetishism as the use of objects for sexual pleasure; frotteurism as the urge to rub against nonconsenting persons; pedophilia as the desire to have sex with children; masochism as the desire to be beaten, tied up, humiliated, or made to suffer; sadism as the urge to cause pain and humiliation as a form of sexual excitement; transvestic fetishism as a sexual desire directed at the clothes of the so-called opposite gender; and voyeurism as the desire to secretly observe people undressing or having sex. Many of the older sexual perversions, such as necrophilia (the desire to have sex with dead bodies) or bestiality (the desire to have sex with animals), can be grouped under the major paraphilias, such as sadism and fetishism.

Theories of how paraphilias develop tend to focus on traumatic events associated with early sexual experience, during which subjects are conditioned to respond sexually to unusual situations. Because almost anything can be sexualized, it follows that paraphilias can encompass any behavior, object, or sexual subject.

see also Necrophilia; Pedophilia; Sadomasochism; Voyeurism.


American Psychiatric Association. 2000. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-IV-TR. 4th edition, text revision. Washington, DC: Author.

Freud, Sigmund. 1962 [1905]. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, trans. and ed. James Strachey. New York: Basic.

Krafft-Ebing, Richard von. 1965 [1886]. Psychopathia Sexualis, trans. Franklin S. Klaf. New York: Stein and Day.

Laplanche, J., and J.-B. Pontalis. 1973. The Language of Psychoanalysis, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: Norton.

                                            Jaime Hovey