Perversion: The Erotic Form Of Hatred

Here are some highlights from this 1986 book by Robert Stoller:

First, perversion is the result of an essential interplay between hostility and sexual desire… Second, people with perversions feel (are made to feel) an unending sense of being dirty, sinful, secretive, abnormal, and a threat to those finer, unperverse citizens who are supposed to make up the majority of society. Third, the word itself reflects the need of individuals in society to keep from recognizing their own perverse tendencies by providing scapegoats who liberate the rest of us in that they serve as the objects of our own unacceptable and projected perverse tendencies. All that unsavory sense of sin is lost in the blandness of a term like “variant,” with its conspicuous yearning for respectability and statistical cleanliness.

* Pmersion, the erotic form of hatred, is a fantasy, usually acted out but occasionally restricted to a daydream (either self-produced or packaged by others, that is, pornography). It is a habitual, preferred aberration necessary for one’s full satisfaction, primarily motivated by hostility. By “hostility” I mean a state in which one wishes to harm an object; that differentiates it from “aggression,” which often implies only forcefulness. The hostility in perversion takes form in a fantasy of revenge hidden in the actions that make up the perversion and serves to convert childhood trauma to adult triumph. To create the greatest excitement, the perversion must also portray itself as an act of risk-taking.

* one’s sex objects are dehumanized. This is obvious in, say, fetishism or necrophilia. But look closely at cryptoperversions such as rape, or a preference for prostitutes, or compulsive promiscuity (Don Juanism or nymphomania), which the naive observer may see only as heterosexual enthusiasms: in fact the object is a person with a personality, while the perverse person sees a creature without humanity-just an anatomy or cliched fragments of personality (for example, “what a piece of ass,” “all men are brutes”). This is hardly a new idea. In iggo, E. Straus noted: “The delight in perversions is caused by . . . the destruction, humiliation, desecration, the defonnation of the perverse individual himself and of his partner”

* If perversion is the result of threat and the resultant hatred, whence comes pleasure? Unmitigated trauma or frustration has no lust in it, nor does rage. Pleasure is released only when fantasy-that which makes perversion uniquely human-has worked. With fantasy, trauma is undone, and in the daydream-the manifest content, the conscious, constructed story line of fantasy-it can be undone, over and over as necessary. In redoing the world, daydreams contribute to plea- sure first by ridding one of fear of the trauma being repeated. Second, the daydream has in it elements that simulate risk, so that excitement-tension-is intro- duced. Third, the daydream guarantees a happy ending, saying that this time one has not only surmounted the trauma but even thwarted if not traumatized those who were the original attackers. Finally, when the daydream becomes attached to genital excitement and especially to orgasm, the “rightness” of the daydream is reinforced and the person motivated to repeat the experience under like circumstances.

* Think of the Don Juan, that paradigm of promiscuity, who reveals his hatred of women so innocently and unwittingly to the audience he must gather to vouch for his performance: his interests are in seduction, not love, and in recounting for friends how many women he has had and how they degraded themselves in the needfulness of the passion he induced. His excitement and gratification do not come from the sensual pleasures of the sexual act or the intimacy that he might have established with another person; in fact, he shows little interest in intercourse, his concentration being on overcoming the resistance of an apparently reluctant woman. Easy women do not attract him. His unending, frantic need to prove himself-his gratification only in numbers of conquests-reveals that his body is more in the service of power than of erotism.

* Each of the many genres of pornography is created for a specific perverse need by exact attention to detail, and each defines an area of excitement that will have no effect on a different person. Thus, for example, a sadist will choose depictions of sadistic acts, and a fetishistic transvestite will choose depictions of acts of cross-dressing. As with all perversions, pornography is a matter of aesthetics: one man’s delight is another’s boredom. Also, as with all perversions, at its heart is a fantasied act of revenge, condensing in itself the subject’s sexual life history-his memories and fantasies, traumas, frustrations, and joys. There is al- ways a victim, no matter how disguised: no victim, no pornography.

* Pornography is for restitution; its creation and its use are ritualized acts, and deviation from a narrow, prescribed path will produce decreased sexual excitement. The perversion functions as a necessary preserver of potency.

* The development of the manifest complex daydream that the pornography exteriorizes is a chronicle, over the years, of fantasies, each elaboration occurring at the moment when a piece of pain (or of incomplete pleasure) is converted into (greater) pleasure, until all these fantasies, like building blocks, have been assembled to create the adult perversion that presents itself overtly. But there is a grain of historical reality embedded in each fantasy, and the differences between what actually happened in different people’s lives account in good part (though not completely) for the minor variations found even in a group of people homogeneous for a particular perversion.

* But unfortunately, he has to repeat endlessly, for somehow he knows the perversion is only a construction, a fantasy; it can never truly prove that he has won. It does so only for the moment, and each time in his life that circumstances arise to echo the original traumatic situation, he can placate his anxiety only in repeating the perverse act whose function is to tell him again that he is intact and a victor. An essential quality in pornography (and perversion) is sadism-revenge for a passively experienced trauma.

* Especially helpful is the fact that since pornography, for its creator, is produced for money-making, he will be motivated in the highest to develop a daydream that is not idiosyncratic. If his pornography is to pay, he must intuitively extract out of what he knows about his audience those features all share in common. If he does not. he runs the risk of selling only one copy. He therefore has to create a work precise enough to excite and general enough to excite many. Thus, pornography is for the researcher a sort of statistical study of psychodynamics -a more colorful and more powerful method than the opinion poll that is sometimes foisted on us as rigorous research.

* these varying pornographies have in common the evocation of danger (humiliation, anxiety, fear, frustration) surmounted. In this sense, all pornography probably contains the psychodynamics of perversions. There is, I allege, no nonperverse pornography, that is, sexually exciting matter in which hostility is not employed as a goal.

* Pornography spares one the anxieties of having to make it with another person; the people on the printed page know their place and do as directed. Although popular, pornography may nonetheless not be simply (though it may, especially in adolescence, be partly) a substitute because of lack of proper sexual objects. It exists because it fills voyeuristic, sadomasochistic needs that in some people cannot be satisfied no matter how many willing sexual partners are available.

* Very popular are descriptions of a woman who starts out cool, superior, sophisticated, and uninterested but is swept by the precisely described activities of the man into a state of lust with monumental loss of control. One easily sees therein a power struggle disguised as sexuality: the dangerous woman who is reduced to a victim and the boy who, by means of the pornography, for a moment, in the illusion of power, becomes a man…

I have said that an essential dynamic in pornography is hostility. Perhaps the most important difference be- tween more perverse and less perverse (“normal”) pornography, as between perversion and “normality,” is the degree of hostility (hatred and revenge fantasies) bound or released in the sexual activity. One can raise the possibly controversial question whether in humans (especially males) powerful sexual excitement can ever exist without brutality also being present (minimal, repressed, distorted by reaction formation, attenuated, or overt in the most pathological cases). This may be comparable to asking whether a piece of humor can exist without hostility (25). In humor the hostility is not simply tacked on but is a sine qua non.

* Risk is inherent in the dynamic of revenge. We have seen how one recapitulates in fantasy an original trauma or frustration, with a new outcome: triumph. Let us add now that this at- tempted reversal is hazardous; one might immerse one- self again in the trauma. For pleasure to be possible, this risk cannot be too great; the odds cannot be high that one will experience the same trauma again. Nonetheless, the perversion must simulate the original danger. That gives it excitement, and so long as one keeps control, which is easy if it is one’s own fantasy, then it is a fore- gone conclusion (even if disguised in the story) that the risk will be surmounted.

* Just as every human group has its myth, perhaps for every person there is the sexual fantasy (perversion?). In it is summarized one’s sexual life history-the development of his or her erotism and of masculinity and femininity. In the manifest content of the fantasy are imbedded clues to the traumas and frustrations inflicted on sexual desires in childhood by the outside world, the mechanisms created to assuage the resultant tension, and the character structure used to get satisfaction from one’s body and the outside world (one’s objects).. The analyst has the opportunity to study this sexual fantasy and uncover these origins. And the findings of the single analysis, I have suggested, may be confirmed en masse: by pornography. Pornography is the communicated sexual fantasy of a dynamically related group of people.

* increased excitement equals increased impact of (one’s own) perverse elements-that is, cruelty? Modest excitement (barring physiological shifts) would mean, then, fewer perverse elements, and minimal excitement or boredom would mean, then, few or no perverse elements touching consciousness (they being absent or inhibited).

* Sexual boredom is, I believe, especially the result of the loss of sense of risk. So, even if the other proper – – elements are present in the fantasy/pornography, it does not work well unless one can still be just a bit fearful, uncertain of a successful outcome. (The same dynamic of risk applies elsewhere. I have mentioned jokes. And it is probably also at the bottom of art appreciation and the rapid dating of art styles; committed art critics, like connoisseurs of pornography, are honestly and deeply unable to respond to a different set of expressed dynamics. And within their preferred genre, they need a constant flow of works at the perimeter, where one can imagine himself at risk for experiencing something new. Their natural enemy, the artist, has, nonetheless, a similar dynamic, a need for mystery and simulated risk.)

* Sexual excitement (other than its purely physical sensations) is, then, the product of an oscillation between the possibility of failure (small) and the anticipation of triumph (larger). The perversion is the complicated path that threads its way through the dangers to triumphant sexual gratification.

* To summarize the risks pertinent to this discussion:* First, conscious. What I am doing endangers me with society (outer reality and my inner estimate of that real- ity). If I am caught, there will be trouble.

Second, conscious. What I am doing goes against my standards (conscience). If I am caught, I shall hate my- self. Third, conscious or unconscious. What I am doing my parents told me was bad when I was little. Nice children don’t do that with that.

Fourth. I am filled with hatred and must not know it. Because they (the adults) so frustrated (mystified) me, my sexual freedom in childhood was taken from me. Not only were restrictions imposed on me, but-more tormenting-I was made responsible: I must sense the temptation and prevent my own actions. For all this, I am to love and respect them. Hate is wrong and shall be punished. Forth. My sexual desires are bad; my hatred is even worse.* If they knew its extent, they would have to destroy me. But this violence is mine, part of the essential me that is evil and yet must be projected, preserved. It is hidden in what I desire erotically. Sixth. For all this that was done to me, I shall enjoy revenge, which too shall be in the sexual act. But if I aim to harm my object, it may sense that and do unto me at least as I would do unto it. And that is most risky, indeed. Perversion is hatred, erotized hatred.

* fetishism is the model for all perversions.. One who cannot bear another’s totality will fragment-split (35) and dehumanize (67)-that object in keeping with past traumas and escapes; he may then isolate a neutral fragment-aspect–of that person and displace his potential sexual response from the whole person to the part that more safely represents that person (fetishization). When the process of fetishization is benign, as it is in foreplay or the variations of sexual fashions from place to place and time to time, the whole object is finally restored pretty much intact. This means minimal revenge and minimal risk-taking; unhappily, full sexual satisfaction without much recourse to mechanisms of perversion seems a difficult achievement for most. Once the body part (or an inanimate, related object such as a garment) has been split off from the whole human object, one needs another process-idealization -for reinventing the new object.t The hostility (potential destruction of the object) floating around in the la- tent fantasies that energize the perversion must be neutralized and positively, pleasurably, erotically infused or there will be no perversion.

* On examining pornography we found dehumaniza- tion, fetishization, and reinvention. Aspects of sexual- ity are chosen in which are focused the essentials of the perverse dynamics, for example, in the mildest of the heterosexual male pornographies, photographs of nudes. These reduce the actual woman to a two- dimensional, frozen creature helplessly impaled on the page, so that she cannot defend herself or strike back, as she might in the real world. Even if she has a dan- gerous look about her, that implied risk is negated by her imprisonment on the paper. She can be insulted, dirtied, forced to act according to the viewer’s will, and remain uncomplaining, smiling, or even phallic- whatever is necessary-but immobile. And she is not only displayed, available for any fantasied sexual hos- tility, she is also idealized. She does no harm, she brings satisfaction, she is aesthetic perfection (if not, another picture is chosen), she is retouched, she infi- nitely repairs herself, she demands no revenge, she is absolutely co-operative, she keeps secrets, she costs nothing in money or time, she need not be under- stood, she has no needs of her own: ideal (cf. 42). No wonder she becomes a bore.

While it is more difficult to get the same compliance when actually performing a perversion than when ima- gining it in pornography or daydreams, the properly planned perversion still permits one to choose objects in the real world that can be dealt with in this way. Thus, for instance, fetishism (the use of inanimate objects), or the use of prostitutes (humans hired to act like puppets), or the choice of people, like the transvestite’s compliant wife, whose own neuroses complement-that is, find use for-the perverse act.

* seduction… a hostile, power-seeking, fetishizing business.) One who turns his objects into fetishes reduces his capacity for intimacy so that his own human dimension comes to have no greater measure than that of the fetish he creates (chooses). Splitting, dehumanization, fetishization, and idealization result from failure of empathy and diminished or inhibited capacity to identify with others. Or is this back-wards? The natural state of humans may, rather, be no more than a meager capacity for empathy, with analysts, artists, saints, and psychotics having an aberrant hyper- trophy of this masochistic mechanism.

* our culture, as do most others, defines masculinity -for better or worse-by how completely one demonstrates that one is rid of the need-for symbiosis with mother.

* let me define sin as the exalted term for the desire to harm others. Ethics and morality, then, are scales society uses for weighing sin, and they exist to justify or mitigate hostility.

* we may find that some of the repressive social forces–experienced inside the individual as a sense of sin-have their origin in attacks made by one part of oneself upon another part (such as the bite of conscience); social forces do not just exist outdoors in the wind but, in the final common pathway for each member of society, are present as intrapsychic dynamics. It is hard in enlightened circles these days to defend the idea that sex and sin are linked. Is there, then, no logical basis for the badness, strangeness, willfully motivated corruptness, unwholesomeness, and unnaturalness that, sadly, people feel in their sexual excitement? In answering, we may find our first clue in the long- known fact that an awareness that one is sinning often increases sexual excitement.

* In both perversion and “normal sexuality” we have found several themes: as the sexual act unfolds, fantasy risks are run that are experienced as being surmounted; inside the sexual excitement are desires-conscious and unconscious-to harm others in order to get revenge for past traumas and frustrations; the sexual act serves to transform childhood trauma into adult triumph; trauma, risk, and revenge establish a mood of excitement that is intensified when they are packaged as mystery.

* If ethics and morality serve society by defining and dealing with sin, then this exploration of sexual excitement suggests that the ethics and morality of sexual behavior intuitively probe to reach and subdue these dynamics of hostility. Perhaps if this probing can be raised to consciousness, we can decrease the hostility-which in the extreme reaches levels of perversion-that the ethical and moral systems of reform use as a counterforce to sin. And as a strategy of social action perhaps those who wish to increase sexual freedom ought not to lean too heavily on the argument that the sense of sin exists only as an effect of one’s enslavement by repressive historical processes. The sense of sin may not disappear simply because we announce that it is outdated, and the complex richness of human sexual excitement will be missed if we exclude sin from our studies.

* I happen to agree (though not intensely) that pornog- raphy is debasing, that people would be better off non- perverse, that gorging on pregenital pleasures will make people frantic (or is it that frantic people are the ones who gorge?). I might even agree that licentiousness dam- ages the fabric of society (though, in fact, I rather believe that licentiousness is more the result of a change in the fabric than the other way round). But, perhaps because I live in the United States of today, I am even more worried about repression of freedom than about the price we pay if we permit corruption. Our civilization has been traumatized in this century by the police state, and the United States is at this moment still so threatened by those who would tighten the laws that I would rather let freedom run a bit more before we panic. There are, among others, two types of freedom. One is (relative) freedom from one’s neurotic unconscious demands; that is lost in perversion. The other is the (relative) freedom a society can grant all its citizens. Both are precious, but in this time of emergency, I would try to save the latter first.

* Until the family no longer functions as the primal unit in the maintenance of society, perversion will serve four necessities: preservation of the individual’s pleasure, preservation of the family, preservation of society, and preservation of the species.

As we know from studying oedipal conflict, intimacy causes erotic strains so severe that the family’s stability is chronically endangered. Thus a second necessity: per- version must act as a repository of conservatism to stabilize otherwise explosive forces. It allows cruelty and hatred in the family to be contained before they become too destructive, and the resulting efficiency permits parents to secure themselves and their family by means of the presence of their perverse child. For instance, a future homosexual man’s mother, in innumerable small doses, may release on her little boy her bitterness toward males in general and her unsatisfying husband in particular; in being distant and accepting her scorn without argument, her husband may be allowed to retain his passivity; and by developing a mimicking effeminacy, the boy can secretly despise his mother.

* Additional advantages (though not necessities) accrue once perversion has been invented. For instance, since its central dynamic is hostility, perversion serves to channel murderous hatred out into the calmer currents of the imagination, such as religion, art, pornography, and day- dreams. These deflections are almost always preferable to the direct expression of the forces they contain and trap in the unconscious. This dispersion of rage serves our four main necessities, by providing a more joyous and guilt-reduced erotic pleasure, by lowering the murder rate in families (both the family to which the child belonged and that formed by the child-become-adult), by binding into erotic pleasure and exhaustion energies that might otherwise break society open,* and by deflecting the hatred that can build up between the sexes so that, at least for a few moments, men and women can stand what too often seems each other’s otherwise unbearable total presence.

* My guess is that if all goes well for our race, perversion will die down and variance increase. Perhaps someday perversion will not be necessary.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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