The opening line of Julie Peakman’s The Pleasure’s All Mine: A History of Perverse Sex is, ‘One person’s perversion is another’s normality.’ Anyone who isn’t completely straight or vanilla can get behind that, I think. What feels natural to you makes your neighbour curl their lip in disgust.
Who asked for their judgmental opinion, anyway? Right?
Well, throughout history, everyone. The courts and God were the big ones, though. The ones who were really going to ruin your day with things like torture and death. They wanted to know what you were up to and how frequently and with whom so they could fry your behind. Literally. Because nothing is more fun than being in your neighbours’ business (in the name of holy justice, of course) to make sure they’re not having more fun than you are.
It was also important to be sure everyone was behaving within the current prescribed norms. Different is bad and must be punished. Of course what qualified as ‘different’ and ‘bad’ evolved throughout history.
The closing line of the book is: ‘This book is but a small offering to equal rights in the hope of the creation of a less phobic world.’
Before you get your freak flags out, here are the topics discussed in the 395 pages between those two quotes:
Coprophilia and Urolagnia (Scat and Piss)
Flogging and Spanking
Apotemnophilia (self-demand amputation)
Objectum sexuals (people attracted to inanimate objects)
Infibulations (male, as in piercing the foreskin)
Several of those are the sorts of things people make jokes about even having to put on their hard limit list. ‘I think I know you’re not into dead people, kids or dogs. Hur hur hur. Why does anyone even put those on their lists? No one is into them!’
Well, people have been into those things for a very long time. And public and private opinion has changed how it feels about those things (as well as the litany of other things above) many times over. What would get a person the death penalty, or worse, like, torture then the death penalty at one point in time now would get thousands of likes on RedTube. (Male masturbation could get a person killed, as it was considered murder. Think about that next time you’re perving through Tumblr porn.)
Peakman did her research—I’ll give her that. For every subject she covers she notes where it shows up in literature (lots of Sade’s work) and how the Church in its various forms throughout the years felt as opposed to what people actually did, as well as how the laws changed in Europe, the UK and the US once it arrived on the scene. She starts pre-Christian church, actually, with Greece and Rome and how they viewed things. (In Ancient Greece sex between men and women tended to be from behind or with the woman on the man’s lap. Not lying down face-to-face. Okay.)
Brief sidebar: The Greeks were against bestiality but their gods and goddesses got it on with animals all the time. Their gods were as real to them as deities are to people today, but they still didn’t emulate them and so animal sex was a big no-go. Just like in the Middle Ages (and now, but even back then) the Christian Church had prohibitions against all sorts of things—butt sodomy, oral sodomy, masturbation, necrophilia, etc, but people still did it. It’s good to know that people don’t pay all that much attention to their gods. Even when it could get them killed. If an Ancient Greek wanted to sex a horse, dammit, they would. If a Medieval Christian wanted to have a wank, well, dammit, he was going to. Yeah, they could both be put to death, but who cares? It’s just your deity, amirite? If it’s between your deity and your dick…well… your dick’s really close and your deity is reeeaally far away. End sidebar.
In terms of arguing for people being less phobic towards all the things listed above—the author makes some good points here and there. Being a product of my time and place, trying to argue for paedophiles makes my gorge rise. But her point about the arbitrariness of age of consent from one country to the next (in Spain it’s 13 while it’s 16 in Britain for example) is a good one. There’s also the problem of people maturing at different rates. We’ve all met that teenager who’s more mature than some forty-year-olds, and I’m sure we all know some forty-year-olds who probably shouldn’t be allowed to drive, vote or feed themselves. She recognises there are still problems with consent and that a line must be drawn somewhere, but the questions she poses at the end of each chapter often highlight the complexity of the issues.
One of my favourite pieces of information (and there was much to love) was that the term ‘heterosexual’ was originally used in 1892 by Dr James G. Kierman to mean ‘abnormal manifestations of the sexual appetite’; this included desire for both sexes.
This means that bisexuals are really heterosexuals and heterosexuals are really homosexuals. Because they only like one sex. Homosexuals are also homosexuals, too. Tell your most homophobic relatives today!
Everything that we take for granted as being just the way the world is had to be created socially at some point—the definition of the heterosexual, gay, lesbian, sadist, masochist, had to be …defined. Peakman talks about how each of these words first came about and how the activities associated with them were perceived or persecuted and when and how attitudes changed.
The entire point of the book is that humans are fickle creatures. What one group in one geographic location at one point in time finds just pearl-clutchingly horrendous, another doesn’t find interesting enough to write down. So either no one was doing that thing (yeah, right) or no one cared enough to make a note of it. Who are we to judge, since we’re all human and everything we naturally want to do is ‘natural’ and our laws and mores keep changing, anyway? (The author is not actually saying we shouldn’t have any laws at all, let me be clear. She just wants us to examine our current positions on certain topics in light of the fact that what we take to be the Truth really hasn’t been for more than about five seconds.)
The weakest point of the book is Peakman’s writing, which isn’t the strongest. It felt like a highly readable dissertation except for some repetitive word choices. That’s a minor quibble, though. Overall, The Pleasure’s All Mine was interesting and thought-provoking. I learned a lot about the history of lots of sexy things and some things kinky. And some things a little blerg. But I believe all information is useful information. Even blerg information.
It has 180 images, sixty-eight of which are in colour. The paper is a heavy weight glossy stock and the pages are sewn in; it’s a beautiful, heavy book. My husband brought it to me from another room one evening and commented that we could always use it as a weapon now I’m done reading it. It is spendy for a book, but I would recommend it over the ebook version. The images are worth it and the book is lovely. It’s also one of those books that smells great. I kept sticking my face in the gutter (the crotch—where the pages are sewn in) and taking big whiffs. I love my ebooks, but this one is definitely worth the physical copy.
It would make an excellent present for your intellectual-minded kinky friends this holiday season.