Jesse Bering, the author of Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us, pushes the boundaries of what most people are comfortable talking about, or even thinking about. He opens the book by establishing that everyone, even you, is a pervert. This is both a warning to the reader of the material they are about to digest, as well as a fact that Bering believes is crucial to understand to achieve true equity and fairness in the world. Bering comes to the conclusion that as long as consent is given, anything goes. When we recognize that we all have our own kinks and fetishes, then we will understand that being different is a part of life. The sooner we accept this, the sooner we can understand how to live in a world with perversion instead of criminalizing it or pretending it doesn’t exist.
In Perv’s second chapter, Bering pushes this line of thinking further in the second chapter, exploring “disgust” and how much power this emotion holds over our judgment and decision making. The boundaries of disgust are different for different people, but ultimately, disgust is the driver behind what we decide is socially acceptable: in identifying what disgusts us, we define many of the things society will exclude and stigmatize. Specifically, Bering comments that, “very little is universal when it comes to human sexuality;” and yet, people continue to marginalize those that are different from us – in large part because we view it as “disgusting.” When we understand that disgust is subjective – or preferably defuse the connection between “disgust” and “different” – we are much more likely to be accepting of sexualities and fetishes that ultimately lead to no harm (and for the ones that do lead to harm, we are more equipped to help these individuals not act on their sexual preferences).
So, in thinking about how disgust causes unnecessary alienation, specifically for sexual minorities, we now have to think about how this relates to mental health. Sexual health is crucially important for mental well-being. To illustrate this, we can look at the HIV/Aids epidemic that began in the 80s. At the time, society – being justifiably scared and unfortunately ignorant – created a narrative of disgust around individuals with HIV/Aids. However, those with HIV/Aids had no control over their disease, and the stigmatization and disgust they were met with caused significant mental health issues, including increased rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
More broadly, Bering’s narrative of acceptance is crucial for mental health de-stigmatization. While Perv definitely made me cringe at times, it also made me contemplate ideas I previously did not see reason to, such as beastiality or pedophilia (I will not go into these two topics, but I encourage you to read the book to learn more!). Bering begs the question, what else do we exclude from society because it is “disgusting?”. I would argue we often push mental illness out of sight, whether that is by masking it with other illnesses and treatments, or ignoring it all together.
Stigma, a parallel emotion to “disgust,” is a powerful force that continues to damage global health, and more specifically, global mental health. The stigma surrounding mental illness is not a new concept, however it is far from gone. Being a sexual minority, as Bering discusses, is still a risk factor for mental illness, in large part because sexual minorities face incredible stigma in their communities and around the world, and as such they are subject to double stigma both for their sexuality and for their symptoms of mental illness. One of the main barriers to seeking treatment is largely lack of acceptance from others, either due to ignorance, denial, or other societal boundaries. However, in populations that have higher rates of individuals seeking mental health care, there are also lower rates of stigma. Thus, it is a self-driving cycle: as more individuals seek care, stigma decreases in their communities, and as stigma decreases in their communities, more individuals seek care.
Overall, it is intuitive that stigma is “bad.” It is intuitive that individuals made to feel “other” are at a disadvantage. But even though these are intuitive, we continue to marginalize and stigmatize unnecessarily. Bering’s book truly pushes boundaries in a way many are afraid to. When we do not discuss the uncomfortable, we put peoples’ health, and even lives, at risk. When we do not bring this to the surface and address it, we risk continuing to hurt populations that sincerely need help. In these last few weeks of 2019, I encourage you to challenge these implicit feelings of disgust – maybe by reading Perv! – and think about who might really need support and acceptance because everyone has a story to tell.