As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, Dan Savage, whose work I generally respect, sometimes really grates on me. One of the subjects on which he clearly has no idea whatsoever is sexual paraphilia. In this letter, someone writes to him clearly tortured by extreme violent sexual fantasies (“EVSFs”). Although he does at least urge that person to see a therapist, he also writes:
You could be seeing causation where there is only coincidence. There are a lot of people out there who didn’t suffer the kind of abuse you did—or any kind of abuse at all—but who nevertheless have EVSFs.
This statement is typical of Dan’s views on kinks, but he has never to my knowledge made any attempt to justify it. And, quite honestly, what does he, or does any of us, know about the life experiences of people who may well themselves have repressed all recollection of early childhood trauma? Whilst I support the position of accepting paraphilia and the safe exploration of paraphilia, I entirely disagree as regards its etiology; paraphilia is obsessive-compulsive and it is always attributable to a disturbance in natural sexual development. Persons with a paraphilia, even if they do not experience it as suffering, would have a lot to gain from the path of inquiry to which it invites.
The psychodynamics of paraphilia, predictably misinterpreted by the American Psychiatric Association, have been explored in the path-breaking work of Robert Stoller. As I have mentioned before, Stoller’s view was that paraphilia was ubiquitous but neurotic. He argued for its tolerance, but not for missing its psychoanalytic message. As more recent work has emphasized, the primary biological role of human sexuality is group bonding. Scripted sexual behavior, on the other hand, attempts to discharge ego trauma; it is not oriented to the other but to oneself. This should be only a transient phase in sexual development, but persons with paraphilias are stuck there. (It should also be emphasized that paraphilia is a narrower category than kink – sexual behavior is acquired, in part also cultural and a question of fashion, and interest in certain forms of behavior, even if it may have been formed in somewhat unnatural circumstances in childhood, should not be labelled paraphilia if it is merely a part of repertoire and not an obsession. The neutral label of kink is often misapplied to paraphilia.)
Paraphiliacs will argue that they can be in loving relationships, in which bedroom fantasy does not spill out into all other domains of life. I accept this. We all know that it can be compassionate to indulge another’s addiction, and uncaring constantly to point out that they would be better off without it. Nonetheless one lives a freer, fuller life when addictions are overcome.
Paraphiliacs will also tell us that they are happier than the rest of us. That may also be true. Many of us are walking around with an entire buried world of fantasies in our preconscious, unavowed and unbefriended; they are sought outlets for drives which instead have to find less healthy outlets elsewhere. Embracing this submerged shadow world would make us all healthier and happier.
Nonetheless, Dan makes categorical and unsubstantiated statements in his attempts to normalize kink. Why? It seems this is because, at root, his position on homosexuality tends often to be unreflectingly nativist. He presents matters as if no homosexual has any choice as to their sexual orientation and that it is for this reason that it must be respected. The more other socially frowned upon forms of sexual behavior that can be found and similarly labeled innate, the more he can rally voices behind the (laudable) gay rights agenda.
This is not only unscientific; whilst understandable, and possibly good tactics in the past, it is at this stage in our collective social development a grave mistake. Without loss of generality, I believe it is obvious enough that some people’s homosexual orientation is innate, whereas others engage in homosexual behavior rather because it is, for them, in the nature of a paraphilia. Whether consensual, victimless behavior is native or elective should not matter from the standpoint of the law. After all, religion is the ultimate elective fantasy; if its exercise is protected, all other rights must follow.
Persons with EVSFs have them certainly because they have suffered some form of abuse – they are not innate. Being able safely to avow and explore these fantasies may well be a crucial stage in the process of emancipation from the collective consequences of this abuse in their adult life, which doubtless goes way beyond the fantasies in question. Whether, unaided, BDSM is sufficient as therapy is, to put it mildly, much more open to doubt. Compassion requires us to recall the broader picture and to support the individual in all aspects of their healing process.