The Other Side of The Other Side of Desire
The Other Side of Desire, by Daniel Bergner
The best part of Daniel Bergner's new book, The Other Side of Desire, is that it very thoughtfully takes an open-minded and open-hearted look at the lives of four people whose sexual desires fall outside of mainstream norms. Through in-depth interviews and time spent hanging out with those he profiles, Bergner gives us a sense of really getting to know these four individuals, and helps us see them in terms of more than just their sexualities. This potentially goes a long way toward destigmatizing unconventional sexual expression.
The Other Side of Desire is broken into four sections, each focused on an individual whose story, Bergner hopes, will help answer questions like "What do we do with the desires we cannot bear, the desires we or the society around us strain to restrict or strangle...?" (Introduction, x). We first meet Jacob Miller, a severely learning-disabled yet successful salesman with a foot fetish that causes him such shame he is sexually alienated from his wife and driven to seek anti-androgen therapy to diminish his desire. Regardless the source of Jacob's foot fetish, his story is one about the destructive power of shame.
The next story, that of the Baroness, a designer of latex clothing and a consummate sexual sadist, demonstrates the satisfaction a person with very kinky desires can have when they are free of shame. The Baroness is all self-confidence and self-acceptance. She has found community with others who share her orientation to sexuality and in doing so has maintained a happy marriage to a man whose sexuality is much more "vanilla." As she walks around her New York City neighborhood she creates an air of acceptance for other "misfits." Bergner writes "The effect might have been due to her flaunting her difference, to their recognizing a champion misfit. But she claimed another power. She said it was because she was willing to look at them" (61-62). The social good that comes from truly looking at each other, and at ourselves, and accepting what we see, "deviant" or not, is the lesson of the Baroness.
We next meet Roy, whose story about desire that transgresses the law will be familiar to anyone who recalls Bergner's January 23 2005 New York Times Magazine article "The Making of a Molester." Roy is a convicted sex offender. He groped his step daughter and her friend, and sent an instant message to his step daughter telling her how he wanted to have sex with her. His story is one that unsettles us because it reveals that an ordinary desire rather than a pathological one drives some men's sexual interactions with young teens. Roy's scores on the Abel Assessment, a test that measures how long a person looks at images of people of different genders and ages, puts him "within the realm of ordinary male desire." He has attractions for images of "adult females and, slightly more so, for females in the adolescent range" (115). Bergner tells us that Patrick Liddle, the therapist overseeing Roy's sex offender treatment group, says that a strong erotic response to images of adolescents is entirely normal. Roy is not a monster. Roy is an ordinary man who failed to control his normal desire and broke the law and hurt a teenage girl, and ultimately we do not know why. Liddle, the therapist, says "The difference between me and my guys is a very, very thin line," (116) and we don't know why some of us cross that line while others stay on the safe side.
The last chapter introduces us to Ron, whose desire is enflamed by women who have undergone amputation. The chapter begins with a rather long story about Laura, who is important to the story because later she marries Ron, and the accident that led to the amputation of her legs. It is a strange interlude in the book because her sexuality is not at issue and it takes a while to understand how she fits into the story. As we watch Ron learn to understand his own erotic attraction to amputees we also read about Laura's struggle with her own self acceptance, one part of which is fueled by her learning that there are men out there for whom she is the erotic ideal.
With the exception of Jacob, the man whose shame so interferes with his ability to connect with his wife, each of these people is happily in at least one long-term relationship. And while the Baroness certainly represents an extreme in the world of BDSM, none of these individuals represents a "type" of kinkiness that is in itself terribly rare. The strategy of in-depth profiles is very helpful for seeing these four as whole people and Bergner treats each of them with respect and thoughtfulness, spending time with them and making what seem like genuine connections with them, but the trade-off is that we do not get a larger window on the diversity of human sexuality. We do not know how they were chosen or what their stories mean in relation to the questions about eroticism and desire with which Bergner begins the book.
Another problem is that Bergner does not help us weigh the different psychological perspectives on fetishes and desire that he weaves throughout the book. He seems to privilege those that ground desire in the biological and yet he seems to favor therapies focused on self acceptance over medical treatment. And while he does eventually, on page 147, get around to discussing anthropological evidence of culture channeling sexuality, he remains firmly in the realm of the psychologists overall and disappointingly he never does come out and argue that the dominant culture in the United States - the world of these four individuals - limits sexual expression in damaging ways.
Perhaps my nagging dissatisfaction with the book begins with my reaction to Bergner's title. The Other Side of Desire implies a binary relationship, as if there is a good side and a bad side, a light side and a dark side. But desire is multifaceted, and the lines between acceptable and unacceptable desire are arbitrary and socially constructed. I was hoping for a book that would expose those arbitrary lines, that social construction, and what I read was a book that reveals instead a deep ambivalence about the diversity of erotic orientations and that raises more questions than it answers.