- The Pleasure’s All Mine: A History of Perverse Sex by Julie Peakman
This book sets the notion of sexual “perversion” into historical context for a general audience by examining “the gamut of sexual activity that has been considered strange, abnormal or deviant over the last 2,000 years” in the West (7). By investigating how and “why people were—and remain—intolerant of other people’s sexual preferences,” Peakman seeks to look beyond recent taxonomies of sexual desire to find “sexual ‘perversion’ before it was ‘discovered’” in the nineteenth century and “trace its development” (8, 12).
Encompassing twelve chapters over 472 pages, The Pleasure’s All Mine certainly explores a wide range of human sexual experience. The first chapter, “Taking it Straight,” wisely lays groundwork for Peakman’s investigation of sexual “perversion” by situating the notion of sexual normality itself within historical context: it outlines the variant ways in which people have conceived normative sexuality over the past two millennia and offers a brief history of the concept of heterosexuality. The next eleven chapters cover a dazzling array of sexual practices and desires that have been considered abnormal or “perverse” in the West at different times, ranging from masturbation, same-sex sexual activity, role-playing, cross-dressing, fetishism and oral sex to zoophilia, sadomasochism, necrophilia, incest, pedophilia, infibulation and fisting. Each chapter shows how cultural perspectives on a sexual practice or group of practices (Chapter 12 focuses on “body parts” and covers oral sex, fetishism, infibulation, and fisting) have changed over the span of 2,000 years in rough chronological order. Although The Pleasure’s All Mine’s scope is daunting, Peakman’s brisk, lively prose [End Page 254] and its 178 high-quality illustrations make the book easy to read. Peakman has a keen sense for telling historical anecdote, and skillfully incorporates material drawn from personal letters, court records, medical reportage, newspaper accounts, literary texts, artworks, and films into her discussion. She is not above observing these histories’ humorous elements, as in her comments on the “aptly named” Thomas Hogg’s trial for copulating with a sow in Chapter 6, which focuses on zoophilia (190).
Although the book’s breadth distinguishes it from previous work on the history of sexual deviance, its ambitious scope presents organizational challenges that The Pleasure’s All Mine does not quite overcome. Peakman’s decision to organize most chapters around specific “perversions” as they have been conceptualized in the past 150 years makes the book accessible, but this methodological choice has the tendency to reinforce the sexological taxonomies of sexual perversity that she seeks to problematize. Other organizational decisions risk aligning consensual and non-consensual sexual activities. For instance, Chapter 6, “Man’s Best Friend: Bestiality,” examines both the history of zoophilia and the recent emergence “furry” and “plushie” sexual subcultures (in which people desire and engage in sexual activity costumed as anthropomorphized animals), while Chapter 7, on sadomasochism, discusses rape and domestic battery as well as consensual BDSM power play. Although the latter chapter does make clear distinctions between consensual and non-consensual sadomasochistic sex, the bulk of this work occurs at the end of the chapter. Expanding and frontloading the chapter’s material on sadomasochism and consent would avoid misreadings of the chapter’s early material on brutal rape, slavery, and battery. That Chapter 6 offers no explanation for its inclusion of material on “plushie” sex in a part of the book that primarily focuses on bestiality—beyond the obvious thematic fit—is more disappointing, especially in light of the fact that other chapters on highly challenging topics offer much more nuanced and self-reflexive discussion. For example, Chapter 5, “From Transvestites to Transsexuals,” approaches the history of cross-dressing and attitudes toward it sensitively, underscoring throughout the text that people have performed gender roles in non-normative ways for many different reasons over the past two millenia, reasons which may or may not involve sexual pleasure.
There are other areas in The Pleasure’s All Mine where I would have appreciated more extensive historical information...