March 26, 2014 | Posted in Editorial Features by
Julie Peakman has already established herself as the go-to historian for a more carnal interpretation of the times with previous titles such as Mighty Lewd Books: The Development of Pornography in Eighteenth-century England (Palgrave Macmillian), Lascivious Bodies: A Sexual History of Eighteenth Century (Atlantic Books) and a six-volume edition, A Cultural History of Sexuality (Bloomsbury Academic).
She's back with The Pleasure's All Mine: A History of Perverse Sex (Reaktion Books), and exhaustively uncovers the hidden treasures of sexuality's secret desires. Fleshbot had the good fortune to speak to the London-based author about the subject of her research, which happens to be our fetish. Hope you feel as dirty after reading this as we felt writing it.
What initiated your interest in making a career of documenting the steamier side of society?
I started off being interested in history of prostitution and it developed from there. I was undertaking an MA in Gender History and it became obvious that men and women were treated quite differently throughout history. Homosexuals and transvestites have had a particularly hard time of it. While researching about the history of sexuality, I also discovered the collection of a Victorian bibliophile who was obsessed with erotica—I had found my PhD subject material! Mighty Lewd Books involved sitting for hours on end reading erotica in the British Library—that was in the days you had to keep your hands above the table while reading ‘private' material.
Do you recall your first exposure to pornographic or fetish material?
The first remotely ‘racy' pictures I came across were all fairly innocuous. I found them in a woodshed on the farm I was living at in the country. I must have been about 7 or 8 at the time and tore a couple of them off the walls and kept them. I am not sure why, but I knew they were naughty. I then found ‘Forum' magazine in W.H. Smiths and would go in and read it trying to learn about sex through their reader's question and answer sections. Again fairly tame stuff but fascinating for a 9 year old. I seem to remember being shown a couple of men's magazines like Penthouse or its equivalent by a friend who had found them in her father's airing cupboard. The real first porn film I saw was Linda Lovelace in Deep Throat which had just come out at the time in 1972. It was shown in a sleazy Soho cinema where the ‘Macintosh Brigade' all hung out (literally—but under their macs). I had gone up to London for a weekend with a gang of male friends (one of whom was my boyfriend at the time). I just found the plot boring and left.
Do you have a fetish you'd care to share with us?
I am quite tidy.
How do you define perverse sex?
I don't really. One person's perversity is another's normality. In my book I start from the definitions of perverse sex as given by the sexologists, these were a bunch of early twentieth century psychologists, psychiatrists and sociologists (all white men) who collected material about their patients and defined what they saw as 'perverse' sex. Going further back to the medieval period, people would refer to what we now call perverse sex as ‘unnatural sex,' meaning it was against the laws of nature and the natural laws of God. Later it became known as ‘deviant,' ‘abnormal' and a host of other titles. Perversity is mutable. People's views have changed so dramatically over time that there really very little we can still call perverse.
What's the earliest representation of perverse sex you discovered writing the book?
Do you mean what other people saw as perverse in the past or the sort of activities we may find perverse now? The reason I say this is that our attitudes have changed dramatically. Acts people thought perverse in the past, may not see as perverse to us now. Also acts seen as perverse now, may not have been seen as perverse in the past.
For example, in ancient Greece, according to Herodotus, women copulated with goats in Mendes (a place in ancient Greece), an acceptable act of worship then which may raise a few eyebrows now—although Herodotus was known for his exaggeration, if not fabrication. You can see how mutable the whole concept of perversion is by simply looking at homosexuality which was acceptable in ancient Greece, was seen as an abominable crime in the medieval times and became a hanging offense. Nowadays homosexuality is accepted in the western world. Even so we still have to fight against prejudices against people's preferences.
Which society or historic period was the most perverse, or are we all so in different ways?
Again, it depends on your perspective. Frankly I see war and violence as more perverse than any consenting sex acts. Hence the Romans might be high on the list. The two main activities which have continued to be seen as perversities are bestiality and necrophilia—and most societies still class them as criminal activities.
Can you spot the cutting-edge fetishes of tomorrow?
If I could I would make a fortune. You can, however, spot the current trends which have arisen out of new technologies—telephone sex, DVD porn, Internet cyber-sex and amputee sex.
What was the most disturbing or bizarre sexual behavior you wrote about?
I guess the case which I found most intriguing (but was really rather sweet) was the necrophilia case. A hospital technician had kept his dead patient/lover tied together with piano wire and continued to have sex with her corpse for many years. That may seem a bit odd to some people – but he really loved her. More bizarre was the fact that the when the American public heard about his story and his love of the girl, they all petitioned to get him out of prison. He had hundreds of female visitors, gifts of flowers and food brought to him..
Do you consider any sexual behavior abnormal or dangerous?
I find violence abnormal (this does not include S&M behavior where there are consenting adults involved). Anything where there is no-consensus. The difficulty is when there is consensus to harm in sexual activities for mutual pleasure to the extent of near death. I guess society has to have a cut-off line somewhere.
In your research, have you developed any theories as to what draws people to fetishes?
Sexologists related the development of fetishism in a person to their being close to a fetish item at the time of their first experience of a sexual feeling. An early example can be seen in Restif de la Bretonne (1734-1806) who admitted to an admiration of girls' shoes. In his first literary success le Pied de Fanchette the narrator is attracted to a girl who he saw in the street sporting a charming shoe. Bretonne traced his fetishism (although he did not call it such) back to when he was four and found himself admiring the feet of a young girl where he lived. He preferred his girls neat and clean and was especially entranced by a young girl from another town ‘whose shoes were of a fashionable cut, with buckles, and who was a charming person besides.' They say he also liked a bit of flagellation.
Do you have a favorite fetishistic film?
I am not sure about my favorite but one of the most bizarre I ever saw was the French film Max, Mon Amour (1986) which saw a remarkably non-judgmental cinematic exploration of love and sex between a woman (played by Charlotte Rampling) and a chimpanzee.
How about teasing us with a sneak peek of what you're working on next?
I have just come back from Dublin researching on a book about an eighteenth-century Dublin brothel-keeper. She seems to have kept most of the Lord-Lieutenants of Dublin Castle and their retinues serviced.