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The Turn-On Switch

Fetish theory, post-Freud.


Spider Monkey (Soft Pink) (2012), by Ryan McGinley.  

Eliot Spitzer, who hopes to be New York City’s next comptroller, likes to screw with his socks on—calf-length black hose, the atavistic shadow of sock garters visible in the mind’s eye. That Spitzer paid for sex is not actually all that interesting. That he brought his nerdish Dudley Do-Right public persona to bed with him seems a window to his soul.

On the spectrum of sexual taste, partially clad intercourse between consenting adults hardly merits a mention. It’s another jump to the writer Daphne Merkin, who confessed in print her predilection for being spanked, and Quentin Tarantino, who confesses his foot fetish somewhere in just about every movie. And these are miles from the 35-year-old law-enforcement officer who showed up in a psychiatrist’s office wearing Winnie-the-Pooh bib-overall shorts and smelling strongly of talcum powder, explaining that he liked to wear diapers, that he defecated and urinated in them, and who would, according to the doctor’s case study, “often think about ‘how I am a baby’ and masturbate in his diapers several times a day.”

Sexual self-discovery is a mysterious process, the only aspect of growing up that parents and teachers mostly leave children (if they’re lucky) to sort out on their own. The word groping works here. It’s you in the dark at first, maybe with props or pictures, and eventually with other humans, discovering over time—sometimes over a very long time—what gets you off, what turns you on. But how is it that you, being you, like this, not that? Why men, not women; why leather, not rubber; why dirty talk, but not dildos; why handcuffs, not horsewhips; why tongue, but not too much? And further, why do some people appear to be more sexually flexible, able to get off with men and women, orally and anally, while others—and this is true especially of men—remain fixed in their erotic preferences, able to achieve orgasm only during vaginal intercourse, only inhaling the scent of someone’s used bicycle seat, only looking at Internet pictures of children?

Freud would say that what he called perversions have their source in developmental stuckness: Something went wrong in the phases of childhood in which people learn to suck, poop, and get along with parents; psychoanalysis, the process of unsticking, would help them achieve something more like what once passed for normalcy (though even that normalcy, he thought, was an effort to recapture the satiated pleasure of breast-feeding lost after infancy). But in a world where Freud is bunk, what he called normal is now called “vanilla,” and “it’s complicated” is a Facebook status, the “why” question sits out there like a sexual itch, begging for an answer.

Evolutionary psychology, the explanation du moment for all human mysteries, offers a partial clue. To start with, people are animals, programmed for sex in order to produce more people. The chemicals released in the brain during orgasm—mainly ­dopamine and oxytocin—create a cycle in which hot sex begets more hot sex. The neuroscientist Jim Pfaus has ­discovered that if female rats have a long and satisfying mating session even in the most miserable setting (for them, a brightly lit box), they will continue to revisit the scene in the hopes of repeat action. If a researcher stops stroking a rat’s tiny clitoris with a tiny brush, she will bite the researcher’s sleeve, pleading for more. No woman who has ever continued to visit her hot boyfriend’s filthy bed, even after he ceases to return text messages, can fail to recognize the comparison.

Diverse sexual interests may thus be evolution’s way of helping humans to maximize the sheer amount of sex that goes on, matching desire for complementary desire and making sure we mix our genes up as much as possible. “We are preprogrammed to need diversity,” says Gregory Lehne, a psychologist at Johns Hopkins who studies human sexuality and gender identity (and the kind of person who is careful to use orientation to mean the people you love, taste to mean the things you like, and fetish to refer to an idiosyncratic preference that can turn compulsive and interfere with regular life). “Imagine if every person was turned on by the same thing, if every woman was turned on by George Clooney. The diversity of the human species requires that we be turned on by a whole variety of things.” Variety is a cosmic understatement—humans have a range of yearnings and cravings unmatched in the animal world. And when people are attracted to other people (or things) with no reproductive benefit, well, that’s part of nature’s plan, too—or at least an epiphenomenon of that plan. “Evolution has never required that everybody breed,” Lehne says.


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