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The Turn-On Switch


But how do you account for a radical nonconformist like “Possum,” who, after a lifelong search, found deep domestic happiness with his two “mare wives.” He’d grown up in a city, in a family unmarked by stresses or strains, he told researchers who published his case study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. Yet Possum knew from childhood that he was different from other kids. “I looked at horses the same as other boys looked at girls. I watched cowboy movies to catch glimpses of horses. I furtively looked at pictures of horses in the library. I tried to get interested in girls, but for me, they were always foreign, ­distasteful, and repulsive.”

Nevertheless, he married. He had two children. And he tried to stay away from horses, but couldn’t help himself, for the memory of his first time was just too powerful. At 17, he had found his way to a mare, and, after getting to know her, he climbed upon a bucket. “Breathlessly, electrically, warmly, I slipped inside her. It was a moment of sheer peace and harmony, it felt so right, it was an epiphany.” Eventually, he found the nerve to leave his wife and kids and live as he believes he was meant to live. “In the end, I found the right path, reached my destination, and now I am happy and at peace.”

There’s got to be a button or a switch somewhere, you think, a piece of human wiring that ordains a strong and anomalous sexual craving like Possum’s. It can’t be all nurture, right? There is evidence for this, though it has been discovered mostly among the extreme outliers. Alzheimer’s disease makes some patients both disinhibited and fixated on body parts—boobs!—that they may previously have taken for granted. And then there was the brain-tumor patient who suddenly developed a sexual love for children. When the tumor was removed, the pedophilia went away.

But consider the idle, innocent thoughts that run through your mind on any given morning: want to read, need to eat, have to, don’t forget, oh my God, that’s funny, that’s horrible, where’s my phone? Now think about sexual desire as equally rampant and unfocused—not a single, primitive, animal drive, but a wide, skittering sense of wanting. In the opening to his new book, Bergner describes experiments a researcher named Meredith Chivers is doing on women. She inserts a mechanism called a plethysmograph into women’s vaginas, then measures their arousal responses to a wide range of sexual images. Women, she has found, are turned on by just about everything: straight sex, lesbian sex, gay sex, intimate sex—even brutish sex between bonobos. “To stare at the data amassed by the plethysmograph was to confront a vision of anarchic arousal,” Bergner writes. And this is borne out by anecdotal experience: Everyone you know has probably done it with some range of fat ones and skinny ones, dumb ones and cute ones. They’ve probably done it clothed and naked, standing up and sitting down, with battery-operated devices and with the TV on and saying stuff that would make them blush in daylight. Think about what you’ve done, and then tell me, honest Injun, that you only like one thing.

Even objectophiles, a sexual-interest group whose members are turned on by inanimate objects, sometimes sleep with humans. The most famous of them are Erika Eiffel (née LaBrie) and Amanda Whittaker, who claimed as their lovers the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty. But object lovers also claim as their intimate companions more quotidian things: cars, trains, flags. Flags! In a 2010 paper by Amy Marsh, one man said that though other kinds of buttons moved him not at all, he loved fish-eye buttons so much that he sewed them into his underwear. Another loved soundboards: “We are very intimate in the bedroom,” he told Marsh. “We spend a lot of time in bed together, but my pants usually stay on.” The truth is the very abnormally weird are not so different, neurologically, from the regular, normally weird. Cantor suggests that an extreme sexual craving may be like a computer error in the brain; like Oliver Sacks’s man who mistook his wife for a hat, a person with a furry fetish sees plush and thinks “sex.” When lusting after someone, “your brain has to say, ‘This is a potential sex partner. And this is not—this is a tree.’ ” But to mistake a tree—or a giant plushy panda suit—for a sexy human, Cantor says, “is really a very small tweak.”


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