Review of Female Perversions

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A Review of Female Perversions

by Louise J. Kaplan

New York: A Nan Talese Book/ Doubleday

Review Copyright © 1991 by William A. Henkin

Originally published in Spectator



Gender is not the issue: it is the battlefield – or the playground.

– Kate Bornstein, Hidden: A Gender



As perhaps you know, Gentle Reader, the famous tale that may be an urban legend of its own time has it that before addressing a gathering of psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud once took from his coat a long, fat cigar, removed it from its casing, examined its texture and color, rolled it between his fingers to test its firmness and resiliency, held it to his nose to judge its freshness, licked it to encourage smooth burning, nipped its tip between two incisors, wrapped his lips around it, and sucked on it to test its draw. Holding the thing before his mouth and looking at his audience he reminded them, "Sometimes a cigar is a phallic object." Then, over the other analysts's gasps of horror he struck a match, lit up his smoke, and reflected further, "But sometimes it's just a cigar."

According to my reading of Louise Kaplan's Female Perversions, human sexuality is a little like Freud's cigar: it is


polymorphous, which means literally a quality of being able to assume different forms. This polymorphous quality of human sexuality ... makes us an animal species with a potential for a variety of feminine and masculine forms relatively independent of biological sex.... Our sexuality arises from many different bodily sources; our sexuality can seek satisfaction in many different ways and through any organ of the body; our sexuality can be attached to any person or object that we invest with erotic desire. It is very hard indeed for human beings to bring together all these components of sexuality, all these possibilities for satisfaction, and arrive at the so-called normality of genital sex with a partner of the opposite sex.



This is a long quotation to offer right at the beginning of a review, but I use it to indicate up front how clearly Kaplan claims she is not writing about the ordinary varieties of human sexuality. Instead, she says, she is only writing about the way those varieties are expressed when people's sexual lives are crippled. In fact, she asserts quite early in her book that


the essential ingredient in perversion is not the "kinky sex" of bondages and leather boots. Nor is perversion the exotic veilings and unveilings of the genitals in a striptease, the performances of oral or anal sex, sexual intercourse with partners of the same sex, telephone masturbation, or any of these variations of erotic experience that loving or hating sexual partners may engage in at one time or another if they so choose.... What distinguishes perversion is its quality of desperation and fixity. A perversion is performed by a person who has no other choices, a person who would otherwise be overwhelmed by anxieties or depression or psychosis....


This clarity is important partly because Kaplan's is a complex book which weaves numerous topics into numerous themes, and so as a reviewer I wanted to provide a lucid handle where I found one; and partly because its outlook is relentlessly Freudian, and so proceeds on the assumption that except under rare circumstances nothing is what it appears to be. As if sexuality itself were a Freudian dream, virtually every object is taken for a symbol and virtually all behaviors are symbolic. With a specific variation I shall address shortly, objects represent the penis or its absence. Male behaviors are disguised communications about the fear that the penis is inadequate or may be lost, and female behaviors are disguised communications about the grief that it already has been.

I also want to make clear that Kaplan does not advocate a return to the thrilling days of yesteryear when children who masturbated might be put to bed wearing gloves with little nails protruding from their palms and fingers, or be locked into chastity belts or cock cages at night, or be subjected to some other nonconsensual discipline that we who have benefited from Freud's insights can see would encourage them to spend their whole adult lives thinking about their genitals in the most creative ways. Nor does her moderate, modern feminism call for the outright suppression of pornography. "There is no question in my mind," she writes, that


the greatest danger to women, and men, would be if we were to revert to the puritanical sexual slaveries that made women ashamed of their bodies and essentially denied and disavowed the active sexuality of females. Nor do I believe that a ban on pornography could solve the problem of gender stereotyping underlying the pornography enterprise. Pornography depends for its vitality on the gender stereotypes that support the fundamental structures of our social order. And until we question those structures and institutions, erotic literature, pornography, the erotic life itself will be what it always has been – a reflection of those structures but never a potential underminer of them.


I am at pains to clarify these points because Female Perversions often seems to occupy very different ground. Notwithstanding her disclaimers, Kaplan appears to perceive non-standard sexual behavior as a symptom of severe mental distress. While late in her book she also asserts, "because human sexuality is more a matter of imagination and fantasy than of biology, nothing pertaining to our sexuality is predetermined...." she claims earlier that no man "would be compelled to fetishism or other perversions unless he was also suffering from an extreme form of castration anxiety tantamount to a mutilation anxiety." As for pornography,


Whoever the body and whichever the way, pornography entails a deadening of otherwise living, breathing, and therefore dangerous and unpredictable flesh.... [Pauline Réage, author of The Story of O] was deceived if she believed that pornography was about erotic love. Pornography has always been about making hate in the guise of an erotic scenario that could contain the hatred.


These sorts of remarks are much easier to find almost anywhere in Kaplan's book than are her more optimistic assertions. I suspect some of the conflict derives from Kaplan's trying to reconcile her Freudian training with her special feminist bent.

On the face of it the Freudian and feminist camps would seem to be antipathetic. Yet, Kaplan the Freudian can occupy feminist positions because Kaplan the feminist has found some holes in the old man's scheme. Freud and his followers took the social traditions of nineteenth century Europe for gospel, she says. Since those traditions had been formulated by upper- and middle-class European men like themselves, they logically assumed that they, formulators of the theories based on those traditions, represented the desirable social norm; and since the thinking was circular, the traditions that defined their culture naturally bore them out. Many of these men, including Freud, wrote books reinterpreting history in light of their theories. Among other insights they saw that males, who had penises, were superior to females, who didn't. That, they averred, was why history, power, and wealth were in the hands of men, while homecare, childcare, and cleaning were the lot of women. "Anatomy is destiny," said Freud.

"What does woman want?" is something else Freud said, bemoaning his inability to understand the fairer, gentler sex. Lately, psychologists have proposed that what women want might have been easier to figure out sooner if some of the early Freudian dicta had been handed down as opinion rather than as received truth. To some of those people some Freudian opinions even seem similar to the sorts of infantile fantasies those early psychoanalysts sought to cure in their often hysterical, mostly female patients.

Like many other feminist thinkers, Kaplan suggests that social place is more important than anatomy in determining destiny; consequently she seeks a fundamental revision of our prevailing social organization.


One of the most powerful instruments of the social order is its doctrine of normality, especially its conventions of gender normality. If need be, society, which cares only to preserve its own structures, will make use of an infantile fantasy about gender difference to keep the social roles of men and women firmly in place.... The trouble is not with the unconscious meanings of phallic or phallus or the fact that little children misinterpret and exaggerate the powers of this fictionalized genital. The serious trouble, the suspicions and warfare between the sexes, starts when the social order designates those powers as capacities allowable only to those that possess the anatomical penis. The dilemmas the little girl will encounter in becoming a woman have to do not with the anatomical differences between her own genitals and the male genitals but with the interpretations and social meanings that accrue to those differences.


Kaplan posits that all perversions derive their emotional power from confusions of one social construct: gender role identity. Men become perverse, she says, because unconsciously, beneath their "macho genital prowess," they think, fear, or wish that they are helpless, powerless, and penisless – or, in a word, female. In order to avoid the panic, violent aggression, and madness that might result if they discovered the truth about their unconscious urges, men engage in "fetishism, transvestism, exhibitionism, voyeurism, sexual masochism, sexual sadism, pedophilia, zoophilia, necrophilia" – behaviors Kaplan believes are designed to suppress a man's anxiety about his gender role.

What about women? What do female perverts want? Psychologists have long claimed that more men than women engage in fetishism and the other behaviors on Kaplan's list. Yet, apart from the more tendentious feminist position that all men are dangerous perverts de facto and that only women who have been co-opted and corrupted by the enemy would enjoy any kind of sex with them, reasons for the preponderance of males in the community of sexual deviants have been hard to come by.

Kaplan – this is the variation I mentioned earlier – gives it an original shot. Women are just as perverted as men, she says, but not in the male way.


We have missed noticing the female perversions because we have been looking for them in the wrong place. We were led astray by the official definitions.... there is a female castration complex, but it is not about a genital not-there. The female castration complex concerns, among other things, anxieties that pertain to the damage or mutilation of female genitals. The major interest of the little girl is in her own genitals, which, except for the clitoris, labia, and vulva, are completely internal.


Both male and female perverts hide from their agonizing emotional turmoil behind their perversions, according to Kaplan, but as males express their pain by falling in love with shoes and sheep, dressing up as women, or hurting or being hurt by their sex partners, so females express their perversions by adopting postures of extreme submissiveness, often amounting to an unintentional parody of femininity; by cutting delicate incisions in the skin with razors, knives, shards of glass, and other edges till blood flows like a soothing balm and releases the pent-up tensions; by persuading even ethical physicians to perform repeated and often unnecessary surgery; by pulling out their hair till great bald, sometimes bloody patches make it socially essential to wear a wig; by encouraging, supporting, or abetting an adult male to practice incest with his, her, or their children; by starving themselves through anorexia and bulimia; and by kleptomania, which Kaplan regards as the prototypical female perversion because it so cogently expresses an irresistible unconscious urge to possess objects that symbolize what the woman wants and has not: a penis.

Since Kaplan holds that all perversions are "as much pathologies of gender role identity as they are pathologies of sexuality," she sees perversion as a social, not just a sexual, issue. Societies function


on the basis of a precise gender differentiation, but there is nothing natural or god-given about all this. Gender roles are learned and are an effort on the part of society to channel and regulate an otherwise errant sexuality. In humans, the fact of being born male or born female is no guarantee of a masculine or feminine gender identity or of a heterosexual mating. The love of a woman for a man is no more biologically natural or imperative than the love of a woman for another woman. It is no more human to experience erotic desire for a person than to invest a fetish object with erotic desire.... The polymorphous sexuality of the human being creates plights and dilemmas for all human beings and uncomfortable relations with the societies into which they are born.


One of the uncomfortable relations – perhaps a social perversion – Kaplan notes is that women allow men to dominate them. On those less frequent occasions when women seek dominant roles, she says, they are prone to male perversion. The same reversal holds when men seek submissive roles: unless they are sublimating their real dominant desires so as to avoid the guilt and castration or mutilation punishment they unconsciously expect to follow, they are prone to female perversions. Therefore, when women cross-dress, fetishize objects, find children sexually attractive, or grow fond of erotic power; or when men cut or starve themselves, or compulsively take things that are not theirs, Kaplan believes they have inverted not only their gender role identities, but their gender role identity anxieties as well.

If Kaplan is right, men have a better time of it even when they are perverse. Better to get off with a shoe, I'd say, than to have to starve to relieve tension. But is she right? And if so, to what extent?

I think all twentieth century Westerners owe Freud at least three debts of gratitude: one because he popularized the notion that childhood events directly affect adult feelings, thoughts, behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes; a second because he, more than anybody else, showed us that children are sexual creatures; and a third because he showed us one place we might put our symbolic ashes when we smoked symbolic cigars. I also think Freud was as subject to the errors of his own prejudice as any pioneer, and I feel quite comfortable with the sort of feminist critique of his art provided by Kaplan.

The ashtrays of consciousness Freud was fond of were not the only possible receptacles, however, and Kaplan and I part company on other issues such as her deep belief in traditions she follows as religiously as Freud followed his. Her prejudice holds that Freudian theory is not theory at all but something so certain as to be akin to gravity. Thus, the assertions she frequently makes about "truth" or "fact" are almost always speculative. For instance,


* "The truth is that pornography manages to contain outright sadism by disguising the murderous impulses in a script that highlights erotic motives."

* "Now, if truth be told, all little cigar girls are engaging in a fetishistic fantasy."

* "...well-meaning interpretations can and frequently do obscure the essential fact that anorexia is a solution to the dilemmas associated with becoming a woman."


It is hard enough to discover what is true or factual in the worlds of science and technology, where non-symbolic objects can be counted and measured; but in the shadowy world of psychology, where the nature and even the existence of the human mind is subject to debate, such well-meaning assertions obscure the essential "fact" that this entire book expresses a fetish for Freudian theory – in terms Kaplan herself uses, quoting from John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman's Intimate Matters: "Among the Zuni," she says, "it is understood that the purpose of these fetishes is to assist man, that most vulnerable of all living creatures, in meeting the problems that face him during life.'" I think she would say as much about psychoanalysis, if not about other, non-Freudian forms of psychotherapy.

In all her discussions about gender stereotypes, the intelligent, articulate, well-intentioned, erudite Kaplan never relinquishes Freudian psycho-sexuality. She identifies as castrating sadists those doctors who perform sex reassignment surgery, and sees them as dupes for masochists who seek their services. Believing that there are only two psychological genders because there are two obvious physical sexes, she perpetuates the notion that male equals masculine and female equals feminine. Because she never considers any of the major transgender literature she also cannot the social revisions that reframe "masculine" traits such as assertiveness and independence as traits of "agency," and "feminine" traits such as warmth and tenderness are recast as traits of "communion," all of which are expressed to varying degrees in varying circumstances by all people.

Even as a feminist concerned with social dynamics Kaplan is devoted to Freudian theory. She does not seriously investigate the traditions of other societies either in geography or time, although a great deal of research has been done suggesting that Industrial Western sexual mores are not those to which most peoples in history have adhered. She does not question whether such behaviors as those associated with penis envy, castration anxiety, the Oedipus complex and other standards of the Freudian liturgy might be seen as elegantly and as accurately as elements of will, power, and control; as components of archetypal complexes; or as immature statements of the social contract which must be clear even to very young babies, since research has clearly shown that here in the West babies dressed in pink – hence, presumed by innocent adults to be girls – are picked up, held, and petted more than babies dressed in blue and presumed to be boys. The usual Freudian response to such objections would be that cultures throughout history developed as they did because all their people were unconsciously enacting psycho-sexual development as Freud claimed it occurred; but this is the same tautological reasoning by which Freud discovered men were superior to women by virtue of their penises.

Freud himself said he stood mute before creativity; perhaps he feared he would lose his cigar doing the sort of psycho-lit-crit that was popular in the 1950s and 1960s, to which intellectual activity Female Perversions is something of a throwback. But Kaplan is nothing if not intrepid, and she undertakes to explain her theory of perversion in terms of Flaubert's Madame Bovary and, to a lesser extent, Nabokov's Lolita. Yet, the dogmatism of Female Perversions gets in the way of the case the book is trying to espouse.

Many connections Kaplan draws about the psychological history of what she calls perversion strike me as clinically accurate. I have seen them borne out to varying degrees in dozens of cases. But it is in her inferences and her interpretations that Kaplan's Freudian feminism falls short, and her book with it.

These "perverted" behaviors, and the feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes that underlie them may not be diseases, or even medical problems, although some of the complications that might sometimes result from some of them – anemia, mutilations – may be. Instead they are difficult problems in living, complications in processing the exigencies of life that result because some people get stuck somewhere back in childhood with traumas that still are vital and alive for them. They live out patterns that worked brilliantly when they were first enacted, that saved the psychic and perhaps physical lives of the children who invented them when no other solutions were present.

But if the patterns persist as compulsions, running the adult life when the situations that required them no longer prevail, it is not because some disease needs to be cured but because someone has not yet become free of the need for them. Other patterns – true transsexualism, for instance – are different still: they are expressions of deeper realities and are problematic chiefly because, as with women's desires to attain wealth and power in the world, our social structures do not accommodate them.

Neither the American Medical Association nor the American Psychiatric Association has so far been willing to entertain the notion that all branches of healing the spirit, mind, and body belong in the field of medicine, and they may be right. At least when they are extreme enough to be out of control, confusion, depression, anxiety, and other miseries including those Kaplan calls perverse certainly do not embody an ideal human condition. But it is through philosophical and experiential disciplines, including but not limited to psychoanalysis and other forms of psychotherapy, that people learn to become aware of the import of their behaviors from anorexia or sexual sadism to ticketing cars or running for political office. Learning the purposes and effects of those behaviors, they expand the limits that had previously restricted their clarity, peace of mind, and pleasure in living.

Even if I accept Kaplan's thesis, arguments, and conclusions, I am left holding a dubious bag. Are we to ostracize women who cut on themselves as we ostracize necrophiliacs? Shall some states try to jail bulemics as they jail practitioners of consensual S/M? I agree with Kaplan that women have allowed men to treat them as second-class citizens in Western societies (and third-class citizens in most other parts of the world), and I agree with her that women, like men, have the power to change the ways in which they are perceived. But her conclusion that any woman who fits herself into the order of the world thereby consigns herself "forever to the bondage of some stereotype of normal femininity – a perversion, if you will" is an expression of exactly the short-sightededness that has plagued the most rigid exponents of both Freudian and feminist thought. Surely a thinker of Kaplan's scope can do better.

To take a low Freudian shot I might say this book's difficulties seem to be less a consequence of Kaplan's conscious intention – to explain one genre of women's distress and incidentally to make the world a safer place for women's sexuality – than of her unconscious intention to beat up and to placate both Freud and feminism simultaneously. Either way it's a perverse strategy.




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