Soft Perversions


Review of The Book of Minor Perverts: Sexology, Etiology, and the Emergence of Sexuality, by Benjamin Kahan.

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019  


The good news is, you’re probably a pervert. The reason you may not have known that, however, is that the term has mostly fallen out of favor, due in part to a broader range of sexual and moral possibilities that have opened up across the twentieth century. For those of us living in or near the United States, the leader in that change has been homosexuality, which in a very short space of decades has moved from a secret and curable abnormality to a “born-this-way” characteristic entitled to legal unions. Homosexuality—with its definitional emphasis on the sex and gender of one’s love object––does not, however, capture the full range of sexual possibility connoted by a term like “pervert,” a term that instead reaches around sex and gender to what can seem like more specific designations for one’s love objects—details like age, sexual position, power play, or the sexual frisson of what not everyone would recognize as erotically significant materials, textures, body parts, behaviors, or fluids. 

One aim of Benjamin Kahan’s brisk new study, The Book of Minor Perverts, is to recover the history of perversion’s vicissitudes. The book begins from the historical observation that early sexology, at the cusp of the twentieth century, debated whether sexuality was congenital or acquired. Majority opinion leaned to the latter: no one was born this or any way; humans, rather, learned how to experience pleasure through individual or environmental circumstance. The question The Book of Minor Perverts then asks is about how our understandings of sexuality have come to land so squarely in the congenital camp that acquired theories of sexuality have been all but forgotten. It’s a very good question. 

In the book’s opening pages, we’re invited to consider the example of Djuna Barnes, who claimed not to be a lesbian but just to love her partner, Thelma Woods (3). If we subscribed to a congenital theory of sexuality, and we accordingly imagined that one is predisposed or born to a sexual orientation, Barnes’s statement would make little sense. Of course Barnes loved Woods, because Barnes, a lesbian, loved women and Woods was a woman. If, however, we subscribed to an acquired theory, Barnes’s statement could make sense on its own terms. The definitional integrity of Barnes’s circumstantial range of preference and experience would be considerably more legible to us, allowing us to make sense of the fact that Barnes perhaps was not sexually interested in women besides Woods—as, indeed, many who identify as lesbians are not sexually interested in all women. 

What emerges, then, from a consideration of a congenital theory of sexuality is attention to the specificities, varieties, and complexities of sexuality, and many of us who study sexuality can sometimes want for precisely this kind of language. The attention brought to sexuality by a congenital theory—which finds its shape from local cases rather than abstract generalizations—can be called, borrowing a term from Stephanie Foote, a “vernacular sexology” (2), and Kahan, a literature scholar, uses it to make a persuasive methodological point: literary texts, with their specific, imaginative, and often idiosyncratic representations of sex and sexuality, can be read as works of vernacular sexology (3). 

The chapters that comprise Kahan’s study trace these observations through a broadly international range of modernist texts—including The Children’s HourDeath in VeniceThe Mysteries of New Orleans, Trilby, and Winesburg, Ohio, as well as a number of early sexological texts, among others. Anyone familiar with the texts in this catalog will recognize that many of them cannot not comfortably be called heterosexual without exactly being gay either, and Kahan’s readings tease out this categorical tension rather beautifully. Indeed, some of the real strength of this work resides in its thorough research, which allows for a broad range of examples without sacrificing the specific nuances of any one case. 

If this had been all The Book of Minor Perverts had accomplished, it would already be a valuable contribution to thinking about sexuality, literary methodologies, and modern literature. However, the study is framed by a further, complicating, and considerably more ambitious argument. Kahan links the congenital theory of sexuality—ascendant in the twentieth century, and the position opposed to the one he’s attempting to recover—with an epistemological position. The most famous theorist of sexual epistemologies is, of course, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, whose path-breaking 1990 study, Epistemology of the Closet, set the terms for the field of queer studies that emerged in its wake. Significant parts of Kahan’s study accordingly challenge Sedgwick’s arguments, in an effort to unseat an epistemological account of sexuality. 

That is to say, The Book of Minor Perverts makes two related arguments. One is methodological: scholars have been thinking about sexuality as an epistemological problem, when it may be better conceived of as an etiological problem; the other is historical: the consensus view that somewhere around the 1890s, a hetero/homo binary (inborn and epistemologically registered) came to dominate thinking about sexuality is wrong, or at least staked out too early, because there are many residual “minor perverts” well into the twentieth century. This is a complex nexus of pieces, and I want to applaud the ambition here.  

Yet as I was reading I became occasionally lost as to why these two arguments had to follow from one another. It seems perfectly true that sexology can think one thing about human sexuality (for example, that it is or should be exclusively organized around the sex and gender of one’s love objects) and that at the same time literature can contradict sexology’s premise (showing, for instance, ways in which sexualities might alternatively be organized). Just because texts appear at the same historical moment, there is no reason that they cannot hold views that are out of step with the common sense of one another or indeed of their times. 

There is also nothing that prevents a text from perverting the common sense of its time along a strange but somewhat appealing tangent—and if you don’t believe me, ask Marianne Williamson. I cannot help but admire the ambition of The Book of Minor Perverts, and I don’t disagree with its claims, so much as I don’t know that they consistently add up to something as ambitious as the book seems to want to promise. While Kahan’s reading of modernist literature and sexology together is exciting and, at many local and conceptual moments, rather eye-opening, the book’s insistence on the necessity of reading them together still feels to me a bit perverse. But this, perhaps, is very much the point.


Posted on 30 October 2019

JORDAN ALEXANDER STEIN teaches in the English Department and Comparative Literature Program at Fordham University.