Q: What's the difference between weird and kinky?
A: Weird is when you use a feather. Kinky is when you use the whole chicken.
That's essentially what you get with this book, but what is weird, and what is kinky? Where's the break line, and who gets to define where the line is? What is it like if you're on the "wrong" side?
I came to this book after reading Mary Roach's outstanding Bonk. The two are very different in content and approach, but the core subject is still the same, and the two complement each other quite well. I recommend Roach's book be read first, one because it's better written and more entertaining, and two because it's a better overview and serves as a good foundation from which to explore.
This book is about what Bergner calls "eros," the fringes of desire, or to be much more direct, sexual desire. The heart of the book asks what is a fetish, and when does it become a liability? How does one end up saddled with an overpowering fetish, or urge? And most importantly, is such a fetish normal or abnormal?
There are four real-world observations--these aren't nearly direct and detail-laden enough to be called "case studies"--on that edge. One reader will call these people sick or twisted or even evil, while another might just place them in the decidedly flatter areas of the traditional bell curve of human sexuality. Bergner's biggest success in this book is that he provides no solid judgment of his own as to whether these folks are wrong/right or normal/deviant; the reader is left to make that determination, if such a determination is even appropriate.
This is definitely an adult read, 18+. This is not a book about sex freaks, no parade of the sick, twisted and thoroughly abnormal, which may disappoint some. While not prurient or jaw-dropping--the coprophilia bit might wake you up--the general subject matter is decidedly adult and the specifics of these aspects of sexuality make this reading for the mature adult, ideally one who is already somewhat familiar with various aspects at the more distant ranges of sexuality. There is nothing really shocking here, but if you don't know what "BDSM" means, or if you've never heard of a foot fetish, you'll be lost from the start.
The four observations are of a foot fetishist, an S&M dominatrix, a convicted pedophile, and an acrotomophiliac (a "devotee" of amputees and paralysis victims).
The foot guy I saw as in deep and maddening denial, unhappy and giving in to think of himself as too many others see him, as a sick freak. His fetish has got him a bit dysfunctional, yeah, but he's not sick, just wired differently. In many ways, his story was the saddest, as he was letting others define him and control him, rather than just being himself.
The dominatrix embraces her "role," but nowhere does she actually admit "I like hurting people. I like humiliating people." She cloaks her justification in new-age BS about empowerment and freedom, all nebulous and euphemistic gunk that doesn't offer what I suspect her truth is: she gets a sexual charge out of inflicting pain and humiliation upon others. (But nothing's wrong with that, as long as everybody is willing, and getting out of the exchange what they want.)
The pedophile's case in many ways is the most accessible. There are aspects of it that are truly ambiguous, while there are others that purely black and white. Bergner provides all kinds of information showing that female physical sexual maturity (puberty/menstruation) comes on early as a result of evolution, and that a male response to this highly visible change is in its own way normal. This smashes against Western societal and cultural norms, as well as set-in-stone legal statutes. While male desire may be awakened, and brought to life just as nature intends it to, acting upon it, while "normal" in a scientifically notional way, is flat-out illegal, and you deserve everything you get if you allow yourself to take that path. Blaming the victim, as we get here, is nothing but wrong.
The amputee/paralysis guy seems to me to be the most honest and straightforward. Sure, he's on the edge of what is normal (yes, what exactly constitutes sexually normal is one of the points of the book), but his actions are not exploitive, nor are they unethical, immoral or illegal. He's found something he enjoys, and he embraces it completely. And it seems the handicapped recipients of this attention also are being tended to fairly and appropriately.
Some comments on this book have used "florid" to describe Bergner's work, and I agree. Some of his contextualizing is too maudlin, relying too much on detailed descriptions of settings, right down to describing office furniture, plants and wall decorations, as if they had something to do with the subjects at hand. At times, some of the contextual narrative came off as sappy human interest TV, without the video.
Bottom line: if the relatively detailed dynamics and vagaries of human sexuality interest you, then this is a book for you. If you're shy and uncomfortable with open discussion of any aspect of, well, you know, then this book might really really work for you, if you're reading it secretly, that is. But if way down deep you don't want to hear about other people's sexual proclivities, yearnings well outside what they taught you about in 7th grade health class, and how those non-mainstream feelings may have developed and become overpowering forces in those people's lives, and that some of these folks are actually very happy with the way things have turned out, then get out your Saturday Evening Post back-issues, and you'll be all set.