Save perhaps religion and politics, no other subject is quite as polarizing as that of human sexuality. There is often the general discomfort in mentioning—let alone admitting to—sexual acts like masturbation, oral or anal sex, BDSM, et al. And yet, whether through advertisements, film, television or, most prominently, the internet, sex is all around us. That many of us still shy away from discussing it is a testament to America’s puritanical roots and how the perception of morality was shaped by the church and imprinted in our cultural DNA.

Of course, we are not the first generation or era to encounter such issues. Even the Greeks and Romans—the latter often seen as arbiters of all things prurient and sexually taboo—were often split on what constituted “good” and “bad” sex (this being not in terms of quality, but rather the type of sex being pursued). In her latest exploration of sex and its perception throughout history, The Pleasure’s All Mine: A History of Perverse Sex, historian Julie Peakman explores the “bad” side of sex.

The general takeaway from analyzing sex culture from the ancients to the Middle Ages to the Renaissance to the Victorian era to today is that one’s perception of what is considered to be perfectly acceptable versus morally reprehensible behavior is largely predicated on the views of those in charge. Whether it be political rulers, members of the church or influential cultural figures, their attendant views of masturbation, sodomy, oral sex, homosexuality, bestiality, incest and pedophilia dictated the cultural reaction to each. Where the ancient societies saw sex in its myriad forms as a necessity for a happy, healthy life, the clergy of the Middle Ages preached the gospel of chastity and purity. As Peakman points out, the latter’s views on the matter became so extreme that women who refused the advances of men entirely were praised to the point of sainthood—St. Juliana of Nicodemia being an extreme example.

Yet for every moralist crusader there has been an advocate of the benefits—both physical and mental—of a healthy sex life; the very idea of release being the driving force behind the majority of these views. Of course, there are increasingly extreme or niche levels of predilections and, as the book’s subtitle makes plain, The Pleasure’s All Mine is more interested in focusing on these perversions and their ever-shifting definitions and perceptions. Most interesting is the fact that the terms “homosexual” and “heterosexual” were not a part of the cultural dialogue until the 19th century, at which point the latter referred to the frowned-upon lusting after the opposite sex rather than the modern definition adopted by the traditionalist mindset of “natural” love between a man and a woman.

Given the sheer volume of pornography available online, there is little in the way of deviant or perverse sexual behavior that has gone unremarked upon in both the mainstream and underground media. What The Pleasure’s All Mine seeks to point out, however, is that these behaviors are not necessarily new—some of the tools and technology available to modern “perverts” notwithstanding—but rather have been a part of human culture for nearly as long as the concept of a civilized society. In the 18th century, for instance, some Parisian brothels catered to those enamored by avisodomy: A form of bestiality, it consisted of men having sex with birds, choking them to death while copulating with the avian.

Elsewhere, Peakman looks at the history of sadism—the Marques de Sade being a recurring figure throughout the book’s chapters—masochism, pedophilia, incest, necrophilia and other increasingly taboo sexual practices. Her matter-of-fact prose allows for a clear-eyed look into the driving factors behind even the most aberrant perversions. It’s this type of approach that has largely been responsible for the normalizing of sex in all its forms, making for a more informed dialogue and understanding of the seemingly infinite number of ways in which people choose to get off.

Indeed, there exists—and likely has existed for centuries—a fetish for everyone’s unique tastes, as indicated by the nearly 200 illustrations from B.C. to the age of the PC can attest. As Peakman makes plain, there are few things more fascinating than the wide-ranging sexual proclivities of people throughout the ages. Regardless of your personal perception of perversion, The Pleasure’s All Mine is a thoroughly enlightening read.

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