Crystal B. Lake on Benjamin Kahan’s The Book of Minor Perverts

Benjamin Kahan opens The Book of Minor Perverts: Sexology, Etiology, and the Emergences of Sexuality with a list of all the things that, in 1902, the sexologist Iwan Bloch said could cause homosexuality:

impotence, onanism, habitual alcohol consumption, opium indulgence, seduction, same-sex environments, warm climate, anal sex with women, wearing clothing of the opposite sex, looking in the mirror, celibacy, polygamy, religious belief, gonorrhea, flagellation, epilepsy, obscene literature and works of art, and the professions (deemed feminine) of actors, artists, landscape gardeners, decorators, cooks, hairdressers, ladies’ tailors, and female impersonators.

Kahan grants that Bloch’s list is, of course, “preposterous and homophobic.” Nevertheless, Kahan maintains that sexologists like Bloch offer us a glimpse into a history of sexuality that deserves a closer look. In Kahan’s study, the sexological writing that was published between 1850 and 1950 invites us to better account for the diversity of sexual experiences, lived as well as imagined, that flourished in the midst of the historical transformation of sexuality that Michel Foucault famously identified and scholars have parsed ever since.

“Hi, um, Benjy? This is Crystal, we met in Atlanta earlier this year—at the Fox Center. I’m in New Haven for the month, and I heard that you were from here, and so I’m hoping that you might know whether or not there are any beaches nearby that I could go to; I just want to, like, lay in the sand and be warm and read a novel … Yeah, that’s what the internet says, too … Um, a ‘lobster roll? I’m—well, I’m from West Virginia, so I don’t even know what a ‘lobster roll’ is; is that, like, the start of a dirty joke?”

The phrase that dominates Kahan’s title, “minor perverts,” is Foucault’s, and it gestures to his now well-worn claim that proliferating discourses and taxonomies of sexuality effected sexuality’s repression—how, by the end of the nineteenth century, a “thousand aberrant sexualities” had become subsumed under the category of homosexuality. Ever since, sexuality writ large has been construed as a matter of gender differentiation and object choice: modes of identification and volition that disavow their status as such by requiring varieties of surveillance in order to be both authorized and sustained.

“Hi, Crystal, it’s Benjy. I’m thinking of buying these green shoes for MLA interviews: good idea or bad idea?”

Not surprisingly, the sexological texts that Kahan unearths make for uncomfortable reading. In catalogues like Bloch’s, especially, the quantificational gives ready way to the pathological (and vice versa); ultimately, the discomforts that the sexologists’ catalogues engender seem to confirm Foucault’s thesis by way of inviting a tongue-twisting call and response from their readers. Can I really choose whether or not I look in the mirror? Will a chance encounter with my own reflection really have the same effect as “onanism, habitual alcohol consumption, opium indulgence, seduction, same-sex environments, warm climate, anal sex with women, [and] wearing clothing of the opposite sex”?

The heart wants what it wants except when we want it to want something different, and we all know how wanting something different can break your heart. This is partly the point that Kahan makes in The Book of Minor Perverts; early sexological texts and the literary works that engaged with them constitute a record of how we came to feel so heartsick in the history of sexuality that Foucault divulged. Before we were compelled to identify ourselves as straight or queer, we were—we could have been—minor perverts.

“Hi, Crystal. This is Benjy. Just calling to remind you that he’s a jerk and that you’re going to be okay. Call me back when you get a chance.”  

In Kahan’s study, nineteenth and early twentieth-century sexologists insist, somewhat unexpectedly, that sexuality is an acquired phenomenon: objects, sites, situations, actions, and events that cannot be controlled by yearning subjects or said to have been perfectly determined by cultural conditions arouse our desires and incite us to trysts. Rather than depict our yearnings as innate, biological, or natural—around and against which supposedly unnatural aberrations metastasize—early sexologists rendered sexuality as a tangle of accidental attractions and circumstantial couplings.

“Hi, Benjy. Ready? Let’s get this thirty-something divorcee in Dayton, OH set up with a quote-unquote online dating profile. I’ve, um, I’ve kind of never ‘dated’ before—like, cell phones hadn’t even been invented when I got married …”

Kahan returns us to a history where seemingly anything might catalyze a longing, introduce a momentary blip on desire’s radar, or cultivate a taste for the unusual. This is what Kahan means when he describes The Book of Minor Perverts as a “historical, etiological approach” to sexuality studies. Kahan does not posit an etiology for sexuality; rather, he excavates how ways of thinking about sexuality were once preoccupied with sexual etiologies. On the one hand, by characterizing sexuality as something that could be circumstantial and accidental, sexologists’ catalogues of minor perversions undoubtedly taught us to inventory and to surveil our lusting. On the other hand, early sexologists’ emphasis on etiology also engendered a robust vocabulary that modernist writers used to represent the nature of their desires and sexual encounters.

“This is what they call ghosting, right?”


“What am I doing wrong, Benjy?”

“It’s not you.”

The chapters that comprise Kahan’s case studies in The Book of Modern Perverts recount a “variety and multiplicity of strange, preposterous, and just plain odd understandings of sexuality that we need to account for in order to gain a better understanding of the history of sexuality.” Kahan’s first chapter examines literary characters who experience lesbianism periodically—as a “seasonal” event, as a consequence of certain kinds of conditions (like “boredom” and “deprivation”), or in specific settings (like a country house or a boarding school). Theories of sexuality, Kahan finds, responded to the idea that sexualities could be acquired as well as relinquished via a wide range of places, times, or circumstances by increasingly depicting heterosexuality, specifically, as an enduring and therefore natural state of affairs. From there, same-sex desire was likewise increasingly depicted as a congenital condition, and women’s susceptibility to lesbianism in specific situations or settings were taken as symptoms of inherent tendencies.

“Maybe, Benjy, you could just, like, avoid updating your mom about your love life?”

“And a Merry Christmas to you, too, Crystal … So what are you up to today?”

“I have to start deep-cleaning my house. My mother’s going to be here tomorrow.”

“Couldn’t you, just, like, wait and let her help you clean the house when she gets there?”

“And a Happy Hanukkah to you, too, Benjy.”

By examining a history of the “humoral” body that responds indelibly to climatological conditions, Kahan’s next chapter scales up from the acquired and situational lesbianism that he charted in Chapter 1. Many modernist writers and sexologists agreed; people got the hots, all kinds of hots, in the world’s hot zones. The orientalizing, racist, colonialist discourses that saturated such representations of sexuality lead Kahan to identify a shift from an anthropologia sexualis—the notion that sexualities could ebb and flow under the sway of “the seasons, weather, temperature, and air”—to a germ theory of sexuality, a scientia sexualis. Accordingly, the germ theory of sexuality pathologized the porous humoral body and subjected it to new forms of biopolitical control. Rife with fears of contamination, the scientia sexualis likewise tendered an ideal vision of the impenetrable, iron-clad body, thereby also establishing sexual identity as something rooted and arbitrarily naturalized in the body’s biological sex. Once pathologized and biologized, sexuality was reconfigured around discourses of consent, Kahan finds. In contrast to visions of bodies swayed by the environment, sexuality was increasingly figured as a contest between the expression of natural or volitional desires, on the one hand, and aberrant or transgressive desires, on the other.

“Crystal, um, tell me what we’re doing here again?”

“We’re stealing firewood from the neighbors so we can build a fire. I mean, we’re not really stealing it—the Wilsons are cool with it.”

“But shouldn’t we tell them we’re here and, like, say hello or something?”

“They’re not home right now; we’ll see them later. Here, hold out your arms, Benjy.”

“It looks like someone’s home.”

“One of the Wilson kids probably just came home early. Here, hold out your arms.”

“Crystal, I’m wearing a cashmere sweater.”

“Hold out your arms, Benjy.”

The first two chapters of The Book of Modern Perverts examine how modernist writers and sexologists imagined the effects that various settings could have on sexuality. Kahan’s third chapter shifts gears in order to consider the more immaterial forces that were once thought to be capable of influencing the warp and weft of our desires. Kahan focuses this chapter around the concept of a magia sexualis, a term he borrows from Paschal Beverly Randolph, a nineteenth-century “sexual magician.” For Kahan, Randolph’s particular magia sexualis—a belief in the mystical power that simultaneous orgasms unlocked during heterosexual sex—stands as the apotheosis of a shift that occurred in the history of sexuality. Specifically, early scientific writing about sexuality borrowed the “language of attraction, magnetism, and sparking” in order to characterize desire as a veritable electrical force field, arcing freely to alight on a range of bodies. This old kind of sex magic did not, Kahan argues, distinguish between object and subject. By the time Randolph’s notion of magia sexualis had come and gone, however, sex magic had acquired a more direct “aim-based” purpose, according to Kahan, and its grammars were increasingly used as a means of constructing sexual subjectivity simultaneously as both a mysterious experience of singular pleasures and an intentional expression of the will.

“How’d your date go last night, Crystal?”

“I think he’s ‘the one’, Benj … and I don’t even believe in that sort of thing.”

The fourth chapter of The Book of Minor Perverts continues to examine historical forms of sexuality that resisted being defined by secure object-choices. Kahan begins “Sex in the Age of Fordism: The Standardization of Sexual Objects” by reminding readers of the Ford Motor Company’s Sociological Department, which was tasked with monitoring the everyday lives of Ford’s employees: the cleanliness of their homes, the frequency of their alcohol consumption, the state of their finances, and the nature of their romantic relationships. Drawing on the writings of Antonio Gramsci, Kahan goes on to claim that industrialism’s regimes of standardization implicated sexual object choice. Throughout this chapter, Kahan returns to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919) as a work of fiction that draws our attention to the regulations that Fordism imposed on sexuality by, in part, resisting industrialism’s narratives of standardization. Winesburg, Ohio depicts a “sexual universe” wherein a rural economy yields a sexuality structured around “hands and touch” rather than genitalia. As the characters in Anderson’s fiction grasp at delayed, circuitous, unfulfilled, vague, and unexpected objects as well as desires, they preserve a “gestural repertoire of sex.” This diverse repertoire became increasingly codified as queer in the context of industrialism’s mandate that, like production and consumption, sexuality should be purposeful, standardized, and regimented.

“What do you mean you can’t cook? Do you have eggs? Grab a pan, Benjy, and put me on speaker phone; these scrambled eggs are going to change your life.”

Kahan’s fifth chapter tackles a difficulty that the modernists’ etiological theories of sexuality inevitably encountered: that is, to what degree, if any, can individuals assert control over the multiple environmental factors that incite their desires? To what degree, in other words, can sexuality be said to be volitional or acquired? Kahan examines the complexity of sexuality’s causal sequencing by way of a case study that investigates how early sexologists and writers understood the relationships between alcoholism and homosexuality. Kahan discovers that sexologists and modernist writers appear consistently to confuse causal accounts of the relationships between alcoholism and homosexuality. They depict alcoholism as a cause of homosexuality, as a comorbid condition, and as an effect of homosexuality. These confusions in the causal sequencing of swilling and sexing produced an especially weak etiological model of sexuality, according to Kahan. However discomfiting the twinned history of homosexuality and alcoholism may be, the boozy “scrambling” of origins, causes, and effects that it preserves allows us to re-imagine how “volition,” especially, might exist “in a structure of sexual sequentiality that demands some order or arrangement while lacking any particular sequence or definite ordering.” This “weak etiology” preserves an unexpected “utopian possibility that all sexualities might be imagined in a single plane without hierarchy, sequence, or priority.”

“Hi, Benjy!”

“Hey! I was calling to see how your meeting went today.”

“Yeah, well—wait, hold on a sec, Benjy …Whatcha want, kiddo? Here, have a granola bar. I’m talking to Benjy. There you go. Okay, I’m back. So we started talking about the grad program, and then you-know-who said BERT!—hold on, Benjy—BERT! NO BARKING! SIT! Benjy, hold on a second, someone’s at the door… Ok, I’m back; sorry, Benjy. So you-know-who said that—BERT! SIT! DOWN! SIT! BED!—ok, sorry, so you-know-who said … hang on a second, I think Bert needs to go out … So we started talking about the new requirements … Hey kiddo, whatcha need now? No, you can’t have another granola bar. I’m making dinner. Pasta. I’m still talking to Benjy. Benjy, kiddo says hi. Benjy says hi back and how was your day at school? He says it was good, Benjy. So, um, mommy’s on the phone right now, so maybe you wanna go watch tv for a little bit? Hi, sorry, Benjy. Like I was saying …OMG, hang on, Bert is barking again; let me let the dog back in …”

“Someone needs to get Crystal Lake a glass of wine already.”

Kahan concludes The Book of Minor Perverts by returning to what Eve Sedgewick termed the “Great Paradigm Shift:” a phrase used to designate the watershed advent of the homo/hetero divide. As Kahan explains, the Great Paradigm Shift has produced two impasses in sexuality studies. On the one hand, scholars—including Sedgwick herself, as Kahan shows—have set the origin of the Great Paradigm Shift at both the end of the seventeenth century and at the end of the nineteenth century. Additionally, the critical impulse to settle the specific historical, cultural moment at which the homo/hetero divide really emerged has occluded the important and diverse roles that gender, race, and class play in the history of sexuality. Kahan argues that the complex and competing narratives of sexuality’s geneses that proliferated well into the twentieth century can help us to accept the possibility that the Great Paradigm Shift and all that it entails has many moments of beginning. Likewise, the myriad origin stories of desire tendered by modernist sexologists and writers preserve, like so many insects in a cabinet of amber, a possible future for more diverse studies of sexuality.

“Hey, Crystal.”

“Hi, Benjy.”

“What are you up to today?”

“Oh, the usual. Slogging through middle-age.”

“Tell me what you’ve been writing about …”

What emerges over the course of Kahan’s study is a story about how sexuality came to revolve around restrictive binaries by ironic way of once-popular texts that embraced causal whirls where voluptuous distractions and curious obsessions multiplied. Reading The Book of Minor Perverts is like trying to see new colors for the first time, like trying to remember the scenes of feeling that exceed the frames of scrapbook photographs. Kahan invites us to linger with history’s book of minor so-called perverts and their thousands of so-called perversions in order to recover the erased, ignored, or forgotten sexualities that they embody. Therein, Kahan also discovers the possible futures for sexuality studies that the “statue-fondlers, wanderlusters, sex magicians, and nymphomaniacs” of yesteryear can help us to imagine. Rather than condemn those literary and scientific texts that once imagined that anything, seemingly everything, could lead us insensibly astray into numberless perversions, we might instead embrace the capaciousness they offer us for starting over and over again in our attempts to understand the many rambles our ways of loving can take.

“Dearest Crystal, Did we just write this book on the phone together?”

“Dearest Benjy, That’s how we write all the books.”

Crystal B. Lake is a Professor of English at Wright State University. Her book, Artifacts: How We Write and Think About Found Objects, is forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press in Spring 2020. With Sarah Tindal Kareem, she is the co-founder and co-editor of The Rambling. You can find Crystal on Twitter @crystal_b_lake.

About a Book is a regular column of The Rambling Reads that experiments with the form of the book review by coming aslant at texts old and new. If you’d like to write a column for About a Book, please get in touch with us.

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