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home > sex & society > sexual variants > paraphilia
First something about terminology. As it is wise to have an open mind with regard to various possible expressions of human sexual behaviour, we like to use the unbiased term 'sexual variants', rather than terms which sound derogatory, like 'abnormalities' or 'perversities' (although 'perverse' was originally meant as a neutral term, literally meaning 'turned around'). The sexological term now commonly used in is 'paraphilia', which, like 'perversion' is meant to be neutral or scientific, but has also acquired a judgemental connotation. Terms like 'sexual preference' or 'lifestyle' sound much more open-minded and suggest a human rights approach. However, these words are mostly restricted to adult gays, who still have difficulty in being fully accepted and represent the tendency to categorize people on the basis of an aspect of their sexual behaviour. The most universal term, which refers to aspects of sexual desire in most people, is 'variants', which, therefore, we prefer.
Paraphilia: sexual predisposition
Human beings are born with a sexual program that predisposes for a typical development as male or female, as well as for the experience of sexual desire (lust). Depending on preference, upbringing and culture, these dormant feelings are either repressed, or awakened, developed, conditioned and expressed. Most people will develop heterosexual behaviour which is focussed on procreation and family life. In human society, heterosexual behaviour within the context of such a steady relationship is the norm and is considered 'healthy'. But even 'normal' and 'healthy' people have their sexual needs satisfied in various ways; straight masturbation is only one of them.
Paraphilia: male promiscuity
Most 'paraphilia' are considered to be a male thing and the explanation is provided by evolutionary biology. A human female is genetically programmed to select one male - the one with the best genes - to make her pregnant and to take care of her and her children. A human male is genetically programmed to spread his genes as widely as possible, i.e. to make as many females pregnant as possible (see lust). In general, a male is therefore less selective and more promiscuous. He will do anything to gain access to females, and if frustrated in that quest (which is the rule) and spurred on by his testosterone, will develop all sorts of behaviour as a kind of 'outlet'.
This model must be extended to females, because human females are known to have equally strong sexual desires as males. This, too, can be understood by evolution. To find the best possible mate, the female must exhibit her attractiveness as well. In fact, she will do anything to be attractive to as many males as possible, or to one she has chosen (with whom she has fallen in love). She will demonstrate behaviour that is characterized as 'deviant' in the male, but is considered perfectly normal or harmless in females, such as cross-dressing, exhibitionism, and many others.
Paraphilia: social control of male sexual behaviour
A male who shows non-normative sexual behaviour is much more likely to be disapproved of. Sometimes he gets caught by the police, usually after a complaint. He will be arrested and perhaps convicted by local authorities, on the basis of local social tradition and laws. He may even be named and shamed.
Even if not caught, the man can be made to feel guilty and embarrassed, may even think that something is terribly wrong with him. He may look for help and see a psychiatrist or a psychologist. His problem will be labelled as a medical condition, a sexual problem, which is supposed to explain his preference and behaviour. Over the last hundred years, many sexual 'perversities' have been documented this way in medical and psychological literature.
Paraphilia: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
The standard book for the Western world is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association. In the past, masturbation was described in this book as a mental disorder, and until recently, so was homosexuality.
This shows that opinions about what is 'normal' or 'healthy' can and do change. There is still a lot of sexual reform needed to understand the nature of sexual expression and to see that it must be distinguished from 'unhealthy', 'dangerous', 'addictive' or 'criminal' behaviour, with which it is too often associated in the public mind (including professionals. politicians, journalists).
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