We’ve read — or at least skimmed — hundreds of books about sex in our ten years in the biz, and our shelves are stacked with tomes on everything from gays in the military to the science of seduction. Some educate us, some make us laugh, some make us blush, some make good door-stops — and then every now and then, a book just completely blows us away. Like Daniel Bergner’s The Other Side of Desire. It’s an engrossing, sensitive, intelligent exploration of various forms of lust and longing, and it is by turns shocking and moving — and occasionally even romantic. Bergner hangs his story on four main characters: a foot fetishist, a female sadist, a child sex offender, and an amputee “devotee.” We chatted with him about furries, the Craigslist killer, and the age-old nature vs. nurture debate.
The word fetish gets tossed around a lot these days, and often very lightly. So can you explain what you mean by a fetish or a paraphilia?
I’ll try, but the truth is that even the sexologists don’t quite agree. A fetish is an object of obsessional lust; Jacob’s, in the opening story, is for women’s feet. And a paraphilia is an erotic longing that falls far outside the norm — a longing, for example, to be burned or beaten, or a yearning to make love with amputees. An interesting thing about the word is that philia suggests love as opposed to simple lust — and I hope people will see that this book is as much about human connection as physical craving.
A few of the people you interview describe fetishes or paraphilia as a gift, because it means the person can experience sex on a level unimaginable to people having so-called normal sex, and maybe have a higher capacity for orgasm. And yet others describe it as a burden, sometimes a torturous one. Were most of the people you interviewed in the former or latter category? And speaking to the people who consider their paraphilia a gift, did you ever wonder if maybe you were missing out on something?
I always wonder if I’m missing out on something. I think of a sadomasochistic couple I spent time with, Ben and Eliza, and I know I’m missing something. They took each other, sexually, to places of profound vulnerability, to melting, and then nurtured each other back to the solidity that they needed to exist as functional people in the world. But for some the erotic charge of the paraphilia seemed to come from shame and self-denial, from isolation and obsessive, thwarted yearning — the most exquisite orgasm in the world probably can’t make up for that level of torment.