The crucial difference between a “pervert” and a predator

Maybe both?
Maybe both?
Image: REUTERS/Eric Thayer
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We’re in the middle of a sexual revolution right now, one that hinges not on the freedom to say yes to sex, but the freedom to say no. Sex without full and enthusiastic consent—it shouldn’t need to be said, but apparently it must be—is rape.

The conversation about sexual harassment, rape, coercion, and abuse of power—prompted by scandals surrounding film producer Harvey Weinstein, politician Roy Moore, comedian Louis C.K., and many others—has created an atmosphere suffused with rage, but also tinged with relief. Women are able to speak openly, and with emotion, about what it’s like to walk around in a female body—in a way that was not possible even just a few weeks ago.

The word “predator” is being used, rightly, to describe those who impose themselves upon others against their will. Several other words are being hurled around a lot too: “pervert,” “depraved,” “creep,” “deviant.”

These words are most often used to shame or to signal disapproval. We should keep getting angry, but let’s also get our terms correct as we clear the air. Marginalizing sexual behaviors or desires that we don’t personally identify with doesn’t help anyone. Nor does denying help or treatment to those who suffer from real sexual addictions or disorders.

This moment is an opportunity to change the whole conversation about sex, to make it more expansive and inclusive. It could also have the power to make actual, consensual sex hotter.

The appalling behavior the comic Louis C.K. has admitted to—compared with his onstage shtick about his sexual desires—is one place to make this distinction. C.K. has always been famous for his candor in his comedy about sexual proclivities few would own up to. But that “perversion”—if acted upon only with consenting people—is not in itself problematic.

C.K. is accused by several women of masturbating in front of them or while on the phone with them without their consent. Here’s the thing: If he enjoys having women, or men for that matter, watch him masturbate, fine. It is because he forced himself on or coerced his victims that he is rightly criticized—not because he wanted something that isn’t standard issue penis-in-vagina intercourse. If the women he assaulted had been into the show, there would be no story here.

This is important to clarify because the word “pervert” has long been used to marginalize, silence, and victimize certain communities, particularly gay men. (Before the late 19th century it was also a synonym for atheist, and in general is meant to indicate someone who disregards social norms.) Homosexuality was formally removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1974, but 40 years later conversion therapy still persists, justified by the idea that gayness is a perversion rather than a normal expression of human sexuality.

The point is not to create a list of banned words. It’s to really examine our own sexual attitudes. Dossie Easton, co-author of The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities, says many have reclaimed “pervert” in much the way her influential 1997 guide to polyamory took back the word “slut.” The words we use matter, she argues.

“A lot of us call ourselves ‘radical perverts’ in a nice way, a fun way,” says “The problem is that we have ascribed filthy meanings to these words and we keep thinking of them as filthy and we end up thinking of our own bodies as filthy and our desires as filthy. That was one of the most important things in my life back in the ’70s, to be part of a whole group of people working on discovering sex-positive language.”

She doesn’t reject individual words as off-limits, but strongly dislikes formulations that cast sex as a thing to obtain, rather than something to participate in. “I object to the ‘getting’ language—getting laid, getting lucky, getting nookie. It’s so objectifying,” she says. “It puts women in a terrible position: Sex is not something you do, it’s something you get, consumer sex.”

Easton and her co-author Janet Hardy were instrumental in a movement that was reframing sexual boundaries. The community that has grown around polyamory and non-monogamous sex (like BDSM and other non-conventional sex communities) has built elaborate language and systems to ensure everyone involved is on board—covering everything from sexual identity to safe sex practices to, of course, consent.

In comparison, the mainstream discourse on sex looks impoverished. “There’s this whole notion of what ‘normal’ sex is,” Easton says, “and it’s not only a very disappointing, limiting set, it also doesn’t even encourage consent. Because if you think something is normal, then you think that if someone agrees to have sex with you, then they’re agreeing to do whatever you think is normal.”

In broader terms, the easier it is to talk about sex, and its many, many variations, the harder it is to silence victims and shield predators. Part of what makes it possible to cover these crimes is shame. And even more broadly, the less we’re hung up on the idea that some sexual desires are more legitimate and acceptable than others, the more possibilities open up to us in the bedroom (or anywhere else).

In her much-read piece from The Cut, “Your Reckoning. And Mine.” Rebecca Traister writes, “We are turning over incidents that don’t fall into the categories that have been established—a spectrum that runs from Weinstein-level brutality to non-rapey but creepy massages to lurid-but-risible pickup lines—and wondering whether or how any of it relates to actual desire for another person.”

Here’s an easy rule of thumb: If you’re wondering about whether you’re speaking about sex in a way that is open and respectful of all the parties involved, just ask yourself, “What would John Waters say?” The film director and self-proclaimed “People’s Pervert” has been putting buttholes, drag queens and non-standard bodies on the screen since before being gay ceased to be classified as a mental illness. Waters’ entire career hinges on the idea that it’s okay to get weird, but you have to come at it with joy, kindness, and genuine curiosity.

The man who introduced America to teabagging embraced the word “pervert” as an identity, in much the same way gay activists took back “queer” in the 1990s—and he uses it with obvious glee.

So if you want to call yourself a pervert, a deviant, or a creep in the John Waters sense, or investigate the appeal of having a pair of testicles plopped on your forehead, go for it! Sexual desire and experimentation is not wrong, so long as everyone is consenting (and legally capable of consenting).

That’s the thing about true, enthusiastic consent—it opens new worlds of sexual possibility, whether you want someone to watch you have an orgasm, would like a good old-fashioned finger in the ass, or want to try something that requires a flashlight, a miniature cactus and blindfold. Don’t judge—but do feel free to decline.