American Philosophical Quarterly 04/1997
In view of the inconsistent and, indeed, confusing use of "sexual perversion" in ordinary discourse,(21) and the difficulties plaguing philosophical accounts of such perversion, one might be tempted to conclude that the idea of sexual perversion should be discarded altogether.
Some philosophers have actually proposed just that. One was the Marquis de Sade. He developed his notorious sexual libertinism as an alternative to the traditional view of sex as by nature (and God) ordained to procreation, and legitimate only within marriage. That view rules out a wide array of sexual practices as immoral, condemning with particular harshness those that are considered immoral because unnatural, perverted. De Sade's moral philosophy does without God, but not without nature. However, his view of nature is quite different from that adopted by the tradition; it is tailored to generate the views on morality in general, and sexual morality in particular, which have made him infamous. The natural is the yardstick of the moral; but nature is merely the sum of natural laws, and everything that happens happens in accordance with these laws. That means that nothing that happens, nothing that people do, can ever be unnatural, perverted nor, indeed, immoral. Homosexuality, pedophilia, incest -- and, of course, sadism and masochism -- are neither unnatural, perverted, nor immoral and criminal, for nature is behind them all. Nature makes it possible for human beings to commit such acts, that is, allows them to do so. Moreover, nature is the real instigator, as it puts the inclinations to commit such acts in human beings. "There is no extravagance which is not in Nature, none which she does not acknowledge as her own," says de Sade. Therefore "there can exist no evil in obedience to Nature's promptings..."(22) Sexual preferences and acts traditionally, depicted as unnatural, perverted, and censured and punished as crimes against nature, are merely preferences and acts at odds with the conventional tastes in sex.(23)
Michael Slote, too, argues that the notion of unnatural or perverted behavior, including sexual behavior, is idle and should be dispensed with. Slote notes that "unnatural" and "perverted" have both descriptive and expressive meaning. The former has proven extremely difficult to capture by a definition, while the latter is easy to characterize: both words express horror. Whatever we may mean by saying of a type of behavior that it is unnatural or perverted, we always express our fear or horror of such behavior. It is this horror that points to the true descriptive meaning of these words in their ordinary use: to call a way of acting perverted or unnatural is to say that it is not to be found in nature, that it does not exist in nature. By banishing it from nature, we also banish it from our world. Both these claims are supported by the fact that people who are especially knowledgeable about human behavior are neither horrified by ways of acting most of us find horrible, nor given to calling such behavior unnatural or perverted, the way most of us do. Unlike most of us, they know, and are willing to acknowledge, that such behavior is to be found in nature, that it is part of our world.
But why should we be attempting to put those human acts that horrify us outside nature, outside our world? Because such acts are very strongly prohibited by society and most of us nevertheless have certain impulses towards them, impulses which frighten us and threaten our self-image, and which we are extremely unwilling to acknowledge. As depth psychology tells us, most of us have some deep, unconscious, repressed tendencies towards incest, homosexuality, and possibly some forms of fetishism. We repress such impulses and keep them unconscious by determining that such behavior is unnatural or perverted. "By calling it `unnatural' [and `perverted'] we think of it as banished to a world other than ours, and this helps to reassure us that the impulse toward such behavior is not in us."(24)
Of course, all such claims are false, because there is no such thing as human behavior that is not part of nature or the human world. The ordinary notion of the unnatural or perverted is therefore inapplicable in principle. Those who employ it do so because they are ignorant of its inapplicability.