Elevate Difference

The Other Side of Desire: Four Journeys Into The Far Realms Of Lust And Longing

Daniel Bergner’s new work on sexuality, The Other Side of Desire, garnered a considerable amount of press before it was released thanks to an adapted excerpt from the book published in the New York Times under the title, “What Do Women Want?” Many feminists were disgruntled by the piece, which included University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) professor Marta Meana’s insistence of narcissism in the role of female arousal. (“Being desired is the orgasm.”) As one NYT letter writer pointed out, “For many women, it’s occasionally hard to know the difference between sexual agency and male-driven definitions of sexiness[...] we are not ‘post feminist’ yet.” 

In the book itself, Bergner examines four distinct case studies of individuals with non-normative sexual proclivities, including a foot fetishist struggling with debilitating shame, a man who propositioned his adolescent stepdaughter, and an unrepentant female sadist who openly rejects the “safe, sane, consensual” mantra of the Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, Masochism (BDSM) community. Bergner alternates within each section between intimate portraits of his subjects’ lives and feedback from psychologists and psychiatrists who provide their professional take on the situation. 

The female sadist is by far the most articulate subject and her chapter is subsequently the most memorable. Her practices are intense, and, to his credit, Bergner presents her actions to us without apparent judgment. The book’s greatest strength is the author’s willingness to admit moments when his own sensibilities are challenged and then do his best to set those reactions aside and continue reporting. What his interviewees confess is often stunningly honest, and the best way to respect their candidness is to simply share it.

The book ends on a weak note with “The Devotee,” a section focused on an amputee fetishist, Ron, and his amputee wife Laura. While Bergner touches on the ways disabled individuals’ sexuality is neglected (the doctors never address what sex might be like after Laura’s accident nor do they inform of the existence of a devotee community), he doesn’t linger on the subject for long. He also abandons his strategy of providing medical insight as a counterpoint to the personal experience and instead becomes strangely caught up in describing the artwork of Hans Bellmer, a man who photographed damaged-looking dolls, and Ron’s own photographs of amputees. 

While Bergner does an admirable job of conveying the eroticism some men experience in sex with a disabled woman, his writing at this stage is often overly dramatic: “The body parts were letters, and their violent reordering would reinvent the body’s language and unmask its messages and lead to shaman’s wisdom.” Furthermore, there seems to be little room for Laura’s sexual needs in the relationship. She wonders what she can offer a man now after losing her conventional beauty in an accident. Once she begins modeling as an amputee her confidence is somewhat restored, yet she still doubts she could ever attract a “normal” man. It seems that Laura, like many women, grew up substituting being desired by a man in place of any desires of her own. Ron’s tastes are catered to, but Laura’s? As readers, we’re never entirely sure what she wants. Perhaps that New York Times letter writer was on to something.

Written by: Monica Shores, May 4th 2009