Customer Reviews: The Other Side of Desire: Four Journeys into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing
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on January 28, 2009
Journalist Daniel Bergner has a knack for getting inside his subject matter, which often focuses on the edgy extremes where most of us will never venture in real life, and about which little has been written. In the Land of Magic Soldiers: A Story of White and Black in West Africa gave us a glimpse of Africa's poorest and most violence-ravaged nation, Sierra Leone. In God of the Rodeo: The Quest for Redemption in Louisiana's Angola Prison, Bergner introduced us to the rodeo champions of Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana, "the last slave plantation." Here, Bergner give us a glimpse of another forbidden zone, that of extreme sexual practices.

Bergner's status as a skillful writer for the New York Times Magazine shows in his ability to bring both insight and compassion to bear on characters that might otherwise come off as mere freaks. The narrative is woven around four stories, involving a dominatrix, a foot fetishist, an amputee fetishist and -- of interest to those of us who work with sex offenders -- an incestuous stepfather. Describing that case of "Roy," Bergner introduces competing theories of sex offending and describes the time he spent with Roy's pedophilia therapy group as well as with well-known experts in the field.

If you are undecided about whether to buy this book, you can start with a little taste from the Internet: Bergner's New York Times article of January 22, 2009, "What Do Women Want?" illustrates his knack for translating dry science into accessible prose. Salon's January 27 interview with Bergner, "Sexual perversity in America," briefly describes all four cases featured in the book. Finally, you can check out Bergner's web site,, which features some of his other writing. There, under the "articles" tab, I especially recommend his 2005 article, "The Making of a Molester." Perhaps that cutting-edge character study (which was influential back when he wrote it) sparked his interest in doing this book, which he has spent the past several years researching.

At any rate, I highly recommend the book.
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VINE VOICEon September 13, 2010
Q: What's the difference between weird and kinky?
A: Weird is when you use a feather. Kinky is when you use the whole chicken.

That's essentially what you get with this book, but what is weird, and what is kinky? Where's the break line, and who gets to define where the line is? What is it like if you're on the "wrong" side?

I came to this book after reading Mary Roach's outstanding Bonk. The two are very different in content and approach, but the core subject is still the same, and the two complement each other quite well. I recommend Roach's book be read first, one because it's better written and more entertaining, and two because it's a better overview and serves as a good foundation from which to explore.

This book is about what Bergner calls "eros," the fringes of desire, or to be much more direct, sexual desire. The heart of the book asks what is a fetish, and when does it become a liability? How does one end up saddled with an overpowering fetish, or urge? And most importantly, is such a fetish normal or abnormal?

There are four real-world observations--these aren't nearly direct and detail-laden enough to be called "case studies"--on that edge. One reader will call these people sick or twisted or even evil, while another might just place them in the decidedly flatter areas of the traditional bell curve of human sexuality. Bergner's biggest success in this book is that he provides no solid judgment of his own as to whether these folks are wrong/right or normal/deviant; the reader is left to make that determination, if such a determination is even appropriate.

This is definitely an adult read, 18+. This is not a book about sex freaks, no parade of the sick, twisted and thoroughly abnormal, which may disappoint some. While not prurient or jaw-dropping--the coprophilia bit might wake you up--the general subject matter is decidedly adult and the specifics of these aspects of sexuality make this reading for the mature adult, ideally one who is already somewhat familiar with various aspects at the more distant ranges of sexuality. There is nothing really shocking here, but if you don't know what "BDSM" means, or if you've never heard of a foot fetish, you'll be lost from the start.

The four observations are of a foot fetishist, an S&M dominatrix, a convicted pedophile, and an acrotomophiliac (a "devotee" of amputees and paralysis victims).

The foot guy I saw as in deep and maddening denial, unhappy and giving in to think of himself as too many others see him, as a sick freak. His fetish has got him a bit dysfunctional, yeah, but he's not sick, just wired differently. In many ways, his story was the saddest, as he was letting others define him and control him, rather than just being himself.

The dominatrix embraces her "role," but nowhere does she actually admit "I like hurting people. I like humiliating people." She cloaks her justification in new-age BS about empowerment and freedom, all nebulous and euphemistic gunk that doesn't offer what I suspect her truth is: she gets a sexual charge out of inflicting pain and humiliation upon others. (But nothing's wrong with that, as long as everybody is willing, and getting out of the exchange what they want.)

The pedophile's case in many ways is the most accessible. There are aspects of it that are truly ambiguous, while there are others that purely black and white. Bergner provides all kinds of information showing that female physical sexual maturity (puberty/menstruation) comes on early as a result of evolution, and that a male response to this highly visible change is in its own way normal. This smashes against Western societal and cultural norms, as well as set-in-stone legal statutes. While male desire may be awakened, and brought to life just as nature intends it to, acting upon it, while "normal" in a scientifically notional way, is flat-out illegal, and you deserve everything you get if you allow yourself to take that path. Blaming the victim, as we get here, is nothing but wrong.

The amputee/paralysis guy seems to me to be the most honest and straightforward. Sure, he's on the edge of what is normal (yes, what exactly constitutes sexually normal is one of the points of the book), but his actions are not exploitive, nor are they unethical, immoral or illegal. He's found something he enjoys, and he embraces it completely. And it seems the handicapped recipients of this attention also are being tended to fairly and appropriately.

Some comments on this book have used "florid" to describe Bergner's work, and I agree. Some of his contextualizing is too maudlin, relying too much on detailed descriptions of settings, right down to describing office furniture, plants and wall decorations, as if they had something to do with the subjects at hand. At times, some of the contextual narrative came off as sappy human interest TV, without the video.

Bottom line: if the relatively detailed dynamics and vagaries of human sexuality interest you, then this is a book for you. If you're shy and uncomfortable with open discussion of any aspect of, well, you know, then this book might really really work for you, if you're reading it secretly, that is. But if way down deep you don't want to hear about other people's sexual proclivities, yearnings well outside what they taught you about in 7th grade health class, and how those non-mainstream feelings may have developed and become overpowering forces in those people's lives, and that some of these folks are actually very happy with the way things have turned out, then get out your Saturday Evening Post back-issues, and you'll be all set.
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on February 10, 2009
For some reason, I couldn't decide initially if this book was fiction or nonfiction. The truth finally hit me when the narrative referred to "Fred Berlin"--a well-known sex therapist and researcher in my neck of the woods. In any case, we get to learn quite a bit about the strange, the weird, the odd, the bizzare and the different. There was some, but not a lot, of prurient material despite the potentially explosive nature of the pathology described. More cut-and-dry than sensationalistic. Gives a sympathetic viewpoint of persons with atypical sexual impulses and behaviors. Uses commonsense to skewer the cockeyed theories of "major thinkers" in the field.
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on March 28, 2014
While the subject matter is compelling- what is a "kink", and how does it come about?- this book offers very little in the way of insights or information.

One problem is that the author seems overly credulous: he takes the word of his subjects, be they paraphiliacs or scientists- without weighing what they say against anything else- even published facts, in the case of the pedophile stepfather; one wouldhave thought a journalist, in particular, would have looked up the newspaper accounts sooner rather than later.

A bigger problem, though, is that the writing zooms all over the place. Partial anecdote! scientific study! Interview with therapist! then maybe zooming back to touch on one of the previous before hitting a new tangent! It did keep me unsure of what was going on, which tends to lead to people being more credulous themselves... but I didn't appreciate that; it felt overly manipulative, and the end result was increased confusion rather than understanding.

Not recommended if you want insight rather than "intellectual" titillation.
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on August 25, 2013
A good try at showing some insight to those among us that may have somewhat unconventional tastes. If you are one of the four or five people in the book it is especially interesting. S&M is covered along with devoteeism (amputees) and two others.
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on May 21, 2014
This book functions like a sexy version of Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire.

Really it is very veyr interesting, but the description makes you think it is a book heavy on both narrative and science, which it is not. A journalist takes the time to look into the lives of individuals with alternative sexual turn-ons and it is informational but not exactly educational.

A great book for someone who wants to learn more about people with alternative sexual desires, but not for someone who really wants to delve into the topic, especially from a science or research standpoint.
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on January 31, 2014
I bought this book thinking that it dealt with desire, lust, and longing in terms of chemicals in the brains or something along that line. Instead, it was about what we call sexually deviant behaviors discussed around four cases: a foot fetishist, a sadist, a pedophile, and an amputee fetishist. Well, I can't say I was disappointed. Not at all. The book shed new lights on them under which I was presented different points of views and forced me to contemplate morality. It's all so fascinating, them brains.
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on October 25, 2011
I loved the first chapter about the sympathetic foot fetishist and the idea that sexual compulsions are entirely separate from the self, similar to a disease or other medical condition. However, I found myself bored by the remaining chapters, more for the subject matter (not another B&D madame) than for any deficiency in the writing.
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on November 9, 2010
Society's collective thinking process regarding sexual issues appears fraught with value judgments and tends to vary across both cultures and centuries. The term paraphilia, as first coined by the noted pioneer of sexual research John Money, was meant to be a benign description without regard to negative connotation. A paraphilia describes a nonstandard or unusual sexual interest. Paraphilias are much more common in men, and manifest as recurrent, obsessive and intense sexual urges and sexually arousing fantasies, usually involving an object. A paraphilia is generally specific and unchanging. An example would be an obsessive sexual preoccupation by a man with women's high-heeled shoes. According to Dr. Money, a person exhibiting a full-blown paraphilia may become preoccupied with reaching sexual fulfillment relative to that paraphilia, to the extent of total distraction from other responsibilities, even to the point of dangerous or anti-social behavior.

This book sheds a good deal of light on the subject of paraphilia's and, although "normalization" is not the precise word for what happens here, one's understanding and compassion about the issue becomes greatly enhanced. I heartily recommend it.
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on September 29, 2011
I've read most of Bergner's books and this would have to come in last. It is undoubtedly well-written and fascinating, but is more of a long magazine article than an in-depth book. I was expecting more; it was too short and only touched the surface.
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