Overexposed: Perverting Perversions. By Sylvère Lotringer. Semiotext(e). $14.95.
One of the great numbers in the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill Threepenny Opera is “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” which sardonically details the many ways men are inevitably overcome by women. Sylvère Lotringer’s Overexposed takes sexual dependency a number of steps farther – so far that it is sometimes hard to tell, when reading the book, how much is real and how much surreal. Originally published in 1988, Overexposed is about a controversial behavior-modification technique in which sexual deviants – such as rapists and child molesters – are saturated with scenes that stimulate them to the point (it is hoped) at which they will no longer stimulate them at all.
Lotringer, professor of French Literature and Philosophy at Columbia University – and the founder of the publisher of his book – approaches the technique with bitter humor and a willingness to plunge himself into a number of aspects of the approach, from listening to the tapes made by participants to himself donning the penile device that measures a man’s sexual response and is supposed to help him learn to control it.
All this is both intellectually stimulating (and perhaps, in some scenes, physically stimulating as well)…and simply strange. The reason is Lotringer’s tone, which maintains a distance from the subject matter that he himself, in his physical body, does not. Thus, he writes, “Sexual deviations, like everything else, have grown democratic. Freud’s French master, the celebrated alienist Charcot, used to present his hysterical cases on the stage of the Salpêtrière, ready to perform, in a seductive négligé, for a select audience their most erotic ‘crises.’ Today’s hysteria affects women and men alike, but no one pays much attention anymore, unless it leads to collective suicide or mass murder. Like Charcot’s ‘great hysterics,’ the age of the great debauchees and libertines – cynical, satanical, dissolute – is definitely over.” This is powerful writing, historically astute and apparently putting the “saturation” approach into context. But it is part of Lotringer’s introductory material, belied by many later chapters – which bears such one-word titles as “Arouse,” “Tease,” “Enjoy,” “Date,” “Bore,” “Reject” and “Deter.” In those chapters, there is frequently nothing at all but brief questions by Lotringer and extended responses by the clinicians – or point-of-view essays by the subjects going through treatment. Context becomes conspicuous by its absence.
Near the end of the book, as Lotringer questions a lab technician, he is told how the satiation treatment becomes effective with child molesters. Lotringer asks, “You mean that each time they see a little girl, they’re going to repeat their lines?” The “lines” are simple statements that, in a lab context, the subjects have said again and again and again, to the point of boredom and beyond – far past the point of any arousal. “You don’t have to repeat them,” the technician replies. “You can learn very quickly how to inhibit arousal through some mental gymnastics, if you want.”
If you want. The prepositional phrase is a throwaway; Lotringer does not pick up on it. But the question of wanting is central to the treatment of sex offenders – and in some ways to the definition of sexual deviance in the first place. The treatment that Lotringer details, and in which he himself participates to a limited extent, is designed to remove that want, replacing it with aversion to behaviors that are not societally sanctioned. And what then is left, in the realm of sexuality and arousal, for those trained to feel aversion to their previous stimulations? “Who cares?” is not a satisfactory answer, for therapies like this one are designed to remove subjects’ deviancy while retaining the functioning of their personalities. Is that even possible – or may the deviancy be too central to functionality to be removable without being replaced by something equally unacceptable? These are therapeutic questions that Lotringer does not even ask, much less try to answer, in a book that is more experiential than exploratory (despite its author’s obvious intellectual weight). Readers of Overexposed will certainly know by the end that they have co-experienced something with the author, even if they may be unsure exactly what it is. Left unanswered is whether Overexposed, and the therapy at its core, have rewritten “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” or merely added a new verse to it.