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Bering in Mind

Bering in Mind


A research psychologist's curious look at human behavior
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Partial for Protuberant: The Man Who Was Into “Outies”

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Here’s a question for you: When did you last spend some serious, quality time with your belly button? As for me, it was the bellbottomed year of our Lord 1979 that I last engaged in a literal bout of navel-gazing, back when I was a hyperactive preschool contortionist bending myself into an awkward ball just so that I could inspect this curious hole in my torso. Filled with an unending spiral of raisin-like creases that appeared, to my overly imaginative eye, to lead directly into some dark, mysterious organic cosmos, it’s something only a five-year-old would find utterly fascinating.

Well, a five-year-old or the subconscious mind of an adult belly-button sexual fetishist. I’m an “innie,” needless to say, and as such I wouldn’t be very attractive at all to a patient described—and very colorfully at that—by the psychiatrist Gert Heilbrunn in a 1975 issue of The Psychoanalytic Quarterly. This twenty-seven-year-old high school teacher had been an admirer of “outies” his entire life. Perhaps that’s a bit of an understatement, actually. The man in fact had a sexual partialism for navels, a subtype of fetishism in which an individual displays a lifelong erotic preoccupation with a non-reproductive body part. In essence, the individual’s sexual interests are oriented predominately to that very specific part of others’ bodies, to an extent that matches, or even exceeds, his or her arousal by the sex partner’s genitals. “Podophilia,” or foot fetishism, is by far the most common expression of sexual partialism, but there are partialists for every conceivable part of the body.

In the present case, the psychiatrist traced this particular patient’s obsessions with protruding belly buttons to his having observed, around the age of four or five, how his mother’s outie differed markedly in appearance with that of his father’s innie. Because the patient’s own belly button resembled his father’s, and not his mother’s, he instinctively generalized this navel difference to all men and women. The case was being analyzed from an old neo-Freudian perspective, keep in mind, and so Heilbrunn, not surprisingly, interpreted the man’s subsequent fetishization of outies as a product of his unresolved Oedipal complex. “Equating the elevated umbilicus with the penis,” argues the psychiatrist, “[the boy] concluded that something was missing from his body, that he was ‘cheated.’” In the child’s subconscious mind, according to this dubious line of reasoning, the boy was apparently under the impression that his father had “castrated” him by rudely removing his protruding belly button.

Becoming fixated at this stage of psychosexual development, the patient then presumably grew up to become enamoured both with restoring his own uncut navel (thereby retaliating against his father by surpassing him in masculinity) and in partners who possessed this idealized form of intact navel beauty. In any event, the gentleman was, indeed, really into outside belly buttons. “At the age of nine,” writes the psychiatrist, “he perceived pleasurable sensations from stimulating his umbilicus with needles.” By the time he was an adolescent, the patient had begun to adopt some very dangerous ways to modify his perceived imperfection:

Several times he attempted to lower the plane of the abdominal wall below that of the umbilical plane by carving with a razor blade deeply into the periumbilical tissues, almost bleeding to death … [For] the second method … [using] a threaded needle, he pierced the skin folds at the bottom of the navel, pulled them above the surface of the abdominal wall and tied them so that they would remain in place as a protruding navel; in this way he fashioned a positive belly button. He felt no pain during this procedure until his ecstasy had waned through the ensuing masturbatory orgasm.

The patient’s pursuit of the perfect navel didn’t lend itself to a happy marriage to a woman who’d been cursed with a “repulsive” innie like his, and the dissolution of this relationship is one of the main reasons that he’d ended up confiding this unusual story of umbilical fetishism to Heilbrunn to begin with. I suspect there was probably more to their divorce than belly button woes, though, since the psychiatrist also casually notes how the teacher enjoyed spending countless hours in the library flipping through books containing images of “muscular, athletically built male torsos.”

So it’s just a hunch, but belly buttons may not have been the only protruding body part that the man favored in his sex partners.

I discuss paraphilias like this one, and much, much more, in my new book Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us, which will release on October 8, 2013. Follow me @jessebering (#DailyDeviant). For more on all things deviant, and to find out if I’ll be visiting a city near you for the Perv book tour, visit www.jessebering.com.

Jesse Bering About the Author: Jesse Bering is Associate Professor of Science Communication at the University of Otago in New Zealand. He is the author of The Belief Instinct (2011), Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? (2012) and Perv (2013). To learn more about Jesse's work, visit www.jessebering.com or add him on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/jesse.bering). Follow on Twitter @JesseBering.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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