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Bering in Mind

Bering in Mind


A research psychologist's curious look at human behavior
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Hearts of Stone: Sexual Deviants in Antiquity

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


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Venus and Mars, c. 175 A.D., Palazzo Chigi in RomeParaphilias change with the times—and with the materials at hand. One of the reasons that completely new forms of sexual deviancy continue to emerge, while others vanish, is the fact that, as society changes, so too do the cultural factors upon which sexual imprinting occurs. In 1975, the scholars Alex Scobie and Tony Taylor argued that a once relatively common type of paraphilia known as agalmatophilia (from the Greek agalma, statue) had by then become so obscure as to be nonexistent in the modern world. By contrast, frequent references to some men’s exclusive sexual interest in stone statues can be found throughout antiquity, especially in the records of Ancient Rome and Greece. “The early civilizations provided an abundance of sculptured human figures with which people could identify,” explain the authors:

[and these] were representational in appearance, coloring and size. The statues were placed on street level rather than high up on pedestals. Hence the statues were life-size, life-like and so conveniently accessible as to enable the populace to form personal relationships with them.

These relationships, according to the work of ancient scholars and playwrights, sometimes included erotic infatuations. Pliny the Elder wrote of a man who fell in love with a statue of the goddess Aphrodite, “hiding by night embraced it [so] that a stain betrays his lustful act.” Meanwhile, Athenaeus, a Greek writer who gained prominence in the late 2nd century A.D. during the Roman reign of Marcus Aurelius, offers an especially vivid account about a certain Cleisophus of Selymbria:

… who fell in love with the statue in Parian marble at Samos, locked himself up in the temple, thinking he should be able to have intercourse with it; and since he found that impossible on account of the frigidity and resistance of the stone, he then and there desisted from that desire, and placing before him a small piece of flesh he satisfied his desire with that.

It’s slightly unnerving how there’s no mention of what this “small piece of flesh” consisted of or from whence it came (let’s hope it was simply a euphemism for Cleisphus’s own hand), but you get the idea, which is that agalmatophilia was not uncommon during those times. Intriguingly, Scobie and Taylor uncovered no mention of women attempting intercourse with a statue, with only one such sarcastic reference appearing in a book of jokes. Although a smattering of literary allusions to agalmatophilia can be found in less ancient works, the condition has become more or less unheard of today, and in fact I could find no case studies of this paraphilia in the formal sexology literature dating back to the late 19th century.

“Tentatively,” the authors conclude, “it could be argued that over a few thousand years mankind has dropped at least one pathological condition, agalmatophilia, from its repertoire of pathologies.” “But it could be,” they go on to say, “that it might merely have changed its form because the burgeoning plastics industry has rendered obsolete the pathological focus on stone statues per se.”

They’re right. The agalmatophiles’ descendents are those today whose desires are reserved for artificial females (or males) in the form of realistic life-size dolls (pediophilia, from the Greek pedio, doll; not to be confused with pedophilia). There should also be little doubt that a virtual explosion in the ranks of the robotophiles is right around the corner. In other words, we may have lost agalmatophilia from the colorful roster of paraphilias, but advances in technology mean that we’ve since gained everything from latex fetishism to mechanophilic arousal by automobiles to the electrophile’s sexual dependence on electric currents.

It’s not just ever-accelerating technology that probably broadens the paraphilic range, though. Unexpected changes to prevailing social conditions may also modify, distort or alter the human form in ways that similarly introduce new possibilities for sexual imprinting during development. In times of war, for example, the likelihood of coming across amputees—particularly male amputees—would be drastically higher than during times of peace. It’s just a hunch, bear in mind, but the spike in amputee war heroes could have led to the overrepresentation of Baby Boomers among those interesting apotemnophiles we met last week.

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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  1. 1. jimfromcanada 1:04 pm 08/8/2013

    Perhaps encountering amputees is much more common during our times because more amputees survive now than in ancient times because of modern medicine.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Geopelia 6:19 pm 08/8/2013

    The story of Pygmalion is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book Ten

    Link to this
  3. 3. favorinus 2:56 pm 08/11/2013

    The author who discusses Cleisophus of Selymbria is Athenaeus, not “Athenacus.”

    Link to this

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