A great read from Aeon:
Atheists and homosexuals were called perverts once. Why do we still see perversion where no harm is done?
by Jesse Bering
Perverts weren’t always the libidinous bogeymen we imagine when we think of the term today. Sexual mores have certainly shifted dramatically over the course of history and across societies, but the very word ‘pervert’ once literally meant something else entirely to what it does now. For example, the peculiar discovery that some peasant during the reign of Charles II used conch shells for anal gratification or inhaled a stolen batch of ladies’ corsets while touching himself in the town square would have been merely coincidental to any accusations of his being perverted (though it wouldn’t have helped his case). Seventeenth-century terms such as ‘skellum’ (scoundrel) or reference to his ‘mundungus’ (smelly entrails) might have applied, but calling this man a ‘pervert’ for his peccadilloes would have made little sense at the time.
Linguistically, the sexual connotation feels natural. The ring of it — purrrvert — is at once melodious and cloying, producing a noticeable snarl on the speaker’s face, while the image of a lecherous child molester, a trench-coated flasher in a park, a drooling pornographer, or perhaps a serial rapist pops into one’s head. Yet as Shakespeare might remind us, a pervert by any other name would smell as foul. For the longest time, in fact, to be a pervert wasn’t to be a sexual deviant; it was to be an atheist.
One key reason for this shift can be found in the work of the British scholar Havelock Ellis, who back in 1897 popularised the term ‘pervert’ in his descriptions of patients with atypical sexual desires. Earlier scholars, among them Richard von Krafft-Ebing, the Austro-German psychiatrist regarded by many as the father of studies in deviant sexuality, had already sexualised the term, but Ellis’s accessible writing found a wider general audience and ultimately led to this meaning of ‘pervert’ becoming solidified in the common vernacular.
Today, the word pervert just sounds silly, or at least provincial, when used to refer to gays and lesbians. In a growing number of societies, homosexuals are slowly, begrudgingly, being allowed entry into the ranks of the culturally tolerated. But plenty of other sexual minorities remain firmly entrenched in the orientation blacklist. Although, happily, we’re increasingly using science to defend gays and lesbians, deep down most of us (religious or not) still appear to be suffering from the illusion of a creator who set moral limits on the acceptable sexual orientations. Our knee-jerk perception of individuals who similarly have no choice whatsoever over what arouses them sexually (be they paedophiles, exhibitionists, transvestites, or fetishists, to name but a few) is that they’ve wilfully, deliberately, and arrogantly strayed from the right course. In other words, we see them as ‘true perverts’. Whereas gays and lesbians are perceived by more and more people as ‘like normal heterosexuals’ because they didn’t choose to be the way they are, we assume that these others somehow did.
Read the rest here.