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The Book of Minor Perverts: Sexuality, Etiology, and the Emergences of Sexuality, by Benjamin Kahan

Reviewed by Alex Hebler

Statue-fondlers, wanderlusters, sex magicians, and nymphomaniacs: the story of these forgotten sexualities--what Michel Foucault deemed "minor perverts"--has never before been told. In The Book of Minor Perverts, Benjamin Kahan sets out to chart the proliferation of sexual classification that arose with the advent of nineteenth-century sexology. The book narrates the shift from Foucault's "thousand aberrant sexualities" to one: homosexuality. The focus here is less on the effects of queer identity and more on the lines of causation behind a surprising array of minor perverts who refuse to fit neatly into our familiar sexual frameworks. The result stands at the intersection of history, queer studies, and the medical humanities to offer us a new way of feeling our way into the past.

How did we come to understand sexuality in a homo-/hetero- binary? In The Book of Minor Perverts, Benjamin Kahan sets out to trouble our understanding of sexuality as it has developed from the nineteenth century to the present. Inspired by queer theorist Eve Sedgwick, Kahan invites readers to follow along as he traces different sexual etiologies, arguing that with the classification of sexual identity into two unwavering categories we have shrouded as Foucault names them, a plethora of “aberrant sexualities”, and limited our ability to more fully understand human sexuality.

From the start Kahan makes it clear that his intention is not to validate any theory based on either congenital or acquired sexuality. Instead, he engages with the role each concept has had on our modern understanding of sexuality and historical etiologies, and in doing so complicates the idea of heterosexuality and homosexuality as strictly opposed. With each chapter, Kahan highlights the emergence, study, and interactions between these forgotten sexual etiologies. Although many are antiquated, Eurocentric, and heternormative (which he acknowledges), Kahan argues that including them in the conversation lends to a more comprehensive view of human sexuality.

If Sedgwick argues that the homo-/hetero crystallization of sexuality arose with the determination that object choice is the key to sexual behavior, Kahan pushes it further by investigating object choice as the crucial factor in the first place. Grounding his research in a selection of literary works, Kahan highlights the ways these different sexual etiologies were commonly understood in their sociohistorical context. From sex magic to economic influences, the reader is exposed to a world of forgotten sexual etiologies. For instance the examination of anthropologis sexualis (the belief that sexual behavior is influenced by climate and geographic location) in chapter two, employs a rich analysis of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Kahan broadens his discussion of this specific literary example to an exploration of how people living in warmer climates were historically viewed as more aggressively sexual and deviant due to the hot and humid climates. Kahan notes that the early sexologists were almost always white, resulting in theories undoubtedly white- and western-centric.

The Book of Minor Perverts relies on references to other theorists and scholars supporting Kahan’s claims but perhaps making it best suited for those already familiar with literary scholarship that engages the history of sexuality and queer theory. That said, his research is thorough and the end-notes are  bountiful and insightful. Kahan’s effort toward building an inclusive sexual historiography is an exciting move to broaden our perception of human sexuality, helping us rethink what we presuppose about sexual identity.

Kahan, Benjamin. The Book of Minor Perverts: Sexology, Etiology, and the Emergences of Sexuality. University of Chicago Press, 2019.