Jesse Bering has an article in Aeon magazine that informs me of something I did not, that the word “pervert” did not originally mean someone who engaged in unconventional sexual practices. In fact, it was often used as a synonym for atheist, which makes Greta Christina’s Godless Perverts group seem like a redundancy.
In 1656, the British lexicographer Thomas Blount included the following entry for the verb ‘pervert’ in his Glossographia (a book also known by the more cumbersome title A Dictionary Interpreting the Hard Words of Whatsoever Language Now Used in Our Refined English Tongue): ‘to turn upside down, to debauch, or seduce’. No doubt all of these activities occur in your typical suburban bedroom today. But it’s only by dint of our post-Victorian minds that we perceive these types of naughty winks in the definition of a term that was floating around the old English countryside. In Blount’s time, and for several hundred years after he was dead and buried, a pervert was simply a headstrong apostate who had turned his or her back on the draconian morality of the medieval Church, thereby ‘seducing’ others into a godless lifestyle.
If we applied this original definition to the present iconoclastic world of science, one of the most recognisable perverts in the world today would be the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. As the author of The God Delusion (2006) and an active proselytiser of atheism, Dawkins encourages his fellow rationalists to ‘turn away from’ canonical religious teachings. As I’ve written my own scientific atheistic screed, I’m not casting stones. I’m proudly in possession of a perverted nature that fits both the archaic use of the term, due to my atheism, and its more recent pejorative use, due to my homosexuality.
Only at the tail end of the 19th century did the word ‘pervert’ first leap from the histrionic sermons of fiery preachers into the heady, clinical discourses of stuffy European sexologists. Today, the term is more likely to be used less as a diagnosis and more as an insult, hurled at the likes of sex offenders. This gradual semantic migration of perverts, from the church pews to the psychiatric clinic to the online comments section of salacious news stories, hasn’t occurred without the clattering bones of medieval religious morality dragging behind. Notice that the suffix -vert means, generally, ‘to turn’: hence ‘to convert’ (to turn to another), ‘to revert’ (to return to a previous state), ‘to invert’ (to turn inside out), ‘to pervert’ (to turn away from the right course), and so on. Of those, ‘pervert’ alone has that devilishly malicious core — ‘a distinctive quality of obstinacy’, as the Australian psychoanalyst Jon Jureidini has called it in the paper ‘Perversion: An Erotic Form of Hatred or Exciting Avoidance of Reality?’(2001). He goes on: ‘petulance, peevishness … self-willed in a way that distinguishes it from more “innocent” deviations’.
A judge accusing someone of ‘perverting the course of justice’ is referring to a deliberate effort to thwart moral fairness. Similarly, since the modern noun form of ‘pervert’ is synonymous with ‘sex deviant’, the presumption is that the person thus described is a deviant by his (or her) own malicious design. In other words, he is presumed to have wilfully chosen to be sexually aberrant — that’s to say, to go against what is right.
This evolution of meaning strikes me as appropriate, at least in the sense that religion is so often obsessed with controlling what people do sexually with one another.