The first subject (they are depicted more as centre-pieces than as main characters) of the book's total four, is a man torn apart by his foot fetish. But unlike others who share his intense predilection, Jacob is unaware of how commonplace his sexuality is, and is only surrounded by people who tell him otherwise.
In one of the very first pages, I was caught extremely off guard by Jacob, referring to himself as a “monster” for his fetishistic leanings. Seeing such a strong (and absolutely harsh) statement made so early on in this text, made me fear that the entire collection would depict this shameful, anxiety-ridden side of sexuality. This then motivated me to question the author's intent in compiling such perspectives and distanced me from him as my supposed trust-worthy narrator. The positioning of this particular account in the book's opening is risky. I'm not yet sure what purpose it serves.
This is a touchy matter for anyone who houses an awareness of their own sexual uniqueness. Even for anyone who understands that fetish sexuality is no longer a matter for closets. Since Bergner's tone neither leans strongly toward kinky nor non-kinky audiences, it is difficult to decipher who the intended reader is, which can make it hard for one who empathises with the subjects to place their allegiance.
However, the third story in The Other Side of Desire follows a middle-aged man named Roy. Bergner's tone becomes more directly empathetic, which runs parallel to a content shift. All of the previous stories contain paragraphs and often even pages of clinical psychology and psychiatry as relayed by a professional. The effect is not unlike that of witnessing a diagnosis.
However, in Roy's story, a chunk of that more clinical language is replaced by personal anecdotes shared by the author, about himself. Berger then jumps into a separate scene, the subject of which is himself. It is both a slightly disorienting and deeply serious moment. The author is no longer merely looking at these people as though they are their own untouchable species. Instead, he presents them as people that resemble us on enough levels that, with the slip of a decision, we could exist in their predicament.
The Other Side of Desire depicts a sensationalised version of kink.
While all subjects are dealt with compassionately, there's still a distinct distance between narrative and subject. Berger appears to depict a heightened or more “dramatic” version of the kinky sex lifestyle. It is this I take issue with. I, along with - I imagine - the subjects of this book, have no capacity for acknowledging or feeling this drama since it is the only way of living that we know.
For a reader such as myself, reading about a fetishist whose life is in any way sensationalised or heightened, simply does not ring as true. Sure, orgasm in the face of a fetishised object, fabric, activity, or body part is ecstatic, but isn't also the orgasm detached from those particular associations? Isn't the chase, the lusting after of a desire, singularly “dramatic,” no matter its target?
In the first story, Phantom of the Opera, Jacob attains arousal from merely hearing the word “feet”. It was used as a means of measurement during winter news forecasts, but this is because he is utterly sexually deprived. If a nonfetishistic person also faced an entire life of sexual repression, they too might experience this level of arousal from a common language such as “chicken breast.” Yet Bergner paints the picture that Jacob's level of arousal is somehow special, different than that of a non-kinky person.
Journalistically, The Other Side of Desire is masterful in how thoroughly it relays events, summarises clinical research, and simultaneously follows several story arcs. But for a series of exposés both so personal and edgy, the reader is not left with enough of an emotional resolution. The effect, at times, is similar to that of having access to a richly intimate diary, normally kept under lock and key, ingesting the secrets, and questioning the reason behind your access.
To conclude, The Other Side of Desire is a fascinating read on controversial treatments for those who some clinicians (still!) refer to as the hyper and perversely sexed–particularly as it pertains to pre DSM V clinical practices. The Other Side of Desire has the potential of proving interesting reading material for anyone able to exercise a level of detachment equal to that of the author's.
Zoë Tersche is a New York-based writer focusing on fetish sexuality and the freedom of sexual expression.
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