"About multiple combinations," Nagel says of orgies and presumably other many-person sexual encounters, "the least that can be said is that they are bound to be complicated" (Nagel, 1969). [All references in this piece come from Nagel's original on the subject of Sexual Perversion.]
While this is appealing as an opening line, it seems a bit disingenuous, given what he thinks about average, ordinary, non-perverted sexuality. He defines sexuality as a psychological process of multiple steps of awareness of oneself and then another, and then that other person's awareness of us, which compounds their awareness of their own self and sexual interest. Here is how he describes this give-and-take awareness process: "Sexual desire involves a kind of perception, but not merely a single perception of its object, for in the paradigm case of mutual desire there is a complex system of superimposed mutual perceptions- not only perceptions of the sexual object, but perceptions of oneself."
Or put in another way, it is important to understand that conventional sexual attraction is itself complex if it gets the participants to the level of fulfillment that is expected. Nagel identifies a three-stage demarcation of activities that must occur for sexual attraction to formalize. Those three stages include, in general terms, a recognition that a proverbial "he senses that she senses that he senses her," or a give and take reiteration until both parties are aware of what the other wants and desires. It is in this way that one can distinguish how human sexuality in a proper form is different from the love of other object, such as food. No matter that one may try to convince oneself otherwise, the food most likely never takes into its psyche an awareness of how much pleasure it gives to its eater. There can be none of the reciprocity of awareness that goes through the steps toward sexual attentiveness and, potentially, sexual fulfillment.
It is this issue of fulfillment that comes into play in regards to what Nagel considers healthy sexuality (and thus not perverse sexuality). Though there might be nothing wrong with stopping anywhere along this continuum of self- and other-awareness, the act of completion cannot be achieved until or unless it is possible to reach a satisfactory conclusion that respects the other person not just as a person as something more than an object. Proper sex requires a socially beneficial outcome, which is thought to be something that recognizes each person individually. Yes, a sense of sexual attraction can begin for other reasons relating to beauty, physical appearance, attitude or wardrobe, but these objectifications must give way to a mutual humanizing of the people for the outcome to be complete.
Nagel essentially believes that there are two types of satisfactory completion of this process: perversion and non-perversion. Non-perversion is what might be considered fulfilling person-on-person sexual satisfaction to whatever level of completion is appropriate. This is presumably what two heterosexual people do, though there is no necessity for it to be a man and a woman (other than possibly gender role issues). Perverted sex, on the other hand, is what occurs when one stops advancing when still within the first or second level of the give and take. In his discussion of perverted sexuality, he goes through a variety of options that are thought to be regularly assumed perversities and shows how they are such because they happen from a failure to achieve the psychological awareness on both sides of the equation.
Take sadism, for example, or masochism. In either of these conditions, one party is effectively locked into his or her level of self-interest or heightened self-need. This makes it impossible for them to allow for the development of the bridge to the other person as either an object initially of desire and ultimately as a person satisfied through successful mingling. The infliction of pain and pleasure emanate from other psychological sources more specific to their individual conditions.
In a like manner, when a person finds the level of physiological stimulation with an object alone, there can be no completing of the cycle; which means that there can be no successful completion of the achievement of sexuality. Though he recognizes that it is possible for objects to be used in non-perverted (normal) sexuality, this is something entirely different that having the object as the entity…