There is a question at Spanish SE about the Spanish equivalent of the English word perversion. The question refers specifically to sexual perversion (which I did not want to mention in the title, since I've noticed at Academia SE that any mention of anything related to sex in a title attracts throngs of visitors for the wrong reasons).

Not much progress is being made at that page. (One possible factor is that Spanish SE is in Beta and has yet to build up its participation levels.)

I realize that in another language and culture, a cognate might have slightly different meanings, connotations and usage, but still, I would like to see what is contributed here in order to enrich the discussion there.

Does sexual perversion necessarily have a negative connotation?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist May 22 '17 at 4:30
  • How could perversion ever not have a negative connotation? What difference could the sexual context possibly make? How d'you think google.co.uk/… is wrong to exemplify sexually perverted as an evil life dedicated to perverse pleasure or to give it synonyms like perverted, depraved, unnatural, abnormal, deviant, degenerate, immoral, warped, twisted, corrupt; wicked, base, evil, kinky, sick, pervy, sicko? – Robbie Goodwin Jun 3 '17 at 23:34

In many cases, there's no clear line between denotation and connotation.

Words are used by people for various reasons. Nobody can prevent a word from being used to mean the opposite of what it is usually understood to mean. In fact, this is a common type of figurative language (sometimes this is referred to as "irony", although I really don't want to get involved in a more detailed discussion about the meaning of that particular word).

Taking this into account, it's pretty much impossible to say that any word necessarily has a negative connotation. People work to "reclaim" all sorts of slurs that would ordinarily be considered reprehensible in any kind of context.

From a slightly different angle, words that explicitly refer to evil things, like "sinful," may be reframed in certain circumstances as positives ("Our chocolate cake is sinfully delicious!").

So it's quite conceivable for someone to use the word "perversion" without intending a primarily negative connotation, and for it to be understood as neutral or positive in some particular context.

However, this is not the usual use of the word "perversion" in English. Usually, it is fairly unambiguously negative. This negative connotation will likely be in the back of most people's minds even in situations where it is re-purposed for some neutral or positive meaning.

  • 1
    Kind of burying the lede there. – eyeballfrog May 23 '17 at 1:14
  • @eyeballfrog: I assumed the focus of the original question was on "necessarily" rather than just "negative", since a dictionary entry should provide the information in my second-to-last sentence. – sumelic May 23 '17 at 18:30

The Oxford English Dictionary says, of sexual perversion (SP): (The OED defines SP under sexual. I've given the definition of SP in full, because a reader may not be able to access the link.)

sexual perversion n. sexual development or behaviour regarded as abnormal or deviant; an instance of this.

1857 A. J. Davis Magic Staff lvi. 477 The yet unmarried must resist every impulse toward sexual perversion.

1881 Chicago Med. Rev. 4 379/2 Sexual perversion, a symptom of the hereditary and degenerative mental states, is divided into four groups.

1977 E. J. Trimmer et al. Visual Dict. Sex (1978) i. 12 The common paraphilias that we choose to call sexual perversions today, were defined by the Greeks as being parallel to love.

2002 M. J. Kehily Sexuality, Gender & Schooling iv. 84 Freud's discussion of sexual perversions regard the perversions of scopophilia and exhibitionism as psychical opposites.

From this definition, I conclude that SP always has a negative connotation to the speaker, but that the specific SP that he is talking about may be negative; neutral or even normal; or positive depending on the time and the culture or the listener.

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    I find your last paragraph hard to understand. Could you give it to me in simple English? – aparente001 May 22 '17 at 1:10
  • When the speaker or writer uses the term "sexual perversion" he is always means it in a negative way. However the listener or reader may not agree; the listener or reader may find the sexual perversion described or alluded to as neutral or even normal, or positive. For example, take the 1857 quote; the writer was clearly very serious about something he considered awful -- possibly too awful for words. Present day readers may find the quote funny. As for the 1977 quote, the Greeks would be amazed to find love of man for boy a perversion; to them it was a normal. This is far from (cont) – ab2 May 22 '17 at 1:55
  • a profound observation, but I think the distinction between the opinions of the speaker and the opinions of the listener is what is causing the problem at Spanish SE. The speaker says "Oh my God, awful" and the listener thinks "so what?". – ab2 May 22 '17 at 2:00

http://www.qbible.com/hebrew-old-testament/deuteronomy/32.html In that chapter, you will find the word "perverse", which is a linguistically related to "perverted". The Bible uses the word in that context to refer to Israel's perverse actions of worshiping foreign gods; no sexual connotation there.

This buttresses the answer previously given; the word itself has no sexual connotation, but we utilise it that way.

  • Sorry I wasn't clear. I realize that perversion can refer to a greater variety of things than just sexual perversions; my question is specifically about sexual perversions only, but I did not want to post that in the title. – aparente001 May 22 '17 at 1:08

The word 'perversion' as used in the sexual frame of reference in question always carries a negative meaning when used to describe somebody or some action, because the word is only used in earnest by someone expressing their strong disapproval of the associated actions. Let me add that the word is considered outdated by socially liberal people who are attuned to the vast developments in modern psychological sciences, but still used in a pejorative manner by people with a judgmental and moralistic mindset.

'Perversion' was originally used moralistically as shorthand for 'a perversion of the naturally ordained manner of things' - the old meaning of 'normal.' Later it became a psychological term for aberrant sexual behavior. The excellent earlier answers of Sven Yargs and ab2 provide extensive citations and examples relating to dictionary meanings and early usage of the term.

HOWEVER, after extensive studies of aberrant behavior, including aberrant sexual behavior, the psychology-psychiatry-psychoanalysis community has come to the consensus that humans have a wide spectrum of sexual behavior and it is a continuum from what society considers 'normal' to what society previously considered 'perverse.'

It is a big philosophical 'paradigm shift' by which 'perversion' after 'perversion' was removed from DSM3 version of THE AMERICAN PSYCHIATRIC manual which is highly respected worldwide:


Looked at from that paradigmatic perspective, the meaning of 'perversion' is being continuously redefined, with more and more activities being considered 'not perverse'.

Moreover, a socially liberal person who understands the vast strides made by psychology in the last 60 years would consider the word 'perversion' outdated, judgmental and pejorative; in short, any person who views the wide spectrum of human sexual behavior without prejudice is very likely to avoid using the word 'perversion', except perhaps in sarcasm or jest, as a way of noting that fifty years ago what one is doing might have been called a perversion by some.

  • There are some helpful parts to this answer but the first paragraph doesn't fit very well with the rest. I thought your main point was precisely that at the level of civilization and understanding of human behavior that we've achieved now, we don't need that level of judgmentalism any more. – aparente001 May 23 '17 at 0:59
  • @aparente001 Unfortunately the word 'perversion' is still widely used in a negative and prejudicial sense, because the world is still full of retrograde, prejudiced and judgmental people! I have now edited the first paragraph to make this distinction and bring it in line with the remainder of the answer. Thanks a lot for helping me frame a better answer to your question! – English Student May 23 '17 at 1:09
  • There's a difference between words and concepts. The word 'perversion', whatever it refers to, generally evokes negative feelings. This answer seems to be talking about concepts, about what should or should not be labeled 'perversion'. – Mitch May 23 '17 at 13:51
  • @Mitch - Good point. I'm going to ask the OP at Spanish.SE to help me sort this out. – aparente001 May 23 '17 at 15:47
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    @Mitch re your comment "The word 'perversion', whatever it refers to, generally evokes negative feelings. This answer seems to be talking about concepts, about what should or should not be labeled 'perversion'." -- I have already stated in my first sentence that the word 'perversion' is always used in a negative sense. The rest of the answer is to explain why this word is almost never used except in a negative sense -- the upshot of all the psychology is that persons with liberal attitudes to sex will avoid the word, and morally judgmental persons will only use it negatively! – English Student May 23 '17 at 16:17

The early history of the term "sexual perversion" indicates that it emerged as a scientific way of describing sexual inclinations that people (including scientists) of the time considered to fall somewhere in an area that ranged from utterly insane to mentally diseased to reprehensible to unutterably abominable.

In the absence of any concerted effort by the scientific community or by people deemed now or in the past to be "sexual perverts" to reclaim the term in a positive or neutral light, it remains weighed down by the old and intensely hostile associations that it possessed or acquired when it first came into use and again when it spread to a broader, nonscientific bloc of users.

The earliest Google books match for "sexual perversion" is from George Beard, Sexual Neurasthenia {Nervous Exhaustion} (1884):

The general term, "sexual perversion," of which Dr. Spitzka speaks in an article on Lord Cornbury, may be used to cover a number of abnormal mental conditions connected with the genital system ; but I see no need, practically, in describing any of these cases, to use any other term than this one, "sexual perversion."


Under this head of sexual perversion there are, however, two necessary subdivisions: First: those who are insane, who have the insane delusion—i.e., the delusion that cannot be corrected by the direct evidence of the senses, the delusion that they are women, and who correspondingly assume the manners, the dress, and the customs of women so far as they are able to do. This is simply a monomania, a positive insanity, and of a serious and incurable kind; and it is quite different, essentially, radically,from the following class of cases:

Secondly: those, like the Scythians and the Mujerados and the cases described by Ulrichs, whose sexual instincts are perverted, but who understand that perversion perfectly; who are not under the influence of any delusion, and who are not, in any true sense of the word, insane. This latter class—those who are not insane, but yet have a sexual perversion as a disease, without any delusion, and without sufficient impairment of will-power to make the diagnosis of insanity possible—may be divided into two classes: first those who inherit this tendency or who come into possession of it as soon as the sexual passion appears, or before; secondly, those who acquire this condition as one of the symptoms of sexual debility. In both classes there may be very many symptoms of a nervous impairment.

Basically, Beard divides the universe of people whose behavior qualifies as "sexual perversion" into three classes: the insane; the sane but diseased who acquired their disease by inheritance or very early possession of the tendencies in question; and the sane but diseased who acquired their disease as a symptom of sexual debility. I think it's fair to argue that all three of those diagnoses have negative connotations.

More-specific accounts of types of "sexual perversion" appear in the Medical and Surgical Reporter (September 7, 1889), in the Pacific Record of Medicine and Surgery (May 15, 1890), in The Alienist and Neurologist (1891), and in multiple at least slightly different accounts published in 1892.

Two articles in the 1892 contingent are notable for their preliminary expressions of repugnance about the subject, as a kind of disclaimer, I suppose. G. Frank Lydston, in an editorial published in Medical Mirror (March 1, 1892) begins with this preamble:

The subject of sexual perversion is one which has been studiously neglected by practitioners of medicine, chiefly because it has been considered by them to be an unsavory topic which should be relegated to the realm of moral monstrosities rather than to scientific medicine.

Every bit as eager to deny any prurient motive in its coverage is Journal of the American Medical Association (April 2, 1892):


This subject, naturally revolting, has been neglected by the profession, to a very great degree, but the increase in the number of crimes, directly traceable to its influence, which the public press is called upon to record, makes some attention to it almost imperative.

Given the pejorative cast of the original discussions of "sexual perversion," a significant effort to reframe the term as neutral or positive would be necessary to overcome the negative senses surrounding its origin. As far as I know, no such reclamation effort has ever been undertaken—and consequently, the bad old connotations of the term remain strongly associated with it to this day.


Does sexual perversion necessarily have a negative connotation?

The answer has to be "no" if you include the word "necessarily". Other answers already deal with such aspects as:

  • perceptions of "perversion" changing over time (which is different from whether the term had a negative connotation at the time of utterance)
  • intention of the speaker vs. perception of the listener (which could mean that the speaker always means it in a negative way but the listener won't necessarily interpret it that way)
  • the range of what is considered perversion at any given time (which would affect what the term gets applied to but not whether it necessarily is considered negative when it is used)
  • reclamation of negative words to mean something positive in mainstream usage (i.e., the positive usage being recognized as "standard" in a dictionary; that doesn't seem to apply to perversion, at least yet)

I'll submit that there is some regular usage of the term, by both speakers and listeners, with a positive meaning. It would be "fringe" usage in the sense that the people who use it in that way would tend to be at the extreme of what is considered "normal" views. I'm referring to people who proudly wear "perversion" as a badge and consider the term to mean "fun".

So it is contextual and the connotation reflects the person's views. You can talk about mainstream use of the term, but if you qualify the question with "necessarily", the answer would include all regular usage.

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