In my 20 years as a sex therapist, people continue to ask me one question more than any other. The most common sexual question is “Am I normal?”
* Americans are concerned–virtually obsessed–with the normality of their sexual fantasies, preferences, responses, frequency, secrets, turn-offs, problems, and bodies. The fear of being sexually abnormal interferes with, and even prevents, pleasure and intimacy.
This fear and its consequences are the basis for the many versions of “Am I normal?”, such as:
- “I’m afraid I take too long to climax.”
- “How long should a man be able to keep an erection?”
- “How often do most other people our age make love?”
- “Am I weird if I enjoy oral sex more than intercourse?”
People forget that “normal” can mean many different things: what is statistically common; what everyone agrees is typical; what authority requires; what is considered moral; and so on. Concepts of sexual normality have changed even within our own lifetimes–for example, society’s ideas about homosexuality, the clitoris, and sex as a ‘wifely duty.’ Since “normal” can mean so many different things, it is clearly an arbitrary social construct.
WHEN IT STARTS–CHILDHOOD
Our concern about sexual normality starts in early childhood. All children are sexual beings: kids have sexual feelings and curiosity, get sexually aroused and lubricate vaginally, and seek and enjoy erotic satisfaction, including orgasm.
A variety of subtle and explicit lessons teach children that sex is bad, however. And as sexual beings, learning that our sexuality is bad means learning that we are bad. As children, we learn to fear being discovered as sexual, and to mistrust our sexual energy, curiosity and desire.
Throughout childhood, all of us are exposed to a wide range of sexual negativity. Messages include “Don’t feel sexual;” “Don’t touch your sexual parts;” “Your body should not be a source of pleasure;” “Wanting sexual contact with anyone else is wrong;” “Having sexual thoughts or feelings is sick;” and, ultimately, “You are not a sexual being” and “Do not express your sexuality in any way.”
These are the messages of even loving families, caring churches, conscientious schools. How could a child with any emotional sensitivity not feel sexually abnormal in such an environment?
It’s all complicated by the fact that we give children virtually no sexual information or guidance. School sex education is at best biology or, more frequently, abstinence and fear “education.” The grownups that kids love don’t usually acknowledge being sexual, so kids can’t look up to them as sexual role models, and are confused about how they’re supposed to feel when they grow up. Kids are bombarded with sexualized advertising and entertainment, but no one tells kids how to deal with the vaguely erotic feelings created in them.
Then come the dramatic, defining events of puberty: the frightening first menstrual period, the wet dreams, the strange, uninvited fantasies, the new body shape that draws so much attention–for which most of us are unprepared. To scared, naive young girls and boys who know they must not ask questions, these experiences confirm that there is something wrong with their sexuality.
During puberty, solid information about sex is systematically withheld from young people–out of fear that it will “put ideas in their heads.” But the feelings are already there, along with the desperate adolescent desire to fit in.
In the absence of good, open information about real sexuality with its responsibilities, consequences, and, yes, joys, who offers to teach kids about sex? Advertising and the media. TV, music, and magazines boldly suggest that there is a formula for normal sexuality, which includes having a perfect body, the right clothes, a cool attitude, and ignorance of the consequences of sex. Teens, unfortunately, believe this.
Denied access to sexual information, role models, guidance, and reassurance, we can’t possibly know what is sexually “normal.” This disturbs us because we feel it is urgent to be sexually normal. In a world where sex is bad, we want to be the least bad sexual being we can.
This is how we develop Normality Anxiety. The fear of being sexually abnormal continues into adulthood, when it is subtly exploited by social institutions such as the media, government, and organized religion–all in order to shape our behavior and feelings. It is used to sell products, salvation, and good citizenship. And it’s an active force in our adult sexual relationships.
TAKING NORMALITY ANXIETY TO BED
How does Normality Anxiety affect us in bed?
For one thing, we guard ourselves during sex. Instead of letting our erotic energy guide us, we impose a logic of fear on our erotic energy. Will this movement look clumsy? Will my desire intimidate or disgust? Am I wrong to want this?
Most women, for example, need clitoral stimulation in order to climax–but many do not ask for it because they figure other women don’t need it (and then this same woman might criticize herself when she has trouble coming). Or you (or your mate) might like to be held down during sex, but hide it because you’re afraid that’s weird and that your partner will condemn and reject you.
The fear of being sexually abnormal also makes people restrain their bodies’ natural expressions during sex. Refusing to allow a body its sounds, smells, breathing, and natural movements inhibits pleasure and orgasm.
Another result of our fear is that we’re not fully present during sex. Rather, we observe ourselves and monitor our partners’ response to us. Instead of simply experiencing our bodies and feelings, we evaluate how we perform. We decide how the sex was instead of feeling how it was. Sex becomes less a celebration of our human perfection than an opportunity to fail.
Our fears also inhibit sexual exploration; what if we discover we like something that isn’t socially approved? That would make us abnormal, vulnerable (we fear) to rejection by an offended partner. When we believe that our sexuality is dangerous, routine (and therefore boring) sex feels the safest.
Our sexual fears also have their social expression, often through opposition to sex education, homosexuality, contraception, and erotic art. Our compelling need to be “normal” creates the existence of something that is “abnormal,” and naturally, we need to distance ourselves from it. We make it “other,” not ourselves, and we hate it. Our fear of sexuality in childhood leads us to deny it in ourselves; our fear of sexuality in adulthood then leads us to deny it in the world around us. In each situation, we try to eliminate what we fear.
Here are ten of the most common versions of “Am I normal?”
- Are my sexual fantasies normal?
- Are my penis/erection, balls/labia/breasts normal shape, size, color?
- I seem to lubricate too much/too little when I get excited. Am I normal?
- Unlike my friends, I like/don’t like watching X-rated videos. Am I normal?
- I just don’t like oral sex/my nipples fondled/anal play/open-mouth kissing. Am I normal?
- I want sex a lot more often than my girlfriend. Am I normal?
- I enjoy lovemaking, but my biggest orgasms are from masturbation. Am I normal?
- I really like being held down and being treated a bit roughly during sex. Am I normal?
- When I was in college, I had sex with this couple about 4 or 5 different times. Am I normal?
- I need to have my clitoris stroked in order to have an orgasm. Am I normal?
Such questions should not be answered… in a better world, people would not worry about them.
SO WHAT IS NORMAL, ANYWAY?
People who are concerned with being sexually normal are caught in a painful dilemma. On the one hand, they’re afraid they aren’t normal, work hard to be, and always see ways they need to be different. On the other hand, many of those who feel they are normal live in fear of losing this status because the culture defining it can change the rules at any time.
The only way to escape Normality Anxiety is deciding that “normal” is irrelevant. Take some control of your life: decide that you have a right to accept your sexuality on your own terms. Ways to do that include:
* Decide your sexual values (I suggest honesty, responsibility, and consent). This will be an inner resource when you want to trust your experience (something either feels good emotionally and physically or it doesn’t) instead of social ideas of what’s “normal” (something is supposed to be right or wrong). By all means, discuss your sexual values with your partner.
* Acknowledge your sexual goals: These can include self-expression, exploration, intimacy, giving or sharing, pleasure, enjoying your body, and feeling powerful. Once you know your sexual goals (most of the above aren’t discussed in public), you have the option of participating in any sexual activities that support those goals, providing they fit with your values.
* Keep in mind that when it comes to sexuality in any form, you should trust your inner guide (“intuition,” “gut feeling,” guardian voice,”) at least as much as anything else.
* Break the conspiracy of silence: When we talk with others about our real sexual experiences and feelings, rather than distorting them or keeping silent, we empower others as well as ourselves. Isolation from others’ reality helps maintain Normality Anxiety.
“YOU’RE NOT NORMAL”
Sometimes our anxiety is a reaction to a partner, who may explicitly question our sexual normality, or subtly imply there’s something wrong with us. Common forms of outright accusation include “nymph,” “slut,” “homo,” “frigid,” and “too weird.”
When you feel criticized in this way, ask that your mate discuss her or his concerns about your behavior, not about your character or your sexuality. For example, if s/he says you want sex all the time “and that’s not normal,” invite her/him to talk about your contrasting desires as a couple, rather than talking about your problem.
Never defend yourself against charges of “abnormality.” Insist that normality not be the issue. Only in this way can you avoid arguments about who is right, and focus on the bigger issues.
On the other hand, you can ask what your mate means by “normal.” This will create the chance to talk about the fundamental beliefs underlying your sexual relationship, a conversation that all couples in conflict need. It will highlight the standard upon which your sexuality is being judged–a standard with which you may or may not agree.
Similarly, deal with your partner’s sexual behavior and your response to it, not whether or not her/his interests are “normal.” If you don’t like a particular sexual activity, it has no place in your life. No other justification is necessary, so you don’t need to make your mate wrong or bad to have an excuse to say no. “I don’t like it” should be enough.
The very concept of sexual normality implies that there is a clear line dividing acceptable and unacceptable sexuality. Regardless of which side you land on, the very existence of the line is oppressive. Most of us don’t have the information, courage, or sexual self-confidence to question the placement of that line, much less to assert its total irrelevance.
And yet, doing so is an important key to sexual liberation, pleasure, intimacy, and self-esteem. Taking charge of your sexuality like that is part of true adulthood.
Does “anything go” then? No. Remember your values, such as honesty, responsibility, consent. Many people worry about “crossing the line” into dangerous behavior, and think this line is defined according to what part of one person’s body goes into what part of another’s (and what toys they use before and during this). I propose a more sophisticated system: having strong, clear values and using them to guide your behavior and your feelings toward your behavior and its consequences.
Thus, rape is wrong because it isn’t consenting. Tricking someone into having sex by falsely saying “I love you” is wrong because it’s dishonest. Exposing a partner to your STD without warning him first is wrong because it isn’t responsible.
Most people like the certainty of knowing what’s “normal”–they prefer an explicit code (even if it is based on the assumption that they are inadequate or evil). This is especially true regarding sex, whose power can be so scary. Many adults find it psychologically comfortable to have fixed definitions of what’s sexually “normal”–even if it excludes part of their basic physical and emotional self.
How sad. Because the beauty and the divine gift of sexuality is that it offers a place in which you can never be wrong just being yourself. You can’t be wrong and you can’t hurt anyone if the sex is honest, responsible, and consenting. There are considerable rewards for trusting your sexuality. Not knowing or caring what’s sexually normal can be the first step in reclaiming your sexual heritage.