Growing Beyond Being Sexually “Normal”

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Last week I gave a workshop to 120 psychologists in Portland, entitled “When Sex Gets Complicated: Porn, Affairs, Kink, & Other Clinical Challenges.”

I talked about the kinds of activities patients—people—do, such as S/M, going to strip clubs, and role-playing in private or public. Yes, and porn, always gotta talk about porn. One of the changes in American sexuality since I started teaching 20 years ago is that today, everybody asks about porn.

The attendees listened intently, laughed at my jokes, bought my books, and took away plenty of ideas to use at work on Monday.

Despite discussing various offbeat activities like breath control, blood play, and erotic urination (“not my, um, cup of tea”), the most controversial issue was about normalizing. That is, helping people feel normal as a clinical strategy for helping them change—either their self-image or their behavior.

Contrary to what most therapists do, I said that I rarely tell patients what’s “normal.” Whether they’re troubled about how often they do something, the content of their fantasies, a preference, or something about their partner, I rarely say “Don’t worry, that’s normal.” “Don’t be too concerned about her; lots of people do that.” “He doesn’t want to do that? Lots of men don’t.”

I don’t like to say what’s “normal” because people lean on that instead of growing.

The reason it’s OK to like oral sex is because you like it, not because most other people do it, too. The reason it’s OK to fantasize about spanking your sister is because you enjoy the fantasy, not because other people have these fantasies. And the reason you should accept that your boyfriend doesn’t want to do anal is because he doesn’t want to do it, not that plenty of other guys don’t like anal either.

Another reason I don’t tell people what’s normal is that if I do, I’m endorsing the category of not normal, which I don’t want to do. So if I say “that fantasy or that behavior is normal,” they can still believe that their next fantasy or behavior won’t be. So we’re right back where we started.

And if I tell someone he or she is normal, and Oprah, Dr. Phil, Cosmopolitan Magazine, their cousin, and the person they’re sleeping with disagree, why should that person believe me?

I tell therapists all the time: what’s normal about your patients is not their fantasies, their preferences, their desires, or their behavior, but their feelings. In America, virtually everyone is concerned about being sexually normal, sexually adequate, sexually desirable. Almost every sexual person struggles with feeling isolated, inhibited about telling the truth, dismayed about an imperfect body.

And all those patients—people—want to be told that they’re OK. The gift we professionals bring to people is compassion for their struggle—and a refusal to take that struggle away by saying, “you’re sexually normal.” Instead, we have a special relationship with each individual and couple we see, accepting—not approving—accepting their sexuality, accepting their concerns about its quirks, and accepting the clumsy way they attempt to resolve their sexual difficulties.

Unlike our patients, we don’t have a hierarchy of sex—such as, intercourse is better than oral sex, oral sex is better than a handjob, a handjob is better than phone sex. We don’t demand that patients be “good lovers”—we encourage them to please themselves, and to help and encourage their partners to please themselves. And we know that sexuality inevitably changes with age, and we both sympathize with patients’ frustration about this, and help them accept it and reshape their sexual expectations.

Many people come to counseling or sex therapy dying to be told, begging to be told they’re sexually normal. Actually, virtually all of them are. Refusing to tell people that they’re normal may seem like a sadistic form of tough love, but it isn’t. It’s a loving, gentle way to help people grow beyond their limited ambition to be normal, all the way to something far grander—a fully sexual adult who trusts his or her own experience way more than some arbitrary standard of what’s “normal.”

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