One of the most common questions that sex educators hear is “am I normal?” A lot of people feel incredible amounts of anxiety when they imagine that they aren’t normal, especially when it comes to sex. That has plenty of consequences for people’s sex lives and relationships. Ironically, it’s rooted in what I call the Myth of the Normal, rather than how things really are.
I’m sure you’ve seen the magazines that offer articles with headlines like “Am I Normal Down There?” I’ve lost track of how many sex advice columns and books I’ve read that talk about sex as if there’s one way to do it or experience it. And of course, many of the ongoing
debates arguments about homosexuality, polyamory, BDSM, and gender diversity are fueled by the difficulty some folks have with people who are “abnormal.”
Ever since Kinsey published his groundbreaking research, we’ve been obsessed with worrying about whether we’re normal or not. Actually, it started earlier, but that was the first time we had any data we could compare ourselves to. And while I’m glad that we have more information about what sorts of sexual practices people get up to, I also know that it fuels a lot of anxiety.
The reason I call it the Myth of the Normal is that, when it comes down to it, it’s nothing more than a story we tell ourselves. From a statistical perspective, we can certainly measure many of the facets of sexuality: how often people have sex, how they do it, how long they do it, whether they orgasm or not, who they do it with, and so forth. Other aspects of it can be described, although measuring them in empirically valid and reliable ways gets tricky: how people feel about they do, what their preferences and desires are, what meanings they make of their experiences, etc. For each of these dimensions, there’s an incredible range of diversity. I’ve been learning about sex for over 20 years and I still learn about out things that some people do that I’ve never heard of before, simply because there are so many possibilities.
Not only that, but our positions on any of those continua usually change over time. How much we each want to have sex, what kinds of people we find attractive, what pleasures bring us to orgasm, how we feel about all of it, and any other variable can shift for a number of reasons. Sooner or later, almost everyone is going to find themselves outside the statistically defined norm, at least in some way. If someone never diverged from that middle portion of any of the distribution curves, they’d be so uncommon that they would, in fact, be abnormal. The only thing that’s normal about sex is that nobody is actually normal.
Unfortunately, most people use the word in a moral sense rather than a statistical sense, which builds the Myth of the Normal upon a foundation of shame. That usually leads people to hide or deny their divergence from the expectations they think they need to meet. When I hear someone say “I shouldn’t want to do this…”, I know that there’s some shame. There are few people who police the boundaries as rigidly as those who are afraid that their non-compliance will be noticed. It seems to me as if the story in their heads is “if I can act like I’m normal, maybe nobody will notice that I’m not.” And so the Myth of the Normal and sexual shame are reinforced and the cycle accelerates. I think it’s time to step off that ride.
There are a few different ways we can do that. First, we can learn some tools to change our habits and stop letting ourselves get caught in the hamster wheel. I’m a big fan of Pema Chödron’s audio lecture Getting Unstuck, which is full of useful insights and suggestions. Therapy can also be a really helpful process for uncovering our internalized sexual shames and moving through them.
Another possibility is learning how to listen to the experiences and stories of people who do things differently than you. In The Trouble With Normal, Michael Warner writes that through that process,
You learn that everyone deviates from the norm in some context or another, and that the statistical norm has no moral value. You begin to recognize how stultifying the faith in the norm can be. You learn that people who look most different from you can be, by virtue of that fact, the very people from whom you have the most to learn. Your lot is cast with them, and you begin to recognize that there are other worlds of interaction that the mass media cannot comprehend, worlds that they can only deform when they project images of ghettos and other deviant scenes. (p. 70)
It takes a lot of practice to learn to do that because it can challenge some of our most deeply held and unexamined attitudes and beliefs. It can also inspire difficult emotions and trigger deep shame, fear, and anger. And just when we think that we have it figured out, we might discover something new that challenges our complacency. Cultivating a sense of curiosity, setting aside defensiveness, and finding ways to hear people’s stories takes a lot more work than judging and shaming them. And my experience is that it’s much more rewarding.
“The thought manifests as the word. The word manifests as the deed. The deed develops into habit. And habit hardens into character.” – Buddha
My last suggestion (although I don’t think this is a complete list) is that we can let go of striving to be normal and striving to appear normal. There’s a certain amount of privilege inherent in “normal,” but that rests on pluralistic ignorance rather than any real difference between folks who are supposedly normal and folks who aren’t. After all, if nobody’s actually normal, then it’s really a question of how many people are out of the closet about it.
In a lot of ways, it reminds me of the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. The difference is that in the story, the emperor was naked and nobody would say anything about it because that would supposedly show that they were unfit for their position. In the real world, we’re all walking around naked, and most of us pretend otherwise since acknowledging it means stepping outside of “normal,” with all of the shaming that can result.
But there’s a lot of freedom in coming to terms with the fact that there isn’t any real normal/abnormal distinction other than whatever we make up in our heads. Once we see that, we can stop letting that story rule us and instead, we can discover our authentic sexualities. We can learn to celebrate (and not just tolerate) our diversity. We can explore new ways to craft our relationships. We can try out different pleasures and experiences to see if we like them, and we can learn how to do them more safely because we don’t have to feel embarrassment, guilt, or shame. We can stop working so hard to put up false fronts, and we can stop worrying about what will happen if people find out what we really like to do.
Unfortunately, the benefit that comes from being perceived as normal makes that difficult for a lot of people. There can be a certain amount of privilege that accrues when you’re in the closest, which is easier for some folks than others. That’s why, in my world, nobody is normal. Not me, not you, not your parents, not your children, not your friends, or your lovers, teachers, or co-workers. From where I sit, nobody gets to be normal. I find a lot of freedom grows out of that. After all, if nobody gets to be normal, then I can do the things that I enjoy (within the bounds of the consent, pleasure, and well-being of the folks involved), you can do the things you want to do, and maybe we’ll find some things we have in common. Or not, and that’s fine, too. Either way, we don’t need to judge each other or fall into the trap of believing that either of us is normal.
So say it with me. “I don’t get to be normal. You don’t get to be normal. We don’t get to be normal. They don’t get to be normal. Nobody gets to be normal.” And let’s see where we go from there.