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Am I normal? Who cares?

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Submitted by Heather Corinna on Wed, 2010-01-27 13:04

Am I/is he/is she/is this/are we normal?

As anyone who works in sex education or sexuality can tell you, when it comes to the questions people ask us, variations on the theme of "Am I normal?" reign supreme.

I just spent a half hour going through our advice question queue, doing a search on each page for the word "normal." At the moment, we have around 55 pages of unanswered questions. There's five to fifteen questions on each page. I found only two pages where there was not at least one question with the term "normal" in it; where the heart of the question wasn't "Am I -- or is he, she or ze -- normal?"

Some questions about normality are really about health. That's a little different. Of course, from my view, that's also less about normal and more about healthy. If, for instance, someone has delayed puberty but no health issues they need to address causing it, then it doesn't really matter if it's normal because that person is healthy and not in need of healthcare or lifestyle changes to support health. Maybe someone's uterus is radically different than the uteri of most other people, or someone's penis is bigger or smaller, but again, more times than not, those folks may or may not be exactly "normal" but they're healthy, so it's all good. We may have a disability that is exceptionally rare and thus, not normal by definition, and it may also present health problems so may not technically be healthy, but in cases like that, what's normal doesn't matter: what matters is finding a way for us to be comfortable, be supported and accepted and to live a life we want and enjoy.

What I'm mostly (though "My body looks like X, is this normal?" falls under this, too) talking about here is this kind of concern about normalcy:

Is it normal for me, as a woman, to be attracted to other women? Is it normal for me, as a man, to only be attracted to women? Is it normal for me not to feel attracted to anybody? Is it normal my boyfriend is excited by doing this, that or the other thing with his ejaculate? Is it normal I fantasize about this, that or the other thing and find it exciting? Is it normal if I reach orgasm from this thing? How about this one? Is it normal I don't reach orgasm from this thing that someone else does? Is it normal I don't reach orgasm yet at all? Is it normal I orgasm easily? Is it normal it's tough for me to reach orgasm? What's the normal amount of time to wait for sex with a partner? Is having sex with a partner on the first date, in the first week, in the first year normal? Is it normal for me, as a girl, to want to have sex? Is it normal for me, at 13, to have sexual feelings? Is it normal for me, as a guy, not to have interest in sex? Is it normal to watch porn? Is it normal for a guy to say no to sex? Is it normal for a girl to say yes? How can we have a normal sex life? How can we be like normal couples? Is it normal to laugh during sex? Is it normal to cry after orgasm? Is it normal to feel good about sex? Is it normal to feel bad about sex? Is it normal to only reach orgasm by myself? Is it normal to only reach orgasm with a partner? Is it normal to masturbate? Is it normal to masturbate if I'm a girl, if I'm 14, if I'm not ejaculating, if I don't get off, if I do get off, if I have a sexual partner? Is it normal to feel nervous about sex? Is it normal not to feel nervous? Is wanting sex twice a day, every day, once a week, a few times a month, once a year, once every decade, or never normal? Is it normal to like this kind of sex? Is it normal not to like this kind? Is it normal to feel a lot from this kind of stimulation, but not that kind? Is it normal to only want casual sex? Is it normal to only want sex in a marriage? Is it normal for my love relationship not to be sexual? Is it normal for me to have so many questions about sex and what's normal in the first place?

The answer to any of those questions and others like them can vary. The answer may be yes, maybe, not really (which is the least common answer of all), I don't know, and, most often, that it sounds like that's normal for you right now, or has been normal for you so far. "Normal according to whom?" is another common reply. "No," when it comes to questions like those, is never the answer. However, no matter what the answer is, they all beg the question, "Why does normal matter?"

Understand that I totally totally get how important being normal can feel for people, especially for younger people who often feel they don't or won't fit in anywhere and are concerned sex will be no exception. Working with people and sexuality for as long as I have, I absolutely recognize that there are many people who feel it's critically important their sexuality and sex lives meet the real or perceived standards of others or culture-at-large (whatever the heck that even is).

While I get that intellectually, I only kind of get it from a personal standpoint. I myself figured from a very early age onward that I was a weirdo in general, probably not normal, and that my sexuality and sex life was likely no exception. And I decided not to give a hoot and just let my freak flag fly, especially since it all felt great to me and people I chose to be sexual with, and I had little respect or care for most "norms" I met and many of the people who promoted them. Of course, the irony is that in hindsight, doing the job I do now, I know full well that for as much as anyone is normal, I was and am normal, too, even in my weirdness.

The most concise definition of normal is "being approximately average."

Doesn't that sound so super exciting? I sure hope in my life I can reach the amazing goal of being approximately average. Who needs world peace, the end of global hunger, to develop the cure for HIV or to win a Pulitzer when we could accomplish that? Sorry, snark attack. I'm done now.

That definition makes clear that the idea of normalcy in sexuality is an oxymoron. Because there is no average for all people. Not even an approximate one. When it all comes down to it with sex and sexuality, because of how diverse we all are, either everyone is normal or no one is.

There is no one sexual normal: not for men, not for women, not for those who are or identify as neither. Not for straight people or queer people, married people or not-married people, young people or old people or any other group of people there is. Anyone who tells you there is either doesn't know much about human sexuality or wants you to think they, you or others are normal or abnormal because of some kind of personal agenda.

Another definition of normal is "conforming with or constituting a norm or standard or level or type of social norm; not abnormal," which I think is more often what a lot of people are concerned about with sexuality. But that's also problematic. What's a social norm? More specifically, how big is the social group making that a norm? For anyone making a norm, what's their criteria in doing so? How broad has their study been on what everyone does/is/feels, if they've done any real study at all? Why are they saying something is normal: is it because they really think it is, or just because they badly want it, or themselves, to be? Are they saying something is normal in order to educate and inform people to earnestly help better their lives, or to try and control people for their own benefit? What about the fact that so often, people who are loudest about what is or should be "normal" are people for whom that given standard isn't even what's normal for them? (I'm talking to you Ted Haggard, Larry Craig, Mark Foley and all the myriad folks out there like you.)

I have something really important I want to tell you. Based on everything I know, from the many years I've worked in sexuality now, from my own life, from the lives of people who I have been close to sexually, or who have talked with me about their sexualities and sexual lives, one of the biggest favors you can do for your sexual self, any sexual partnerships you may have, and for people as a whole, is to stop asking that question. To learn to say "To hell with normal."

We do have a few pervasive, worldwide social norms: one of the biggies with sex is an intense concern about being normal. That pervasive norm (and a few others related to it) also has a pervasive consequence, which is that a whole lot of people's strong concern about normalcy and trying to meet standards of normalcy tends to get in the way of people having sex lives and sexualities they feel good about, that are really for and about them, and that result in satisfying lives and experiences. Going batty trying to seek out or be what's sexually normal often results in feeling like an outsider in your own sexuality, like you aren't connected with it at all, like you aren't at home in it, like it's an empty room, than it does in finding sex and sexuality to be a place of joy, a place of richness, to be a place you feel at home in, alone or with partners.

The sooner you can get past worrying about if you're normal or not, the sooner you can start discovering what your unique, own sexuality is like and what you really want from it. The sooner you do that, the sooner you'll be able to create and experience a sexual life that's really a good fit for you -- not anyone else, you -- and to a level of comfort with your own sexuality that will feel good to you, physically and emotionally. Ask any sexologist or sex therapist for a second opinion on that: I can assure you that they'll concur.

We've said it before, and we'll keep saying it: what's most normal and most common in sexuality is diversity.

Any ideas anyone may have that there is one default sexuality or sex life, one set of sexual things or ideas that most people -- or all people except you -- idealize, want, experience, enjoy or sign onto -- are incorrect. It's normal to have a range of emotional and physical reactions to all kinds of sex as well as to not-sex-at-all. It's normal for people to be sexually attracted to any number of different kinds of people or to not be sexually attracted to people. It's normal for people to like all kinds of sexual things and dislike all kinds of sexual things by themselves, with a given partner, or full-stop. It's normal to masturbate or not to. It's normal to have sexual feelings or desires at any given age, it's normal to want this much sex or that little. It's normal to have a wide array of sexual fantasy. If something is normal for a person of one sex or gender, it's normal for a person of another. It's normal to say yes to something sexual and normal to decline. It's normal to orgasm and not to orgasm. It's normal to feel excited sometimes and normal to feel bored to tears at other times.

With anything like that, given things may be more or less common either for all people, those of a given gender, age, orientation or some other exceptionally broad classification of people, those of a given community or peer group, but if they are happening to you, for the time being or for your whole life, they're your normal right now. And I swear to you, that really is all that is truly relevant and all that's earnestly productive and beneficial to you and everyone else.

If you feel you must, you can still ask me if you're normal. I'm not saying what I am because I need you to stop asking. But I'm going to keep giving you the same answer. I'm going to keep telling you that there are few things under the sun when it comes to sexuality that only one person in the world thinks about (or doesn't), wants (or doesn't) or enjoys (or doesn't), and that if you're feeling the way you are, having the experiences you are, and all of that is real to you, that it's normal for you. And that question is also going to keep you stuck in the same place: there are far more interesting questions to ask which will elicit far more useful answers.

Sex and sexuality are "normal" in that they are, in all their diversity, as well as in their absence, one common part of most people's lives, and one common part of who nearly all of us are. But we can never say any one given thing is normal or abnormal because to do so would also be to say that there is one kind of sexuality or sex life, one kind of sexual experience or desire, which is "approximately average" for all people. That's something any of us who have worked in sex for a while, and who considers all the information we take in about it with as little bias and projection as possible, knows just isn't true or real.

You don't have to be normal. No one does, and everyone has stuff about themselves or their sexuality that one person or another would not consider normal, because not only does sexuality widely vary, so do people's opinions about what is and isn't normal. If you find yourself in any kind of sexual situation or partnership where your "being normal" is way important to you or someone else -- where it's far more important than being yourself -- you're probably in a situation or partnership that just isn't a good fit for you.

All you have to be, or strive to be, is comfortable with who you really are sexually, and to honor and respect who anyone else really is. If we're talking about your sexuality or masturbation alone and it feels physically and emotionally good to you, chances are very high it is all good. No worries. If it doesn't, either you just need to try something different, or look into, sometimes with help, why you feel bad. With sexual partnerships, same deal: does what you're doing, or how you've both framed this, feel physically and emotionally good to you and that other person (or people)? Okay, then. And if not, it's time to do some talking, make some adjustments (physical, interpersonal and/or mental) or reconsider if a given situation really is the right one for everyone involved in terms of what they want, what feels right to them, and where they're at right now.

It stands to mention that if you have the idea that who you are sexually, or what you like or want, is something you are convinced absolutely no one else in the world will share or understand, you should know that that is profoundly unlikely: if there's something you like, while not everyone may like it, at least one other person does, too. Probably way more than just one. By all means, in some cases, finding sexual partners or partnerships that are perfectly compatible, that are a really good fit for both people can be tougher than in others (and that also can change: we may be very compatible with one person for years, then have changes one or both of us experience change that fit). But at the same time, it's often harder than the world makes it sound for anyone to find others with whom they have a great sexual fit, and all the more so when we're also trying to seek out sexual relationships that also are a good fit in other ways; that are bigger relationships than primarily sexual ones, and where we're compatible in every way possible.

It might help to think about the people in the world you admire most. It's likely that a big part of why you do is that there is something exceptional about them: something different. Maybe they had a challenge or adversity they have faced remarkably well, better than a lot of other people have. Maybe they're different in a way you can relate to, and they don't hide that difference or act like there's something bad about being different in some way. Maybe they have asked something of themselves or others that is more than what people will usually ask. Whatever it is, it's unlikely that you feel inspired by someone else because they're just that normal, just so awesomely homogenous. When you like or admire other people, the first thing that comes to your mind when you think about how cool they are probably is not "Wow, they are so totally average!"

So, let whatever it is you think may be your freak flag fly. If you don't, how will someone else like you (or not like you, but who benefits from knowing you), who thinks you're amazing, ever find you? People talk about sexual risks all the time, but all to often they leave out what it means to take a risk of being ourselves, and that that risk -- which is risky like anything else -- is mostly likely to result in positive, wanted consequences and results, not negative things we don't want.

Sex and sexuality is supposed to be about personal expression: it's a way of exploring and expressing who we and others are, what unique alchemy we make and relationship we have with a partner or partners, and it's a perpetually unanswered question because every time we ask it in each experience, we're never exactly the same person twice, and our sexuality is ever-evolving, just like all of who we are. If it was a place best suited to all of us being exactly the same, to never changing or doing anything differently, I assure you that we all would have gotten really bored with it a long time ago.

Now if you're asking me, this is something we should strive to do in every aspect of our lives: to be as much of who we uniquely are not just in sex, but in everything. Sex and sexuality is a good place to get some experience accepting you and others for who we are, and being as authentic as you can. But it's also a place where trying to be like an idea of everyone else, trying to meet a given standard or worrying more about what's normal than what feels good for you and what feels like it's really about you, is particularly poorly suited, especially if you want a sexuality and sexual life that are anything but...well, approximately average.

Which I don't think anyone at all -- even someone who asks if they're normal -- really wants.

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