Here’s a blog post which I did about normal sex for the Sick! Festival which I’ll be taking part in up in Manchester in March. These ideas are explored further in my books Queer: A Graphic History, The Psychology of Sex, and Enjoy Sex.
Why be normal?
‘I just want to be normal’. This is probably the most common phrase to be heard in sex therapy consulting rooms. I know that I’ve heard it, in some form, from many of the clients that I’ve worked with over the years. Indeed the recent NATSAL survey of British sexual attitudes and lifestyles found that 42% of men and 51% of women consider themselves to have a sexual problem: to be abnormal or dysfunctional in some way when it comes to sex.
Wanting to be normal in this area is understandable. People who stray outside of what is considered to be sexually normal are still stigmatised and ridiculed and – at worst – pathologised and criminalised. For example, we may now know how common kinky fantasies are thanks to the popularity of the Fifty Shades series of books and movies, but kink practitioners can still be diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, or legally convicted of assault, for their activities.
Here I want to argue that the way forward in addressing the high levels of anxiety and distress that exist around sex is not for us to try ever harder to conform to what we’re told is sexually normal. Instead we could usefully throw out our ideas of sexual normality in favour of a recognition that sex and sexuality are diverse. We could then look for other – more helpful – ways of distinguishing good and bad kinds of sex.
I’m going to take you through four of the most common assumptions that people make about sex and sexuality: that it’s normal to want sex, that normal sexuality is a fixed attraction to a particular gender, that normal sex is penis-in-vagina sex leading to orgasm, and that it’s important to distinguish normal and abnormal kinds of sex. For each one of these I’ll mention some of the sexual communities who are ‘doing it’ differently, and I’ll make some suggestions about what we could all learn from them about alternative ways of approaching sex.
It’s normal to want sex
This is a big one. In a recent study that I did of sex manuals, most books insisted that it was actually essential to a person’s physical and psychological health to be sexual. They also frequently said that sex was the most important thing in a relationship: the ‘glue’ that holds it together. ‘Sexless relationships’ were seen as a failure and a cause of break-up. Also any discrepancy in the amount of desire that people in a relationship had was regarded as a problem that needed fixing (usually by learning lots of sexual positions!)
However, recent research on asexual people, who don’t experience sexual attraction, has found that they are just as healthy and emotionally stable as anybody else. Also, detailed studies of long term relationships find that most couples don’t prioritise sex as the main form of intimacy, and that there are many long-lasting relationships which are happily non-sexual.
When people feel pressure to be sexual in relationships they often engage in sex when they don’t really want, or do things that don’t actually excite them. This leads them to be even less tuned into their own desires and less keen to have sex again, in a vicious cycle.
Instead of trying to fit a one-size-fits-all model of sexual desire, perhaps we could recognise that people have diverse levels of desire – on a spectrum from no desire to high levels of desire – and that this will likely fluctuate over the course of our lives. Instead of seeing a discrepancy of desire as a problem in a relationship we could regard it as inevitable that we won’t always feel the same amount, or types, of desire. We could take that as a starting point for conversations about how we’ll address our desires together and/or separately.
Normal sexuality is a fixed attraction to a particular gender
We tend to see sexuality as one of the key things that defines a person’s identity. Sexual orientation is a tick box on the form alongside gender, age and ethnicity. It is generally entirely defined by the gender of the people we’re attracted to. In our culture it is also often seen as binary: either you’re gay or you’re straight.
However, like desire, sexuality can be more usefully understood to be on a spectrum (or many spectrums). This is how Kinsey conceptualised it in his classic studies which found that at least a third of people experienced their attraction as somewhere between totally gay or totally straight. Today many people identify as bisexual, pansexual or queer, although they are still under-represented in the media thanks to the persistent myth that sexuality is binary.
Along with this idea comes the common assumption that sexuality is fixed from the start of a person’s life all the way through to the end. Again recent research has challenged this. High numbers of people experience shifts in who they are attracted to as well as in their levels of sexual desire over time. We take it for granted that people will experience some fluidity in the age of the people they are attracted to as they, themselves, grow older. It seems that there is also fluidity in the gender of people we’re attracted to and in other aspects of sexual attraction as well.
Perhaps we could usefully regard all the various aspects of our sexuality as flexible rather than fixed: our attractions, desires and fantasies, the roles we like taking in sex, and the practices we enjoy. We could then be open to the ways in which all of these things might change over time, instead of trying to have the same kind of sex at the same frequency no matter what.
Normal sex is penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex leading to orgasm
Next up is the idea that there is one kind of ‘real’ or ‘proper’ sex and that everything else is inferior, problematic, or just ‘foreplay’. We see this assumption in lists of sexual ‘dysfunctions’ which are all about penises that don’t get erect and vaginas that can’t get penetrated. This assumption is also there in sex advice manuals which focus on different positions for PIV sex rather than on all of the other things that bodies can enjoy doing together.
So many people are made to feel inferior by this definition of sex: not just people in same-sex relationships, but also most women given that over two thirds of them require external clitoral stimulus in order to have an orgasm. And of course there are many men for whom PIV is not their preferred kind of sex, or is just one of many things that they enjoy.
In addition to this the pressure to get erect, to be penetrated, and to have an orgasm is often exactly what makes those very things difficult. Striving to get aroused or orgasmic is a bit like trying hard to get to sleep: the more you try the further away the goal gets. Sex therapists suggest that pleasure-focused sex is a better idea than goal-focused sex: be in the moment and enjoy what you’re doing with no particular end point in mind. But this is easier said than done when all we see in the media is PIV sex leading easily to orgasm.
One way forward is to increase your awareness of all of the different sexual, erotic, and sensual practices that are possible. You might look at Franklin Veaux’s map of human sexuality online, or the ‘periodic table of kink’. You may find it useful to check out erotic fiction, porn, or collections of common fantasies like Emily Dubberley’s Garden of Desires, or you could write your own fantasies and/or share them with a partner. You might create a ‘yes, no, maybe’ list of all the activities you can think of and whether you fancy trying them; there are versions of these on the BishUK and Scarleteen websites. Think about what your sex life would be like if you made another activity your default for a month: mutual masturbation, sharing fantasies, or massage, for example.
It’s important to distinguish normal (good) and abnormal (bad) kinds of sex
As well as helping us to see the diversity of practices that are possible, kink communities can help us to think again about the common dividing lines that are drawn between good and bad sex. Psychiatric categorisations tend to include lists of paraphilias – abnormal kinds of sex. These generally include anything that doesn’t involve genitals as the primary concern, particularly fetishes. They also include BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, and Sadomasochism), and enjoying watching others, or being watched, having sex.
However these practices are all pretty common so it is questionable whether they should be regarded as ‘abnormal’. Also, recent research suggest that kink practitioners are just as mentally healthy as the rest of the population, if not more so. Having such things listed as paraphilias is – unfortunately – a good way of ensuring that people who enjoy them continue to feel stigmatised and bad about their desires. It’s worth remembering that homosexuality was also included on these lists till as recently as the 1970s (in the US) and the 1990s (by the World Health Organisation).
Kinksters tend to have different lines in place to distinguish good and bad sex: Is the sex fulfilling or pleasurable to those involved? And is it consensual? If we stopped worrying so much about normal we might be able to give more thought to whether the sex that we enjoy is also enjoyable to the other people we’re doing it with, as well as to whether we’re engaging in ethical kinds of sex.
We know that the rates of non-consensual and abusive sex are shockingly high, so it would be useful if we all considered more carefully questions like how we approach the people we’re interested in in a consensual manner, what assumptions we make about the sex they will and won’t want, how we can make it possible for them to say ‘no’ or ‘yes’ to sex and to be open about their desires, and how we might reduce any cultural pressures that they may feel to do certain things and not others. We could also consider how we contribute to cultural messages out there about sex, through the porn that we view, the things that we share on social networking sites, or what we tell our kids about sex, for example.
My question throughout this article has been what if we stopped trying so hard to be normal? What if we didn’t define our sexuality in fixed ways and ceased attempting to maintain a consistent type of sex throughout our lives and relationships?
Instead we could just be with our sexuality as it is at this time, allowing it to ebb and flow, enjoying ourselves if a new crush or fantasy bubbles up, and not worrying if we have a fallow period where sex becomes less important, or not important at all. We could focus on expanding our erotic imaginations, rather than contracting them, and opening up to the diversity of possible bodies, attractions, desires and practices.
Instead of trying to force ourselves to fit what we perceive to be the norm, perhaps we could put that energy into letting go of our preconceptions about sex and discovering our sexualities anew.