Does It Matter If You're 'Sexually Normal?'

Does It Matter If You're 'Sexually Normal?'

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In my 31 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 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.

You’ll probably recognize some of 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’s clearly an arbitrary social construct.

Our concern about sexual normality starts in childhood. All children are sexual beings: kids have sexual feelings and curiosity, get sexually aroused, and seek and enjoy erotic satisfaction. A variety of subtle and explicit lessons teach children that sex is bad, however. Those messages include "Don't touch your sexual parts;" "Wanting sexual contact with anyone else is wrong;" and "Having sexual thoughts or feelings is sick.”

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Nobody explains why our sexuality is bad when we’re children (there is no explanation, of course), so we generally suspect some vague abnormality. These lessons—and the fear—are typically exacerbated during puberty and adolescence.

And that stays with many of us lifelong. 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. The suspicion that we aren't (or that our mate isn't) can be a powerful, negative force in our adult sexual relationships.

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. When we believe that our sexuality is dangerous, routine (and therefore boring) sex feels the safest.

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. As I discuss in my book Sexual Intelligence, 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 about 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, you have the option of participating in any sexual activities that support those goals, providing they fit with your values.
  • 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.
  • Do not 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.

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.

Dr. Marty Klein is a marriage counselor and sex therapist with 30 years experience. His latest book is SEXUAL INTELLIGENCE: What We Really Want From Sex, and How to Get It. Dr. Klein’s blog, newsletter and more at

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