I remember many years ago having a conversation with a sex therapist. He said that one of his most important functions was reassuring people they were normal. He described client after client who would sit down in his office, often wracked with guilt and full of shame about some aspect of their sexual desires or practices, and how their entire demeanor and outlook would change once he told them that whatever secret they had been holding on to wasn't something that made them a freak. That their singular freakish secret was actually something he had heard from dozens of other clients. That it was, in his words, perfectly normal.
Sex educators use normal in this therapeutic way as well. The phrase, "everything is normal" has become a kind of comforting mantra for a certain kind of sex educator and a growing number of sex advice columnists, coaches, and self-appointed gurus. It's understood to be a mark of sex positivity and progressiveness. No judgement. Everything is good.
I'm sympathetic to the impulse, but to me this response has always rung hollow. In part that's because usually when I hear people say it (or read them write it) I just don't believe them. It sounds like a line; a kind of mean-nothing cure-all. Obviously this is my personal response, but I have a pretty finely honed BS detector and most of these people don't actually follow through on their "it's all good" message. They seem to be full of judgement, full of righteous opinions, and clearly have ideas about what is good and what is bad, right and wrong, when it comes to sexuality.
To be clear, I think we should all have a chance to develop our own ideas of goodness and badness in the context of sexuality, but it doesn't do anyone any good to claim that everything is good all the time. In fact, it can be more of a hindrance than a help in the long run.
Telling someone they are normal may provide momentary relief. But once they get back out into the world they'll be reminded almost immediately that not everything is treated as normal. Sexual normality and sexual normativity, are complicated and slippery concepts, but they also carry tremendous power and heft. Whether or not we agree that a certain act should be considered normal, we all know that the label of normalcy has palpable effects in the world. To say everything is normal denies the power of normal to affect people for better and for worse and in the end that doesn't help anyone.
I've been trying to think of a good analogy for what I think is problematic about using normality to try and help people explore and express their sexuality. What first came to my mind was that using normal to help people with sexuality is like using a gun to promote peace. It's a good line, but I think it's imprecise. Instead I've come up with this:
Using normality to alleviate sexual shame is like using capitalism to alleviate poverty. Capitalism creates, distributes, and requires poverty. Sexual normalcy creates, distributes, and requires sexual shame. There is no capitalism without poverty. And there is no sexual normalcy without sexual shame.
This means, among other things, that the problem with normal isn't just that it's too narrowly defined. The problem is systemic; it's built right into the concept. After all normality itself is defined more by what it isn't, by what is considered abnormal, than it is defined by what it is. Definitions of deviant or exceptional sexuality precede definitions of normal sexuality. We came up with the construct of homosexuality before heterosexuality, the publicly articulated identity transgender preceded that of cisgender. Normal relies on the marginalization of some to define others. Adding to those in the center doesn't stop the force of pushing others to the margins. And simply telling people on the margins that they're actually in the center doesn't alleviate the very real pressures pushing them out if it.
So what's the point of all this? Well I'm not entirely sure. I've been wrestling with ideas of normal both personally and professionally for almost two decades and I don't have any solid answers. Over the next few weeks I'm going to blog more about normal, kind of a normal-sexuality-blog-carnival-of-one if you will. And I think I'm going to take as my inspiration a suggestion I got from a friend and colleague who said that instead of focusing so much on what normal is we'd be better off focusing on what normal does. It seems to me a good place to start.
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