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Cory Silverberg

The Trouble with Normal

By March 19, 2012

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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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March 20, 2012 at 8:19 pm
(1) Lud Allen says:

Hmmm: I will await more of your blogging on this.
People DO want to hear that they are ‘normal’ not ‘damaged’ or ‘perverse’ ( funny, in my experience kinky doesn’t seem to be a word that clients mind applying to themselves). I do use normal often in the context of “What do you mean by normal?” I often use Leonore Tiefers 5 definitions of normal from her book “Sex is not a natural act – and other essays” http://www.leonoretiefer.com/
But…. I think I get what you are almost saying. Particularly It is NOT enough just to confirm normality whatever that is. We need to provide space to explore this and what it means without marginalising.
Thanks for making me think.

March 20, 2012 at 8:30 pm
(2) Robert says:

A very good piece marred only by this one clanger:
“Using normality to alleviate sexual shame is like using capitalism to alleviate poverty. Capitalism creates, distributes, and requires poverty.”

This is completely wrong, it is the very opposite of the truth; capitalism is the surest way to end poverty. The last 20 years has witnessed the greatest decline in poverty in the history of the world ever, and it has happened because China and India have adopted more capitalist poicies.

Capitalism does not create poverty, poverty is the natural state of humans, its only when we develop market based institutions and societies that some of us manage to stop being poor.

Capitalism (or markets) means a system of cultural practices and norms, and a set of institutions within which individuals voluntarily exchange goods and services, and enter into co-operative agreements with one another. That is all. How on earth does that require poverty?

I’m unsure what a good analogy to using normalcy to alleviate shame would be. The best I can think of are:
– “We had to destroy the village to save it”
– “One can only become truely free by submitting to the will of God”
neither of which seem to completely and accurately capture the idea you are discussing.

March 22, 2012 at 1:07 pm
(3) endymion says:

@Robert: (I hope I don’t make this a capitalism-debate by answering to this)

The statement “Poverty is the natural state of humans” makes only sense, if you define poverty as not personally possessing things. As in, “if everything is shared, nobody possesses anything, ergo everyone is poor”. This definition is not easily applicable outside of capitalism: In non-capitalist systems people easily fall into this definition of poverty, regardless of whether they actually miss out on anything they need or want.

A more reasonable (in my eye) definition of poverty is to be denied of necessities for living, i.e. not having enough to live. This definition works better for systems that have a notion of “general goods” that are not owned by anyone.

A basic concept of capitalism is that everything has a price and can be sold, and thus everything is owned by someone. So while (again, in my view) capitalism doesn’t intrinsically need any people to be poor, it needs the concept of poverty as a dichotomy to possession.

March 26, 2012 at 12:07 pm
(4) ScottEF says:

I think you’d really like Robert Anton Wilson’s idea for a “Committee for Surrealist Investigation of Claims of the Normal”


March 27, 2012 at 1:53 pm
(5) CeeDub says:

I completely agree with Robert. Good article, except for the complete ignorance of what actually capitalism is.

@endymion: “everything has a price and can be sold, and thus everything is owned by someone” is not a basic concept of capitalism. Not even close.

April 16, 2012 at 11:57 pm
(6) artemesia says:

great post. i see what you are touching on here, and perhaps this leads onto changing the idea that normal is ‘normal’ or something that comes standard on all human beings and their experiences. it’s such a shame that our society promotes monoculture ( i really liked your capitalism metaphor!). personally, I hope that this resurgence in the discussion of sexuality and gender will lead back to the simple truth that there is diversity in all things. and perhaps with discussion and compromise, all things can be realised.

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