Perhaps the biggest cause of suffering in relation to human sexuality is the commonly held idea that there is a ‘normal’ form of sexuality, and that this is in some way more acceptable, natural or good than other forms.
Ideas of what this ‘normal’ sex and sexuality looks like differ over time and in different cultures and communities. For example, sex between men was expected in Ancient Greece and still is in many countries in the world, whilst being regarded as a criminal act and then as a psychological disorder up until the 1950s and the 1970s in the UK. Similarly, solo sex (or masturbation) has been regarded as a mundane activity, a sin, a cause of illness, and the height of sexual pleasure, in different times and places.
It is also difficult to determine what is ‘normal’ as in what is most common in our culture today, because answers to this question differ according towhich tool is used to assess them. For example, if we consider how common it is to have ‘same-gender’ attractions, percentages vary dramatically depending on the ways in which questions are asked. In the UK, the national treasury estimated that between 5% and 7% of the UK population were lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB), whereas the International Household Survey found that 1.5% of people said they were LGB. However, a further 3.8% said that they were ‘other’, didn’t respond, refused to respond, or reported that they didn’t know. Given high levels of stigma and prejudice we might well suggest that these surveys are actually measures of ‘out’ LGB people who are happy to identify with this terminology (which not all cultural groups use, for example). The NATSAL survey, which asks about ‘sexual experiences’ rather than sexual identities, found that 8-10% of people in the UK had had sexual experiences with a partner of the ‘same sex’ in 2000. This had gone up from 3-5% of people in 1990, so clearly experiences, or at least reporting of them, is not static over time. The most recent NATSAL survey suggests that the percentage of men who have ever had same sex experiences had remained roughly the same but the percentage of women who have ever had same sex experiences had risen from 10% to 16%. This change in figures over the years could also be because more people feel comfortable responding honestly about these sexual experiences, and not that more people are now having same sex sexual experiences. These figures also highlight that people might identify in one way (heterosexual), but take part in activities that are not necessarily congruent with that identity. Furthermore, people may well answer differently to a postal survey (whether they answer at all, and whether they answer honestly) than to an in depth interview, for example. This could partially explain why Kinsey’s famous study in the US found that over a third of men reported some ‘homosexual’ contact.
When people talk about ‘normal’ sex, they often don’t mean what is most common. If they did then they would need to include solo sex, bondage fantasies, and sex outside a main relationship as examples of normal sexual behaviour. ‘Normal’ is used rather to mean sex which the person speaking regards as good, right, acceptable or proper.
The problem with having such an idea of ‘normal’ sexuality is that those who fit into the norm become very scared of stepping outside it (and this may well lead to sexual problems). Think about the teenage girl trying to decide when to have sex so as not to be seen as too ‘tight’ or too ‘easy’. Those who are already outside the perceived ‘norm’ are often treated as second class citizens, given fewer rights, and may even be seen as sick or
When educating and advising others about sex it is vital not to implicitly reinforce the importance of ‘normal’ sexuality. This can be achieved through using diverse examples of sexual identities, desires and practices throughout, and by reflecting on the problems with the idea of normal mentioned. It can be useful to encourage a discussion about which forms of sexuality are currently seen as most ideal, which less so, and what that is like for those involved. The heterosexuality questionnaire and straight privilege checklist are helpful tools for this.
It has also been suggested that, instead of focusing on what kinds of sexuality are normal or not normal, we focus on the distinction between coercive and mutually consensual sex. It is never acceptable to engage in sex which is coercive (where somebody feels forced into it by another person’s power, or because they feel it is expected of them, or because they aren’t able to refuse). Any sex which is mutually consented to between the adults involved is acceptable regardless of how unusual it
may be in this particular time and place. Consent is also linked to legal norms, that is who is seen as a capable agent and able to legally make decisions about themselves. These norms vary across time and space (e.g. the age when a child becomes an adult; the definition of vulnerable adults), but alone they cannot constitute the full definition of consent, especially in a sexual context, given that power is also an important consideration. Therefore, being able to consent requires a good understanding of sexual possibilities, awareness of our own desires and any social and relational pressures upon us, and the confidence to communicate these and to accept, refuse or negotiate others’ suggestions.
2. Barker, M. (2011). Existential Sex Therapy. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 26(1), 33-47.
3. Weeks, J. (2003). Sexuality. London: Routledge.
4. Stenger, J. & Neck, A. (2001). Masturbation: The History of a Great Terror. New York: Saint Martin’s Press Inc; Laqueur, T.W. (2003). Solitary sex: A cultural history of masturbation. New York: Zone Books.
6. https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc key=0AonYZs4MzlZbdFVoZVV1NXZJanYzMjRuUlhmdktQMlE&hl=en#gid=0
8. NATSAL (2013). Sexual attitudes and lifestyles in Britain: Highlights from Natsal-3, http://www.natsal.ac.uk/media/823260/natsal_findings_final.pdf
10. Renaud, C. A., & Byers, E. S. (1999). Exploring the Frequency, Diversity, and Context of University Students’ Positive and Negative Sexual Cognitions. Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 8, 17- 30.
11. Duncombe, J., Harrison, K., Allan, G. & Marsden, D. (Eds.). (2004). The State of Affairs: Explorations in Infidelity and Commitment. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
12. Barker, M. (2013). Rewriting the Rules: An Integrative Guide to Love, Sex and Relationships. London: Routledge.
15. Denman, C. (2004). Sexuality: A Biopsychosocial Approach. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
16. Rubin, G. (1984). Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality, in Vance, C. S. (Ed.) Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. London: Pandora, 267-319.
17. See Barker, M. (2013). Consent is a Grey Area? A Comparison of Understandings of Consent in 50 Shades of Grey and on the BDSM Blogosphere. Sexualities 16(8), 896-914.