AM I NORMAL?
For 17 years, I have made a lIvIng answerIng thIs questIon. sort oF.
That’s Sasha the sex columnist’s most frequently asked question, and she’s ready to answer it.
ritiNg a sex cOlumN is a little like being skilled in the language of international distress codes. The situation is urgent and complicated to the wounded but often requires very simple and specific measures. Yes, i can see you. No, you are not alone. Here is a book, a video, a community. These are your lifelines. use them to your best advantage. Bon courage.
A question that inevitably leaps to my mind when i respond to this query in all its predictable and unpredictable manifestations is this: why are we so often in distress when it comes to sex?
“i think it’s for two reasons,” says Jim Pfaus, who teaches psychology at Concordia university. “First, we are creatures of habit, so when we do something that violates our expectations, even when it’s good, it freaks us out. second, we live in a culture that’s constantly trying to determine what is ‘normal’ and impose it on everyone. i remember a quote from Wilhelm Reich’s book listen, little Man!: ‘ How you tor- ment the life out of your children trying to make them normal like yourself.’”
in the years i’ve been answering people’s intimate queries, the one thing i’ve found that truly characterizes erotic normalcy – as defined by what makes us sexually similar – is the persistent impulse to ask this question about ourselves. The fear of being judged for our desires is probably our most common trait. The source is often an oppressively pious upbringing. As sam Harris writes in letter To A Christian Nation, “Your principle concern seems to be that the creator of the universe will take offence at something people do while naked.”
Pfaus speculates on who gets to set the definition: “Your peers? The dsM (diagnostic And statistical Manual of Mental disorders)? some shrink? The police? epidemiologists? some closeted politician who is trying to protect his dark secrets? it seems like everyone has a stake in making a definition that no one really fits. it’s the most pro- found question we have about sex other than ‘ What do i like?’ – both of which tend to change over time and with experience.”
The mutable quality of human desire – what you want at 16 may change vastly from what you want at 25 or 43 or 67 or 81 – contributes undeniably to making normal difficult to classify, since a widely accepted trait of normal is consistency. This surfaces in letters that inevitably include the phrase “and then the next thing i knew… ,” the implication being, of course, that the writer was simply going about his or her usual routine and then suddenly found themselves with a garlic press in their behind.
“if i take the current incarnation of the dsM’s definitions of sexual disorders,” says Pfaus, “i can deduce that having genitals that respond to stimulation with engorgement, having a brain that gets me all horny when i see something i like and that allows me to have an orgasm or several in response to several minutes’ worth of genital stimulation, makes me ‘normal’ or at least not disordered. However, if i have any distress about any of it, then i have a problem that may or may not need treatment.”
When it comes to intimacy, we crave assurance – assurance that when we reveal and revel in our desires, we will be respected and satisfied. With our inherent tendency to reflect on sexuality pessimistically, we are often our own worst enemies in this quest. We don’t deserve what we want, and when we get it, retribution surely awaits us.
“My conclusion echoes that of Kinsey,” says Pfaus. “There is no normal. There is just being happy and whole and having enough people around you who love you and accept you as you are. Anything less denies humanity, imposes mental and emotional distress and suppresses the diversity that is so necessary for the survival of our species.”
in Karen solie’s poem dog star, she writes of some misfortune, “There is luck and there is luck and if there is any other lesson here i will never get used to it.”
Though solie seems to take a weary tone, i feel the same way about sex. if there is any lesson here, i will never get used to it.
At least i hope i don’t.