Content warning: mention of rape and rape fantasy
Is what I want (sexually) normal?
Nearly every question I’ve been asked in my near decade as a sex educator comes back to this core fear: am I normal?
My answer, 99% of the time? Yes.
It’s human nature to want to fit in. To be reassured that we’re enough, but not too much. That our desires, our very beings are worthy.
In our sex-negative society, that can feel impossible. We’re taught to distrust our bodies and our brains. We’re taught that we can either be the virgin or the whore, and both are flawed. We’re taught to shove down our desires, and put others’ needs before our own.
We’re left with the question: is what I want normal? Am I normal? Am I enough?
When it comes to sex, there’s no normal: only more or less common
To illustrate this, let’s compare two kinks: spanking and fire play. Most people have spanked someone or been spanked as part of sex. Fewer people enjoy playing with fire during sex. Both require you get consent, communicate with your partner throughout, and practice safety measures. Both are normal.
Similarly, there are different types of desire. Some people, typically men, get turned on in the snap of a finger. Others, primarily womxn*, need sexy things to happen before they get turned on. Most people’s libido depends on the situation: your beau could do the same thing two nights in a row, but the second night you’re exhausted and stressed and it just doesn’t work. All of this is normal.
Society (capitalism) teaches us that there’s the best sex toy or position or move, the one guaranteed to drive you or your beau wild. In reality, sex is much more nuanced than that and it changes sexy time to sexy time and throughout your life.
You don’t have to act on all your desires
You can want something in theory but not IRL. That’s normal, too! Some desires live in fantasy: you enjoy self-pleasuring to them but don’t necessarily want to act them out.
Rape fantasy is a common example of this. At Dame Product’s recent NUANCE conference, my colleague Sonalee asked attendees to raise their hand, if they felt comfortable, if they ever had a rape fantasy. Half of us did—and this wasn’t a room full of sexuality professionals, but rather everyday womxn like you.
Sonalee explained that rape fantasies are normal, OK, good! If you have a lived experience, the fantasy is a protective feature to process what was a discolored memory and create something pleasurable. Similarly, some people cope with threat of sexual violence by turning it into something they control. Others like the idea of giving up control, on their terms.
Whatever it is: you aren’t broken. Your desires aren’t bad. You are normal.
The impact of trauma
“Basically, in the most primitive parts of our brains, we have a fear + pleasure switch. Think of it as your fight/flight/freeze/fuck center. Being chased by a lion = amp up the fear. Being stroked by a partner = helllllllo, pleasure! But what happens if both parts of this center are activated at the same time?
Well, the emotions get all tangled up. Say as an infant and child your parents constantly reprimanded you and pushed your hand away whenever you touched yourself. Your pleasure switch was activated while you were getting in trouble. Therefore, your supah smart brain learns pleasure = fear + embarrassment. The same often happens if you experience or witness sexual or domestic violence and even if you simply were forbidden from discussing ‘it’ in your home. On a larger scale, society reinforces this connection in so, so many ways.”
This is brief description, but if you have trauma—whether that’s serious, capital T trauma or the everyday trauma of living as a womxn in our world—I highly recommend reading The Body Keeps Score and Secret Bad Girl for more details and actions for healing.
There are a few exceptions to “normal”
In some cases, desires cause distress, impair your social life, work, or relationships, or threaten to harm others. In this case, the desire may be classified as a paraphilic disorder. This distress, impact, or harm, differentiates a paraphilic disorder form a kink or fetish:
“In my work, I tend to define kinks as nontraditional sexual behaviors that people sometimes use to spice things up, but that they can take or leave depending on their partner, their mood, etc. Fetishes are nontraditional sexual interests or behaviors (kinks) that are, for a particular individual, a deep and abiding (and possibly even necessary) element of sexual arousal and activity. Paraphilias are fetishes that have escalated in ways that have resulted in negative life consequences.
A kink, a fetish, and a paraphilia can involve the same behavior, but the role that behavior plays and the effects it has can be very different depending on the person. Consider as an analogy the difference between a casual drinker, a heavy drinker, and an alcoholic. The basic behavior, consuming alcohol, is the same, but the underpinnings, impact, and long-term effects are quite different depending on the person. Moreover, it is only when the behavior is taken to an extreme that results in negative life consequences that it’s viewed as a disorder” (Source).
Our understanding of paraphilias is ever-evolving. Homosexuality was once considered one, and the World Health Organization just removed transgender from its list of mental disorders. If you feel like your desire falls into this category, connect with a sex therapist.
You’re the main person one who has to be at peace with your desires
Common or not, your desires are valid and you deserve to explore them. Fuck the shoulds. Stop comparing your sex life to others’. Do the work you need to heal, forgive, or let go of whatever shame, trauma, and misunderstandings hold you back from saying yes.
Know that your desires are normal. You are normal. You are enough.
*Alternative spellings for “woman” were created as part of the feminist movement to promote women’s independence from men. This current spelling encompasses a broader range of gender identities than “woman,” including trans women and non-binary femme individuals. For more information, check out this great piece in the Boston Globe.
Have a sex question? Email email@example.com and I’ll answer it in an upcoming post.