Am I Normal? Sexuality & psychology

I knew in advance that this programme would very likely wind me up, so I really don’t know why I sat down and watched it.

The programme in question was Am I Normal? on BBC2 on Monday night/ Tuesday morning.  (The link is to BBC iplayer: the programme’s available for the next few days.  It’s also repeated on BBC1 at 1:40am next Monday night/ Tuesday morning.)  This was the last in a 4 part series, of which I have seen some.  I caught a bit of the episode on body image, where the presenter, Dr Tanya Byron (a clinical psychologist, rather than a medical doctor), seemed to be saying all the right things.  I also saw most of the one on spirituality, where she spent an hour wandering the globe (well, ok, the southeast of England and New York) in order to arrive at the rather obvious conclusion that it’s ok to believe in whatever you want to believe in, so long as you don’t misrepresent it to other people.

Monday night’s programme was on sexuality, and there was much of it that I found myself in complete agreement with.

Like Dr Byron, I am deeply disturbed by those pageants in the US for which children are taught to copy adult sexual behaviour, although, unlike her, my objections relate more to the fact that such displays will tend to reinforce the beliefs of paedophiles, rather than a concern that the children involved are “missing out on their childhood.”  Like, I would hope, everyone else watching the programme, I was profoundly disturbed by the paedophile who argued that 7-11 year old girls could benefit from a sexual relationship with an adult.

On to my objections.  I guess these start with the title of the series.  It seems to me that it’s unhelpful to discuss an issue like sexuality in terms of what is “normal”.  Defining what is normal is notoriously difficult – a baddie in Star Trek once defined it to a blind man as “what everyone else is, but you are not”, which seems to get pretty close to the heart of the problem.  “Normal” is a comparative term.  It was at one time quite normal to believe that the Earth was flat, and that ships that sailed for long enough into an empty expanse of sea would fall off the edge, but that belief was still wrong.  Amongst a group of paedophiles, paedophilia would seem “normal”, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s profoundly wrong.

It seems to me that, rather than thinking about sexuality in terms of what’s “normal,” it’s better to think about it in terms of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.  Following this logic, paedophilia is wrong not because it is (thankfully) uncommon, but because, for a variety of reasons, children lack the ability to give meaningful consent to sex.  By contrast, extreme sadomasochistic sex between adults is acceptable, even though it may be quite rare, because the participants are able to give meaningful consent.

Dr Byron did seem to be limping slowly towards this idea by the end of the programme, but she wasn’t able to fully accept it.  In a comment delivered straight to the camera in the closing moments, she acknowledged there was a difference between behaviour she described as “challenging”, and that which was simply wrong.  But she still insisted that it was necessary to use “common sense” to define which sexual activities should be thought of as “normal”.

Now, appeals to common sense always make me suspicious, as “common sense” often turns out to be prejudice, or, at best, opinions that have been formed in the absence of fact.  In this case, Tanya Byron was forced to appeal to it because the simple logic of determining what is acceptable and unacceptable by means of whether or not it is consensual would have led her to conclusions that did not reinforce her rather limited view of sex and sexuality.

This negative attitude to certain kinds of sexual behaviour was apparent throughout the programme in the words she used to describe certain places and activities.  So, for example, she chose to describe places where women take off their clothes for money as “sleazy strip clubs”, rather than opting for the value-neutral option of “strip clubs”.  Equally, Hampstead Heath was a “notorious” cruising ground, not simply a well-known one, dogging was “predatory” (with all the connotations of hunter versus unwilling prey that word carries), and the relaxation of censorship of sexual imagery meant that it was “infecting” the mainstream.  The only positive reference to overt sexuality I noticed was when she described a sex shop as “deliciously naughty”.  The owner of this sex shop seemed to talk exclusively in terms of adding variety to monogamous relationships.

I should make it clear that I have no problem with, or opposition to, monogamy.  It’s a wonderful thing, and if it lasts a whole lifetime, then that’s wonderful, too.  Personally, I’ve happily lived within monogamous relationships for years at a time, and none of my relationships have ever broken down as a result of infidelity.  But I’ve also been happy in an open relationship, and, when I’ve been single or it’s been agreed in advance with my partner, I’ve happily enjoyed random sexual encounters too.  I’m nowhere near the self-described “sex addict” in the film, who claims to have had more than 5000 partners, but I would estimate that I’m comfortably into the 70+ range.  That’s not really all that many – given my age now, the age I started having sex, and discounting my periods of monogamy and celibacy, it works out at an average of around about 7 to 8 partners per year.

The fact of the matter is that, while sex can be a wonderful way of building intimacy and trust in a loving relationship, it’s also a physical activity that’s pleasurable in it’s own right.  Many people are uncomfortable with acknowledging this fact.  For some, it’s a matter of religious conviction, and that’s fine, so long as they don’t attempt to impose their beliefs on anyone else.  For lots of other people it’s a personal choice, and that, again, is fine.  It doesn’t matter to me whether people choose to have many sexual partners, a few, only one, or even none at all – all options are equally valid.  But some people, including Tanya Byron, seem to be uncomfortable with leaving it at this, and feel the need to describe sexual patterns they’re personally uncomfortable with as aberrant, or abnormal, or pathological.

The programme included discussion of whether or not a low libido was a clinical issue.  Although she avoided making a definitive statement of her own opinion on the subject, the fact that Tanya Byron chose to interview two people who felt it wasn’t a problem, and none who felt it was, made it clear where her sympathies lie.  I would entirely agree with her in this – not wanting to have sex is not necessarily a problem, although it can become one if the individual concerned is frustrated or distressed by their inability to desire sex.  Unfortunately, Dr Byron didn’t seem able to extend this same understanding attitude towards those with a high sex drive.  The two most obvious examples of such people were the “sex addict” I’ve mentioned already, and another man who liked to perform the exhibitionist role in dogging.  In both cases, Dr Byron felt the need to look for a “psychological motivation” for the behaviour she disapproved of, in a way that she hadn’t with the woman who didn’t much like to have sex.

With the man who was into dogging, her search for an explanation was almost laughable – she seemed to be trying to identify some sort of correspondence between the fact that the man’s mother had refused him permission to play professional football and his subsequent desire to have sex in front of people.  As he described the men who watched him as “pathetic”, it would seem to me much more likely that he was fundamentally insecure about his masculine status, and so saw dogging as a way of “proving” his “superiority” over the other men present.  I also think there’s a chance he may have had some problems in coming to terms with his sexual orientation.  He apparently worked as a stripper in gay clubs, and in that context he may have seen dogging as a means of validating his heterosexuality – “I must be straight, look at all these people who’ve seen me have sex with women.”  Given that this method of validation (if that’s what it is) involves him being surrounded by men who are masturbating, it might be the case that his heterosexuality is not as uncomplicated as he is hoping to prove.

But, setting aside this kind of unsubstantiated speculation, the major motivation this man and the “sex addict” shared was one that Dr Byron seemed entirely unable or unwilling to understand: namely, that they enjoy what they do.  The primary reason the man with lots of sexual partners had so many was because he enjoyed having sex with new people.  He is, therefore, the mirror image of the woman with low libido, who didn’t want to have sex because she didn’t enjoy it.

It seems likely that very few people would want to enquire deeply into the psychological motivations surrounding, to chose an example at random, ballroom dancing.  Most of us would be prepared to accept that some people enjoy it, some don’t, and that’s all there is to it.  A psychologist who tried to argue that people who enjoy it are trapped in a pathological behaviour pattern caused by an early teenage experience in the Blackpool Tower Ballroom could probably expect to be laughed at.  But when Tanya Byron speculates on the significance of the “sex addict” she interviews having his first sexual experience with a stranger at the age of 14, this is essentially the same thing.  The ballroom fan will obviously discover they like ballroom dancing the first time they experience it, just as the man with many partners discovered he liked sex with people he didn’t know the first time he experienced it, but in neither case is the first experience the cause of the subsequent behaviour.

Obviously, I’m being a little reductive here.  I wouldn’t deny the possibility that someone who felt uncomfortable with an emotionally intimate relationship might use loveless sex with strangers as a means of distancing that kind of intimacy.  It would seem likely to me that such a person might well benefit from counselling that was aimed at helping them to understand why they feared emotional intimacy.  But here’s the thing – such counselling would only be appropriate if the individual concerned actually was unable to form an emotionally intimate relationship (rather than simply being uninterested in doing so), and furthermore was frustrated or distressed by the inability.  The situation is thus, again, the exact mirror image of the woman with a low libido – treatment is not necessarily required.

Despite this, Dr Byron clearly felt it was incumbent upon her to investigate the psychological causes of the “sex addict”‘s promiscuity, even though he was absolutely clear he was not distressed or frustrated by the lifestyle pattern he had chosen to follow.  By contrast, she did not feel required to do this with the woman with low libido, whose distaste for sexual intimacy could also, potentially, have been the result of an unresolved psychological trauma.  Instead, Tanya Byron was far more content to take her word for it, and even sought out a professional interviewee to validate the woman’s personal experience.

There was an interesting discussion on Mental Nurse a few days ago about whether or not sex addiction was a true addiction.  All of those who commented there seemed absolutely clear that it wasn’t, and the discussion moved on to deplore the tendency of some MH professionals to pathologise behaviour that ought not be regarded as pathological.  As the rest of this post has hopefully made clear, I’m in agreement with that consensus.  But several of the commenters (zarathustra, E, and beakie) also seemed to suggest that having a lot of sex was a bad thing (“dirty”, “rather revolting”, and “bad/irresponsible behaviour,” are the key quotes, respectively).

Now, of course, all three of them were expressing a personal opinion to which they are absolutely entitled, and which they are absolutely entitled to express in public.  I wasn’t offended, upset, or even particularly annoyed, by anything they said – I just thought “Well, I don’t know I quite agree,” and moved on to the next post.  I only bring it up here because I think it’s a neat demonstration of why concepts of “normality” or “morality” are best avoided in psychological or psychiatric discussions of sexuality, as this can be the first step in a process by which behaviours that are personally disliked, or contravene a personal sense of morality, are pathologised.

In her programme, it seemed to me abundantly clear that Dr Byron’s personal preference was for monogamous sex, conducted in absolute privacy, and within an established relationship.  That is, of course, entirely her own affair, and I trust and hope it will bring her much happiness.  But, by discussing sexuality through the lens of “normality”, her personal preferences led her to attempt to pathologise anything that didn’t conform to that particular view of sexuality.  That, I think, was wrong, but, regrettably, the same kind of prejudicial thinking seems to crop up again and again in discussions of sexuality.

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4 Responses to Am I Normal? Sexuality & psychology

  1. Yeah, asking how normal a sexuality is, is the least useful question to ask. I think a better question is how responsible a sexuality is. Is it likely to lead to harm for anyone involved?

    This is a simplistic way of looking at it, but it’s a good starting point I think. Sexuality always includes the potential for harm because sex is never a risk free activity. Some forms of sex are more risky than others. Extreme sado-masochistic behaviour with multiple partners is inherently a lot more dangerous than vanilla sex in a long-term monogamous relationship, but both can be approached responsibly to reduce the risks involved.

    Promiscuity doesn’t have to be irresponsible. It can be, and probably often is, but it doesn’t have to be.

    Ultimately though, I find it really weird how this kind of wide eyed programming about sex has any currency these days. We have the internet. No matter how weird you think your sexual desires are, it’s trivial to find people whose desires are weirder. Everybody can (and probably should) read Savage Love. The idea that some people like to hit each other or some people like to watch other people or some people like to have lots of sex should be old news by now.

  2. DeeDee Ramona says:

    This was an interesting post with lots of food for thought. Thanks for posting it. (However if ballroom dancing can be as much fun as sex, I want to know where the classes in question are being held! :-).

    Or perhaps this was in the USA: a co-worker remembers seeing, in Texas, some years ago, pre-Austin-Powers, a sign for “Shagging Lessons”. For the dance of the same name of course :).

  3. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Thanks for the comments (sorry, Experimental Chimp, your’s got sent to the spam queue, which is why there was a delay in it appearing – it was nothing personal!)

    DeeDee Ramona – Ah, there’s nothing better than a sign put up by some sweetly innocent soul who’s got no idea of what it might mean elsewhere. :o)

    Experimental Chimp – If you’re talking in terms of physical harm, then, yes, of course there’s scope for a lot more of it in S&M – that’s the aim of it, after all. I guess my point was that that kind of physical harm, while it might disturb lots of people, is acceptable, so long as everyone involved has given their consent.

    I agree entirely with your point about wide-eyed programming. I was watching the first episode of the E4 sitcom The Inbetweeners, which is set among a group of 16-17 year olds. They had a scene where several of the boys were asking each other about sex. It was obvious all of them were still virgins, and that’s entirely plausible. But they were also extremely ignorant about the mechanics of sex, in a way that people that age (and a whole lot younger) just aren’t going to be in the internet age.

  4. GentlePath says:

    I’m so glad to have found your blog. What an informative, well written post. Thanks!

Comments are closed.