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Sex, Shame and the Myth of Normality

Everybody lies about sex. There’s the obvious lies: Adolescents who claim they’ve had sex that they haven’t, and adults who claim they haven’t had sex that they’ve had. There are televangelists who preach fire and brimstone on homosexuals, but are revealed to have secret homosexual lives of their own. And there are presidents who deny affairs with interns.

Then there’s lies of omission: People who are embarrassed about what turns them on, and as a result never breathe a word of it to anyone. Or perhaps they’re more than embarrassed — they’re frightened. It was only 40 years ago that Hong Kong had its Special Investigations Unit to pursue homosexuals, driving some people to suicide — or murder. It’s still a crime punishable by death in many countries. It’s no wonder that “the love that dare not speak its name” left — and still leaves — so many people fearful, isolated and ashamed.

But the lies of omission aren’t just about sexual orientation. Few people will reveal their secret fantasies: who they wish they could have sex with, who they thought about when they were having sex, the more exotic things they would like to do during sex. Or even how their mind wanders to what color they’d like to paint the ceiling. They rarely talk about the fact that they want much more, or much less sex (unless they’re convinced that it’s their partner whose desires are abnormal.) And they never talk about desires that are frowned upon by society.

And because everyone lies, either overtly or by keeping silent, we are all kept in our separate cocoons, isolated from others and often convinced that we are the only one with these weird feelings. We do our very best to ignore those feelings and to live a life that conforms to society’s view of normality. But many of us live with a sense that we are flawed, outside the norm and perhaps even monstrous.

The pressure to be “normal” creates a false impression of what “normal” is. Those who feel abnormal take pains to be seen as fitting in, so they self-censor, self-disclosing only things they consider normal. That makes everyone else think that “normal” behavior and feelings lie within a narrow band, which in turn makes them tailor their own self-disclosure to ensure they are seen as normal. And so the need to fit in creates pressure on others to fit in, whose own self-censorship causes more pressure on us, and so on in a never ending cycle.

The truth is that human behavior and human emotions span an enormous range. When my clients have learned to trust me they often talk about areas where they feel different, bad or sometimes evil. And they are usually very relieved to find that they are no better or worse than the vast majority of human beings.

There are three important learnings for each of us. First, being “abnormal” is quite normal. In fact, if you are one of those people whose feelings and behavior conform quite nicely to the accepted standards, then you’re very definitely in the minority. (You’re also very fortunate not to be so burdened.) Second, you’re not responsible for your feelings. You cannot help feeling the way you do, and while you may try to deny those feelings, or stop them from happening, they’re still there, and they’re still part of you. Pretending they’re not you is to hate a part of yourself. Third, and perhaps most important, feelings don’t make you a bad person. Perhaps you have desires and emotions that would make most other people recoil. (And perhaps they’d recoil because they themselves have desires and emotions that horrify them too.) Perhaps you’d much rather not have these feelings. But desires and emotions are a world apart from actions, and it is only your actions that you do have control over.

And so the bottom line is this: Lighten up on yourself. You’re far more normal than you may have thought; it’s not your fault that you have feelings you may not want; and no feeling in the world, no matter how socially unacceptable, will make you a bad person.

(For further reading on this subject, try Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us by Jesse Bering and The Other Side of Desire: Four Journeys into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing by Daniel Bergner.)


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