Recently, I presented information on a group program, entitled “Edging Sexual Norms,” and a person thought this meant I was supporting pedophiles. It concerned me that this person was connecting an abusive sexual behavior such as pedophilia with the consensual non-normative sexuality of adults that is discussed in my program. I assume that others may also be confused or have questions about what I mean by “edging sexual norms,” and so, in this post, I hope to clarify what is meant by non-normative sexuality and why it’s important.
Non-normative sexuality refers to any sexual identity or consensual sexual acts that fall outside of mainstream compulsory heteronormative and/or heterosexual identity or behavior. It is not to be confused with deviant or problematic sexuality, which is harmful to others, absent of consent, and often illegal. This article is about the the healthy practice of sex outside the confines of “normal,” the forms of expressing sexual identities that edge sexual norms and challenge what we view as normal.
“Normal” is a dangerous word when it comes to healthy sexuality. The very idea of “normal sex” is based on Western beliefs defined by heterosexual, white, upper-class, cisgender men. These beliefs enforce and police the way all of us express ourselves sexually. The idea that there is a normal way to have sex places heteronormativity, monogamy, intercourse-based, and paired partner sex on a pedestal, and casts aside perfectly healthy practices as being no different from harmful deviant sexual behavior.
This narrows the many ways available to express one’s authentic sexual self, limiting oneself to a set of scripted, sexual behaviors. For those falling outside the “normal range,” our culture employs shame, guilt, and peer policing to hold firm the norm, thus deeming a multitude of “other” healthy sexual expressions deviant, and those who practice them, deviants. “Be normal…or else.”
Prioritizing this “normal” model of sexuality results in the labeling of a variety of sexual interests as kinky, fetishistic, weird, scary, shameful, and dysfunctional. Labeling is an effective way to cause people distress, shame, and guilt about their sexuality, which is an integral part of self, therefore causing distress in many areas of life. To reduce this shame and guilt is to embrace the pleasure model of sex, while dismantling the sexual scripts that do not serve us.
We’re all born with innate sexual response and drives (or a lack thereof), and our sexual identity is based on these innate responses; they’re an integral part of every person. Our current cultural sexual construct leaves most of us fumbling around in the dark, searching for an acceptable way to fit our perfectly unique sexual selves into the rigid construct that is normative sexuality. To make matters more confusing, it is taboo to talk openly about sexuality, leading to a lack of sex education that includes any discussion of pleasure. This leaves people feeling alone and isolated, with no opportunity to find a way to turn on a light and see that we are all standing in the dark together.
How do we turn on the light and find our way to a healthy, sex-positive view of sexuality? We need new models for “normal sex.” These models need to be based on pleasure, where there is no wrong way to have consensual sex, no expectations assigned to one’s gender, no pressure to perform in a certain way, no fixation on anatomical parts, and no expected outcome. Healthy sexuality includes non-normative sexuality — it is non-normative sexuality.
As a clinical social worker and clinical sexologist, I think it is time for mental health professionals and those seeking mental health treatment to carefully consider labeling sexual arousal/identity as problematic or dysfunctional. Again, labeling those who fall outside of mainstream sexual norms creates more distress and perpetuates confinement of sexual identities. If a person’s sexual interests do not cause others harm, include consent, and are not illegal, then to use words like “disorder” or “dysfunction” implies that the person is damaged. Rather, expressions of non-normative sexuality are better approached from the pleasure model, viewed through a sex-positive lens, and with the goal of reducing shame and guilt.
By: Jan Tate, MSW, LCSWA, MEd, CSOTP
Clinical Sexology and Clinical Social Work – Durham, NC