How do I know if I’m normal when it comes to sex?

Dr. Mike Dow, PsyD
Addiction Medicine

When it comes to sex, there is no "normal." Sexual desire and what arouses an individual varies widely from person to person. Desire changes with age and differs in men and women. However, there are two key questions I ask my patients to help them to understand their relationship to sex.

First, is your relationship to sex causing you distress or hurting others? If you are afraid of sex due to anxiety, untreated sexual abuse, or OCD and this prevents you from having a healthy relationship, then this is not "normal" - because it's hurting you and preventing you from the happiness you could have in a committed relationship. If you are making impulsive sexual decisions and are putting yourself at risk for STDs and unplanned pregnancies, there may be an underlying sexual addiction and/or impulse control disorder, depression, or ADD/ADHD. If you can't stop cheating even though your love your spouse, there may be unmet emotional needs or childhood issues that may be resolved through couple’s therapy. If you meet diagnostic criteria for one of the paraphilias such as exhibitionism, frotteurism (rubbing against strangers), partialism (e.g., a "foot fetish"), or sadomasochism, then we have to assess if your sexual interests are causing you distress or putting someone else in danger. For example, frotteurism can traumatize others and get you arrested. But, there are elements of some paraphilias that may be part of healthy sexual expression; for example, someone with a "foot fetish" may incorporate this part of the body into foreplay with a significant other.

The second question to ask yourself is: What is it I am trying to achieve through sex? Many times, sex isn't "normal" because you're using it as self-medication: using it to achieve a temporary state or feeling that you could more effectively be getting somewhere else in your life. Some people who struggle with cheating or sexual impulsivity may suffer from low self-worth, and excelling in one's career or becoming a better dad may actually be what you're really craving. If you are desperate for attention and affection, perhaps you could be getting your needs for attention met through family and friends until someone worthy of having sex with enters your life.

Emily Nagoski
Emily Nagoski on behalf of Good In Bed
“Am I normal?” is the question I get asked, in some form or other, more than any other when it comes to giving sex advice.

My typical way of answering the question is to say, essentially, “Yes you are normal, and here’s information that establishes the normality of your particular issue, but at the same time I recognize that your worry about being normal is separate from the actual issue itself.”

It takes more than normalizing statistics to liberate someone from the burden of fear. What can an educator provide?

Typical example:

STUDENT: I don’t have orgasms from penetration. What’s wrong with me?
ME: Nothing! Sounds to me like you’re in the 70% majority of women who aren’t generally orgasmic from intercourse. You’re completely normal.
ME: But you still feel like you ought to be having orgasms from penetration, huh?
STUDENT: Well my partner wants me to be able to, and I want my partner to be satisfied. And anyway, that’s, like, what everyone says is normal.
ME: Yeah. I know. But everyone is wrong. I wish the media and the culture and everyone hadn’t lied to you and your partner and made you feel broken. But they did and you do, even though you’re not. So what could I say that would help?
STUDENT: Well, you could tell me how to have orgasms from penetration.
ME: *sigh* …Okay.

So even if I tell a group of women how to increase their ability to have orgasms through penetration, all the while flagellating myself for the anti-feminism of reinforcing the norms, I’m still promoting women’s sexual pleasure, I’m still calling sex normal, I’m still giving women permission to be at choice around their sexuality.

Not perfect by any means, but progress.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.