One of the most frequent questions sexologists get asked around the world is, “Am I normal?”
Exploring the complex dynamics behind this seemingly simple question can help a parent, a teacher or a friend be that little more understanding and supportive when helping someone they care for.
For this article I have chosen to address this question through the lens of sexual orientation.
If a person told me they were homosexual and asked me if they were normal I would first ask them to define the words ‘homosexual’ and ‘normal’.
Let’s explore them together, so we can continue on the same footing.
A popular online dictionary defines ‘homosexual’ as a person who is “sexually attracted to members of one's own sex”
The etymology of the term is from Greek and Latin and is composed by two words, homos, which means ‘same’, and sexualis, which means ‘relating to sex’.
This seems straightforward, however, when researching the word ‘homosexual’, it’s obvious that there are multiple interpretations. Some definitions refer to behaviours, others to sexual attraction, and others to thoughts and fantasy. So, which one is correct?
The same dictionary defines the word ‘normal’ as “conforming to the standard or the common type” or from a psychological perspective “approximately average in any psychological trait, as intelligence, personality, or emotional adjustment”.
The words ‘standard’, ‘common’ and ‘average’ all suggesting that there is a norm against which one can compare something and decide if it is normal.
WE THINK WE KNOW…BUT
However, in popular language the meaning of the word ‘normal’ is far more influenced by perception and beliefs than by actual data and statistics.
For example, would you say that more people suffer from Anxiety Disorder (GAD) than women who suffer from Orgasmic Disorder (FOD) (when orgasm is difficult or impossible to achieve)?
When I ask this question, most people think that GAD is far more frequent. In fact, according to the DSM-5 (a reference book that clinicians use to diagnose and classify mental disorders) the prevalence rate for GAD is 2.9%, far lower than the 10-42% of FOD.
The fact that GAD is openly talked about and referenced to in the media makes it somewhat more present in our collective consciousness, and it therefore gives the impression of familiarity.
Similar cognitive mistakes are often made when assessing if something is ‘normal’.
If we accept that the majority of us don’t readily consult statistical norm tables before answering similar questions, we begin to see how biased our answers can be.
HOMOSEXUAL OR NOT?
Imagine a parent, friend, teacher or educator who is asked “I think I am homosexual, am I normal?” by someone they care about. Imagine that parent to be you. How would you answer?
Labels are generally useful, but sometimes they get in the way. When it comes to sexuality, when misused, labels can be confusing.
The famous Kinsey Scale places individuals across a continuum from ‘Exclusively Homosexual’ to ‘Exclusively Heterosexual’. Within this continuum, there are varying gradations of each dimension, and the recognition that most people would fall somewhere between the extremes; therefore suggesting that most people are a bit hetero and a bit homosexual.
Hold on a second, did I just read that most of us are a bit hetero and a bit homosexual?
Such idea, would definitely go against the commonly accepted, binary view that one is either one or the other, and only some would be both.
Let’s explore a couple of examples. What label would you give to these people?
A person in a male body (with penis), who identifies himself as female and feel they were born in the wrong body
A person in a male body, who identifies as male and is sexually active with men
A person with a female body (with vulva), who identifies as female and is sexually attracted to women, but only sexually active with men
Not so easy anymore, isn’t it?
The number of permutations in the way our physical body, interacts with our fantasy, emotions and behaviours are vast, and to expect to label them all as heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual is too reductive.
One is left wondering whether the word ‘homosexual’ is still useful.
In its 9th edition of the Media Reference Guide, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation discourages the use of the word homosexual, labelling it as an “out-dated…derogatory and offensive” term to many gay and lesbians.
The labels ‘normal’ and ‘homosexual’ are also contingent to external factors like: social norms, cultural background, upbringing, and much more.
ATTEMPTING A USEFUL ANSWER
With so much complexity around terminology, psychological, social, religious and cultural factors, what could be a useful way to help a friend, a student, a son or a daughter to answer their questions?
I want to propose a framework that I use with my clients, which we can all use when addressing similar questions from loved ones.
It’s a 4-step approach with only one aim in mind: seeking to understand. We are not looking to give answers, we are looking to understand, and in the process we aim to help our loved one to also do the same.
The four steps are:
As explored earlier, we are all likely to hold a different definition of ‘homosexual’. We start by exploring the meaning behind the words. This can be achieved by asking our friend to write, draw, speak or sing it; whichever form of expression that works.
To gain an understanding of the bigger picture, we can explore the context to also uncover external factors that may be contributing to the dilemma or distress.
With many of the facts explored, it is time to move deeper and begin to explore emotions. Emotions are powerful drivers or blockers of behaviour, and exploring them can help figure out a way forward.
Finally we explore the judgements that our friend holds about his or her orientation and the impact this has. We are looking for the shoulds and the musts that may create unrealistic expectations.
It takes some practice to ask powerful questions and listen for the telling clues, but everyone has the power to be open, curious and accepting of a loved one who is struggling to understand his or her orientation and reconcile it with external expectations.
Yes, we could definitely attempt to answer the question “Am I normal?” however, any answer, unless informed by accurate statistical data, would be reductive. Most labels are reductive and it is difficult to imagine how the infinite complexities of being human would fit into just a few of them.
In my opinion, as a long as a person is safe by their country’s laws, rules and regulations, and as longs as they are hurting no one, including themselves, they can be ‘normal’ just the way they are.
Celebrating sexuality in its infinite forms can be very liberating…for all those involved.
Be with love.
Thank you for reading my article.
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