Let’s have a friendly little talk, shall we, about what’s normal. Before he came out and was disowned by his entire family, this is what my therapy client told his group:
“When my parents were face-to-face with my gay uncle, they were respectful to him, but the moment he’d leave the mockery would begin and he was forever the go-to guy to make fun of. Because of that experience, I always knew that being gay was unacceptable in my family and, as I started figuring out that I was gay, I always kept it on the down-low with my family.”
When we are thrown into situations where we are constantly assaulted by hurtful and chronic ignorance, we tend to harden our hearts to the subject of normalcy. Sometimes we cope with our discomfort with a well-developed sense of humor. Sometimes we explode in angry vulgarity. Oftentimes, we just get really quiet. Sometimes we build walls to protect ourselves from those who feel compelled to share “for your own good.”
For the last 20 years, when it comes to sex, my clients (both gay and straight) have asked in a thousand different ways, “Am I normal?” Pretty reasonable question considering how often the claim, “You’re abnormal,” gets thrown around.
From the son whose evangelical father schedules public exorcism (demon of gayness, you know), to the hetero guy who got caught masturbating once and is outed at the church prayer meeting for his porn addiction, the church has a near unbroken record of violating the trust of the innocent.
We mental health professionals like to forget our own history in this sort of sexual abuse. But, it’s only been a few decades since most of us bought into a worldview that equated a gay orientation to mental illnesses like schizophrenia. This is a little like finding out that your current M.D. used to engage in bloodletting, but he’s grown out of that now. Wouldn’t it still be hard to trust him? It’s humbling to remember that we clinicians used to favor a moral diagnosis over real scientific thinking. This still goes on way too much.
Psychotherapists (at least the good ones) have been humbled. We’d better get a little humility. After all, we’ve been so ignorant so many times that the litany of our sins is a bit overwhelming: homosexuality, miscegenation, sex addiction, porn addiction, and all the rest. We got them all wrong. It was only a short time ago that I overheard another professional talking about a teenager who was masturbating daily. She talked about his “excessive masturbation.” Who decides what’s “excessive?”
Everyone who spends any significant time figuring out what is normal, gays or straight, is likely to get “You always want to talk about sex. Is that all you ever think about?” The technical word for this behavior: scolding.
Scolding is supported by the notion that sex is best addressed as a moral issue requiring a moral diagnosis. It appears to depend on sacred revelations with numerous exceptions carved out for the sexual majority. The same religions that condemn gay sexuality and talk about the need for “healing,” have no problem avoiding prohibitions against divorce. Throughout the early 20th century, it was commonly understood that oral sex, even between heterosexual couples, was a very serious sin and a sign of a sick mind. Then, in the 60s, divorce and blowjobs became pretty mainstream so…the church adjusted. They don’t preach against that stuff anymore.
But, going to an evangelical church (or a mosque or synagogue) for mental and behavioral health information is like going to the hardware store for milk. That is, it is completely and utterly self-defeating. These groups are not scientific organizations capable of compiling information about the normal sexual behaviors of homo sapiens and learning from new data–even if they think that they are the arbiters of normalcy. But really? Were any televangelists ever normal? We’ve all experienced such happy idiots.
Here’s what the science crowd has come up with so far. Ready? It’s so easy that it may seem a bit underwhelming: Sex is only a problem when it causes problems. You really can’t be diagnosed as having a sexually abnormal mental health problem unless and until your sexual behavior is causing “clinically significant distress or impairment.” For the man who enjoys wearing the “just right” pair of marabou slippers with his silky peignoir, may be a bit of a cross-dresser, but it’s not a disorder. He’s not sick for having obvious good taste.
“But my behavior really upsets my [mother, wife, pastor, husband, etc.].” No, that’s not what we’re talking about. Other people’s discomfort with what you do as an individual is about them and they can talk to their own therapist about that. Cross-dressing only becomes a problem with we habitually wear corsets so tight that they result in medical problems…and knowing this, we nevertheless persist in the behavior.
What about being gay? Try this thought experiment: Mentally exterminate all the sexual minorities in the world. What are breeders going to see with the next generation? A faithful reproduction of what we’ve always seen: Beautiful, beautiful sexual diversity. And some fabulous marabou slippers in extra-large sizes.