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Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2008

It’s Perfectly Normal

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Last week, I received a call from a free-lance writer working on an article for a national magazine. Her editor had instructed her to contact owners of sex toy stores across the country to gather tales of the newest, juiciest and most titillating trends that we were seeing among our customers. While I appreciate the fact that reporters are always looking for something fresh to write about, I was momentarily stumped by her request. The truth is that a large part of my time as a sexuality educator is spent answering the same questions over and over again, and many of these questions simply revolve around people’s concerns about being “normal.”

In our competitive society, it’s common to compare ourselves to others and wonder, “Are other people doing something that I’m not?” This is especially true of sex and relationships (for example, one college student asked me, “Is it abnormal to be nearly 20 and still haven’t done anything more than holding hands?”). From the time we start playing doctor as little kids, we’re both curious about other people and worried that we won’t measure up. My answer to the student was that if holding hands was what felt right and made her happy at this time, then it doesn’t matter where you fall on the sexual bell curve—what’s “normal” is going to be different for every individual.

The flip side of the concern that you’re not measuring up is worrying that you enjoy something that would horrify others. An anonymous question that I received during a workshop asked, “Are golden showers bad or wrong?” (The term “golden showers” refers to urinating on someone or being urinated on as part of sex play.) I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to people who are anxious that a sexual quirk of theirs somehow makes them sick or immoral. These folks usually look immensely relieved to hear that, “Yes, I’ve been asked that before,” and, “No, you are not the only person on Earth who finds [insert behavior of your choice here] enjoyable.”

We also tend to be concerned about our fantasies (a typical question: “Is it bad to imagine that you’re doing it with someone else?”). Our sexual fantasies are a place where our imaginations can run wild, and it’s common to fantasize about something that you wouldn’t want to do in real life— something that would, in fact, be harmful to yourself or someone else if it actually happened. The fact that it sometimes seems that we don’t have control over what turns us on can really freak people out, especially if the things that turn us on are naughty, taboo or forbidden.

Those questions about being normal may not be very juicy, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that the majority of people just want to know that their sexual activities, thoughts and feelings are OK. The media simultaneously glamorizes and condemns sexual activity that is positioned as “outside the norm” (just ask all the toe-tapping, diaper-wearing, prostitute-patronizing politicians who have been dragged over the coals in the news during the last year or so). Seeing this, it’s no wonder that many of us live in fear of our desires. My answer to all those who worry is that if what you are doing is safe, if you are not harming yourself or some one else physically, emotionally or socially, then don’t stress about being normal. Remember the old adage, “The only normal people are the ones you don’t know very well.”

Laura Anne Stuart is the owner of the Tool Shed, a feminist sex toy store in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. She has a master’s degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade.

Want Laura to answer your sex and relation ship questions in SEXpress? Send them to her at laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura can not provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clari ty and content.

To submit questions online, visit ExpressMilwaukee.com/sexpress.

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