Am I Normal? The Answer to the No. 1 Sex Question

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It’s the top question people ask sex experts. Am I normal? By “normal,” most people mean sexual variations that are commonplace and do not cause physical or psychological harm. Here’s the short answer: If you’re not perpetrating sex crimes—sexual harassment or assault, or child sex abuse—you’re almost certainly normal, even if you think otherwise.

Who Asks the Most?

Here’s the longer answer: For many, sexuality causes tremendous anxiety, especially those raised in sex-negative households with parents and religions insisting on abstinence until marriage and then sex only for procreation. When those raised with such messages confront their natural sexual urges, they’re among the most likely to wonder whether they’re normal.

Seventy-five years of sex research shows that most sex has nothing to do with conceiving children. It’s usually about giving and receiving pleasure.

If you’ve ever wondered whether you’re normal, consider these findings:

I think about sex constantly. Am I normal? An Ohio State survey of 283 young adults showed that sexual thoughts vary widely from none a day to hundreds. On average, the men thought about sex 19 times a day, the women, 10 times. Assuming 16 waking hours, the men thought about sex every 50 minutes, the women every 90 minutes. Frequent sexual thoughts are normal.

Meanwhile, many social and religious conservatives admonish their children not to think about sex. This often backfires. An Israeli researcher surveyed sexual thoughts among 1,500 Jewish Israeli adolescents, some secular, the rest ultra-Orthodox. The latter reported significantly more sexual thoughts.

My fantasies include sex with people other than my partner, multiple partners, BDSM, same-gender sex, exhibitionism, and voyeurism. Am I normal? For his book Tell Me What You Want, Indiana University sex researcher Justin J. Lemiller, Ph.D., conducted a huge survey of Americans’ sexual fantasies. The most common sex fantasies involved:

  • Sex with a partner other than one’s main squeeze or sex with multiple partners—threesomes, swapping, swinging, orgies, and gangbangs. Among women, 87 percent reported this fantasy, men 95 percent.
  • BDSM. Women 96 percent, men 93 percent.
  • Sexual novelty. Almost two-thirds dreamed of oral and/or anal play, especially those who did not engage in them in real life. More than half fantasized sex in unconventional places: in public, on beaches, at work, or in parks, bars, elevators, and hot tubs.
  • Taboo sex. Almost two-thirds (60 percent) admitted fantasies involving incest, exhibitionism, and voyeurism.
  • Consensual non-monogamy. More than two-thirds (70 percent) admitted fantasies of swapping, swinging, or playing in sex clubs.
  • Homoeroticism. Same-gender reveries were more common among women than among men (59 percent vs. 26 percent).

I engage in solo sex. Am I normal? Self-sexing is the world’s most popular form of lovemaking. An Indiana University study of several thousand Americans shows that 94 percent of men and 85 percent of women admit having caressed their genitals to orgasm, and 75 percent of men and 67 percent of women admit having self-sexed during the previous year. Unfortunately, self-sexing continues to be stigmatized. The figures above are undoubtedly underestimates. Meanwhile, more than half of American women own at least one vibrator, and few use them in partner lovemaking. At any age, masturbation is normal.

I know solo sex is normal, but I do it every day! Am I normal? Unless solo sex interferes with life necessities—school, work, family, friendships, and other obligations—it’s fine. Almost everyone dances. Some dance more than others. Some danced professionally for hours a day. All dance frequencies are normal. The same goes for self-sexing.

I had partner sex before I married. Am I normal? Around 97 percent of Americans are not virgins when they marry. Among fundamentalist Christians the figure is 80 percent. In other words, more than three-quarters of Americans whose religion insists on virginity until marriage ignore that commandment. Premarital sex is normal.

I caught my children engaged in sex play. Is that normal? UCLA researchers asked parents to keep diaries noting anything sexual in the lives of their 200 sons and daughters from birth through age 18. Parents witness only a fraction of child sex play, but the parents saw three-quarters of their children masturbating and reported that half engaged in sex play with peers, typically touching each other’s genitals. The researchers found zero correlation to later psychological distress, none.

Minority Pleasures, but Normal

Many types of sex are minority pleasures, but those minorities can be huge, meaning they’re normal:

  • Sex without intercourse. Many Americans—the elderly and those with chronic conditions or disabilities (more than 100 million)—can’t have vaginal intercourse. They make love in other ways, notably oral sex and toy play. That’s normal.
  • Anal play. By age 50, 40 percent of American adults (100 million people) have experimented with the many varieties of anal play: oral-anal (analingus), sphincter massage, fingering, toy insertions, or the least popular variation, penis-anus intercourse. Anal play is normal.
  • Consensual non-monogamy. Twenty percent of American adults (52 million) have tried polyamory, threesomes, swinging, and group sex play. Normal.
  • LGBT+. Eleven percent of American adults (29 million people) are not exclusively heterosexual. They’re lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or asexual. Normal.
  • BDSM. Kink is more popular than many believe. Indiana University researchers surveyed 2,021 American adults. Many enjoyed sex mixed with elements of BDSM: spanking (30 percent/78 million), Dominant/submissive role playing (22 percent/57 million), restraint (20 percent/52 million), and whipping/flogging (13 percent/34 million). Normal.
  • Exhibitionism/voyeurism. The Indiana team also found that 43 percent (112 million) had played in public. That, too, is normal. Just be careful. Sex in public is usually illegal.

Sexual Inclinations: Not Predictable

As education increases, Americans tend to become more amenable to sexual experimentation. And compared with social and religious conservatives, liberals and those who profess no religion also tend to be more experimental.

But the demographics obscure a greater truth. Anyone can be into anything. Most social conservatives oppose abortion, premarital sex, school sex education, homosexuality, and non-monogamy. But plenty of conservatives do what they disapprove of and enjoy anal play, sex toys, BDSM, threesomes, and swinging. There’s even an evangelical swing group, Liberated Christians, in Phoenix, Arizona.

If sociologists know your zip code, education, occupation, religion, and income, they can predict with reasonable accuracy your politics and the movies you enjoy. But they would know next to nothing about your sexuality. Each of us is sexually unique. Anybody can be into anything. Unless you’re committing sex crimes, virtually all sexual play is normal.

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