What is “Normal,” Anyway?

So, you may have noticed that I’m a bit of a deviant. And by “a bit of a deviant” I mean the tagline of this blog is “sex at three standard deviations” for a reason. It’s mostly a joke. I picked three because I deviate from societal norms regarding sex in three major ways (kink, nonmonogamy, bisexuality), and threw in standard deviations on a whim/because I’m a bit of a nerd.

Figure 1: What the hell is this doing in a sex blog?
Figure 1: What the hell is this doing in a sex blog?

It still might be true, though. If you look at the normal distribution, you’ll see it’s divided into sections. If µ in the middle there is your mean, µ +/- one standard deviation is mathematically normal. If we were talking about men’s height in the US, average is about 5’10”, and a standard deviation is about 2.75″, so 68.27% of men will be between about 5’7.25″ and 6’0.75″. That’s our normal range. Between the first and second standard deviation, men who are 5’4.5″ to 5’7.25″ are likely to be considered short, while their analogues on the other side at 6’0.75″ to 6’3.5″ are tall. 95.45% of people should fall within this range. At 3 standard deviations, you’re down to 5’1.75″ or up to 6’6.25″. Only about 1/4 of a percent of men are going to be outside that range. It’s unlikely to pass without comment.

Behavior’s a bit trickier. You can’t treat a sexual identity and behaviors as just one thing, so say we take a persons kinks and preferences and plot each of them according to what proportion of the population shares them. Kissing is going to be well within the norm. Being waterboarded is going to be well outside of it. Sexual proclivities that 2.7 or fewer out of an average sample of 1000 people share are at three standard deviations.

bellcurve2
Figure 2: Placement of points does not represent the result of any research survey. Just threw ’em in at a guess for illustrative purposes.

That’s not to say a more common preference is better, or that a very uncommon one is an excuse for someone to crow about how kinky they are. It is freakish, sure, but only in the sense that it’s unusual. Value judgments based solely on how common a preference is are frankly just boring.

So what does it mean, to have a kink or preference further from the norm?

It can mean stigma.

Visibility helps with this: prevalence of LGBT persons in America varies by survey, but rests pretty firmly at or beyond 2 standard deviations (a recent Gallup poll puts the national average at 3.5%). There’s still rampant homophobia, but acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships is more common than not and trending upwards (more Gallup). Having an unusual kink or multiple partners still comes with the risk of social consequences if discovered. Normalizing a kink in terms of stigma needn’t mean convincing more people to enjoy it, just convincing them that it exists and folks who engage in it can be otherwise normal.

It can be harder to find partners who share your interests.

Again, some of this has been circumvented. We find each other. We have gay bars and clubs for those interested in same sex partners, BDSM groups for kinky folks, swingers clubs and poly meetups for swingers and poly folks respectively. We have the dark corners of the Internet. Still, less common means lower odds of meeting someone who shares whatever you’re looking for (and with whom you’re also compatible generally. That’s still important, obviously). Looking for a smart, nerdy straight or bi male to make out with? They are legion. Higher total number means higher number of potentially compatible ones. Yay! Looking for a smart, nerdy queer person who’s into waterboarding? Call me; I’m thisclose to giving up.

No partner is going to share every one of your preferences. There are too many possible variables, it’s just not going to happen. We prioritize, seek out the things without which we can’t feel satisfied with or properly connected to a partner.

It means thinking a little differently.

Being queer or poly or kinky means rejecting societal norms, to some degree. It can’t be done automatically, because the script isn’t provided for us. We have to think about it, challenge it, build our own systems and articulate our own ideas. We don’t always do the best construction, what with the lack of established blueprints and all, but we do what we can.

So what is normal anyway?

Normal is within 1 SD of the average. Normal is cisgendered and cissexual. It’s heterosexual. It’s vanilla. It’s monogamous. Normal is not better (though a certain subset of them certainly seem to think they are). Normal is not worse. Those of us who fall outside the norms aren’t anointed innovators and bringers of truth to the regular folks. It just means we’re different. Most of the time, I think I’m okay with that.

20 thoughts on “What is “Normal,” Anyway?”

  1. Looking for a smart, nerdy queer person who’s into waterboarding? Call me; I’m thisclose to giving up.

    I hope you don’t. It helps me to know other people are trying.

    I know my experience is nothing like as isolating as yours. But it is also weird to be sexually conservative within the BDSM scene. Sometimes I feel like I’ve opted out of a group that opted out of society, and where does that leave me?

    Being queer or poly or kinky means rejecting societal norms, to some degree. It can’t be done automatically, because the script isn’t provided for us. We have to think about it, challenge it, build our own systems and articulate our own ideas. We don’t always do the best construction, what with the lack of established blueprints and all, but we do what we can.

    *Yes.* You nailed this so absolutely that I’m curious if you have more to say about it in future.

    I think one of the shortcuts is rejecting everything. But that’s a recipe for internal conflict because we can only reject the principles we’re aware of. I’m remembering some of the things that come out of female supremacists’ mouths, e.g. http://submissiveguycomics.tumblr.com/post/77862268132/inspired-by-a-tweet-from-xcrosswords.

    1. I won’t really give up. Waterboarding upsets people though, even in the kink community. It’s like “beatings and blood and bondage and the rest are all totally fine, but waterboarding? That’s torture, Nic; that’s just wrong.” Bah.

      I know my experience is nothing like as isolating as yours. But it is also weird to be sexually conservative within the BDSM scene. Sometimes I feel like I’ve opted out of a group that opted out of society, and where does that leave me?

      Oh dear, let’s don’t compare isolation. It isn’t a contest, and any time one feels distanced or othered from a peer group, it’s unpleasant. When you’re seen as a freak among freaks (as I sometimes am), it almost adds a level of social capital. This is ridiculous for its own reasons, but there are advantages to accompany the isolation.

      I imagine sexual conservativeness in kink would be very difficult. The scene can be so aggressively wanton in the name of personal freedom of expression and sex positivity that they forget that the freedom to reject a hypersexual lifestyle is necessary to actual freedom and sex positivity. Add that any conservative behavior might be met with perception of judgment and…yeah. That sounds tough.

      I think where it leaves you is in an excellent position for reflection and analysis, which is fantastic from a self-actualization standpoint, but still lonely. We need some community around our norms and values, just to keep feeling human. That said, ace and demisexual folks are a part of some kink communities, and beginning to be heard and seen as valid identities. It’s a movement that may help anyone who chooses a less sexual or nonsexual approach to kink for any reason. (Not to mention highlighting the importance of accepting the rejection of sexual advances without guilting, shaming, or associated bullshit. ‘Cause apparently some folks still haven’t gotten that memo.)

      *Yes.* You nailed this so absolutely that I’m curious if you have more to say about it in future. I think one of the shortcuts is rejecting everything.

      I’ve touched on it before when talking about polyamory specifically (http://switchstudies.wordpress.com/2013/10/18/monogamy_is_normal/). Maybe there’s a whole post in the idea somewhere, I shall think about it. (After Frolicon. And after exams.)

      Rejecting everything is indeed a shortcut. It gets easier, too, as a subculture grows and establishes its own norms. Those of us outside even subculture norms still have to cut more of our own path, but you’re right. It’s a major issue that leads to some deeply problematic thinking.

      1. Waterboarding upsets people though, even in the kink community. It’s like “beatings and blood and bondage and the rest are all totally fine, but waterboarding? That’s torture, Nic; that’s just wrong.” Bah.

        LOL! It squicks me too, but you got me to laugh at my squick.

        … they forget that the freedom to reject a hypersexual lifestyle is necessary to actual freedom and sex positivity. Add that any conservative behavior might be met with perception of judgment and…yeah.

        You are reminding me how incredibly lucky I have been. I haven’t been out very much yet – usually I just show up for talks and have to run before people actually start talking – but so far nobody’s been judgmental about the lack of playing. My first real taste of judgmentalism has been in the last comment on http://abjectsub.wordpress.com/2014/04/12/is-abject-submission-bad-for-me/. It’s kind of sad when the best case scenario is that the commenter missed the point.

        Never thought of kinship with the ace people, never even heard of demi. My mind will have stretch marks … :p

        1. I hope you’re lucky enough to have a community that isn’t judgmental or pressuring. I feel like that’s sort of the point of this whole subculture, but there doesn’t seem to be consensus with my opinion. (What is wrong with these people; don’t they know I’m *always* right!?)

          Demisexuality is a term mostly used by people who view themselves as sexual to a lesser extent than normal or in a restricted way. It’s a term I’m vaguer on than I should be (the girl I’m seeing recently said she’s been identifying as demisexual rather than asexual as of not too long ago, and I know what that means for *her*, but not how generalizable the term is from her personal experience.) I’m working on a resources page for the things others have written about better, but haven’t had the time to flesh it out yet. After semester. All the things after semester.

          1. (What is wrong with these people; don’t they know I’m *always* right!?)

            ROTFL!

            Well, I have friends. We’ll see about community eventually.

            Looking forward to the demisexuality resources. Good luck swallowing the rest of the semester!

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