What Counts as Normal?

“Different” is not the same as abnormal or unhealthy.

Posted Nov 07, 2011

What is the most emotionally fraught word in the psychological dictionary? I bet it is not "sex" or a less polite synonym, nor any profanity. My guess is that the word that makes us fret the most is "normal."

If you think you are different from other people in some way, and have no way to evaluate what that difference means, you probably wonder whether you are "normal." In a wonderful book with a telling title, Sex is Not a Natural Act, psychiatry professor and former sex columnist Leonore Tiefer spelled out five meanings of "normal." (As for the title, she's serious about that. She believes that sex is not a natural act.)

Five Meanings of Normal

Because Tiefer's book is about sex, I'll use that topic for the examples. The meanings of normal, though, are not specific to that topic.

1.      Statistical. Measure what you are interested in—frequency of sexual activity, or type of sexual behavior, for example. "Whatever behaviors are most common are normal; less frequent ones are abnormal." Tellingly, Tiefer adds, "In the United States today, 'too little sex' has joined 'too much sex' as cause for worry."

2.      Cultural. What is considered normal vs. deviant in your particular culture at your particular moment in time? Tiefer believes that this is the standard most of us use most of the time. What is important about it—and what Americans often do not fully appreciate—is that what is considered abnormal or deviant at one time or place is often seen as perfectly normal in another. An example from Tiefer: "In much of Oceania, mouth-to-mouth kissing was long regarded as dirty and disgusting, and yet in Europe and North America it's a major source of intimacy and arousal."

3.      Subjective. "I am normal and so is anyone who is the same as me." Tiefer believes that this is everyone's secret favorite definition.

4.      Idealistic. "Perfect, an ideal to be striven for." An example: "Those who model their behavior on Christ or Gandhi...are taking an ideal for their norm, against which they measure all deviations."

5.      Clinical. A definition based on scientific data showing that the behavior in question is linked to a disease or disability. Example: "A particular blood pressure or diet or activity is considered clinically abnormal when research shows that it is related to disease or disability."

Asexuality, Lack of Interest in Sex, and Normality

A few years ago, readers started asking me about asexuality. I did some reading and wrote this post, which quickly became one of the most popular of all of my posts. Since then, when I come across a book relevant to sex, I always look for the topic of asexuality. Usually, it is just not there.

Sometimes, though, a topic that may have some relevance to asexuality (without necessarily being the same thing) appears under some other term, such as "absence of interest in sex" or "low sex drive." Here's what Leonore Tiefer has to say:

"Who's to say, for example, that absence of interest in sex is abnormal according to the clinical definition? What sickness befalls the person who avoids sex? What disability? Clearly, such a person misses a life experience that some people value very highly and most value at least somewhat, but is avoiding sex 'unhealthy' in the same way that avoiding protein is? Avoiding sex seems more akin to avoiding travel or avoiding swimming...it's not trendy, but it's not sick, is it?"

[To call something clinically abnormal] "I would want to see that there were negative consequences to the person's well-being other than a sense of shame or guilt from being different."

As long as people such as Leonore Tiefer continue to remind us that different is not the same as abnormal, enlightenment and consciousness-raising will have some wins, and fewer people will feel pained about their own variations from the norm, when there are no harmful consequences. One such step forward occurred just this fall, when the 40th anniversary edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves included "asexual" in its glossary of sexual orientations.


1.      Sorry I've been away from my personal blog, "All Things Single (and More)" for a while. I have a web person working on making the blog and the website more efficient and less subject to glitches. I should be posting again there very shortly.

2.      I have also received some suggestions for improvements to Single with Attitude, so that will soon work better, too. For example, the feeds will now load more quickly and there should be no more problems catching all of the feeds from all of the relevant blogs.

3.      Do continue to let me know of any problems anywhere, though. I really want all of these sites to be useful and to offer good experiences to visitors.

4.      Finally, I've been preoccupied with getting these sites to work well, so I haven't been contributing to the comments sections but I've been reading the comments and lots of great points and stories have been posted there. Thanks, everyone.

IMAGE CREDIT for World of Cow:

By StiK, follow on twitter @stiktoonz Stik's shop at