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When It Comes to Sex, How Do We Know What's Really 'Normal'?

Research shows people are much more kinky than we realize.

Lucky Business/Shutterstock
Source: Lucky Business/Shutterstock

Since the dawn of civilization (or at least the modern era), non-normative sexualities have been shamed and stigmatized. With these common attitudes, one would think that sexualities that don't fit into society's neatly packaged box are uncommon. In fact, two recent studies show that "rare" sexualities are actually the norm.

It turns out that everyone's been shaming everyone else for the same things they've kept secret themselves. Projection, anyone?

For the purposes of our discussion, let's create a few definitions. The dictionary definition of non-normative is "not adhering to a standard." In other words, something that is not typical. In this post, I further identify non-normative sex as anything that would not be described as vanilla. What is vanilla? That's a little more subjective, but to keep things simple, let's say vanilla sex describes typical vaginal intercourse, with three or four base positions. That excludes, right off the bat, anything heteronormative in nature. (I am merely trying to establish a baseline; the focus of this post is the research I am about to share.)

Let's begin with a 2014 study published in the prestigious Journal of Sexual Medicine, which surveyed more than 1,500 respondents about their sexual fantasies and determined that almost none were really unusual. The survey breaks down the sexual fantasies into very specific details, and separates participants by gender. Only two types of fantasies were found to be rare, and men and women were found to differ significantly in the amount and content of their fantasies. The two rare fantasies were having sex with a child younger than age 12 (pedophilia), coming in at roughly 1.5 percent (0.8 percent women and 1.8 percent men) and having sex with animals (zoophilia) (3 percent women and 2.2 percent men). [Remember, these numbers reflect the people who were willing to disclose these kinds of fantasies—self-reports like these are notorious for underreporting.]

Other unusual fantasies reported include fantasies around urination—for both women (7 percent) and men (9 percent)—and, for women: wearing clothes of the opposite gender (6.9 percent), forcing someone to have sex (10.8 percent), abusing a person who is drunk, asleep, or unconscious (10.8 percent), having sex with a prostitute (12.5%), and having sex with a woman who has very small breasts (10.8 percent). None of these were found to be unusual at all for men. In general, men had more fantasies than women and indicated a higher desire to experience them in real life.

Of the 55 sexual fantasies studied, which included a wide range of scenarios, 36 were found to be common (more than 50 percent frequency), including all themes of domination and submission, and five were typical (more than 84.1 percent of the sample).

Some other examples, from an article in the Washington Post:

  • 61.2 percent of men and 27.5 percent of women fantasized about interracial sex;
  • 57 percent of men fantasized about having sex with someone much younger, compared with 18.1 percent of women;
  • 56.5 percent of women fantasized about having sex with more than three people, both men and women, compared with 15.8 percent of men;
  • 64.6 percent of women fantasized about being dominated sexually, compared to 53.3 percent of men.

Quoting from the Washington Post article, the authors of the study stated:

“Among women, it was found that sexual fantasies (SF) of being dominated, being spanked or whipped, being tied up, and being forced to have sex were reported by 30 percent to 60 percent… The fantasy of being dominated was significantly greater for women than for men, on average, whereas the fantasy of dominating was statistically stronger for men than for women, on average.”

They concluded:

“Clinicians and researchers should not rely solely on the theme of a sexual fantasy to determine if it is either pathological or unusual… Care should be taken before labeling an SF as unusual, let alone deviant. Although a pathological sex fantasy is easy to diagnose (e.g. involving nonconsenting persons, inducing psychological suffering to the person), we think there is no need to chose specific themes, no need to stigmatize interests toward consenting adults, and an important need to base diagnosis on evidence-based data. The focus should be on the effect of a sexual fantasy rather than its content.”

But hold on. You may ask, wasn't this study about fantasies and not real-life behavior? Yes, and the authors of the study specifically state that about half of women respondents (but a minority of men) stated that they prefer to keep their fantasies in their mind and not live them out. Here's my answer to that objection: Imagine each fantasy is a separate circle, and so we have in our mind 55 individual circles, each representing a distinct fantasy. If we then imagine one large circle to represent the universe of the minds of all 1,500 respondents, and then fill up this circle with the 55 smaller circles, what would that look like? I imagine some circles would be larger, to indicate a higher percentage of respondents answering affirmatively, and I also imagine we will see some overlap between the circles. Try to visualize this as one large Venn diagram.

Let's say each "fantasy" circle is represented by a different color, while the large circle (representing the minds of all respondents), containing these fantasies is white. How much white space would be visible? Even if, on average, each fantasy was identified by only 10 percent of people (remember, most were experienced by over 50 percent), we would quickly find that while some people had multiple fantasies, few (if any) had none. If, as the researchers found, half of the women and the majority of the men wanted to (or had) acted on these fantasies, we quickly realize that we are approaching a majority of people who are into acting on some kind of non-normative form of sex.

In terms of fantasizing, forget it—it's virtually everybody.

Let's move on to the second study, for which I found myself called on by the media as an expert commentator. In an article published in the Journal of Sexual Research, scientists surveyed 1,040 adults in Quebec to see how often they desired or practiced eight sexual behaviors defined as outside the norm in the DSM 5—fetishizing objects; wearing clothes from the opposite sex; spying on strangers; displaying genitals to unsuspecting strangers; rubbing against a stranger; pedophilia; masochism; and sadism.

Overall, almost half of the respondents expressed interest in at least one of these eight behaviors. Roughly one third of those surveyed said they had experienced one of these behaviors at least once. (Remember, this only includes eight behaviors, not the entire constellation of non-normative practices.)

Source: Pixabay

According to a Reuters article:

"Slightly more than one third of people were interested in voyeurism, while 26 percent expressed interest in fetishism or rubbing up against strangers, and 19 percent liked masochism.... Participants either practiced or fantasized about four behaviors so often that it’s difficult to consider them outside the norm, the authors point out."

With this in mind, let's go back to our original definition of non-normative—that which is "not typical." Looking back on all this data, can we truly say that any kind of kinky sex is not typical? What is the exact percentage of people who have never fantasized or acted upon a supposedly non-normative sexual act? We don't know the exact numbers, but based on these studies, I'd say the numbers are very low. Is it finally time to acknowledge that kinky sex is not uncommon? It seems that vanilla sex is truly non-normative.