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How Do You Define What Is Sexually Normal?

The prevalence of many "sexually unusual" behaviors is surprisingly high.

Source: stokpic/Pixabay

A recent study in The Journal of Sex Research found that nearly half (45.6%) of a Canadian sample of 1,040 adult men and women admitted to a desire for a paraphilic (sexually abnormal) behavior, and just over one-third (33.9%) had actually engaged in at least one.

The study looked at all kinds of ‘unusual’ sexual behaviors (both ‘desire for’ and ‘experience with’) and basically found that many acts typically regarded as abnormal or deviant are in fact reasonably common. Below is a brief summary of the prevalence rates found for various sexual interests (the first number is the rate of desire for the behavior, and the number in parentheses is the portion of the sample that had actually experienced or committed the behavior):

  • Voyeurism: 46.3% (34.5%)
  • Fetishism: 44.5% (26.3%)
  • Exhibitionism, extended—had sex with a partner while someone else watched: 30.6% (30.9%)
  • Exhibitionism, strict: 4.5% (5.0%)
  • Frotteurism: 26.7% (26.1%)
  • Masochism: 23.8% (19.2%)
  • Sadism: 7.1% (5.5%)
  • Transvestism: 6.3% (4.9%)
  • Sex with a child: 0.6% (0.4%)

All of these except for masochism were far more prevalent among men than women. To put this in perspective, a behavior is considered ‘statistically unusual’ if it occurs among less than 16% of the population, and ‘statistically rare’ if it occurs among less than about 2.3% of the population. By these criteria, only sadism, transvestism, and sex with a child would be considered ‘unusual’. The only ‘rare’ behavior here would be sex with a child.


The term paraphilia is often used in a pejorative way, and it's sometimes used interchangeably with sexual perversion. It has been variously defined but most definitions incorporate some element of sexual deviance and/or sexual arousal to unusual objects, situations, or behaviors. In the Fifth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) the American Psychiatric Association categorizes sexual interests as either ‘normophilic’ (normal) or ‘paraphilic’ (non-normophilic). They define normophilic sexual interests as “interests in genital stimulation or preparatory fondling with phenotypically normal, physically mature, consenting human partners.” (APA, 2013, p. 685)

Everything else is considered paraphilic (examples of paraphilia given include voyeurism, sadism, masochism, exhibitionism, fetishism, pedophilia, frotteurism, and transvestism). Although paraphilia isn’t precisely defined, experts often talk about it as being a sexual drive “outside the normal” involving behavior that “deviates significantly from the norm.” Exactly what is ‘normal’ is still unknown.


Given that sexual interests often include fantasies, it’s of interest that a study appearing in the Journal of Criminal Justice and Behavior found that more than 60% of male college students fantasized about sadism and bondage. Another group of researchers found that male college students may even fantasize about BDSM and coercion more often than sex offenders!

A related study reported that nearly 50% of female college students said they had fantasized about an episode in which they had either submitted to force or been sexually victimized. Consistent with these findings, a study published in the Journal of Sex Research found that while 62% of the female undergrad sample had experienced a ‘rape-fantasy’ (going by the legal definition of rape), only about 45% of these were completely erotic.

Evidence such as this would seem to suggest that fantasies categorized by the DSM-5 as paraphilic are reasonably common (or at least not all that uncommon) among the general population. However, to fulfill DSM-5 criteria, a sexual fantasy/urge would have to be at least as intense as a ‘normophilic’ interest for it to be considered a paraphilia.

A large Canadian study of both men and women found that while many people may fantasize about things which are not considered ‘normal,’ the most common sexual fantasies are more conventional. Below are the 10 most common sexual fantasies reported by each gender (the numbers in parentheses represent the portion of the sample that reported at least one fantasy of this kind). The gender difference is interesting, but probably not too surprising.


  1. Taking part in fellatio or cunnilingus (87.6%)
  2. Having sex with two women (84.5%)
  3. Having sex with someone that I know is not my spouse (83.4%)
  4. Having sex in an unusual place, such as in the office or in a public toilet (82.3%)
  5. Watching two women make love (82.1%)
  6. Ejaculating on my sexual partner (80.4%)
  7. Having sex in a romantic location like on a deserted beach (78.4%)
  8. Giving cunnilingus (78.1%)
  9. Masturbating my partner (76.4%)
  10. Having sex with more than three people, all women (75.3%)


  1. Having sex in a romantic location like on a deserted beach (84.9%)
  2. Having sex in an unusual place, such as in the office or a public toilet (81.7%)
  3. Taking part in fellatio or cunnilingus (78.5%)
  4. Giving fellatio (72.1%)
  5. Being masturbated by my partner (71.4%)
  6. Masturbating my partner (68.1%)
  7. Having sex with someone that I know who is not my spouse (66.3%)
  8. Being dominated sexually (64.6%)
  9. Making love openly in a public place (57.3%)
  10. Having sex with more than three people, both men and women (56.5%)

However, fantasies are very different from reality. There is a very strong social proscription against non-consensual sex, as there should be, and many other paraphilic behaviors. Thinking about something (or reporting having thought about it) is entirely different from actually doing it. For example, most respondents that report having experienced a ‘rape fantasy’ are emphatic about not wanting to ever have such an experience.

Looky-loo (voyeurism)

I enjoy a good steamy sex scene as much as the next guy but this does not make me a voyeur. Voyeurism goes beyond simply liking to watch people engage in sexual behavior. Secret observation is an essential element of voyeurism but it may also involve taking some kind of photo or video. Clinically, voyeurism is a serious psychosexual disorder in which a person derives sexual pleasure and gratification from looking at the naked bodies and genital organs, or observing the sexual acts of others.

A study of young male college students found that more than half (52%) acknowledged some kind of interest in voyeurism. In a different study, including women, nearly two-thirds of the college-aged sample said that they would engage in voyeurism if they could be certain that there would be no consequences. The question is, would you?

The overwhelming majority of research examining voyeurism reports a strong gender discrepancy. This is one of the very few pastimes in which males are the more frequent ‘observers.’

A Swedish study concluded that the best predictor of voyeurism is frequent use of porn. According to estimates by the porn industry, about 80% of consumers are males, and they're almost always flying solo.

Fifty shades of kink (BDSM)

Once viewed as the domain of creepy perverts, BDSM has crossed over and with the unprecedented success of the Fifty Shades franchise, is more ‘mainstream’ than ever.

BDSM is really more of an umbrella term encompassing a variety of erotic practices. The term is generally interpreted as a combination of abbreviations: B/D (Bondage & Discipline); D/S (Dominance & Submission); and S/M (Sadism & Masochism).

These days BDSM is associated with imagery such as tight-fitting leather, gags, and whips, although the BDSM community may include crossdressers, body modification enthusiasts, bondage enthusiasts, rubber fetishists, and many other fringe groups.

The Kinsey studies in the middle part of the 20th century found that as many as 24% of men and 12% of women had at least some kind of erotic response to sadomasochistic stories. It’s of interest that nearly all of the people in the study were middle-class Caucasians. A study of almost 3,000 American adults that took place in the 90s found lower prevalence levels. Only 14% of men and 11% of women reported having had an experience with sadomasochism. The numbers were similar for prevalence rates of dominance and submission.

In case you think that BDSM was only popular back then, a study by Durex (the condom guys) recently found that roughly 37% of people in the UK have engaged in some form of bondage or blindfolding.

Strut your stuff (exhibitionism)

Deriving enjoyment from getting your bits out and showing everyone really isn’t that common. Chances are that when you get called (or call someone) an exhibitionist you’re not necessarily referring to the clinical definition. Strictly, exhibitionism involves some kind of achievement of sexual gratification from indecently exposing one’s genitals, generally to a stranger or group of strangers.

In a Swedish sample of nearly 2,500 people aged 18 – 60, only about 3% reported at least one incident of having felt sexually aroused due to exposing their genitals to a stranger. Unsurprisingly, the prevalence was higher among men (4%) than women (2%). Similar results were found in a large Canadian sample of 1,040 adults, with strict exhibitionism being reported by around 5%. The study also asked about extended exhibitionism (having sex with a partner while someone else was watching), with over 30% having had experience with this act!

What nice shoes you have (fetishism)

Fetishism is probably one of the more common paraphilias.

When many people hear the word ‘fetish’ they think of things like shoes or undergarments. Arousal caused by shoes or feet makes up only a portion of what fetishism actually is.

Generally the fetishist focuses on the obsession of an object (not always shoes) and the sexual arousal resulting from seeing or interacting with that object. The article of desire is typically held, rubbed, or smelt for sexual gratification. But fetishism can also involve arousal due to behaviors or situations.

In a 2016 study, more than one-quarter of the young males sampled (28%) expressed an interest in fetishism. However, actually engaging in fetishism (or at least admitting to having engaged in it) may be considerably less frequent. A study of 2,765 American adults reported that only 11% of men said they had engaged in some kind of fetishism. 1 in 9 is still pretty high (statistical rareness would be closer to 1 in 40), but again, thinking about something is very different from actually doing it.


Of all the different types of paraphilia, none provoke more of an emotional reaction than pedophilia. This is generally considered a psychiatric disorder. Pedophiles have a sexual preference for children, who are legally, morally, and psychologically unable to reciprocate the interest. Some pedophiles act on their thoughts, some don’t.

To be clear, pedophilia is unequivocally illegal and morally unjustifiable. Confessing a sexual attraction to children is basically laying claim to one of the most reviled statuses on the planet.

As it happens, pedophilia is exceedingly rare. The Canadian study referenced at the start of this article found that less than 0.4% of individuals had ever engaged in an act of pedophilia. As alarming as 4 in 1000 is, it is statistically anomalous.

Although pedophiles are notoriously hard to identify, due in part to the overwhelming social proscription against pedophilia, about 1% of the population is considered an upper limit for the incidence of this perversion.

It rubs me the wrong way (frotteurism)

Frotteurism is perhaps one of the more unusual paraphilias but is apparently reasonably common. It typically involves rubbing one’s pelvic area against a clothed stranger (or non-consenting other) for the purposes of sexual gratification (crowded buses or trains). As with most paraphilias, frotteurism is more common among men (specifically 15-25-year-olds) than women.

Acts of frotteurism generally carry legal consequences, thus self-reports of the behavior may underestimate its incidence. Dr. Mark Griffiths, Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Gambling Studies at Nottingham Trent University, says that based on the literature, about 30% of adult men in the general population have committed an act of frotteurism at some point.

The Canadian study referenced at the start of this article found that in an online questionnaire, 32.2% of respondents (men and women grouped together) said that they had committed at least one act of frotteurism in their lifetime.

Man, I feel like a woman (transvestism)

We need to be clear because there is some confusion about the terms transvestite, transsexual, and transgender. A transvestite is a person of one gender (typically a heterosexual male) who derives some enjoyment from dressing in clothing traditionally associated with the opposite-sex (a cross-dresser). A transsexual is someone who has medically changed their gender to the desired gender. Transgender is a more general (and politically correct) term that includes transvestites, transsexuals, and anyone else who feels as though they don’t conform to typical gender roles.

Contrary to popular belief, transvestites are usually heterosexual. Most have wives or girlfriends, and most transvestites want to remain men.

This is one of the few paraphilias that possibly gets an over-representation in mainstream culture. The truth is that transvestism is probably less common than most people think. A Swedish study found that less than 3% of men had any experience with transvestism in their life. In Canada, the prevalence rate among women is about the same, but it is more than double this (6.5%) among men.

So what is ‘normal’ sexually? Well, it’s definitely not well agreed upon. The rise and rise of the internet has probably made it easier for people from ‘fringe’ subcultures (masochists etc.) to seek out and find like-minded enthusiasts. Chatrooms and forums may lead to increased understanding, awareness, and maybe even validation. The bottom line is that nearly half of us admit to doing or thinking about doing something which isn’t considered sexually ‘normal.’

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