What Does It Mean to "Make Sex Normal"?
Increasing our comfort talking about sex, gender and bodies
Posted Jun 11, 2013
While writing my previous article about the importance of sex in relationships, I started thinking about the taboo nature of sex in North American culture. In the article I mentioned that “North America is arguably a highly sexualized culture, but at the same time, sexuality is rarely talked about in an open, honest way.” Around the time I posted my article, I came across a TED talk that presents a simple way to alter the stigma associated with talking about sex and sexuality.
Sex researcher and educator Debby Herbenick from the Kinsey Institute of Sex, Gender, and Reproduction has started a new campaign entitled Make Sex Normal. By “normal,” she means making sex, bodies, and gender ordinary parts of everyday conversation. The idea is that if people are more comfortable talking about sex, they will be more in touch with their own sexuality, better able to communicate their sexual preferences and boundaries, and more apt to protect themselves against sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. If more people are comfortable talking about sex, the broader community will be exposed to a range of different sexual identities and preferences and more diverse sexual experiences.
Indeed, the research is clear on this point: greater comfort with the topic of sex yields a host of positive consequences. For example, people who communicate about their sexual likes and dislikes with their romantic partners report higher levels of sexual satisfaction.1,2 Young people who receive comprehensive sex education are more likely to use condoms and take precautions against unwanted pregnancies compared to those who receive abstinence-only sex education.3 And exposure to people with diverse sexual identities contributes to reductions in stigma and prejudice.4,5
My friend, Sheri Roberts, was in an accident at the age of 18 and was paralyzed from the chest down. After the accident, none of the doctors or nurses talked about sexuality with her (when she specifically asked about her ability to have sex in the future, one nurse even responded that she would have more important things to worry about). Today, nearly 15 years after her accident, she talks to young people following spinal cord injuries about sex to acknowledge that sexuality remains a “normal” (and often important) part of their identity.
So although in some ways we live in a highly sexual culture, we rarely hear about real sexual experiences or feel comfortable talking about sex in our everyday conversations. Debby Herbenick’s solution is to create a more sex-positive environment (i.e., where consensual sexual expression is viewed as good and healthy) by encouraging people to engage in conversations about sex and sexuality. If people are so inclined, they can share their acts of sex-positivity with others by posting a photo to the Make Sex Normal tumblr page. In response to this project, I began to think about the things I do to make sex “normal” and thought I would share my list in case it inspires others.
- I write this column, the Passion Paradox, for Psychology Today, and the Sex Musings column for Science of Relationships (see it on the Make Sex Normal tumblr).
- I share these columns and other sex-related postings on my Facebook wall and Twitter feed.
- I talk about sex-related topics with friends and family.
- I give my friends sex-positive books and gifts.
- I (with my sex researcher colleagues) wear sex-themed t-shirts in public when we attend sexuality conferences.
- I attend events that celebrate sexual diversity, such as gay pride and the feminist porn awards.
- I keep sex-related books on my bookshelf at home.
- I talk about my sexual preferences with my romantic partner.
- I display sexual artwork in my home office (I also once took a flight from Las Vegas to Toronto with a vulva pillow).
- I talk about sex and sex research in the media, at academic conferences and in my undergraduate classes (this has led to many interesting and insightful conversations over the years).
Although as an academic and a sex and relationship researcher, I am afforded certain opportunities to discuss sex in a public forum, other people will have different opportunities to engage in conversations about sex in their own lives. For those who have children, one way is to have open conversations about sex and sexual diversity with your kids at home. Another way is to share your experiences and challenges with sexuality, pregnancy and childbirth, and sexual pleasure with your friends. Finally, another way is to share the Make Sex Normal TED talk and this post with your social network.
1Babin, E. (2012). An examination of predictors of nonverbal and verbal communication of pleasure during sex and sexual satisfaction. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, online first doi: 10.1177/0265407512454523
2MacNeil, S., & Byers, E. S. (2005). Dyadic assessment of sexual self-disclosure and sexual satisfaction in heterosexual dating couples. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 22,169-181.
3Kirby, D. B. (2008). The impact of abstinence and comprehensive sex and STD/HIV education programs on adolescent sexual behavior. Sexuality Research & Social Policy 5, 18-27.
4Walch, S. E., Sinkkanen, K. A., Swain, E. M., Francisco, J., Breaux, C. A., Sjoberg, M.D. (2012). Using Intergroup Contact Theory to reduce stigma against transgender individuals: Impact of a transgender speaker panel presentation. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 42, 2583–2605.
5Pettigrew, T. F. & Tropp, L. R. (2006). A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 751-783.