You hear the phrase, “sex is natural," and variations of it quite a lot. This is a claim many people and institutions make. This argument is often used to justify certain sexual behavior—and its inverse, that a particular sexual behavior is "not natural,” is often used to condemn other sexual behavior. This is a confusing concept, clearly open to all sorts of interpretations, if my Google search results are any measure of the English-speaking human psyche.
When people say sex is natural or that certain types of sex are natural, I honestly do not understand what they are trying to communicate. What do they mean by “sex”? What do they mean by “natural”? Do they mean it is involuntary, like breathing? That we just inherently know about the birds and the bees? That we know how to have good sex and healthy sexual relationships? All this, you and I know, is not true.
Let’s break this down more. (I'm going to set aside the controversy within my field regarding the concept of an instinct or drive for the sake of this post. That's a larger topic for another time.) We tend to define an instinct as something automatic and built-in to humans. Based on that definition, humans seem to have many instincts: thirst, hunger, warmth, safety of self, protecting your child(ren), avoiding known illness and disease, being part of a tribe or group, and maybe even having power or dominating. We believe instinct is an inherent tendency toward life-affirming behavior. It’s a survival instinct, and to survive is a complex process that involves more than just food and water. Sex, then, falls into that category since, the belief is, we need to reproduce in order to stay safe and survive. (The hole in this argument is that for millennia pregnancy and childbirth were real threats to women’s and infants’ survival.) We need others to help take care of us in order to survive and we help take care of them.
So based on this definition, sex is an instinct. Humans have hormones and urges and thoughts that combine to create an internal sensation of “being horny." And what usually follows is wanting to express those thoughts and emotions via behavior.
That being said, just as with other so-called natural and innate human instincts, sexuality is vulnerable to anxiety, meaning that the drive can be overridden or manipulated by various thoughts, feelings, or competing motivations. And as with any other drive or instinct, that anxiety can interfere with the external behavioral demonstration of it. Think eating (eating disorders) and voiding (elimination disorders). Same thing.
If sexual behavior was natural, I probably would not have much of a job as a mental health professional who specializes in sexuality. Because people just would not struggle with sex nor need my services. All of us would know how to do it; again, like breathing. None of us would have to think about it. For example, people with penises would only experience ED due to purely medical causes like diabetes; psychological influences wound be a nonstarter and when they took Viagra it would work 100% of the time. And people with vulvas would not struggle with sexual interest, desire, or orgasm and then worry about the impacts these would have on themselves or their relationships.
These two examples show that while the sexual instinct is perhaps built-in, it does not come with built-in knowledge about how to have sex or what to think about sex. Sexual behavior is not natural; it is learned. And sexual behavior is learned as a result of whatever sex education a person has picked up. Sex education comes from so many sources—family, religion, school, the law, media, peers, even trauma. Most people who find their way to my office tell me that their sex education was a series of brief and disjointed messages cobbled together from those sources over the span of their lifetime. What I do in my office is a form of sex (re)education, dismantling those erroneous beliefs and replacing them with more accurate ways of thinking which lead to more enjoyable and fulfilling sexual behaviors, experiences, and relationships.
So when you hear “sex is natural," remind yourself the sexual drive may be innate, but that sexual information, sexual ethics, and sexual behavior is learned. It’s time we become more sophisticated in our understanding of this notion so we can move the collective cultural conversation forward.
© 2020 Diane Gleim