Sexuality and guilt

I was raised a Christian and most of my values are congruent with Judeo-Christian values, but one concept I’ve never bought into was Original Sin. Many Christians believe that we’re born into Sin and therefore require divine Redemption. I tend to distrust organized religions, as most of them seem to me to be rigid patriarchal hierarchies that claim the authority to be the only authentic interpreters of the ancient texts on which they’re based. Most teach that any sexual activity not sanctified (usually in heterosexual marriage) by their religion or sect is innately sinful. I believe that such teachings have fostered widespread sexual repression and shame in many cultures and have damaged a lot of lives. As a psychotherapist I worked with a lot of people who’d been taught that their sexual feelings were somehow innately sinful, and who felt guilty for perfectly normal sexual thoughts, especially if they acted on them.

“Normal” is a statistical concept, not a moral one. Homosexuality is only “abnormal” in the statistical sense. It’s a sexual variation, not a deviation, and occurs in every known culture. Among the people I worked with on sexual issues were people who thought they might be gay and were terrified by the prospect. Because of their education by homophobic role models in a sexually-repressed society, they didn’t want to be gay; but they felt what they felt. Sexual orientation isn’t a matter of choice. I’m happily heterosexual, but it’s not because I chose to be. It’s just  part of who I am. My brother is gay, and his sexual orientation wasn’t a matter of choice for him any more than mine was for me. I don’t think God condemns anyone for who they’re sexually attracted to.

Masturbation is undeniably a normal behavior. In fact, it’s quite popular. I believe that what somebody fantasizes about when he or she masturbates is their own business and nothing to feel guilty about – as long as it doesn’t lead to irresponsible, exploitive, coercive or violent sexual behavior. (For some sex offenders, masturbation can be a mental rehearsal for things they intend to do; and part of sex offender treatment involves their learning not to indulge in fantasies of criminal or exploitive sexual behavior.) And yet many good, decent people feel terribly guilty for sexual thoughts and fantasies that they would never act out, or even want to act out. The only bad thing about masturbation, as one of my cousins told his son after his ex-wife caught the boy in the act, is getting caught doing it.

Despite outward appearances we live in a sexually-repressed culture, where erotica is a guilty pleasure, nudity is inevitably sexualized, and the display of breasts is okay in advertising and commercial TV shows, as long as no nipples are exposed. I’m concerned about the effects of the widespread availability of porn to young people online; but it might be the inevitable backlash of societal sexual repression, enabled by capitalism and modern technology. I consider “reality TV” shows that attract viewers with the lure of nudity, but blur out the breasts and genitalia, to be more obscene than outright porn – because of their hypocrisy.

In my career I had to educate many people about the normality of their sexual thoughts and behaviors because few of them had received any meaningful sex education, either from their parents or at school. Many women told me that when they had their first period, they didn’t know what was happening. Gay, bisexual and transgender people were often in despair because society had labeled them as “deviants.” Sexual fetishes such as cross-dressing may not be normal in the statistical sense, but as long as such activities involve consensual acts, and nobody is coerced or violated, they aren’t blame-worthy.

One of my “standard raps” to clients who were fearful or guilt-ridden about their sexual predispositions went something like this: “I get it. You don’t want to be gay (bi/trans, etc.), but you feel what you feel. For the time being, there’s no pressing need for you to put a prefix on your sexuality. What we know is that you’re a sexual person, just like everyone else, and that’s okay. Maybe someday you’ll be able to identify a prefix that fits; but when you do that is up to you, not other people. Only you can know what’s in your heart of hearts. What’s important now is that you’re a sexually responsible person. That means you don’t take advantage of other people sexually, don’t have sex with children or other people incapable of giving consent, don’t coerce anybody to do things they don’t want to do, and practice safe sex. Nobody can put a label on your sexuality unless you give them that power. As long as you’re sexually responsible, you don’t have to justify your sexual identity to anyone.”

For me, the next stage of therapy with a person who responded, “But I can’t be gay!” was teaching rational thinking: “I know it’s tough being gay in this society, so I can understand your resistance to considering that you might be gay. But I invite you not to catastrophize. Good things still happen to gay people, things that couldn’t have happened without their knowing who they are. Being gay isn’t awful or terrible unless you make it awful or terrible by your thinking. And it’s better than living a lie.”

It’s my belief that people shouldn’t be judged or condemned for what they think and feel, but only for what they do. And yet a lot of sexually responsible people feel guilty about sexual feelings or fantasies they’ve had. My behavioral prescription for this, as with other self-judgments, is “Learn to distinguish your rational thoughts from your irrational thoughts.” As long as nobody was exploited or hurt, such guilty thoughts are almost always irrational.

Who is normal?

Nobody is normal.

I think normality is one of the most misunderstood concepts in our culture, in that so many people still nervously ask the question, “Am I normal?” It seems that “normal” has come to be equated with “desirable,” is in ten-fingers-and-ten-toes-on-the-baby normal. But it ain’t necessarily so. I, for one, am unapologetically not normal, and have no wish to be seen as normal, conventional or average. I don’t dress funny or anything outwardly apparent, and my  abnormalities are benign: I don’t follow sports. I don’t own a cell phone.  I create strange art. (Check out jeffkoob.com)

“Normal” is a relatively modern social concept, and is based on a statistical idea. It isn’t found in nature, and like “Justice,” only resides in the human brain. On the street, normal correlates to  average, and abnormal has come to have negative connotations. In statistics there are three “measures of central tendency” (mean, mode and median) that produce what we call averages. But there is no values correlation between average (normal) and good, or desirable. Cigarette smoking used to be a normal adult habit when I was growing up. Obesity is normal in our society, as is divorce. Five hours or more of screen time daily seems to be the new normal. Standards of normality change over time.

There’s no such thing as a normal dog or a normal day or a normal rock, let alone a normal human being. While the average American family may have (let’s say) 1.8 children, you won’t find a single family that actually has 1.8 children. Normality is an abstraction, not a reality.

We increasingly live in a world of manufactured situations and pastimes, with a high standard of standardness.  Fashion choices may seem to set us apart, but following fashion just makes us part of the fashion parade. The mass media promote conformity and superficiality as virtues. It’s easy to see why a person who sees herself as a misfit might  long to “just be normal.” But I agree with Frank Zappa, who said that while many people think normality is grand, “normality is not grand, it is merely okay.”

If you’re conflicted or alienated, you may have an unrealistic vision of normality as a desirable destination. But balance, harmony and serenity are better destinations than normality. You are unique, and you need not be normal to live well and happily. People  who strive to be normal may not recognize or cultivate creative potentials within themselves. Original art doesn’t come from normal thinking, and “thinking outside the box” means not thinking conventionally. Extraordinary people are, by definition, not normal.

In my last post I mentioned the “Unconventional Modes of Experience” course in my humanistic psychology graduate program. It didn’t take the same approach as traditional “Abnormal Psychology” courses, as it didn’t have the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM) as a textbook. Instead, the focus was on the phenomenology of madness. I won’t attempt to explain phenomenology in this post, other than to say that its focus is on subjective experience, not objective diagnosis. Crazy behaviors are often the result of unconventional experiences, such as auditory hallucinations. Scientists dismiss such phenomena as mere symptoms. Phenomenologists, like shamans, explore them for meaning.

I later took DSM-based courses and professional development classes to develop my diagnostic skills, but I’ve always appreciated my exposure to phenomenology as an alternate lens to the medical model. A belief underlying my therapeutic practice was that the better I understood each client’s unique experience of being-in-the-world, the better equipped I’d be to help him therapeutically.

I know that gay people didn’t choose to be gay any more than I chose to be straight. Being gay isn’t statistically normal, but it’s a normal variation from the heterosexual norm in every known culture on earth. I worked in therapy with a number of gay people who expressed their longing to be normal, to meet the standards of normality they were raised with in their families and communities. Some knew they’d be shunned if they were labeled abnormal. But what is considered normal is always culture-bound. Arranged marriage is normal in some cultures. That doesn’t mean it’s good or bad, just that it’s what most people do.

As long as you live your life productively and responsibly, and don’t exploit or abuse others, being normal is optional. Being abnormal isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if it’s an authentic expression of who you are. There’s no objective and timeless standard for what’s normal, anyway; so you should feel free to be your unique self. Other people’s judgments may be their problem, and may not have to be yours.