What is normal?

A common question that I think all sexual health workers hear at some point is: “am I normal?”

I don’t love the word normal because I think for many folks it looks something like this:

Normal = common = good/right [and this is problematic for many reasons].

But lots of things are common and not good (e.g., racism) and lots of things are common and not normal (e.g., pain 6 months after an injury). Conversely, plenty of things are not common statistically speaking but totally normal and okay (e.g., queer and trans identities).

What is normal supposed to mean?

Google dictionary says, “conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.” This is an excellent definition, it can really highlight for us our biases because normal isn’t actually inherently good or bad. However, it can highlight for us what our expectations are or what to conform to, which can out us on a number of personal, social, and cultural assumptions.

This also explains why I hate the word normal. I work with people in sexual health and for the most part people are very concerned with whether or not they are normal. I do not feel there is a standard, usual, typical, or expected sexuality that people should have outside of consensual sex. Therefore, sexual assault/coercive is the only abnormal sex in my books even though it’s common. So, if you like being tickled with a feather while hanging upside down as someone plays with your nipples- that’s completely within the realm of normal sexuality regardless of whether or not I like it. In this context, normal can highlight the healthiness or goodness of a thing.

Racism is another important example. I expect most (if not all) Canadians to be racist given our violent colonial history and current colonial practices of favouring dominant white culture and needs over BIPOC populations (no clean running water on Indigenous reserves is an example of a modern colonial act of violence). But even though it is typical, usual, or even the standard for individuals and systems to act in white supremacist and racist ways, it does not mean that is okay and we need to proactively work against this norm. In other words, it’s a big problem that it is so normal.

So… why do I use the word normal at all?

Because it is useful to know what people, including practitioners, believe to be standard, usual, typical, or expected so when that isn’t happening we can do further investigations.

In the medical community normal can be used in oppressive ways as much as it can be used in empowering ways, because again, normal is not actually inherently good or bad. In mental health, we talk about what is normal or abnormal all the time, constantly redefining where to draw that line. Some modalities don’t even believe there is an abnormal, just a spectrum of dysfunctional versus functional way to behave (I bet you can guess where I sit on this debate).

How can the concept of normal be useful in this context? It can help us determine when we need to seek help.

For example, it is normal to have pain for up to 6 months after birth because it is normal for a body to need that long to heal itself. Some bodies heal faster! Some bodies take longer, but if they take longer than 6 months they usually need some kind of further investigation or healing intervention. Meaning, if people know that pain during sex 6 months + postpartum is not normal, they will know it is time to talk to a doctor or pelvic physiotherapist because they body needs some help. We expected the body to heal by then (some folks even put that number at the 3 months mark).

But what kind of birth? Is this number based off births with multiple medical interventions? Should the same number apply to home births? The question of what is a normal birth is highly contentious.

Timeline cut-offs are always foggy because what’s normal for one person may not be what’s normal for another. But if you ever see something as “normal” or “abnormal” in the world of health what they are really trying to communicate is “this is a healthy response from your body doing its thing” versus “your body needs help doing its thing” and that’s important information to have. The medical community has cut-offs to attempt reducing overreactions and underreactions. It’s not a perfect system, but it is what we have for now and it seems to be language that a lot people are using because it makes sense to them. However, I will continue to explore different ways of playing with language that is accurate and understandable. I hope we all do!

Lastly, I would like to remind folks that just because you are experiencing something in your body that is not normal does not mean you are not normal. It does not mean that you failed. It does not mean that you wrong. After reading this article, do you even want to be normal?

My hope is that after reading this article you start your answer with “it depends…”