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What is (normal) sex?

How normal sex is defined within sexual medicine and sex therapy, and alternatives opened up within sexual communities.

Meg John Barker

on 14 February 2014

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Transcript of What is (normal) sex?

Revisiting Rubin's charmed circle:
What is (normal) sex?
'Sexualisation' of culture
The charmed circle: Good, normal, natural sex
The outer limits: Bad, abnormal, unnatural sex
The outer limits: Remain excluded, marginalised, stigmatised, pathologised
The charmed circle: Normal + Great (hetero) sex = imperative
Mainstream sex therapy understandings of sex
Alternative: Sexual communities understandings of sex
Functional / dysfunctional
Normal / abnormal (paraphilic)
Sex and sexuality as:
Plural/diverse (not singular)
In progress/fluid (not fixed)
Opens up possibilities & potential to reduce distress - mindful sex therapy
Feeds sexual distress - balancing normal & great sex without 'something unspeakable skittering across'
Rubin, G. (1984). Thinking Sex: Notes for a radical theory of the politics of sexuality. In C. S. Vance (1992), Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. pp. 267-319. London: HarperCollins.
Barker, M. (2012). Rewriting the Rules: An integrative guide to love, sex and relationships. London: Routledge.
‘Most people find it difficult to grasp that whatever they like to do sexually will be thoroughly repulsive to someone else, and that whatever repels them sexually will be the most treasured delight of someone, somewhere … Most people mistake their sexual preferences for a universal system that will or should work for everyone’ (Rubin, 1984, p. 283)
Functional/dysfunctional model
Normal/abnormal model
Bisexual communities
Kink communities
Slash fiction
Asexual communities
Kaplan (1979) model: DSM categories
Desire -> Excitement/Arousal ->Orgasm
“Desire” phase disorders:
i Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder
ii Sexual Aversion Disorder
“Excitement/arousal” phase disorders:
i Female Sexual Arousal Disorder
ii Male Erectile Disorder
Orgasm phase disorders:
i Female Orgasmic Disorder
ii Male Orgasmic Disorder
iii Premature Ejaculation
Pain disorders
i Dyspareunia (both genders)
ii Vaginismus
Historically and socially constructed (previous pathologisation of masturbation, same-sex sex)
Goal-oriented, not pleasure-oriented (erections and orgasms rather than ‘erotic imagination’)
Creation of ‘good’ ‘normal sex’ – anything outside seen as inferior (Kleinplatz, 2003; Denman, 2004; Rubin, 1984)
Functional/dysfunctional model
Fixed notion of sex:
Certain kinds of bodies
Towards (male) orgasm
Active men
Passive women
Normal/abnormal model
Paraphilias: ‘Intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors generally involving (1) nonhuman objects, (2) the suffering or humiliation of oneself or one’s partner, (3) children or other nonconsenting persons (p.566)
302.4 Exhibitionism
302.81 Fetishism
302.89 Frotteurism
302.2 Pedophilia
302.83 Sexual masochism
302.84 Sexual sadism
302.3 Transvestic fetishism
302.82 Voyeurism 302.9 NOS
E.g. Sexual Sadism (DSM-IV-TR - slight changes to DSM-V - disorder)
A – Over a period of at least six months recurrent , intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviours involving acts (real, not simulated) in which psychological or physical suffering (including humiliation) of the victim is sexually exciting to the person.
B-The person has acted on these sexual urges with a non-consenting person, or the sexual urges or fantasies cause marked distress or interpersonal difficulty.
Slippage between transgressive and coercive: ‘fantasies, behaviors, or objects are paraphilic only when they lead to clinically significant distress or impairment (e.g. are obligatory, result in sexual dysfunction, require participation of nonconsenting individuals, lead to legal complications, interfere with social relationships) (DSM IV, p.568)
Often not perceived as a problem by individuals: ‘These individuals are rarely self referred and usually come to the attention of mental health professionals only when their behaviour has brought them in to contact with sexual partners or society’ (DSM IV,p.566)
Transgressive behaviours may just be socially frowned upon: ‘Neither deviant behaviour (e.g., political, religious or sexual) nor conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are mental disorders, unless the deviance or conflict is a symptom of a dysfunction in the individual as described above’ (DSM IV, pxxxi)
Changing social mores reflected in a ‘scientific’ taxonomy: Homosexuality, nymphomania, satyromania, erotomania
Charmed circle – heteronormative
Challenge to importance placed on gender
Definition: attraction 'regardless of gender'
Gender compared to eye colour
Diversity of genders
Multiplicity of practices Multiplicity of reasons
Sensations, e.g. dripping candle wax, pinches, slaps, stroking with feathers.
Role-play, e.g. police/criminal, pirates, teacher/schoolboy, medical.
Bondage, e.g. handcuffs, elaborate rope harnesses, ribbons, chains.
Discipline, e.g. spanking, beating, and other punishments.
Dominance/submission, e.g. ordering someone, waiting on someone.
Being looked after, e.g. massage, worship, aftercare following scene.
Exhibitionism, e.g. dressing up in kinky gear, playing in public.
Focusing on fetishes, e.g. wearing clothes, shoes, enjoying materials.
Humiliation, e.g. being told to do things that embarrass you.
Giving up control and responsibility and letting go.
Having fun, being playful, enjoyment, creativity, imagination.
Exploring different roles and identities, being somebody else for a while.
Reaching a state of calmness and relaxation, or even bliss or meditation.
Feeling in control and powerful. Doing something you do well.
Showing how much can be endured. Building self-confidence.
Intimacy and closeness with another person, sharing emotions.
Confronting the stuff you find scary or difficult.
Getting really looked after, treated well and cared for.
Questions gender & attraction
Challenges space & time in relation to sexual acts
Challenges pathologising of lack of sexual attraction
Questions the sexual imperative
Rubin's circles revised
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