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You know those times when you wonder whether your level of interest in sex is higher than average? Or if you’re weird because you’re into sexting — or not into sexting? You’re definitely not the only one.
Pretty much everyone has moments of wondering if their sexual feelings and behaviors are normal or healthy. Fortunately, we know just who to turn to for help: Debby Herbenick, Ph.D, a sex researcher and educator, and the director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at the Kinsey Institute (a leading sexual research institute at Indiana University).
Here, Herbenick answers some common questions about what’s “normal” (and debunks, perhaps, what normal even is):
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Is it normal to think about sex all the time? How much is too much?
A qualified yes, says Herbenick. “It’s common enough to think about it frequently, even frequently throughout the day or frequently throughout a meeting or class.” During certain times of your life, you might think about sex more often. (For instance, when your hormones are running wild during puberty, or if you’re excited about another person.)
“High desire and sexual excitement are not necessarily problematic,” Herbenick notes. But she does say that if thinking about sex (either with excitement or shame) bothers you, and is impacting your work/friends/family/school life, you may want to seek out a therapist who can help you deal with your feelings.
Okay, but what if I just don’t have any interest in sex — at all? Is that normal?
Some people — about 1 percent or less of Americans — identify as asexual, which means they don’t feel sexual attraction toward others. (And yes, asexuality is normal.) But remember, each person is different, and that goes for developing an interest in sex, too.
“Among young people, while most experience some attraction around puberty or high school years, some don’t develop sexual attraction toward other people until they are in their late teens or early-mid-20s,” Herbenick says.
As someone who teaches college students, I encourage my students to listen to the pace and style of their own sexual interests as they unfold, reminding them that there is no one way to grow up and into one’s sexuality.
Is it normal to sext — or to not want to sext?
Yes and yes. “Both are ways that people do or don’t express their sexuality, their interests, and their desires,” Herbenick says. But here’s what’s interesting: She says that despite what you might hear, most teens aren’t actually sexting. In fact, the activity becomes more popular in young adulthood.
Keep in mind, too, that there are grave and serious penalties for many people who sext before they’re 18, or whose partner is under 18. “There is wisdom in being cautious about sexting,” Herbenick says.
Is it normal to be interested in porn? What if I don’t like it — is that normal?
“There’s lots of variation,” Herbenick says. “You’ve got to find your own path.” Some people don’t watch it at all; others watch it for a laugh, because they’re curious, to learn about sex, or because it turns them on.
Is it normal for intercourse to hurt?
Surprise! The answer is yes — for both guys and girls. “Some males overdo the thrusting and hurt their penis, and many — if not most — females find initial intercourse experiences painful,” Herbenick says.
But beyond the first few times, if intercourse hurts even with a gentle pace, you might want to see a healthcare provider. “[Around 8] percent of women may experience chronic genital pain and could be helped by medical attention,” Herbenick says. Other ways to reduce pain: spend more time getting turned on, or try lubricant to reduce friction.
What can I say if someone says my interest (or lack of interest) in sex is abnormal?
Talk about it! Start the conversation by asking what the other person means. Understanding where they’re coming from, and how they developed their ideas about “normal” sexual interest, will help you move forward.
“Share how you feel about your sexual feelings or lack thereof,” Herbenick says. “Some people may be misinformed or ignorant; others may be trying to hurt or shame you.”
In communicating, seek to understand the other person — but take care of yourself, too. Herbenick puts it well: “Ultimately, we can’t control other people’s issues, but can only be responsible for our own.”