What’s “Natural” About Sex?

The New York Times Magazine has a great opinion piece this week about how “natural” doesn’t have a specific legal meaning.

We now live in a world in which “natural Cheetos” and “100% all-natural chicken nuggets” are for sale. The anti-vaccination nuts deride medicines that are “unnatural,” forgetting that the goal of all medicine is to defeat nature. Anti-gay folks talk about “natural [i.e., heterosexual] marriage,” as if marriage isn’t an artificial institution like baseball—and, like baseball, is played differently in different places and subject to periodic rule changes (insert favorite rant about the Designated Hitter or former laws against interracial marriage).

One of the top questions about sex people bring to therapy relates to what’s “natural.” There are two different aspects to this.

The first is about the ecology of sexual interactions: making time for sex, the process of initiating, discussing preferences, feeling adequate, and negotiating contraception.

People want sex to be “natural.” Men and women concerned about this generally mean that they don’t want to make dates for sex, want sex to mysteriously happen without anyone actually initiating, don’t want to communicate what they like and don’t like, want to believe that their partner is deeply satisfied without actually asking or noticing, and want the need for contraception to just go away.

In other words, people who insist that sex be “natural” want it to be like it was during high school or college, when no one had a clue about what was going on. You may recall that that sex often came with physical discomfort, pregnancy scares, self-doubt, and feeling isolated or confused. What a blessing that ten or twenty or forty years later, most people forget about that.

Sex in adulthood isn’t going to be like it was in high school or college.

Of course, some adults try hard to reproduce the carefree sex of their youth. So we see some middle-aged people getting drunk to have sex, not a pretty sight. Or adult women who insist that initiating sex is “a man’s job,” or adult men who say birth control is “up to the woman.” In both cases, people seem unaware about how such demands distort relationships. Ditto for the naïve ideas of men who expect their penis to get hard without being touched, and women who expect that men will know what they like sexually without being told or shown.

That’s not how sex works. We may have an excuse for these such ideas when we’re 18, but not when we’re 40. And without making a date for it, most grownup couples don’t usually find themselves suddenly tumbling into bed together for sex—especially if they have kids.

So if your definition of “natural” sex is that it just happens, no one talks, there are no problems, and birth control just disappears—you know, a 1938 black-and-white film with Cary Grant or a modern romance with Scarlett Johansson—“natural sex” is going to be hard to create. And if you can create it, you probably won’t enjoy it.

The second concern about “natural” sex equates it with “normal.” As in “Doc, is it natural to…
…want sex three days in a row?”
…be too tired on your wedding night to have sex?”
…fantasize about threesomes—and neither guy is my husband?”
…think so much about my small penis that I have trouble enjoying sex?”
…want to be slapped the second before I orgasm?”
…fantasize about sex with the babysitter—she’s practically a kid herself!”
…like getting oral sex, but I don’t like to give it?”
…have a bigger orgasm from oral sex than from intercourse?”
…like women with really big butts?”

I think the most helpful answer is “no, these things are NOT normal—because there is no normal when it comes to sex. There are things that are statistically more common than others, but that doesn’t make them superior. Besides, with a global population of five billion adults, something done by only a tiny minority can involve a huge number of people.

Sexual medicine physician Charles Moser says human beings are kinkier than any one of us can possibly imagine. Sex researcher Mickey Diamond says that nature loves diversity; but unfortunately, society hates it. I’d add that society fears it, especially if the diversity involves sex.

My goal has never been to help people have sex that’s “natural,” referring to either the first or second meaning. My goal is to help people let go of the need to be sexually natural or normal, trusting themselves and their partner to simply create experiences that are enjoyable to the two (or more) parties involved. It’s a challenge grownups should embrace, not fear.

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