What is normal: An analytic approach

In an earlier post, I touched on a particular problem: not only do I not conform to what is “normal”, it is far from clear what “normal” is, or if “normal” even exists.

I think this is particularly a problem for aces. Aces must often identify what is normal in order to resist it, but at the same time they don’t have direct experience with what is normal.  If aces are too confident in their perceptions of the normal, this could lead to offensive views of allosexuals (e.g. the notion that allosexuals are constantly horny). If aces are insufficiently confident in their perceptions of the normal, this can lead to crippling self doubt.  So here I outline my analytic approach to the problem.

First, I want to make a distinction between social norms and perceived norms. Social norms are always relative to some particular social context, whether that context is “the English speaking world” or “my high school friends”. Perceived norms, on the other hand, are relative to a particular individual. For instance, I might be haunted by a perceived expectation that I be horny all the time. Whether or not anyone actually expects me to be horny all the time, my feelings are real and valid.

Though perceived norms are real, it is not always the case that they map to social norms. For example in one of my favorite books, there’s a scene where the protagonist is told by her (abusive) friend that wanting to have sex is very weird and definitely not normal. The feeling that she is a freak is real, but it does not correspond to any social norm, and instead says more about her (abusive) friendship.

Alternatively, a perceived norm could correspond to a social norm, but not the social norm that you think it does. For instance, you might think that people who don’t drink alcohol will be ruthlessly mocked, but it turns out that this is only true in some contexts, such as your alma mater.

There’s one more concept I’d like to introduce, which is a rejected norm. A rejected norm is a norm that nearly everybody (within a particular social context) is aware of, but rejects. For instance, in my social circles, everybody knows about the concept of machismo, but it’s never espoused sincerely, and it’s only ever brought up to be an object of criticism. It’s puzzling why people are so passionate about it, since machismo doesn’t seem to actually exist as a social expectation. But the thing is, many people have interacted with, or grown up in other social contexts where machismo is/was an accepted norm. Furthermore, there can still be power behind a narrative whether or not anyone is explicitly expected to follow the narrative.

Now let’s consider a scenario that we’re all familiar with: I perceive a norm, and wish to complain about it on the internet. Here are several possible comments which I might receive:

1. “I feel the same way!”

It’s satisfying when other aces share my experience, because that indicates that it’s not just a perceived norm, but also a social norm, possibly a widespread one. On the other hand, I tend to be self-critical, so one of my reactions to agreement is, “Maybe we’re both wrong!” Maybe the social norm is not widespread, and we just happen to live in similar social contexts (college-educated millenials, for instance). Or maybe we are both perceiving a rejected norm. Or maybe it’s just coincidence that we are both perceiving similar norms.

This also raises the question of why my experience needs to correspond to a widespread social norm. Well, some people are worried that their identities are based on faulty perceptions. Also, if I were a popular blogger, I might want my writing to be widely applicable. But even if it’s just my personal perception, aren’t my feelings still real, still valid? Even if it’s just related to a few social contexts, isn’t that still a thing?

2. “That’s not true! I feel expected to be the opposite of that!”

It can be dismaying to hear that other aces have completely different experiences. I might wonder, “Are my feelings still real?” Yes, they are. Aside from that, maybe we perceive conflicting norms because there are simply conflicting social norms. Or maybe the norms we perceive are each relative to different social contexts.

This disagreement process, while uncomfortable, can be important to learn about intersectionality. For example, there have been times that I’ve perceived norms somewhat differently from most of the ace community, and I’ve been able to attribute it to being a man or being Asian-American. That intersectionality is something I wouldn’t have been able to figure out on my own.

3. “I’m allosexual, and I feel the same way!”

There’s a subtle menace in having allosexuals share the same experience. I think this problem was best captured by Miri Mogilevsky, who distinguished between normalization and validation. To normalize is to help someone feel more normal, perhaps by telling a story of a similar experience you had. To validate is to recognize and support their experience. Sometimes people try to normalize an experience and it comes across as invalidating.

But of course, the allosexual is probably sincere, and maybe I just share an experience with some allosexuals. People with different labels can have shared experiences and that’s okay. (Also related) So maybe there’s a social norm that grates on both allos and aces. Fine!

4. “I’m allosexual, and we’re not all like that!  I think asexuality is just based on offensive assumptions about normal people!”

Sometimes when allos are upset, they might imply that my perceptions are wrong. For instance, someone might say “Not wanting sex is completely normal, so why do you need a word for that?” I think it’s important to recognize that while aces can have difficulties determining what is normal, so can allosexuals. One common problem is that if a person thinks of themself as “normal”, they might believe that the norm is whatever they are personally.  This is sometimes called the typical mind fallacy, and aces generally avoid it by being acutely aware of how atypical they are.

It’s also important to recognize that allosexuals can be offended for legitimate reasons. Maybe I accidentally implied that all allos follow the norm (or maybe they misinterpreted me). Maybe I’ve hit upon a rejected norm that many allos feel edgy about. Maybe they live in a different social context from me, with different social norms. These are all things we can unpack.

In summary, I’ve introduced several conceptual tools to think about the discourse on norms. We start with perceived norms, and from these we infer the existence of social norms within a certain social context. But even if a perceived norm does not correspond to a social norm, it still reflects real and valid feelings.

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
This entry was posted in Articles, asexual identity, Sexual normativity. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to What is normal: An analytic approach

  1. Thanks for writing this. I had a conversation yesterday where I think we ran into difficulties with different perceived norms about sex positivity.

  2. Sara K. says:

    “For example in one of my favorite books, there’s a scene where the protagonist is told by her (abusive) friend that wanting to have sex is very weird and definitely not normal.”

    Is that book ‘Never Let Me Go’ by Kazuo Ishiguro?

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