Does "Normal" Sexual Functioning Exist?
van Lankveld, Jacques, The Journal of Sex Research
The title of this editorial was inspired by the article written by Harris and Vitzthum that appears in this issue of the Annual Review of Sex Research. Much sex research, in particular when working from an essentialist perspective, is aimed at the discovery of regularities in sexual functioning, sexual behavior, and the ways in which people perceive and appraise sexuality. This aim stimulates researchers to focus their efforts and intentions on identifying central tendencies, in other words, on finding averages within homogeneously distributed parameters. We are looking more for sameness than for difference. While we may be successful in gradually unveiling more of such central tendencies in some areas of sexuality, we should keep an eye out for instances where diversity, not homogeneity, is most characteristic of real-life sexual behavior and functioning. As an example, Harris and Vitzthum cogently argue that this applies to several aspects of the female menstrual cycle, such as cycle length, length of the fertile period, and duration of menses. With regard to these aspects of the menstrual cycle, it seems that variation is the rule and regularity the exception. If we adopt this premise of basic irregularity of the menstrual cycle, important consequences ensue for the theory and research that address related phenomena in female sexuality.
And if variation were found to be the rule in many other areas of sexuality, this would have major implications for essentialist models of sexuality that imply the existence of universal mechanisms. When we try to acknowledge the diversity in sexual phenomena, a first step is that we should explicitly consider, for each study that we conduct, which data features can adequately represent the full scope of the data set. Thus, averages and dispersion statistics should not be reported automatically or exclusively. Other features of data distributions, including the range of observed values and the uni-, bi-, or multimodality of the distribution, may be needed to present the full picture.
The a priori assumption of the existence of a "normal" or typical mode of sexual functioning has other important consequences for research. Selecting participants for a study based on the definition of what constitutes a "normal" population might lead to serious selection bias and in the end to conclusions based on what is actually only a select subpopulation. What has been assumed to represent "normal" sexual functioning might thus be based on too-narrow representations of data that might, moreover, be flawed due to an inadequate sampling strategy. It might then indeed be the case that this "normal functioning" in effect is only rarely found out in the real world.
This issue of the Annual Review of Sex Research includes other contributions that question accepted views. De Jong, van Overveld, and Borg challenge extant theorizing on the causal and maintaining factors of sexual dysfunction, in particular of sexual pain disorders. Whereas fear of pain and anxious apprehension of sexual situations by women with vaginismus and dyspareunia have a firm position in etiological models, De Jong and colleagues suggest that disgust and its correlates (disgust propensity, disgust sensitivity) may play a more prominent role. Their position that sexual arousal may serve to override the otherwise dominant proclivity to respond with disgust to many stimuli that are inherently present in the sexual act is thought-provoking.
Minichiello, Scott, and Callander provide a broad overview of the literature on male sex work, focusing on publications from the past 20 years. They describe the many changes--technological, conceptual, and social--that have taken place in the field of male sex work. Their review challenges the conceptualization of male sex workers as "psychologically unstable, desperate, or destitute victims and their clients as socially deviant perverts" (p. 263). The authors argue that these views are no longer tenable in view of the evidence from recent research. …