Back to Basics #19
My friend Tim — not his real name — was a big, 20-something, incandescent white White guy, who stood out in a crowd; and in a crowd it was that we had the conversation relevant for this blog.
Between classes one day in the mid-1970s, Tim, another of his friends, and I were in the crowded hallway of a big academic building on the Oxford, OH, campus of Miami University. I forget what we were talking about, but Tim's response followed from the conversation; like, it was nothing off the wall, but he commented that he'd never whacked off.
At which point Tim's other friend and I simultaneously got the same cruel, twisted, nasty idea and pulled back from Tim in mock horror, pointed at him, and said, rather loudly actually, "Deviant! You're a sexual deviant!!"
And, of course, Tim was (if not the sort the dozen or so people staring at him might have thought).
By age 20, the great majority of American guys have whacked off and will tell you so, and most of those who tell you otherwise are lying.
Solo sex may not be great sex, but it's a sexual activity, and non-engagement therein by age 20 puts one in a small minority. Tim was, therefore, statistically deviant in a matter concerning sex.
Why, then, is it odd to call him a sexual deviant?
I used this story in teaching the rhetorical mode of Definition, but a fair number of my students objected to my referring to masturbation — I cleaned up the vocabulary — so I changed my approach. I asked instead whether a nun faithful to her vow of chastity was abnormal.
The norm in the US is sex within marriage, and chastity doesn't mean just "not getting any" but not even trying for sex — indeed trying to avoid even strongly desiring sex.
Why does it seem perverse to call a faithful nun a deviant?
I pushed the point back then in part because the issue was being pushed by the dean of my college.
The dean had wanted a series of faculty seminars on key terms and concepts in contention in American culture, but managed to schedule only one seminar, the first, on the word "norm."
In math — "maths" for British readers — "norm" is an informal term from statistics referring to the mode of a distribution: the most common element — except when people use "norm" to refer to the median or mean.
In everyday English, "norm" can mean "average," which isn't a problem, or isn't a problem in itself. Problems arise when "norm" and "normal" take on the meanings of "normative," or even when people pick up loose medical and psychological usage and use "normal" to mean "nonpathological" or when "normal behavior" implies sticking to social norms.
Within some limits — not, say, on the dance floor at one's prom, not instead of sex with someone you desire — masturbation in US culture is statistically normal behavior. Simultaneously, masturbation goes against not only common religious norms, but also Freudian and macho norms, and perhaps nowadays macha norms.
In old psychotherapy doctrines, one is to move on from masturbation and other "foreplay" to real sex. (President Clinton had a kind of [equivocating, misleading] point saying of Monica Lewinsky, "I never had sex with that woman": a point not of law or ethics or one his wife would accept, but a point of language usage; if a blow job is just "foreplay," it's not real sex.)
And in macho theory one would say something like, "Well, I've got nothing against whacking off, I'm sure, and I intend to try it; but I've been getting some much action since I was seven …" — at which point your friends start throwing things at you.
So most people whack off at one time or another, but are condemned as sinners or jerk-offs or, in Commonwealth usage, wankers.
The religious ideal is often no sex until marriage; the macho and maybe modern macha ideal is so much sex that one lacks the energy to masturbate, let alone the interest. And, simultaneously and sometimes contradictorily, many people hold chastity and even virginity as an ideal.
With sex, we can get usefully extreme examples; the major point is that "statistically normal" refers to run-of-the-mill stuff in what is; "normative" refers to ideals, the "ought," "the way things s'posed to be."
We need to be careful with our language here.
We should never casually condemn behavior that is statistically normal. On the other hand, we should thoughtfully and carefully condemn behavior that is "normal but pathological" or "normal but immoral."
We should, uh, normally adhere to cultural relativism and individual preferences and allow "different strokes for different folks"; on the other hand, we shouldn't be so open-minded our brains fall out. Sex with one's slaves was normal behavior among slave owners. We can argue about the morality of slavery in the ancient world; by the time you get to 19th-century America, though, there's no argument, and defenders of plantation life with its casual rape and brutality should be forced to try it themselves for a couple weeks, from the slaves' side.
We also need to avoid celebrating the normal.
Mediocrity is the normal condition of most of us most of the time in most things — by definition — and mediocrity deserves respect, but not celebration (and our standards for the mediocre frequently need to be raised).
And eccentricity and (occasional) harmless weirdness should be encouraged. There is nothing necessarily wrong with deviance. If the world around you is mad and/or immoral, deviance is a virtue.