Sextion: Sex & the human race: Is there a normal?

Brown students often throw around accusatory labels. Heteronormative, relativist, dogmatic and sexist — the list goes on and on. But perhaps no epithet stings more than the label ethnocentric, an accusation that you evaluate the world based on your own biased cultural values.

As a Brown student, Heather HotPants also reflects on her biases from time to time. And today, Heather has something to admit: she’s been a little ethnocentric.

Writing a sex column can be hard. No two individuals are exactly alike, which is why a lot of us run around for so many years trying to find another mate whose sexual and emotional preferences match our own. With people’s wide range of tastes and desires, it’s tempting for a sex columnist to make the occasional generalization about our species. I’ve tried to avoid making blanket statements like “women are bitches” or “men cheat,” but, nevertheless, the temptation exists.

All I can do is write what I know. Any wisdom I’ve imparted has been shaped by my experiences as a white, privileged, heterosexual female. I’ve talked a lot about being heterosexual and being female, but I haven’t spent much time talking about how the white and privileged parts shape my views of sex and sexuality.

I recently came across a shocking article in Psychology Today, which explains that most of what we know in psychology is based on a very small, special population (hint: you’re a member). This special population, which one review in Cambridge’s Behavior and Brain Sciences calls “WEIRD,” is made up of “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic” societies. This group makes up a paltry “12% of the world’s population” but can account for “96% of the subjects whose behavior has been reported in top psychological journals,” according to the article.

One of the most common public notions of Western sexuality is that men masturbate all the time. But, as the Psychology Today article explains, some psychological researchers postulate “today’s habits might be a function of our modern lifestyles rather than innate human behavior.” The article cites the surprising conclusions of two sexual behavior studies of the Aka and the Ngandu cultures in Central Africa. Researchers discovered that neither of these societies “were aware of masturbation.” As it turns out, the widely prevalent  image of an American teen jerking off six times a day in his high school’s bathroom stall doesn’t hold up with sexual practices in many parts of the world.

When pop culture makes blanket statements like “men love to cheat” or “women are emotional,” it’s relying on observations and science based on a very specific population. These generalizations cannot explain behavior on an individual basis and don’t even apply to us as a species as a whole — a good piece of news for those of us wondering why we’re not “normal.”


Until next time,

Questions for Heather? Email her at


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