Is it abnormal for a mountain to be behind schedule? Today’s mountain, promised as a guest blog in The magical age of 10?, is running a bit late, which is my fault entirely, not the author’s. I should also apologise to other guest writers whose work is in the pipeline: be assured, your excellent contributions are not forgotten. Today’s blogger is Jim Hunter, who has a Master of Social Work degree and has spent most of his life working in the mental health field. A number of his articles have appeared in professional journals, mostly related to psychotherapy, and he writes fiction under the pen-name Jay Edson. He manages a web page, You Are Your Story, for minor attracted adults and those wanting to know more about them.

In the novel, A Galaxy of No-stars (pg. 190) a mother writes to her son who lives separately from her. In an effort to help him sort out a confusing mixture of thoughts and feelings about sex, she shares with him her some of her views on the subject:

Everyone’s got a different landscape. And that’s a good way for it to be. Their ain’t no gay nor straight nor pedo nor bi, and certainly no normal or abnormal, no more than you can say about an ocean or a continent, this one here is normal, and that one is abnormal. Each person is just his or her own landscape which like any landscape is a mixture of things. We just find ourselves among all these hills and forests with all the living things within them, and sometimes we find joy in their beauty and other times we tremble at the dangers that might pop out at us at any moment. To always see the beauty while at the same time never forgetting about the possible dangers – that is the way I think we should live. Beautiful and dangerous are useful words. They define real things that happen to us and around us – things we can know and see. But “normal” and “abnormal” – what use are those terms? When I look around me I don’t see no normal or abnormal. I see beautiful and ugly and loving and hateful and helpful and dangerous – but no normal or abnormal. Those are life-killing words. Those are words narrow people use to try to put life in a little box because it’s too big and unruly for them to accept on its own terms. Normal and abnormal? Pah! Show me an abnormal mountain.

The biological sciences were furthered by the development of an overarching taxonomy. Kingdoms were subdivided into phyla and on down the line through classes, orders, families, genera and species. Every critter had its place and, while it may not have known who it was and where it fit, the biologist studying it did. Medicine took things a step further. Not only did it develop a taxonomy of diseases, but it added an additional concept: normal. Some physiological conditions were “normal” and others were “abnormal.” That seemed to produce beneficial results, so it was logical to take a similar approach with regard to human behavior. A person might be a schizoid, borderline, or narcissistic personality, or a sociopath, or a manic depressive, etc. In the sexual sphere the human sciences began with a set of categories (and prejudices) that were common in the popular culture, and refined them. In this case people were defined as homosexuals, bisexuals, pedophiles, sadists, masochists, asexuals etc. This provided us with a taxonomy of human beings, some of whom could be designated as normal, and others abnormal. So why might this effort to bring order to a confusing plethora of data be problematic?

Several reasons.

The first has to do with the taxonomy itself. If one draws a 2X2 table with adult or child across the top and male or female across the side, and then fills in the various boxes in accordance with the strength of the attraction a particular person has in each category, we don’t know whether the results from a large population of people will produce clear cut patterns that actually correspond to any of our ordering schemes. There may be, in effect, as many sexual orientations as there are people. I may find both pubescent children of both sexes, and adult women quite attractive; a friend of mine reports that only men and boys are appealing to him; and someone else is attracted only to girls between the ages of 8 and 13. Are we to create new terms for each of these constellations? Perhaps a limited number of patterns really can be identified. However, at this point we have only limited and inconclusive research on this. Blanchard et al. (Sexual Attraction to Others: A Comparison of Two Models of Alloerotic Responding in Men, Arch Sex Behav., 2012, February; 41(1): 13–29.) have made an interesting beginning, but the most their findings would be able to demonstrate is that some patterns may be more common than others. It is almost as though biologists created its taxonomy as an act of pure reason, and then went out to actually look at the plants and animals they were categorizing. It seems probable that the sort of carelessly tacked together taxonomy of sexual types that we presently have is an impediment rather than an aid to research.

For the non-scientist who is just trying to get on with his or her life, the taxonomy can have an additional problem. To become identified with one’s type – I am a hetero, a gay, an asexual, or whatever – could lock a person into just that, rather than the multifaceted person he or she really is. The expectations of one’s friends as well as one’s own self-expectations can become a cage from which it is difficult to escape.

The second concern is that when we are dealing with people who manifest various human desires and behaviors, we are dealings with continuums – not with discreet entities. We all manifest borderline characteristics to one degree or another. Most, if not all people are capable of at least some degree of sexual attraction to children. One study, for example, showed that “20% of the current subjects self-reported pedophilic interest and 26.5% exhibited penile arousal to pedophilic stimuli that equaled or exceeded arousal to adult stimuli.” (Hall, G.C.N., Hirschman, R., Oliver, L.L., Sexual Arousal and Arousability to Pedophilic Stimuli in a Community Sample of Normal Men, Behavior Therapy, 26:4, Autumn 1995, pp.681–694.) One must assume that some degree of arousal is a common occurrence with a much larger segment of the population. Some more and some less. This is not the case with species. We don’t have a continuum of animals, some of which are more foxy than others. Any particular animal either is or is not a fox. It’s a binary kind of thing. The same is true of actual diseases. A person may have a mild case or a bad case of pneumonia, but one either has it or not. Pneumonia does not gradually blend into measles.

The next two questions concern the word normal. “Normal” is a slippery term. Dictionary definitions include, not deviating from a norm, occurring naturally, characterized by average intelligence or development, free from a mental disorder, and falling within a certain range within a normal distribution curve. The connotation of “undesirable” clings to the term in common usage. Is it undesirable to be unusual or not average? If someone is unusually tall or intelligent, they are not “abnormal,” as the term is usually used. A-sexuality appears to be fairly unusual, yet on what basis can we say that it is abnormal? Certainly it is not appropriate to designate a feature of a person’s personality as pathological simply because it varies from the average. The writers of the DSM manual have struggled with this, but have arrived at no universally accepted, and certainly no objective or scientific, criteria for making such a judgment. Because of the slippery nature of the terms “normal,” and “abnormal” there are many situations where it is far from clear what is actually being said when these words are used.

As the debate in a previous DSM revision about whether homosexuality is normal made clear, the criteria by which something is judged to be abnormal are always value laden, and relative to the cultural assumptions of a particular time and place. When the term “normal” is used in a discussion that purports to be scientific, it is generally loaded with less than explicit political and moral agendas. Indeed, it would seem that the most common uses for the term in both the mental health industry and in general discourse is to suppress, demonize and/or marginalize populations that are, in the popular imagination, undesirable; or to deny some aspect of human nature that is common but not currently valued. The word “normal” is a Trojan horse by which unacknowledged judgments with regard to the disgusting, unacceptable and perhaps immoral nature of the category of people being talked about are smuggled into the dialogue. It is, to be brief, generally a term of repression used to smother the natural diversity of life.

In almost all cases there are other terms that can be used that would allow us to say what we mean without such ambiguity. If we say that something is useless, most people would know what we mean. Likewise with such terms as harmful, or ugly, or illegal or immoral (though these last two terms are sometimes confused.) I would grant that the term “immoral” is subject to a variety of definitions, but at least most people would understand that it refers to a violation of a moral principle of some sort. And while “ugly” may be rather subjective, most people would know what you were saying if you used the term. Not so with abnormal. Only the connotation remains constant through most of its shifting denotations: always, it means undesirable, and perhaps disgusting.

Still, perhaps there are “abnormal mountains.” Perhaps mountain-top-mining produces just such a thing. Certainly this kind of mining produces results that are ugly. Few would deny that this mining technique is destructive. I would go so far as to say it is immoral. But abnormal? Hmm. Perhaps so. Perhaps real abnormality is produced when human beings interfere with natural processes in ill-conceived and intrusive ways.