ABC’s “Am I normal?” (probably not)

Yesterday I watched an ABC documentary called “Am I normal?” that was pitched as a program that would explore a whole spectrum of sexual behaviours that are not as readily discussed as straight, vanilla sex. I was up for some interesting controversy – some conversations about why we find some behaviours repugnant despite having no moral grounds for doing so, some discussion of sex in private and public and whether that superficial boundary has ever really been respected; and ultimately a genuine depiction of the huge variety of things that different people are in to, in the hopes that sharing knowledge and stories breeds acceptance and understanding.

I was disappointed.

The show covered a gay man who had slept with over 5000 men in public, a straight man who had sex in his car with women so other men could watch, the editor of a magazine marketed to straight men, the owner of a sex shop, a “promiscuous” woman, an author discussing raunch culture, a beauty pageant child, a woman who didn’t like sex and a pedophile.

The pedophile bit at the end really got me.

Firstly, how boring. The majority of airtime was dedicated people who had lots of sex – maybe in public. I’ve got to say, not exactly ground breaking. Why not explore why as a society we believe in monogamous relationships, and whether or not that is the best model to work with? Why not bring in issues of ethnicity and culture and explore the ways in which sexuality operates differently amongst different groups of people, and when groups collide in our rapidly globalizing world?

Secondly, the way the interviews were conducted was incredibly problematic. The interviews were conducted by psychologist Dr Tanya Brown. In the documentary she was not acting as a psychologist, she was a commentator and an interviewer. It was her role to facilitate dialogue. She sought out people to interview; they did not book an appointment seeking help and advice about part of their lives they were unhappy with as they would have if she was approached as a psychologist.

The majority of the interviewees were perfectly happy with their sexual decisions and certainly didn’t want someone talking to them for 20 minutes and then making judgments about their lives. Dr Brown seemed to have difficulty refraining from doing this.

The first interview was particularly grating. It was with a man called Tim Fountain who had had anonymous sex in semi-public places with over 5000 men.  The interview commenced in a public urinal as Tim showed the interviewer the standard “etiquette” to gauge whether or not someone is interested in having sex with you before they moved the interview outside.

Tim said that his first sexual experience was when he was 14 and involved a glory hole in public toilet in London.  Dr Brown predictably turns to camera and summated that his first sexual experience “clearly influenced his sexual development” and went on later in the film to tell him that his desire to have sex in public was a logical development from childhood trauma, where children “have to construct [the experience] positively after because otherwise all they can do is break down”.

Tim laughed.

What on earth is the point of the documentary if instead of exploring Tim’s sexual desires to have lots of public sex; Dr Brown pathologises his desires and by doing so tells the audience that it is not okay. By linking his sexual decisions with trauma she implicitly says that there must be something wrong with Tim for him to want to have sex the way he does. I don’t think she gets to make that call, and I think it’s a destructive message to send out through a documentary that you would expect to challenge some of the normative ideas around sexuality.

She then goes on to make Tim into the poster boy for the entire gay male community (which she conveniently homogenizes) and says that some gay men want to hang on “to the life of the outsider”. She was making a reference to gay men having sex in public spaces because historically homosexuality was not visible, nor accepted, and households exclusively heterosexual places. Her statement implies also that this is no longer the case.

The problem with her gross generalization is that gay men are still discriminated against, gay panic is still a partial defense to murder in Queensland and violent, homophobic hate crimes are ever prevalent. So clinging “to the life of an outsider” is a bit of an ironic thing to say. It’s also horrifically judgmental – not buying into the heteronormative understanding of sex having to be connected with emotional intimacy and thus conducted in private; is hardly “hanging on to the life of the outsider”. Every single interview Dr Brown conducted reinforced and reiterated the heternomative status quo of intimate, monogamous, private sex.

The same attitudes are expressed when Dr Brown interviews a young woman called Catherine who wrote a novel about sleeping with over 60 men. She is presented as the straight, female counterpart to Tim who is part of the “raunch culture” that is supposedly taking over the Western world. Dr Brown challenges whether Catherine’s “promiscuity” will destroy any hope of her having a monogamous, intimate relationship in the future. Catherine responds that of course it won’t; we make decisions whether or not we want to have casual, anonymous sex, or whether we want to have comforting, loving sex or whether we want to have any other type of sex – the fact that Catherine enjoys having a lot of sex does not shut down other parts of her brain and body that may want different things in the future. If Catherine even wants a monogamous, intimate relationship which Dr Brown predictably assumes she must.

The documentary continues along the lines of interviewing different individuals with the pretense of showing a spectrum of sexuality, but rather simply providing a framework for Dr Brown to pass judgment. The most problematic part however was the interview of a self-identifying pedophile Linsay at the end of the program.

Even the dramatic unfold to Linsay at the end makes my stomach turn. She spends the entire documentary subtly condemning Tim, Catherine, anyone who engages in less publicly accepted sexual behavior; only then to turn to Linsay and tell us that having sex in a toilet, sleeping with thousands of men – all fine, when you compare it to a man who wants to have sex with children.

Chill out with the vilification, Dr Brown. That’s offensive to Tim and Catherine, to whom she implicitly says “at least you don’t want to sleep with children”. And it’s a deeply problematic way to present Linsay – as a one dimensional predator.

Firstly, as Dr Brown said “we could fine no evidence to show Linsay had perpetrated a crime”. So he hasn’t actually had sex with any children. Sure, it’s controversial – it’s really controversial. He wants to change the law so that adults and children can have non-violent, non-penetrative sex. He has a “primary sexual attraction to pre-pubescent children” and would like to be able to legally act on those attractions.

I find that challenging, I find it really confronting – I instinctively feel like that’s not okay but he’s agreed to be on the program so we can try to UNDERSTAND his desires, not so Dr Brown can name and shame him. And honestly, I think it’s a disgusting thing to do to someone, – to invite them to be part of a conversation about sexuality and sexual desires and then vilify them for sharing their experiences.

The documentary ends with: “it seems that as we have become more open to new discoveries about how and why our sexual selves work we have also lost the ability to define when behavior crosses over from the unusual to the unacceptable… There is a big difference between what you don’t like and what we label as abnormal – except, when it comes to children.”

From the 58 minutes of Dr Brown that I subjected myself to, I’m not sure she’s become more open to anything.

2 responses to “ABC’s “Am I normal?” (probably not)

  1. This is your problem, Sophie – you reduce everything to ‘choices’ at the expense of our biology and psychology. In other words, its all social science and no hard science for you. You say that, if the promiscuous woman wishes to engage in monogamous relationships later in life, she can simply make this choice and her past will present her with no difficulties. It has been consistently shown, however, that the more partners a woman has sex with before marriage, the higher the rate of divorce (it increases at an exponential level). You are not prepared to accept that certain things change our nature, or even create our nature if they happen in childhood, and that in an instant, a person will be able to change back at will. You put all the emphasis on choice. This is somewhat like those who believe that even the worst and most inhuman criminals can be rehabilitated, because you reduce human nature to autonomous choice, when more often than not, the fundamentals are out of our control. You also write as if you believe that the presenter has a moral imperative to become more ‘open’ to these behaviours merely through listening to what they have to say. This is of course entirely subjective. You may look at the world in black and white, and think that to be more open or ‘accepting’ is just about always morally right. But the world is not this simple. Many people believe that it is moral to be more closed to, or less accepting of certain things and behaviours. In short, you seem to be outraged because the presenter does not agree with your ‘first commandment’ – that to be accepting and ‘open-minded’ towards something in intrinsically good. This is your knee-jerk reaction. Also, the presenter seems to be trained in psychiatry or psychology, and understands that certain actions and experiences can psychologically change us, (eg as many studies have shown: childhood sexual abuse, early loss of virginity, promiscuity in youth, etc) and that we often have no control over their effects. You are outraged that she does not also hold onto the pleasant fairytale that humans can be reduced to their autonomous choices, that things like genetics don’t matter, and that we can limitlessly ‘build’ or ‘create’ our own identities/realities merely through our choices. It surely is unfortunate, but as humans, although there are many things we can choose, we are in many, many areas beholden to our genetics and past experiences which effect us psychologically. This may seem an unpleasant truth to most people (including myself) and downright offensive to somebody who holds equality and autonomy as the highest moral virtues, as it necessarily means that we are unequal, have differing abilities, and natures which are in many areas fixed by factors that our outside our individual control. Unpleasant though it may be, it has always been the truth, and it manifests itself in so much of what we see around us (good and bad) every day. Your cousin.

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    • Hey Alex,

      Firstly I don’t reduce everything to non-biological or genetic factors whatsoever; but we have a long and ugly history of pathologising behaviours and desires in a way that has been incredibly oppressive to groups of people. Homosexuality used to be seen as an illness which justified the institutionalization of gay men in Australia up until the 70s and their “treatment” with awful forms of pseudo therapy. So what I’m saying, is that it’s problematic when a documentary that purports to show a range of different peoples’ sexualities and sexual decisions, then turns around and reverts back to this medical discourse.

      Where on earth are you getting the stats about the number of partners someone’s had increasing the rate of divorce? Also – marriage is not the necessary outcome of a committed, monogamous relationship which is all I said, is that the particular woman in the documentary said the she was confident that IF she wanted she would have the capacity to have a committed, monogamous relationship.

      You said: “you also write as if you believe that the presenter has a moral imperative to become more ‘open’ to these behaviours merely through listening to what they have to say. This is of course entirely subjective. You may look at the world in black and white, and think that to be more open or ‘accepting’ is just about always morally right. But the world is not this simple. Many people believe that it is moral to be more closed to, or less accepting of certain things and behaviours. In short, you seem to be outraged because the presenter does not agree with your ‘first commandment’ – that to be accepting and ‘open-minded’ towards something in intrinsically good. This is your knee-jerk reaction.”

      No – her job is to be the interviewer and presenter in the documentary. I don’t care what her personal views are, but she’s portrayed through her role as being an objective facilitator and by NOT doing that she passes judgements which are not appropriate coming from her in the role of interviewing and presenting the experiences of the individuals on the show. So no, I don’t look at the world in black and white, and no I don’t think that it is intrinsically better to be more accepting of X, Y or Z – but I do think that her job was to present the behaviors and experiences of the individuals in the documentary, not to subtly and subversively underlay everything with her views.

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