just asking questions

How the Internet Changed What It Means to Be Normal

Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

In 2014, Alexa Tsoulis-Reay saw an “Ask Me Anything” thread on Reddit by a man with two penises, which inspired her New York column where she interviewed people with unusual sexual preferences and other life experiences. In “What It’s Like,” which Tsoulis-Reay wrote from 2014 to 2018, she talked to all sorts of strange people, from a man in a relationship with a horse to a person with a crippling fear of vomiting to a blind carnival worker who lost 350 pounds. In her new book, Finding Normal: Sex, Love, and Taboo in Our Hyperconnected World, Tsoulis-Reay explores how the internet has changed what it means to be normal by chronicling the stories of all sorts of unusual people who have found community online. Some of her subjects aren’t too out there, like the chapter on people in relationships with a 40-year age gap. But she also gets into more uncomfortable territory, like internet communities for people who experience GSA (genetic sexual attraction) and are in incestuous relationships.

Intelligencer caught up with Tsoulis-Reay to learn more about all the peculiar people she got to know while writing Finding Normal, why we’re so fascinated by their stories, and more.

What made you want to write a book about aberrant sexualities and the internet?
I had been working on that interview series for New York, and I really embraced the project. I got to talk to people who I wouldn’t normally talk to and whose stories were usually distorted in tabloid form. When some of the stories in my column went viral, at first I couldn’t really understand why they produced such outrage and such a polarized response. That made me want to report on these stories and reflect on some of those larger concerns.

I felt a duty to actually report some of the more controversial chapters, like the one about incest and zoophilia, which came from some of my more controversial interviews for “What It’s Like.” I wanted to give context and history and scratch the surface a little more.

In Finding Normal, you talk to someone who is asexual and aromantic and someone else who was engaged to her own father. Why did you choose such a wide range of subjects?
It was difficult. I didn’t want to compare anyone. My focus was always on how new media technologies may be implicated in how we find ourselves and construct our identities. I wanted to look at a lot of interesting ways that’s happening. I focused on sexuality because that’s such a fundamental part of who we are, such an intimate part of our identity, and I thought it would be a good lens to explore the broader relationship between technology and identity.

But when you’re writing about identity and sexuality in a book, even if you don’t want to be comparing things, when they appear alongside each other, that’s sort of the outcome. I didn’t want to suggest that being in an age-gap relationship was the same as being asexual or any of the other experiences in the book. I spent a lot of time refining that, aborting ideas because I didn’t feel comfortable, but in the end, I decided I just needed to write about the most compelling experiences that inspire a gut reaction in the reader.

Did the process of reporting and writing your book change your opinion about anything in a way that surprised you?
I was so surprised that I related to the characters in the chapter about horse sex. I would have never thought that I’d report on that sort of thing, that I’d be traveling to Canada to meet someone who is in a long-term relationship with a horse. I found his experience so compelling because of how driven he was to find a place where he felt comfortable and where he knew who he was and how all-consuming that’s been. I was surprised at how I was able to put my judgments aside.

I also wanted to explore where our judgments come from and why we have strong reactions to certain sexualities. Is it based on things we’ve seen in the media? Is it based on things we’ve been told throughout our lives? I didn’t want my book to be advocating for anything. I’m not saying consensual incest is fine — because it’s not. But I wanted to be able to talk about these things without judging or advocating, which is difficult to do.

In the chapter about consensual incest, you catch up with Shelly, the woman engaged to her father who you interviewed in your New York column. You write that you struggled with whether to tell Shelly that she should end her relationship, which she ultimately did. Did you ever feel like you should’ve intervened?
I was so worried about her, and I couldn’t believe she could go online and find a world where what she was doing was okay and really believe it. I don’t know, should I have intervened? I didn’t feel like it was my role to step into her life. But I was so conflicted. It made me question whether I even wanted to be involved in journalism. At the same time, I thought someone needed to write about it because it was happening. When she finally realized that her relationship with her father was abuse, I was so relieved.

In the book, I don’t take the position that technological change is bad or that everyone goes online and gets normalized into bad lifestyles, but there is absolutely a way we engage with the internet where that sort of thing can happen. And Shelly’s story is a testament to that.

Do you view the internet as a neutral force? Do you think it’s changed what it means to be normal?
The internet is a part of us. We created it and use it, and it’s developed in the way it has for a reason. It’s just an extension of who we are as humans. There are certain parts of it, like the immediacy and how so much information is archived, that facilitate new communities and identities in ways that aren’t necessarily new, but they’re transformative.

The internet has created so many ways to be normal, to be comfortable, to find your people and who you are. At the same time, it’s also created new ways to police other people and rewrite boundaries.

Why do you think people are so fascinated by people with aberrant or unusual sexual preferences?
Of course, there’s a lot about it that titillates people. It’s fascinating because it’s so shocking. But also, in lots of cases, I think it confirms our normality. If you see someone who’s different from you, who’s living a life that’s more extreme, it makes you feel more secure in yourself, like, “At least I’m not like that.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How the Internet Changed What It Means to Be Normal