People love a good story. We tell tall tales, legends, and mythologies about all aspects of our lives. Some of these stories are fun and harmless but some can cause large and lasting problems. When it comes to sex and sexuality, we may have grown up being told that certain myths and misconceptions about sex were solid facts.
6 Sex Myths We All Need to Stop Spreading
Because we got the wrong information from the start, we often lose the ability to distinguish what is fact and what is a lie that we have internalized so deeply it appears to be transformed into truth.
Here are six sex myths and the truths that dispel them. By recognizing where we have accepted, often unhealthy, misconceptions about sex, we can unlearn things that are toxic tropes and relearn a more inclusive and expansive vision of sexuality.
1. Sex Only Counts IF...
"Did you go ALL the way?"
How many of us heard that in our teens? A sexual home run always meant penetration. If a penis wasn’t in a vagina it just didn’t really count. Even for LGBTQIA youth the “ultimate” sex act is often focused on one body part going into another. The reality is that sex is a buffet of different delicious options, none being more real or official than any other.
The mechanics of what goes where doesn't need to be the focus; the most important part of a sexual encounter is that the participants feel pleasure and feel valuable to each other.
Discovering what sexual pleasure means to you is a journey we all need to take. Whether it's with our hands or with high-quality sex toys, learning how to harness your body's pleasure is an important step that many of us are not taught (or even told to consider).
2. Sex Hurts
Right alongside the focus on penetration comes the idea that sometimes sex just has to hurt. Whether it is the myth that the first time a vagina is penetrated it should bleed or that anal sex requires numbing lube, we are taught to think that we have to accept painful sex.
Here’s the truth—sex shouldn’t hurt, ever.
If it hurts that is because your body is telling you, “Hey this is dangerous and not good for me, so we need to stop.” Your body is wise and over millions of years of evolution have built an excellent warning system in the form of nerves and neurons. Listen to them!
Learning that sex shouldn't be painful goes with learning what sexual pleasure means to you. Discovering what feels good to you and what doesn't feel good is some of the most important sex education you can learn. One of the best ways to learn what you like is to explore your body on your own, either with your hands or with a sex toy (again, something that most sex ed classes skip over). Self-discovery provides you with the time and opportunity to really focus on your pleasure and learn what you like, what you don't like and where you want to draw your boundaries.
If any form of sex hurts, adjust and evaluate. Talk to a healthcare provider to make sure there isn’t an underlying cause but no, numbing lube is never the answer.
3. Masturbation Is Only for the Lonely
Poor masturbation, it gets such a bad rap. Seen as an option only for the desperate, the lonely, the undesirable—solo sex is filled with cultural stigma. Masturbation is often a punchline to tell us how sad a character in a story is. The truth is, while not everyone masturbates, most people do.
The stigma around masturbation being for the lonely often extends to those who own sex toys. The notion that sex toys are for those who "can't get some" is simply incorrect. Sex toys provide us the opportunity to explore our pleasure in ways that we may not be able to with our own hands or mouths. They provide us with the chance to experience new sensations and stimulations, and to dive deeper into our pleasure and sexual wellness.
Research has shown that there are many health benefits, for people of all genders, to auto-erotic stimulation. For survivors of trauma, masturbation can be a tool for healing, and knowing your own body makes you a better partner. Even in a relationship knowing how to meet your own sexual needs leads to more satisfying partnered sex.
There is no shame in the masturbation game!
4. Youth Equals Better Sex
Oh to be young! There is a reason we almost only see youthful actors in media ads, as social media influencers, and as the epitome of sex appeal. Society wants us to think that sex is at its best when we are young. The farther away wrinkles and grey hairs are the more mind-blowing and exciting the sex…or so we are told.
The truth is that sex can be even better the older we are. With age comes wisdom; we've found our voice, can communicate our desires, and can create relationships and experiences that are more satisfying than the sex of our youth. Furthermore, no ones age should hold them back from trying new thing. There are always the opportunity to change routines, spice things up and discover new forms of pleasure.
Does sex look different with age? It can. But does different mean worse? Absolutely not.
5. Gender Determines Sex Drive
You know how men/boys are (wink, wink). I cannot count how many times I heard that as a teen, the point being to warn me that boys only wanted me for sex and that men only want one thing. Girls and women are told that we only want romance and love, not an orgasmic release.
The damage that these messages do is far-reaching and long-lasting. For people raised and socialized as women, there is the struggle to embrace and be affirmed in our sexual needs and desires. For people raised and socialized as men, the hypersexualization of their bodies can lead to shame, pressure, and being told that they cannot have been victimized.
Many male survivors say that because their body responded to stimulation during an assault, they were told they wanted it or that they should be grateful for any sex they got. This is horrifying and a complete lie.
People of any gender can want and need sex. Sexual drives can ebb and flow through age and our experiences. Respecting and listening to our needs, not gendered lies, is key to getting the amount and kind of sex that is right for us and our partners.
In addition, only you get to define what kind of sex is right for you! As we mentioned above, solo-sex is with a magnificent toy is just a valuable as partnered sex, no matter what anyone tries to tell you.
6. Only Certain Bodies Are Desirable
Going along with the sentiments about idealizing youthful vitality is the idea that only certain bodies are desirable or sexy. The media tells us that to be attractive or to be worthy of love and pleasure we have to check a long list of boxes: young, healthy, able-bodied, white or fair-skinned, low body-fat, average height, clear skin, glossy hair, cisgender, gender-conforming, etc. The list goes on and on. For anyone outside these boxes the pressure to change, confirm, or accept that we are “less-than” is immense.
Yes, things are getting better. We now are having far more conversations on decolonizing beauty standards, toxic body expectations, ableism, and body positivity—to name a few. But eating disorders are still rampant and the media still seeks to feed us messages of inadequacy to turn a profit. Change starts with unlearning the messages we have been fed and consciously working to rewire the ways that we see beauty and sexuality.
We Could Go On...
These are, of course, only a few of the many sex myths that are out there. I could honestly fill an entire book with dozens more. Sometimes I feel disheartened to see that with all the information that is out there, so many misconceptions persist.
Sex myths that we have been taught since childhood can be tough to defeat. Searching out sex-positive resources is a great start, as is taking the time with quality sex toys to discover how your body receives pleasure.
The more we talk about real sex education and the truths that for many still lay hidden, the better the future of sexuality literacy will be.
Dr. Laura McGuire (they/them or she/her) is an internationally recognized consultant, survivor, researcher, seminarian, and author of the book Creating Cultures of Consent (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).
Dr. McGuire is a certified full-spectrum doula, professional teacher, a certified sexual health educator, and a vinyasa yoga instructor. Their experience includes both public and private sectors, middle schools, high schools, and university settings.
They currently are earning their Masters of Divinity at Earlham Seminary where they are studying the intersections of Judaism, trauma-informed care, and restorative-justice in faith settings. Dr. McGuire lives in the United States, where they work as an adjunct professor at Widener University and consultant at The National Center for Equity and Agency.