It’s the most wonderful time of the year! I figured we’d celebrate the Halloween season with a round-up of some of the most pervasive sex myths that we’re told throughout our lives. Some are designed to scare us into doing things differently and others are just plain scary.
It’s time to banish the ghouls from under our beds. So, let’s get started.
1. “Sex must end in orgasm, otherwise, it’s bad.”
Let’s dispel this one right away. We’ve been taught that sex has to end in orgasm in order for it to be good. Otherwise, what’s even the point? But sex doesn’t need to be goal-oriented, and in fact, working toward a goal can make sex less enjoyable. Instead of focusing on achieving orgasm, just focus on what feels good moment to moment.
2. “You only need lube if you’re old.”
This is as false as false can be. Anyone can benefit from lube, regardless of age, gender, type of sex you’re having, if you’re using toys or not, or any other factor. Lube is great. When you think you’ve added enough lube, add a little bit more. But not all lubricants are created equal, so know before you buy.
3. “You can ‘pop’ your hymen.”
This is something you may have first encountered in middle school, if not earlier. But the hymen isn’t a water balloon (or a cherry), and it can’t pop like one. The vaginal corona (the new name for the thing you’ve been calling a hymen) is a thin piece of membranous tissue near the opening of the vagina. The hymen can tear during basic activities, like doing gymnastics, inserting a tampon, or, yes, having sex for the first time. But everyone’s body is different, and some people may not experience discomfort with their corona at all. (And no, you really can’t test to see if it’s “unbroken.”)
4. “Double-bagging can break a condom.”
This is a word of warning you might have encountered in a health class. It’s a well-intentioned lie, but a lie nonetheless. Double-bagging condoms won’t increase the likelihood of them breaking (if you don’t believe me, the folks over at Partners in Sex Ed did a fun experiment). That being said, wearing two condoms would be very uncomfortable, thanks to the increased tightness of two bands and two sheaths of material.
5. “There’s no need to masturbate if you’re in a relationship.”
For many people, masturbation and partnered sex serve different functions. Masturbation is an act of self-exploration and self-care, and while partnered sex can (and should!) be explorative, there’s no reason that you can’t do both if you’re in a relationship. Masturbation is your business, and yours alone. If a partner tells you that you shouldn’t or can’t masturbate because it hurts their feelings, they’re manipulating you, and that’s a sign of potentially abusive behaviors in the future.
6. “Using vibrators can desensitize you.”
This one isn’t true, but it also isn’t untrue. Using a high-powered vibrator like the Hitachi Magic Wand or the Le Wand Massager for extended periods of time (think more than 30 minutes continuously) you might experience immediate, short-term desensitization. That’s because you’ve been applying a lot of stimulation to your nerve endings, and they just need a minute to chill. But in the long-term, don’t stress — your vibrator isn’t going to ruin you. It might give you unrealistic expectations about how quickly you feel satisfied or have an orgasm, though.
7. “It’s normal for sex to hurt.”
This is something that many people with vaginas are taught to believe. The vagina is a muscle — and like any other muscle, you can improve its strength and flexibility, which can make sex more comfortable. That also means that the first time you insert something into your vagina, you might feel discomfort, because it’s the first time that muscle is being used in that way. But don’t doubt: Sex shouldn’t hurt (unless you want it to). If you’re experiencing pain with vaginal sex, it might be because you aren’t aroused, you need lube, or for a variety of other reasons. If it’s something that is ongoing, talk to your doctor.
8. “Blue balls cause unmanageable pain.”
“Blue balls” refer to temporary vasocongestion — emphasis on temporary. The pain or discomfort caused by vasocongestion can be resolved by masturbating or by doing meditative breaths until an erection passes.
9. “Only gay men have anal sex.”
Pretty much everyone has a butt, and pretty much anyone can engage in anal sex. It doesn’t say anything about your gender or your sexuality. People have anal sex because the anus has a lot of nerve endings really close to the surface and therefore, it can feel good. (A word to the wise: The anus doesn’t self-lubricate, so lube is essential. Start slow and work your way up — you don’t need to go zero to fisting overnight).
10. “You can tell someone’s sexuality just by looking at them.”
Nope. Just no. You might make assumptions about someone’s sexual orientation by looking at them, but you don’t know. Just don’t make assumptions.
11. “BDSM play is abusive.”
Just like any other sexual practice, BDSM requires consent. Specifically, people who practice BDSM practice it risk-aware and consensually. That doesn’t mean that people who engage in BDSM can’t abuse or harm people. They can. But the practice on its own isn’t abusive, and many people — even survivors — can find it to be healing.
12. “Having an STI makes you a bad person.”
Having an STI doesn’t make you a bad person and doesn’t mean that you won’t have meaningful, fulfilling relationships. It just means that you contracted an infection during sex. STIs are highly stigmatized, so working through some of those internalized feelings of shame can take time. Be patient with yourself. And if a partner or friend shares with you that they have (or have had) an STI, thank them for trusting you with that information, and as if there is any way you can support them now.
13. “Spit is an adequate substitute for lube.”
Saliva dries out quickly and isn’t really slippery. In a pinch, it can be fine — but it isn’t a substitute for lube.
14. “Asexuality is just another way of saying you’re a prude.”
Asexuality — the “A” in LGBTQIA+ — describes someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction. (It’s actually a much more complicated spectrum, and some ace people do experience sexual attraction, but more on that in a later post).
On the other hand, being “prude” is a value call that someone places on another person’s sexual behaviors. It’s a perception, not an identity. Asexuality is an identity that can be combined with other sexual and romantic orientations — and yes, some ace people do have sex.
15. “Porn is inherently harmful to women.”
Mainstream porn sets unrealistic standards for how our bodies look and behave during sex. They don’t show conversations about boundaries or consent, nor does mainstream porn typically show aftercare. But that’s mainstream porn. Feminist porn does exist — and it’s not an oxymoron. Feminist porn companies pay their actors well and on-time, represent a wide variety of bodies and identities, and center everyone’s pleasure. As a good baseline, pay for your porn, and the images you see will start to shift.
16. “Nobody uses dental dams.”
Several months ago, I found an article floating around that claimed that no one uses dental dams. Dental dams are notoriously difficult for consumers to purchase and non-profits rarely have them in stock. Moreover, many people don’t know how to properly use them. But my students often ask me about dental dams (and appropriate substitutions) which tells me that they’re considering using them.
17. “Talking about consent ruins the mood.”
No, it doesn’t. Talking about consent, boundaries, and desires is absolutely necessary for everyone to be able to fully enjoy themselves during a sexual encounter. That doesn’t mean you need to have that talk right in the moment. In fact, I recommend having it in a neutral environment before sex even starts and continue checking in throughout.
18. “Pap smears are required every year.”
Old guidelines used to dictate that you should have a pap exam (the cervical swabbing and testing that happens during a pelvic exam) every year. But now, ACOG has different recommendations based on age and other risk factors for cervical cancer, and you may not need to go every year.
19. “If you ask your doctor for an STI test, they’ll test you for everything.”
Ah, comprehensive STI panels. What are they? If you simply ask your doctor for an STI test, they’ll likely ask you some questions and then draw some blood or urine. Typically, they’ll test for chlamydia, gonorrhea, trichomoniasis, HIV, and syphilis. Those aren’t the only STIs, though, and some STIs (like HSV) show up in a confusing way on blood screenings and are best tested for using different methods. Talk with your doctor about the sexual behaviors you engage in and how often.
20. “All condoms are basically the same.”
All condoms can be blown up like giant balloons, so they must fit everyone without a problem, right? Wrong. Each condom fits differently. Companies like One Condoms and Lucky Bloke offer sizing kits and sample packs to help you figure out what your best fit is.
21. “Jealousy in relationships shows how passionate you are.”
Movies, T.V. shows, and popular music show us jealousy so strong that it causes someone to fight for us or make a scene is desirable. We learn throughout our lives that the only love stories worth telling (or living) are the ones that have dramatic turns, or where someone is so stricken by emotion, they can barely control themselves. That is a false ideal. Someone being so jealous that they start arguments with you or control who you see isn’t being passionate. They’re showing early signs of abusive behavior.
22. “You can always tell right away if you have an STI.”
The most common symptom of a sexually transmitted infection is no symptom at all, which is why it’s important to get tested regularly.
23. “Relationships are only real if they’re between two people.”
In the U.S. and much of the western world, monogamous relationships between two people are held up as the gold standard (only if you’re married, of course). But relationships can take many different forms and can certainly involve more than two people, and that doesn’t mean there is less love or commitment. Love isn’t a finite resource; sharing it with one person doesn’t stop you from sharing it with another.
24. “Plan B works as emergency contraception for everyone.”
Plan B (also known as the morning-after pill) is the most common emergency contraception available in the United States. Because of its prominence, one might think that Plan B is equally effective for all people. Unfortunately, studies done in France have shown otherwise.
For people with a BMI above 25 (yes, BMI is a bullshit measure, but it is what is used in these studies), Plan B degrades in efficacy. That’s also true of emergency contraception options across the board. There are other options available, like Ella and the Paragard IUD.
25. “Internal condoms can only be used vaginally.”
Internal condoms like the FC2 are widely marketed as “female condoms.” They are inserted into the vagina prior to sex. However, with some small changes, they can also be used anally. Simply remove the internal ring, twist the condom, and insert it, leaving at least one inch of the condom remaining outside of the anus. Go forth and play!
26. “Having an erection or being wet means you’re aroused.”
We’re taught that there are physiological signs to arousal, and while that isn’t untrue, it also isn’t the full picture. Arousal non-concordance, or your body’s physiological responses acting in a way that doesn’t align with how aroused you really feel, is a thing. That means you can get hard when you’re not aroused, can get wet when you’re not aroused, and can have orgasms when you’re not aroused. It also means that you might not get hard or wet when you are aroused.
27. “It’s rare to have an STI at some point in your life.”
STIs are incredibly common — 1 in every 2 sexually active people will get an STI by the time you’re 25. So if you do get one, you’re not alone. All STIs are treatable and many are curable. Talk with your doctor about what tests make sense for you, and if one comes back positive, talk with them about your options.
28. “All types of birth control have hormones.”
While many types of prescribed birth control do use hormones, but not all of them do. The copper IUD, Paragard, is a nonhormonal option. So are barrier methods, diaphragms, spermicide, and fertility awareness. Just keep in mind that different types of methods are effective at different levels, and talk with a medical provider about which method — hormonal or nonhormonal — may be the best fit for you.
29. “You’re obligated to have sex with your partner.”
Nope nope nope nope nope nope nope. You’re not obligated to have sex with anyone, whether you just met them today or you’ve been married to them for 50 years. You don’t owe anyone sex, ever.
30. “All sex toys are basically the same.”
Shopping for sex toys can be an overwhelming endeavor and you might be tempted to say “well, it vibrates, so let’s just pick the cheapest” or “I’ll order this on Amazon.” But there are different types of vibrations (shallow, buzzy vibrations and deep, rumbly vibrations) and different shapes of toys have different purposes. Whenever someone asks me for a toy recommendation, I ask them what they want to use the toy for or what types of stimulation they enjoy, because that will influence the toys I recommend.
But as a general rule, avoid buying from Amazon.
31. “Only old people experience difficulty maintaining erections.”
Sexual difficulties can happen to people of any age for many different reasons. It has very little to do with age, so instead of judging yourself or your partner for the things they’re struggling with, work together to find solutions.
What spooky sex myths have you encountered? What sexual tall tales have you been told? Let me know on Twitter and Instagram @FeministSexEd!