Blame it on lousy sex education, outdated cultural or religious beliefs, porn or sheer ignorance, but many adults are still woefully misinformed when it comes to sex.
We asked experts — sex educators, sex therapists and sexologists — to clear up the misconceptions that many adults still believe that simply aren’t true.
MYTH: Masturbating while you’re in a relationship means you’re not sexually stimulated by your partner.
TRUTH: It doesn’t matter whether you’re single, in a monogamous relationship or part of a throuple: “Masturbation is healthy, normal and part of being a sexual being,” sex therapist Janet Brito told HuffPost.
Finding your partner rubbing one out in the shower now and then doesn’t mean they’re dissatisfied with the state of your sex life, so it shouldn’t be taken personally.
“People often think if their partner masturbates, they must not find them sexually attractive, thus leading to relationship insecurity and self-doubt,” clinical sexologist Gigi Engle said. “In reality, masturbation is a completely normal form of sexual expression both when single and in a partnership.”
In fact, those solo sessions can actually improve — not detract from — the intimacy you share with your partner.
“Masturbation can be self-soothing and relaxing, as well as it allows you to learn about your body; specifically, what turns you on,” Brito added. “Knowing how you like to be touched can increase your sexual comfort and even improve your sexual relationship with your partner.”
When masturbation is compulsive or replaces sex with your partner, then it could be a concern worth discussing as a couple and/or with a mental health professional.
MYTH: The vagina and the vulva are the same thing.
TRUTH: Colloquially, many people use the all-encompassing term “vagina” to refer to the entire female (or traditionally female) genital area, but that’s not accurate.
Sex educator and professor Ericka Hart clarified: “The external genitalia is called the vulva and what you don’t see is called the vaginal canal, or vagina, for short.”
So the vaginal opening is really just one part of the vulva; the vagina connects the external parts of the anatomy (the vulva) with the internal ones, like the uterus (check out this diagram if you’re confused). Some experts say the reason behind this common misuse or misunderstanding has patriarchal roots.
MYTH: The clitoris is just a teeny-tiny nub.
TRUTH: There’s more to the clit than meets the eye. That external nub or “bean,” called the glans, is just one small part of the greater clitoral network, most of which is internal.
“Most people don’t know that the clitoris goes beyond the nubbin at the top of the vulva, but actually extends back into the labia and abdomen,” Engle said. “It can be up to five inches in some women! This is roughly the average size of a penis.”
MYTH: Sex is just like what you see in porn.
TRUTH: For many young people, porn may be their first introduction to sex. So those smooth, hairless bodies or seemingly effortless female orgasms become the basis for what they think sex with a partner is like — or should be like — even when they’re aware that porn is not reality.
According to a 2016 survey from Middlesex University in London, 39 percent of 13- to 14-year-olds said they wanted to imitate the behavior they saw in porn.
“Sex in real life goes beyond entertainment and indulging in fantasies. It involves communication, knowing your body, being vulnerable and taking risks,” Brito said. “It is not perfect, nor is it male-centered. In real life, you fumble, take breaks, get thirsty, and even fall off the bed during sex. It is less than perfect, which is the way it is portrayed on the screen.”
MYTH: Men don’t like going down on women.
TRUTH: Don’t listen to DJ Khaled. The notion that men don’t enjoy eating women out simply isn’t true, sex therapist and author Ian Kerner said.
“Since publishing She Comes First in 2004, I’ve spoken with thousands of men about their attitudes about cunnilingus and, by and large, guys love it,” he said. “Sure, some guys are still lacking in basic ‘cliteracy’ or worry about their skills, but most men find cunnilingus to be a deeply intimate and arousing experience and many would say, if they had to choose (and, of course, who wants to choose?), they prefer giving to receiving.”
A 2016 survey of 900 heterosexual Canadian college students seems to back this up: Ninety-three percent of the men said that giving oral sex was somewhat or very pleasurable. That’s good news, because 95 percent of the women said receiving oral sex was at least somewhat or very pleasurable.
MYTH: Women don’t care about orgasms from sex as much as men do.
TRUTH: The orgasm gap for women (particularly straight women) is real. A 2017 survey of 52,000 adults of various sexual identities found that heterosexual woman are less likely to orgasm during sex with a partner than any other group. They “usually or always” orgasm during sex at a rate of 65 percent. For comparison, those numbers are 95 percent for straight men, 89 percent for gay men and 86 percent for lesbians.
But that’s not because these women don’t want to orgasm — of course, they do! A number of factors could be contributing to the disparity, including lack of foreplay, lack of clitoral stimulation (which many women need to orgasm) or poor communication with their partner, among other issues. Not to mention that we live in a society that seems to prioritize a man’s pleasure over a woman’s.
“It often gets said that men are more orgasm-focused than women during sex, and that women don’t need orgasms as much as men. I don’t know about ‘need’ — I mean, no one absolutely needs an orgasm — but lack of orgasm during sex is one of the most common complaints I hear from women in my practice,” Kerner said.
“Women’s orgasms may be more elusive during sex, especially penis-in-vagina intercourse, which tends to miss the clitoris directly, and so lots of women have gotten used to the idea of not always having orgasms. But don’t think for a second that this means that women value orgasms less than men do.”
MYTH: Sex is only “good” if it ends in orgasm.
TRUTH: Yes, the Big O can be toe-curlingly euphoric, but it’s definitely not the only pleasurable aspect of a sexual encounter. Even when sex doesn’t end in climax, it can still feel really damn good for both partners.
“Sex operates on so many dimensions beyond the physical, or in tandem and unique synergy with the physical,” said Liz Afton, a therapist at the Gender & Sexuality Therapy Collective. “Whether in tantric breathing, BDSM edging, professional sex surrogates or fetish-oriented kinks, the profound spiritual and emotional healing potential of sex and sexuality is too often overlooked.”
MYTH: Men who like or fantasize about anal sex must be gay.
TRUTH: People of any sexual orientation (gay, straight, bi, etc.) can enjoy the sensations of anal play — or any other sex act, for that matter — without it forcing them to rethink their sexual identity. Sexual behavior does not inform your sexual identity, Hart said.
“The origin of this myth comes from the idea that behavior equals identity,” she explained. “It’s important for folks to realize that behavior and identity do not inform each other. How you identify (your sexual identity) is personal and true to you, as is what feels good for your body. I have met people who thought they weren’t ‘real lesbians’ because they liked penetrative sex.”
MYTH: Porn causes erectile dysfunction in young men.
TRUTH: “There’s lots of anti-porn hysteria in our culture, and, in truth, more men are masturbating to porn than in years gone by,” Kerner said. “But there’s been no good legitimate study to demonstrate that porn somehow messes with one’s neurochemistry leading to E.D.”
Erectile dysfunction can be physiological or psychological in nature. For younger men, it’s often the latter, Kerner said.
“When this happens, many guys will wonder if it has something to do with watching too much porn, and these anxieties are fueled by a porn-negative media that promulgates the idea of porn addiction,” he said.
But what’s often at play, Kerner said, is anxiety.
“Anxiety is the enemy of erections of for many men, and there are lots of things that can give a guy performance anxiety: lack of experience, first sex nerves with someone, lack of genital self-esteem, the traumatic memory of a previous bout of E.D., pressure to perform, and yes, perhaps, comparing oneself to the performers in porn,” he said. “But is porn causing the E.D.? No. Is porn messing with brain chemistry? No. Anxiety is. Eliminating porn doesn’t eliminate the anxiety.”
MYTH: Being into kink makes you abnormal or sexually deviant.
TRUTH: If the mega-popularity of “50 Shades of Grey” (though problematic in some regards) is any indication, kink is no longer a niche community relegated to the dark corners of the internet. Spanking, role-playing and bondage are all common types of kink — which is defined as a sexual activity or desire outside of the conventional (read: vanilla) appetite.
“Kinkiness is becoming more and more mainstream, which eases the shame and isolation kinky folks experienced in the past,” said Jesse Kahn, therapist and director of The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Collective. “Not only are more people kinky, but folks are starting to realize that their sex life already incorporates kinky elements.”
Sex Ed for Grown-Ups is a series tackling everything you didn’t learn about sex in school — beyond the birds and the bees. Keep checking back for more expert-based articles and personal stories.