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“Sexuality is one of the ways that we become enlightened, actually, because it leads us to self-knowledge.” Alice Walker

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9 Myths About Sex That Are Just Plain Wrong—and Harmful

approx. reading time: 10 minutes

Imagine if you took a cooking class, but instead of learning to follow a recipe or how ingredients interact, you got a lot of lectures about the ways that different foods can be bad for you and how you should be fasting except when you absolutely must eat to survive. Imagine that you were told that the food pyramid of the 1990s was the only morally correct way to eat and you were never even told that there were such things as vegetarianism or gluten-free diets.

Pretty terrible, right? And yet, that’s about what sex education in the U.S. looks like for young adults—when it happens at all. Raise your hand if you’re shocked that so many of us pick up a lot of random bits of misinformation about sex that never get debunked. No? No one? Me neither.

We might laugh about some of the stranger sex myths of olden days, like the whole “masturbation makes you grow hair on your palms”, but the truth is that sex-negative and misinformed beliefs can do a lot of harm. Shame, body image issues, sexual anxiety, and even physical pain are some of the ways that many people suffer as a result of them—even as grown-ass adults.

It’s not your fault if you believed something about sex that isn’t true. Most of us don’t really know who to trust or where to go for good information when it comes to sex. And there’s no shame in getting your REAL sex education as an adult. I promise, you’re not the only one.

With that in mind, let’s tackle some of the harmful sex myths that just won’t die:

1) Vaginas get “loose” if you have sex too often

First of all, let’s correct the wording here—what they mean is “get penetrated by a penis too often”. “Sex” includes a lot more than just PIV (penis in vagina) intercourse!

Second, there’s no truth to this at all. Vaginas are designed to stretch around entire human beings and return to their regular size and shape. You can have PIV sex every day, use sex toys, use tampons for every period you ever have, and give birth to multiple children, and your vagina will still be elastic. This belief is based in shaming people with vaginas for wanting to enjoy sex, and not in reality.

However. It’s also true that your pelvic floor muscles (sometimes called kegels) can lose strength or tone. Exercising those muscles, alone or with aids like vaginal weights or interactive devices like Perifit, can help you “grip”  or squeeze a penis or any other insertable more tightly and can feel very pleasurable for everyone involved. Just be aware that overdoing pelvic floor muscles can result in too much tightness, and they’re not recommended for people who already have pelvic pain, vaginismus, or other issues with vaginal tension.

PS—please be very wary of the trend of plastic surgeons offering vaginoplasties or vagina-tightening surgeries (often marketed as “vaginal rejuvenation” or as part of “mommy makeover” packages that include tummy tucks and boob lifts). This trend preys on the anxiety over this enduring myth, but the truth is that it’s very, very rare that someone with a vagina actually needs this kind of surgery.

2) Uncircumcised penises are dirty/unhygienic

This one goes up there with the myth that pubic hair is “dirty”. Folks, we’re not born with anything that causes our bodies to be naturally unsanitary. If anything, our bodies have some pretty remarkable natural cleaning and balancing mechanisms. This is a straight-up body shame myth that needs to GTFO.

Penises that still have foreskin are only unclean if their owners aren’t cleaning their genitals—it has nothing to do with the foreskin. It’s fairly easy to pull back the foreskin to clean it and the head of the penis. For that matter, foreskins don’t make a penis more or less sexually sensitive, either. ETA: We spoke with a nurse who said that, anecdotally, every person she has seen who was circumcised as an adult found a noticeable decrease in sensitivity afterward. Obviously, someone who has their foreskin as well as someone who was circumcised as a baby doesn’t have a frame of reference for anything different than their own experience. We appreciate the qualifier! We’ll just add that adults who are circumcised can still have sexually sensitive penises, and that one of the things a foreskin does is rub the glans when it’s pushed back and forth by thrusting or stroking or sucking, which can add another kind of pleasure to those acts.

Circumcision is usually a culturally- or socially-driven choice by parents. There’s no medical reason why a penis must be circumcised, and there’s an ongoing movement against making that choice for a baby.

3) If you use a vibrator too often, you’ll get addicted to it/lose sensation in your genitals

Unfortunately, a lot of cisgender straight men see sex toys as rivals or threats to their relationships with cisgender women, and this myth reflects that fear of being “replaced”. The two sides of this myth are either that you won’t be able to feel any sexual sensations anymore from vibing too much, or that you’ll become “addicted” to it—meaning that you won’t be able to orgasm any other way.

If that latter one is the case…um, so what? No one is required to orgasm from every single type of stimulation (or to orgasm at all). And many people with vulvas and clits find it difficult to come without the kind of direct, intense stim they get from vibes. If it turns out that’s what they need in order to have an orgasm, that’s not “addiction”. That’s just how their bodies work.

And no, you won’t lose all sensation down there from using a vibe. Your bits might feel kind of tingly and buzzy right afterward in a way that feels like the tail end of numbness, but there’s no nerve damage happening, I promise.

4) Vaginal orgasms are the best/the only real orgasms

Whooooooo boy this one has really hung in there over the years! We have weird old Sigmund Freud to thank for making famous the claim that the vaginal orgasm (read: orgasm from penetration) is more “mature” than a clitoral orgasm. But this myth also reinforces the very limiting and oppressive idea that cisgender, heterosexual PIV is the gold standard for sex and the only “real” way to have sex.

Orgasm is a complicated thing, especially for people with vulvas/vaginas. It involves a whole lot of nerve endings and states of mind and brain chemicals and emotions, and it’s hard to truly separate out one spot from another. Someone can have an orgasm from nipple stimulation that they might feel partly in their clit, for example. Some people with vaginas come from g-spot stimulation or deep cervical pressure in ways that do feel different to them than ones that happen from clit stim, yet still feel clitoral pleasure as part of that orgasm. Other people don’t orgasm during penetration at all. Bodies are different!

By the way, you may come across articles that try to list different “types” of orgasm—I’ve seen ones that assert that there are 4 types and one that claimed there are 24 types. If you’re feeling baffled and overwhelmed, I don’t blame you. I’m not a fan of those lists because a) I find most of them questionable and b) I think they do more harm than good in making people feel inadequate if they don’t have enough different types of orgasm. Definitely explore your body and keep learning new things about your pleasure, but please don’t feel like the way you come (or don’t) isn’t measuring up to someone else’s standards. Orgasms are not Pokemon—you don’t gotta catch them all.

5) If you’re a man, receiving anal sex will make you gay

If I could make this myth DIAF, I would. There’s just so much to unpack here. Let’s start with the fact that what they mean is “cisgender man”. Second, there’s the blatant homophobia of the idea that being “turned gay” is a threat. (One concession I’ll make: questioning your sexual orientation CAN be scary, and if you have a hetero partner, it’s legit to fear discovering something about yourself that could change or end that relationship. My point is that this myth demonizes the idea of being gay.)

But the very plain reality is that anal sex is something people enjoy no matter if they’re gay, straight, bi, pan, etc etc. Anal sex can’t change who you are. Everyone has a butt. Everyone’s butthole is packed with nerve endings that have the potential for intense pleasure when stimulated or penetrated. Not everyone likes butt sex, but that’s also not tied to your orientation. (For example, you can be a gay cisman and not like anal!)

It is possible that you like to bottom to anal penetration AND that you haven’t fully explored your sexuality. Sexual exploration in general can lead you to explore your orientation or gender, sure. But that brings me to the next myth…

6) Your sexual orientation (and gender) are fixed and unchangeable

This one is a toughie because sexuality and gender identity are so highly politicized that people on all sides of it can become purists, insisting that you must pick one identity and stick with it or else you’ve betrayed the cause. Many folks like to pass judgment on other people’s explorations—like “this bisexual thing is just a phase” or “you’re not a man, you’re just a tomboy” or “you’re obviously so deep in the closet you just think you’re straight”.

Please take these truths to heart: 

  • Everyone’s identity is their own to decide and name, period. No one gets to decide for anyone else who they “really” are. 
  • It is extremely common for sexual orientation and gender identity to be a unique mix that isn’t “purely” anything (for example, a lesbian who occasionally dates men, or someone who is a man except when they aren’t). 
  • You have the right both to explore your identities and try some on for size before you figure yourself out, and to allow your identities to change and fluctuate as you move through life. You’re not less pansexual because you once identified as strictly lesbian. Becoming asexual doesn’t mean that your past sexual attractions weren’t real.

Be kind to yourself and remember to leave others the space to move and grow and change and explore too, please.

7) Masturbation or enjoying porn means there’s something wrong with your relationship

I’m chalking this myth up to the more toxic schools of monogamy culture, which claim that sexual faithfulness in a relationship means having exclusive ownership over your partner’s body and sexuality. Can we all just agree that the idea of owning another person in any way is pretty terrible?

Masturbation is a totally natural act with a lot of benefits, and it doesn’t say anything about the quality of your relationship. In fact, people in fulfilling, healthy, committed relationships are extremely likely to want to masturbate on the reg! It can actually boost your sex life in a number of ways, but the only justification you need for it is that it feels good and you want to do it.

Likewise, porn and erotica are just an extension of fantasy, and fantasy =/= reality, right? All fantasy means is that you’re a sexual and sensual being who enjoys thinking about a variety of sexy things. It doesn’t mean you don’t love your partner or that you want to cheat on them or replace them.

It’s very possible that this myth also got some fuel from situations where couples had emotional or sexual issues they struggled with, and one or both partners put all their sexual energy into masturbation or porn because partnered sex had become too difficult. Almost anything can be used in an unhealthy way, but that doesn’t make the thing itself unhealthy or bad or a problem.

8) STIs are something to be ashamed of

One of the most important things we can do for sexual wellness in today’s world is to destigmatize sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Simply saying “STI” instead of “STD” is a start, because the word “disease” is so stigmatized. (STD is also sometimes not accurate—an infection only develops into a disease when it causes symptoms and illness.)

But wording aside, STIs are not worse, or immoral, or sinful, or “dirtier” than any other medical issue just because they’re passed on through sexual contact. Many of them are very easily treated with a course of antibiotics or other medication. Even HIV and AIDS are now able to be managed well enough to help people with them live long and happy lives. And some of them, like HSV-1 (oral herpes) or HPV, are so common and so often asymptomatic that huge percentages of the population have them without even knowing it.

The only moral issue involving STIs is being honest with your sexual partners about your status (including if you haven’t been recently screened and don’t know your status) so that they can give informed consent to having sex with you and can set informed boundaries for safer sex. And a final note—if you have, or have had, an STI, you are still worthy and deserving of love, desire, and compassion. You aren’t doomed to be alone forever as “punishment”.

9) Being a kinky top means that you’re secretly an abuser

In fairness, this myth probably gets perpetuated more by people who ARE kinky tops than by anyone else. It can be hard to discover that you’re turned on by dominant/submissive power exchange, fetishes, bondage, or giving/receiving pain during sex, no matter what your role is. But for a lot of people who fantasize about being Dominants, Tops, Masters/Mistresses, or Owners, and/or who are turned on by the idea of inflicting consensual pain, it’s very common to feel like it must mean you’re a terrible person.

The reality is that being in a dominant or pain top role, and doing it responsibly, requires a lot of empathy, care, and safety-mindedness. Even when your kink persona is a big bad meanie, or you’re playing with consensual non-consent, the things that make you good at it are pretty much the opposite of abusive behavior or traits. And that consent piece is crucial—you’re giving your partner something they want, and that they negotiated for and agreed to.

It’s not unusual to be drawn to BDSM as a form of working through and healing trauma from abuse or self-harm (my colleague AJ Cheyfitz has an excellent class on this called “Healthy Hurting”), but being into BDSM doesn’t require any connection to trauma or abuse.

One important caveat: Yes, someone can be kinky and also be an abuser. They’re not an abuser because they’re kinky, and kink didn’t cause them to become abusive. They may be very good at using the trappings of BDSM to hide their predatory nature, but there are ways to check for red flags in kink behavior.

I could go on…

There are lots and lots more sexuality myths we could talk about (and a few I’ve already covered, like the idea that first-time penetration has to hurt, or that orgasms are required for great sex), but I’ll leave them to future posts. I hope this list put your mind at ease, or at least got you questioning some of the things that “everybody knows” about sex!

What sex myths would you like to see us tackle in future posts? Drop a comment and watch this space for more pleasure-based sex ed from yours truly.


Rebecca Rose Vassy is a sex, relationship, and body image coach and educator here at The Pincus Center. Check out our Classes page for her latest pleasure-based adult sex ed classes, or contact her for one-on-one coaching that specializes in queerness, kink, and nonmonogamy.

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