3 Harmful Myths About Sex and How to Overcome Them
Written By: Jazmin Nagorski, Certified Holistic Sex Educator and Certified Family Life Educator
As a Holistic Sex Educator, I hear a lot of myths about sex and sexual health. While some myths might be no big deal, others can be harmful. Myths can not only impact the way someone takes care of their sexual health, but can impact a romantic and sexual relationship. In this blog post, I will address three of these ideas, why they can be harmful, and what you can do to reframe your thinking and overcome them.
Myth #1: Sex isn’t ‘complete’ or ‘good’ unless it ends in orgasm.
Why it’s a myth:
Unpacking this idea has to start with a discussion about how someone defines sex. The word ‘sex’ has traditionally been defined as penis-in-vagina intercourse (PIV), but, sex is a subjective experience, meaning everyone has a different idea of what it means and how it feels. For example, a Kinsey Institute study found 45% of people defined manual-genital sex (handjobs for example) as sex and 71% of people defined oral stimulation as ‘sex (Sanders et al, 2010). Some people may not view either of these as sex. So, there is no set definition for how every person defines sex, since everyone has different preferences and desires, and not everyone enjoys or has the ability to engage in PIV sex.
Additionally, orgasm is all about the brain. This means that some people can have an orgasm without any genital stimulation (Komisaruk & Whipple, 2005), some people may only be able to orgasm in specific environments and with specific types of sexual activity or stimulation (Nagoski, 2015), and some people can’t, or don’t care to, ever orgasm (Kontula & Miettinen, 2016; Gusakova et al, 2020). Does that mean they never have sex, enjoy sex, or have good sex?
No, it doesn’t mean that at all. Asserting that sex isn’t complete or good if it ends in orgasm doesn’t align with the actual sexual experiences of most people, and no definition of sex always requires sex to end in orgasm.
This idea is harmful because…
- It can cause the treatment of sex as a means to an end, which can take away from a large part of why people have sex: to enjoy it. If we’re constantly trying to get to the “end,” we can’t focus on what’s happening at the moment along the way.
- It can add a lot of pressure to a sexual relationship. If we expect our partner to orgasm every time, then when they don’t, we may become frustrated and start making assumptions. These are the kinds of things that can often lead to a partner faking an orgasm, either because it’s too much pressure on them to get there, they don’t actually want to orgasm, or they’re just trying to satisfy you. This pressure to perform can lead to sexual dissatisfaction and possible discord in the relationship.
- It could mean we’re overlooking our partner’s sexual preferences and desires. Maybe our partner doesn’t need to orgasm to be sexually satisfied, or maybe there’s a different way they like to experience pleasure. Maybe they want to have sex in a way that leads to orgasm for them, but may not lead to orgasm for us. However, if we’re always jumping into sex with the goal of orgasm, we might be focusing too much on positions or sexual activity that gets us there, and missing out on other ways our partner enjoys sexual intimacy.
Reframe and overcome this by:
- Redefining sex and pleasure for yourself: What does ‘sex’ include for you? What does it mean to experience pleasure? What are your goals when it comes to sex with your partner? Discuss your definitions with your partner and encourage them to share with you. Accept that you and your partner have different definitions, and be comfortable that this may change over time for both of you. You don’t necessarily have to have the same definitions of sex and pleasure to enjoy intimacy with each other.
- Taking the pressure off: See what happens when you remove any and all expectations about sex and just go in with an open mind. Separate yourself from the idea that you have to, or you have to make your partner, orgasm.
- Enjoying the journey: What if you and your partner enjoyed all parts of the process? See what happens when you change your goals and ideas about what the ‘outcome’ should be. Instead, try to go in with the idea that the outcome of sex is to increase intimacy with your partner, connect with them, or even just enjoy every aspect. Explore using techniques like sensate focus, a mindfulness exercise where partners take turns being the receiver and the giver, starting with non-genital touch and then slowly but intentionally moving to different stages of touch until arriving at intercourse if they so choose. Practice focusing on body sensations and how your partner feels. You just might find it’s easier to ‘get there’ anyway!
Myth #2: If I can’t turn my partner on, it means they aren’t sexually attracted to me anymore/are less sexually attracted to me.
Why this is a myth:
Being “turned on” (aka aroused) is more complex than most people think. I briefly mentioned earlier that orgasm is all about the brain, and it’s important to know that orgasm is just one smaller aspect of the bigger picture of arousal (getting turned on) and desire (wanting to get turned on). The brain plays the biggest role in all of it. Sex researcher and educator Emily Nagoski goes into detail about our brain’s role in arousal and desire. I will offer you a very short overview of what she’s found to show you why this idea is a myth.
Arousal and desire don’t always align. Sometimes we have desire but not arousal – we want so badly to be aroused, but just can’t get there. Other times, we have arousal, but not desire – our bodies feel sexy and excited, but we don’t actually feel like, or want to, have sex. Why might this happen? Emily Nagoski describes the dual brain mechanisms for arousal as the brake and the accelerator (2015). The accelerator takes note of all the sexy things we like and sends a “turn-on” signal. The brake takes note of all the un-sexy, potentially threatening things, and sends a “turn-off” signal. This is where context is extremely important. What kinds of things might pump the brakes of arousal? It’s different for everyone, but some common reasons might be stress, present or past trauma, the physical space you’re attempting to have sex in, feeling a lack of emotional connection to your partner, insecurities, assumptions like this myth, or even just simply being too tired.
The whole point is that not being able to turn your partner on can mean many different things, and not necessarily that they aren’t attracted to you. There’s a bigger picture here, where some people might be able to get randomly turned on by a sexy thought (spontaneous desire), and others may need more lead-up time and specific contexts (responsive desire) (Nagoski, 2015). Both are valid and normal experiences.
This idea is harmful because…
- It’s an assumption.
- Assumptions are almost always harmful because we make them without having all the facts. Sometimes when we have ideas like this, we can go into defense mode, become insecure or jealous, or jump to conclusions.
- It could mean you’re not listening or tuning into your partner.
- If we’re jumping to conclusions, we might be overlooking our partner’s experience(s). Maybe they’re stressed or tired, or maybe there’s a different context that gets them going. Maybe they really do want to have sex, but need more time to get to arousal and it takes more sensual touching before going all in. It could be many reasons, but if we’re making this assumption, we’re probably not checking in as we should be. The only way to know if someone wants to have sex is when they tell us.
Reframe and overcome this by:
- Understanding yourselves better so you can understand each other better: The first step in sexual communication is knowing what you want and what you like. If we don’t know, we won’t be able to communicate this to our partner(s). You can start by using Nagoski’s Sexual Temperament Questionnaire to get a baseline for what gets your accelerator going and your brake braking. Share with each other after completing individually and privately.
- Discussing what turns each other on: Use Nagoski’s Sexy Contexts worksheet to think about and write down the characteristics of your ideal sexual scenario and what turns you on versus what turns you off. It can be most helpful if you each carve out private times for yourself to complete it individually and separately, and then come together and share with each other.
- Applying what you learned (either from the worksheets or discussions), and accepting that your sexy contexts may change over time: Try to take steps to create your and your partner’s ideal sexual environments and scenarios. If it doesn’t work, try again until you find what works for you both. It’s okay if you wrote down something that actually didn’t end up working for you or your partner. Or, maybe you try it and it works for a little while, but then it changes. Try not to put too much pressure on it, just enjoy learning about yourself and each other, and know that sexuality is ever-changing as we grow and age.
- Not taking it personally: Remember what you learned here, that arousal is a complex picture. Put yourself in their shoes – you wouldn’t want your partner to assume the worst on days you just aren’t feeling it. Sex should be a two-way street, where both partners have fun and feel good, and that means respecting each other’s “no.”
Myth #3: The more people your partner has had sex with before you, the harder it will be for them to connect to you sexually.
Why this is a myth:
This idea probably stems from a few other myths: that sex causes emotional attachments, that once you have sex with someone, you’re emotionally “bonded” with them for life, or that you lose something/give a piece of yourself to/become less worthy with every person you have sex with. First, I’m going to talk about why these three related ideas are incorrect.
There is no evidence that sex causes emotional attachments or emotional bonds. It would be almost impossible to prove this in the first place –to start, we would have to have a clear definition of sex that everyone agrees on (which we already know isn’t possible), a clear definition and identification of an emotional bond (which is subjective and based on perceptions and experiences), and we would have to prove that any emotional bond felt by a person was actually a result of the sex itself and not any other aspect of their relationship. Among many other things we would have to think about to prove this, it’s just not possible. Of course, sex can come with emotions, but so do many other things. It is also possible to separate emotions from sex.
Now, this idea that you give a piece of yourself away or lose something every time you have sex with someone is not based on evidence either and is often used to shame people. What exactly does someone “lose” or “give away” when they have sex? Sex is just an action – just like driving, walking, or exercising. Considering nothing bad happens during your drive, walk, or exercise, there is nothing you lose after any of these actions and you are still a whole, valuable person. If anything, you may have gained new experiences, seen new things, or gained muscle. Sex doesn’t have to be different just because it’s uncomfortable to talk about. There is nothing lost about a person after they have sex, whether it’s for the first time or the hundredth time. It’s a new experience, just like any other, and you are still valuable and whole.
What I’m getting at is this: no matter how many people your partner has had sex with before you, or how many people you’ve had sex with before them, the person you currently are sexually attracted to and feel emotionally bonded with is your partner. That’s why you’re together, right? Most relationships are about more than just sex. Sex is a bonus that can help with intimacy and connection, but it’s not the only thing holding a good, long-term, committed relationship together. Some people worry their partner thinks about sex with previous partners, or compares their sex or body to that of their previous partners, but unless your partner explicitly tells you this (which would be a red flag), then it’s probably not true. There’s a reason all of their previous relationships didn’t work out and yours is/did, and your relationship encompasses more than just sex. Relationships take work and intention, and if you’re still working at it, that means you’re both still committed.
We have sex to feel good, and this is similar to many other actions we take in life. We get a massage to feel good, we take a shower to get clean/feel better, we eat to feel full, etc. But we live and enjoy the moment for most of these things. In the midst of a massage, we don’t think about how good other massages have been. During a shower, we don’t think about all of the other showers we’ve taken, and while eating, we don’t think about all of the other meals we’ve had. For the most part, we forget about our past massages, showers, and meals, because what we are doing now is important and feels good. And, if it doesn’t, we change it—just like you or your partner(s) would in a relationship if they weren’t happy.
This myth is harmful because…
- It can cause unnecessary feelings of jealousy. I probably don’t have to tell you how jealousy feels or how counterproductive it can be.
- It can contribute to “slut-shaming” or general feelings of shame from both sides. Like I briefly mentioned, there is nothing inherently wrong with someone having sex with multiple people throughout the course of their life as long as it’s consensual and people are taking steps to protect their health and the health of their partners. This kind of idea about sex can lead partners to make the other feel bad about a normal human experience. We experience plenty of sexual shame as we grow up, we don’t need it from our partners too!
- It can cause unnecessary comparisons and related insecurities. If we’re worried about our partner’s previous sexcapades, we’ll likely end up unnecessarily comparing ourselves or wondering if we’re good, better, or worse at sex.
Reframe and overcome this by:
- Working on yourself, first: This idea is often rooted in deeper insecurities and jealousy. Jealousy is never about the other person, it’s always about ourselves. That also means we’re responsible for how we react to it and how we overcome it. Work on your insecurities. Ask yourself the hard questions: Why am I feeling jealous? What makes me less than any of my partner’s previous partners? Why don’t I trust my partner fully? What do I need to do to feel more secure in this relationship? It might take some deeper work, so don’t be afraid to talk to a therapist to help you dig deeper.
- Reframing your understanding of sex and intimacy: Remember the evidence. Sex is an action that can happen without emotions, and intimacy is an experience that can happen without sex. This means that not everyone you or your partner has been sexual with is necessarily bonded with you for life.
- Connecting with each other outside of the bedroom: In a relationship, connecting with a partner sexually is something that often extends outside of the bedroom. For many people, if there aren’t moments of intimacy and connection that aren’t sexual, it might be more challenging, or feel less intimate, when it is sexual. How do you and your partner make time for each other, spend time together, and communicate? What kinds of things do you do for each other outside of the bedroom? Working on your relationship on the emotional level can have a big impact on the physical level.
- Practicing partner-focused mindfulness during sex: If you’re worried about this idea, you may not be focused on the sensual experiences of you and your partner during sexual activity. Learn your partner’s pleasure cues and tune in to them. What kinds of things does your partner do during sex that show you they’re having a good time? What kinds of things do they really like? How can you use sexy talk during sex to make sure you’re doing what they want you to do? Focusing on a partner’s pleasure can help you have a better experience and remind you of the sexual satisfaction they experience with you.
If you’ve made it this far, I hope this has been helpful. It’s okay to take it all in right now, do nothing, and come back to it later. It’s okay if you still have these ideas even after learning why they’re wrong. It takes time to unlearn challenging myths about sex. We often grow up learning these ideas from others who have learned these ideas, and often they persist due to feelings of shame about bodies and sex. Sometimes individuals or couples need the comprehensive, holistic, evidence-based sex education they didn’t receive growing up in order to reach their sexual well-being goals. Education can be a really great complement to sex therapy, so don’t hesitate to reach out to me for a free consultation.
Everyone deserves to be free of sexual shame and have a healthy sex life, and it starts with overcoming myths like these.
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