Getting accurate, comprehensive, and straightforward information about sex is not a particularly easy task in today’s society. Usually, sex ed in schools is rudimentary and focused on abstinence, if it’s provided at all. Because of this, a lot of crazy myths and misconceptions about sex are circulated regularly. In this series, I’ll be debunking sex myths about bodies, consent, and emotions.
Some quick notes before we start:
And now for the myths…
Having sex means putting a penis in a vagina.
This is a misconception most people might not even realize they have. A lot of the times when people talk about sex they’re referring to vaginal penetrative sex, but there are tons of other ways people can have sex outside of that. When I taught sex ed, we always told students that sex is just a thing we do with our bodies for pleasure; there is no right or wrong way to do it. We then explained that there are four main ways to have sex—vaginal, oral, anal, and genital-to-genital contact—but that when it comes down to it, you get to decide what is and isn’t sex for you. Really all that matters, when you have any kind of sex, is that you’re being safe and having fun.
Your cherry pops.
This myth is old. Married couples used to have to wave a bloody sheet out their window on the night of their wedding to prove the woman was a virgin at the time of marriage, and from this bloomed the metaphor of cherry-popping. Cherry-popping refers to the piercing of a membrane in the vagina called the hymen when a penis, finger, or other body part/object is inserted into the vagina for the first time. The misconception is that the hymen rips when you lose your virginity for the first time and that if you don’t bleed it means you aren’t a virgin. This is completely untrue. The hymen only partially covers the vaginal channel, and it can be ripped a number of times before one loses their virginity. Things like riding a bike, inserting a tampon, and vigorous exercise can partially tear the hymen. On the other hand, if the hymen is fully intact when one has penetrative sex for the first time, it won’t necessarily rip. With proper lubrication and time, the hymen will stretch but not rip, which means one won’t bleed when they first have sex. Everybody is different, but the idea that you’ll gush blood the first time you have penetrative sex is not true, and if that does happen you should seek medical help.
Having a lot of sex or sex at all will loosen your vagina.
Incorrect! The idea that a vagina gets loose with multiple sexual partners or by just having sex multiple times is not true. The vagina is a muscle, which means it’s elastic; it may stretch during sex to accommodate penetration, but it bounces right back. Even after childbirth, the vagina returns to its original state.
You can’t get pregnant on your period.
You can! But generally, your chances will be lower. According to the American Pregnancy Association, if you have a regular cycle (28-30 days) and are a healthy, menstruating adult, the chances of you getting pregnant on your period are pretty low. But if you have an irregular and/or short cycle, it gets riskier. Sperm can live for up to five days in the vagina, so even if you’re on your period and there is no egg for the sperm to fertilize, there’s still a chance of conception when the egg drops later in your cycle. In general, you should still use contraception when you’re on your period because the risk is still there, especially for younger people who don’t yet have a fully regulated cycle.
Pulling out is a good form of protection.
Absolutely not. In terms of protection against STIs, the withdrawal method offers no protection. In terms of protection against unintended pregnancies, the pull-out method is only about 80% effective when performed correctly. And even if it is performed properly, unintended pregnancies are still not 100% prevented because sperm can sometimes be present in precum. (Precum itself does not have sperm in it, but if there are leftover living sperm in the urethra from previous ejaculations, the precum can pick these up). If the pull-out method is used in tandem with another type of protection, though, its effectiveness is much, much higher. For example, if you use the withdrawal method and also a condom (this doesn’t seem ideal to a lot of people, but many doctors recommend it) you are protected against STIs and unintended pregnancies. Unless you are a healthy adult with a very regular cycle and a good understanding of your cycle, it’s better to not use the pull-out method on its own.
The more protection, the better.
Maybe it was only nerds like me that had this idea, but I always thought that the more protection you use the safer the sex. But in reality, it depends on what kind of protection you’re using, and how different methods of protection interact. If you’re having vaginal sex, it’s safest to combine a barrier method of protection with a non-barrier method. Physical barriers are forms of protection like condoms, cervical caps, and contraceptive sponges which physically prevent sperm from reaching an egg. Barrier-method contraception is also the only type of contraception that will protect you from sexually-transmitted infections (STIs). Non-barrier methods of protection—the hormonal pill, Nuvaring, the patch, hormonal shots, Nexplanon, and IUDs—are those which do not physically prevent sperm from reaching the egg but prevent pregnancy in some other way. Combining barrier and non-barrier contraception protects you from unintended pregnancies and STIs. However, using two kinds of physical barrier contraceptives together—specifically two condoms—is not a good idea. The two condoms’ friction will makes them more likely to rip, thus becoming ineffective. So, yes, protection is really good, but make sure you’re combining correctly.
You can’t catch STIs through oral sex.
Sadly, you can catch STIs through almost all types of sex, as they are spread through the exchange of body fluids. Oral sex is no exception to this rule. You can catch the majority of STIs through oral sex, though a lot of the time the rate of infection is pretty low; if you want a full list of the infections and the risks of oral sex, refer to this list from the CDC. The infection will not manifest in the genitals like an STI normally would, but instead could cause infection in the mouth, lips, or throat of someone who performs oral sex on infected genitals.
Luckily, there are ways to protect yourself from infections! First and foremost, getting tested regularly is very important. Most STIs are treatable and curable, so acting quickly will prevent you from passing on the infection to anyone else. (Make sure you disclose to your partner if you have any STIs before sex! It’s not weird or gross, and you can use protection!) If you or your partner does have an STI, condoms or dental dams are always a good bet. If performing or receiving oral sex on a penis, just use a condom to prevent the exchange of bodily fluids. If performing or receiving oral sex on a vagina, you can use a dental dam. It’s essentially a large piece of latex that you place over the vulva to prevent the exchange of bodily fluids. Again, for most people, the idea of having to use physical protection during oral sex is not the most intriguing. Because there aren’t many other risks associated with oral sex, if you and your partner have tested negative for all STIs it isn’t the worst idea to forgo physical contraception—but please don’t tell your doctor or sex-ed teacher I told you that.
Girls don’t masturbate.
It’s pretty clear why this myth is out there. The idea of female pleasure has been constantly ignored and miscommunicated in popular culture and the media, and it is almost never addressed in sexual education. I know a lot of women who still don’t want to talk about it (which is fine—unless that’s born out of shame or embarrassment). In my high school, even my most progressive friends fell into the trap of thinking female masturbation was perverse and weird. But it isn’t. It’s totally normal and healthy. With the exception of asexual people, everyone does it. And if they say they don’t they’re either lying or really missing out. If you want a more comprehensive guide on how to masturbate, read Tina Lawson’s intro here.
Sex is painful.
I’ve heard this almost exclusively from women. Like I said before, female pleasure is almost never discussed and is so stigmatized that some women have absorbed this message so deeply they believe sex is always painful or uncomfortable. In addition, the vast majority of porn is made with men in mind, and it depicts women in crazy and unrealistic positions. All of this, in combination with the popularly circulated idea that it will hurt when a person with a vagina loses their virginity, makes some women believe that sex will always be painful. This is not and should not be true. Sex for the first time can be uncomfortable, but it should never be painful. With the exception of consensual BDSM, sex should be pleasurable and not painful. It should be fun. If that isn’t the case, you should talk with your partner (or in certain cases your doctor) to figure out how to make sex more pleasurable.