Chalk it up to the variability in sex education, in high schools and even medical schools, or to the fact that many adults find it hard to talk about sex with the person who regularly sees them naked. Whatever the reason, misinformation about sexuality and desire is common.
“There are so many myths out there,” said Laurie Mintz, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Florida who focuses on human sexuality. And, she added, they can “cause a lot of damage.”
So the Well section reached out to a group of sex therapists and researchers, and asked them to share a myth they wished would go away.
Here’s what they said.
Myth 1: Everyone else is having more sex than you.
“Oddly, this myth persists across the life span,” said Debby Herbenick, director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at the Indiana University School of Public Health and author of “Yes, Your Kid: What Parents Need to Know About Today’s Teens and Sex.”
Many teenagers think “everyone is doing it,” she said, leading them to jump into sex that they simply are not ready for. This myth can make older people in long-term relationships feel lousy, too — like they are the only ones in a so-called dry spell, when they may simply be experiencing the natural ebb and flow of desire.
“It’s pretty typical to find that about one in three people have had no partnered sex in the prior year,” Dr. Herbenick said, referencing several nationally representative surveys. She also points to research she has worked on showing that sexual activity has declined in recent years for reasons that aren’t fully understood. (Researchers have hypothesized that the decline has to do with factors like the rise in sexting and online pornography, as well as decreased drinking among young people.)
“It can help to normalize these periods of little to no partnered sex,” Dr. Herbenick said. “That said, for those looking for some longevity in their partnered sex life, it’s important to think about sex in a holistic way.” That means caring for your physical and mental health, she said, and talking through your feelings with your partner to maintain a sense of intimacy and connection.
Myth 2: Sex means penetration.
Sex therapists often lament that people get caught up in certain “sexual scripts,” or the idea that sex should unfold in a particular way — typically, a bit of foreplay that leads to intercourse.
But “we need to move beyond defining sex by a single behavior,” said Ian Kerner, a sex therapist and author of “She Comes First.” He noted that this type of narrow thinking has contributed to the longstanding pleasure gap between men and women in heterosexual encounters. For example, a study found that 75 percent of heterosexual men said they orgasmed every time they had been sexually intimate within the past month, compared with 33 percent of heterosexual women.
One survey found that 18 percent of women orgasmed from penetration alone, while 37 percent said they also needed clitoral stimulation to orgasm during intercourse. Instead of rushing toward intercourse, the focus should be on “outercourse,” Dr. Kerner said, which is an umbrella term for any sexual activity that doesn’t involve penetration.
“If you look at most mainstream movies, the image is women having these fast and fabulous orgasms from penetration, and foreplay is just the lead up to that main event,” Dr. Mintz said. “That is actually, scientifically, really damaging and false.”
In surveying thousands of women for her book “Becoming Cliterate,” Dr. Mintz found the percentage of women who said they orgasmed from penetration alone to be 4 percent or less.
Equating sex with penetration also leaves out people who have sex in other ways. For instance, Joe Kort, a sex therapist, has coined the term “sides” to describe gay men who do not have anal sex. Lexx Brown-James, a sex therapist, said that view also overlooks people with certain disabilities as well as those who simply do not enjoy penetration. Many people find greater sexual satisfaction from things like oral sex or “even just bodily contact,” she said.
Myth 3: Vaginas shouldn’t need extra lubricant.
Postmenopausal women sometimes describe the pain they experience during penetrative sex as feeling like “sandpaper” or “knives.” But while vaginal dryness affects older women at a higher rate, it can happen at any point in life, Dr. Herbenick said, which has implications for women’s sex lives.
An estimated 17 percent of women between 18 and 50 report vaginal dryness during sex, while more than 50 percent experience it after menopause. She noted that it is also more common while women are nursing or during perimenopause, and that certain medications, including some forms of birth control, can decrease lubrication.
“As I often tell my students, vaginas are not rainforests,” Dr. Herbenick said, noting that her research has found that most American women have used a lubricant at some point. “We can feel aroused or in love and still not lubricate the way we want to.”
Myth 4: It is normal for sex to hurt.
Though lubricant can help some women experience more pleasure during sex, it is important to remember that sex should not hurt. An estimated 75 percent of women experience painful sex at some point in their lives, which can have many root causes: gynecologic problems, hormonal changes, cancer treatment, trauma — the list goes on.
Shemeka Thorpe, a sexuality researcher and educator who specializes in Black women’s sexual well-being, said many women believe that pain during or after sex is a sign of good sex.
“We know a lot of the times that people who end up having some sort of sexual pain disorder later in life actually had sexual pain during their first intercourse, and continued to have sexual pain or vulva pain,” Dr. Thorpe said. “They didn’t realize it was an issue.”
Men, too, can experience pain during intercourse. Experts emphasize that it is important for anyone experiencing pain during sex to see a medical provider.
Myth 5: Men always want sex more than women do.
“Desire discrepancy is the No. 1 problem I deal with in my practice, and by no means is the higher-desire partner always male,” Dr. Kerner said. “But because of this myth, men often feel a sense of shame around their lack of desire, and a pressure to always initiate.”
(Dr. Herbenick noted the related myth that women don’t masturbate, which she said holds them back from fully exploring their sexuality.)
But while there is data to suggest that men masturbate more often than women do, it is untrue that women don’t want sex, or that men always do, said Dr. Brown-James. For instance, one recent study found that women’s desire tended to fluctuate more throughout their lifetimes, but that men and women experienced very similar desire fluctuations throughout the week.
Myth 6: Desire should happen instantly.
Sex therapists and researchers generally believe that there are two types of desire: spontaneous, or the feeling of wanting sex out of the blue, and responsive, which arises in response to stimuli, like touch.
People tend to think that spontaneous desire — which is what many lovers experience early in relationships — is somehow better.
But Lori Brotto, a psychologist and the author of “Better Sex Through Mindfulness,” said a lot of the work she does is to normalize responsive desire, particularly among women and those in long-term relationships.
She helps them understand that it is possible to go into sex without spontaneous desire, as long as there is willingness and consent. Dr. Brotto likens it to going to the gym when you don’t feel like it. “Your endorphins start flowing, you feel really good and you’re grateful you went afterward,” she said.
Myth 7: Planned sex is boring.
Dr. Brotto also disagrees with the idea that “planned sex is bad sex,” because it makes it “clinical and dry and boring.”
That view is “so harmful,” she said. And it results in many people treating sex like an afterthought, doing it only late at night when they’re exhausted or distracted, Dr. Brotto said, if they make time for it at all.
When clients bristle at the practice of scheduling sex, she will ask: Are there many other activities in your life that you love or that are important to you that you never plan for or put on the calendar? The answer, she said, is usually no.
Scheduled sex can also lend itself to responsive desire, Dr. Brotto said, giving “arousal time to heat up.”
Myth 8: Your penis doesn’t stack up.
Men are under a certain amount of pressure when it comes to how their penises look or function, Dr. Kerner said. Younger men, he said, believe they shouldn’t have erectile dysfunction, while older men get the message that premature ejaculation is something they grow out of with age and experience.
The data tells a different story. Though erectile dysfunction — which is defined as a consistent inability to achieve or maintain an erection, not just occasional erection issues — does tend to increase with age, it also affects an estimated 8 percent of men in their 20s and 11 percent of those in their 30s. And 20 percent of men between the ages of 18 and 59 report experiencing premature ejaculation.
“We don’t have a little blue pill to make premature ejaculation go away, so we’re not having the same cultural conversation as we are with erectile dysfunction,” Dr. Kerner said. “We’re just left with the myths that guys with premature ejaculation are bad in bed, or sexually selfish.”
Likewise, studies show that many men — gay and straight — worry that their penises do not measure up, even though many partners say they do not prefer an especially large penis.
“Partnered sex is complex,” Dr. Kerner said. “It involves touching, tuning in, connecting, communicating.”