Perhaps you've heard that size matters, women are naturally more bisexual than men, or that tantric sex means everlasting orgasms. None of these things is entirely true. Sex has been around forever, but we're just starting to understand it. Today we're debunking 10 of the most common sex myths to set the record straight.
I like sex as much as the next guy, but I'm not going to pretend for a second that I'm an expert. To help get to the bottom of each myth on our list, I requested a little help from some top sexologists: Dr. Debby Herbenick (research scientist at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, and author of multiple books including Sex Made Easy)l Dr. Lindsey Doe (doctor of sexual health and founder of Birds & Bees); and Dr. Amy Marsh (clinical sexologist and sex counsellor). Let's get down to business and find out what we do know.
Myth 1: Penis Size Matters
Men seem to care a lot about the size and shape of their penises, but do women — or even other men? And how much does it actually affect performance in the bedroom? Some argue larger penises can create a more intense orgasm during penetrative sex. Others presume that men with smaller members make up for the difference with added effort. Debby says it can depend on the person but ultimately has more to do with a psychological connection than anything else:
To some people, size does matter. They may wish their partner were longer or shorter or thinner or thicker. The bottom line, however, is that research consistently finds that sexual satisfaction is more influenced by psychological connection, intimacy and relationship satisfaction — not just the size or shape of a person's genitals. In our study of more than 1600 men, we found the average erect length was about 5.6 inches, with most men hovering around that average. How two people connect through sex is typically more important than the size of the parts, however. A great book for better technique? Great in Bed.
Amy agrees, and notes some men might underestimate what they've got and that there's no one-size-fits-all when it comes to genitalia:
Size matters to those who let it matter, and that includes men and women. People have and inflict too much body shame about genitals. Some even worry when they are "average", For example, men who look downward at their penises (or who have belly fat) may see them as smaller than they actually are. Sometimes a larger penis may be "too large" for oral sex, but just right for penetration. Or a smaller penis may feel just right for oral sex, as it can be taken more completely into the mouth. Motion, rapport, depth of intimacy, lovemaking skills, and/or positions often have more to do with partner satisfaction than size.
So what should you do if you're unhappy with the size of your package? Stop worrying so much about what you're working with — whether too large, too small, or too average — and figure out how you can use it to please your partner. Any partner worth your time won't reject you solely based on the size of your penis, and if they really want something different from time to time you can supplement your sexual regimen with toys.
On the other side of the issue, if you have a partner who struggles with his size, be supportive. If the sex is good, let him know. When it isn't, make suggestions that will increase your pleasure. It may be his insecurity, but good partners should help each other.
Myth 2: Men and Women Reach Their Sexual Peak at the Same Time
When do men and women reach their sexual peak? Some believe men get there in their late teens and early twenties while women experience their peak a little later in life. Debby believes there's no real way to know for sure:
I hear this all the time and everyone means something different (frequency of sex, enjoyment of sex, ease of orgasm, etc). But however I look at it, I can't make full sense of it. Do men have easier erections at 18 than age 70? Sure, but the sex may be more meaningful and satisfying at 70 than 18 (generally speaking). Enjoyable sex can happen at any age. It's rarely all physical or all emotional. Sex is this fascinating place where our bodies and emotions and past experiences and future hopes collide, and that can result in something pretty spectacular at any age. If you think you've reached your peak, forget it. The best may still be yet to come.
The same advice goes for those who haven't reached their peak. You shouldn't worry about it. So long as you're comfortable with who you are, understand your own body, and remain reasonably open to new experiences, you should have no problem enjoying a satisfying sex life. Whether a "peak" comes or not doesn't matter much if you're having a good time.
Myth 3: Most Women Can Achieve Orgasm From Vaginal Sex Alone
Wouldn't it be easy if orgasms resulted from simply following instructions? Just insert Tab A into Slot B, move it around for a while, and enjoy. Perhaps because it more often works that way for men, this unfortunate myth arose for women. Most don't achieve orgasm from vaginal sex alone even though it's possible — anatomically speaking. Debby explains:
It's not that simple to determine who "can" have an orgasm from a certain type of sex (after all, whether someone has an orgasm during sex depends on more than just their ability, but also on how they feel about their partner, their partner's technique, etc). And when women have orgasms from penile-vaginal intercourse, it's not always clear-cut how exactly the orgasm came to be. After all, the clitoris has inside parts and outside parts and intercourse stimulates both. The vagina, including the G-spot area, is also stimulated during intercourse as are nerves around the cervix, including the vagus nerve, which is one pathway to orgasm.
Continuing on that theme, Amy notes that orgasms can occur in all sorts of ways:
Human beings can achieve orgasm in all kinds of ways. Mary Roach, author of Bonk, found a woman who could think herself to orgasm and another who orgasmed while brushing her teeth. However, the persistent emphasis on vaginal orgasm at the expense of clitoral stimulation is incredibly damaging. It's more accurate to say that the "majority of women" will need some kind of consistent clitoral stimulation in order to experience orgasm. And we should also remember what sex researcher Mary Jane Sherfey asserted as long ago as 1966: "the clitoris is not just the small protuberance at the anterior end of the vulva."
So how do most women achieve orgasm? Debby breaks it down:
What we do know very clearly is that women and men experience orgasm through diverse sexual behaviours. According to data from our 2009 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behaviour, most women (about 2/3) have orgasms when they have sex, and this could be from vaginal, clitoral, breast or other kinds of stimulation. And yet in another study, nearly 1/5 of women reported preferring oral sex in order to have an orgasm.
We can examine statistics all day, but ultimately we still have a problem: orgasms are less common for women than men. For women who have difficulty achieving orgasm, Debbie recommends reading Sex Made Easy and Becoming Orgasmic for a little help.
Myth 4: Men Can't Have Multiple Orgasms
Men are known for shutting down and going to sleep post-ejaculation (for biological reasons), so the idea of multiple orgasms sounds almost ridiculous to many people. That said, it happens. Some men can do it naturally, but most have to work pretty hard. Amy explains:
Men can, but it's usually learned skill involving Taoist or Tantric techniques which include breath control and making a distinction between ejaculation and orgasm. You can find these techniques in books like Mantak Chia and Douglas Abram's account of Taoist sexual practices, The Multi-Orgasmic Man. It's interesting to note that sex researchers William Hartman and Marilyn Fithian said that 12% of men they'd studied were reporting multiple orgasms.
Debby notes that there are some men who can ejaculate repeatedly, however:
There are the rare men who can ejaculate over and over again, kind of how many women can orgasm repeatedly. Why this differences occurs is not well understood — and there's no sense it can be taught (these men seem to have some physical differences from other men).
While some men can ejaculate more than once, most can't and never will. That said, men looking for more than a single orgasm can teach themselves to achieve them.
Myth 5: Women Are Naturally More Bisexual
Females are generally considered a more fluid gender in regards to sex, but does that mean men are less likely to be bisexual? According to Lindsay, the answer is pretty straightforward:
Nope. While there is no consistent data on how many people identify as bisexual, we do see stats where there are twice as many bisexual men as there are women. Sexual orientation is natural, and no more for one gender than others; it may be more socially acceptable and therefore easier for women to express more flexibility or fluidity with their sexualities but this does not equate to their identities nor does it exclude the men who experience attraction for their sex and other sexes.
Debby concurs, citing a few studies of her own:
Sizable minorities of women and men have had sex with same-sex partners. For example, in one of our national studies, we found about 15% of women had had oral sex with another woman and about 11% of men had had oral sex with another man. Far fewer women and men identify as gay or lesbian or bisexual. Research suggests that both women and men may be somewhat "fluid" in their sexual feelings and behaviours.
Why is this myth so prevalent? It might have to do with higher amounts of "lesbian" pornography aimed at straight men, or a perceived cultural preference towards homosexual sex with women rather than men. While a number of factors may have contributed to this misinformation, it all started with a 2005 New York Times article that argued bisexual men do not exist. More recently, that study was finally debunked. Bisexual men have known this for years that they exist, but now science is finally backing them up. Tell your friends!
Myth 6: Tantric Sex Means Orgasming for Hours
Ever since Sting essentially joked that he had eight hours of tantric sex (surprise: he didn't) and the world took him seriously, everyone wanted to get in on the party. Through quite a bit of misinformation, people came to believe that tantric sex essentially meant endless orgasms. In reality, the tantra uses a different (and less commonly accepted) definition of the word. Lindsey explains:
Tantra is a type of sexual intimacy in which partners use eastern techniques to share energy. The Venus Butterfly technique is said to bring about an hour-long orgasm. Talk about needing a nap after sex!? Critics argue that this so-called tantra-induced supergasm is actually confusing orgasm with other stages of arousal, like plateau and resolution. I'm not one to harness someone's orgasmic capabilities or change the meaning of orgasm to them. I will put out there that the longest orgasm measured in the labs was around one minute and it was not the result of tantra.
Debby concurs, and explains that you generally shouldn't even expect to come close to a minute when achieving orgasm:
Orgasms last a matter of seconds, not even minutes. That doesn't mean there aren't ways to experience euphoric feelings similar to the feelings one experiences during orgasm, but that doesn't make it an orgasm. Not even if it comes with a DVD or a how-to manual or a weekend workshop. And that's OK! Tantric sex practices provide people with new ways to have sex, to connect, and to feel closer to other people.
As Debby says, tantric sex certainly has its value. Just don't expect to endless erotic bliss and you'll have a better chance of finding satisfaction.
Myth 7: Men Want Casual Sex And Women Want Commitment
As humans, we've tried to narrow down the base desires of men and women in a multitude of categories and then seem to accept these generalisations as fact. But have you ever met people before? They're all really different! Generalisations lead us down a path of misinformation for no good reason, and what kind of sex each gender wants fits well into this category. Debby explains:
There's no easy gender divide. As it turns out, most human beings enjoy sex and most people say their most enjoyable sex occurs in relationships (not surprising given how highly both men and women say connection and intimacy matter to them). Of course, some men and some women prefer casual sex, and most people have tried casual kinds of sex at some point in their lives. Men and women tend to be far more similar than different in terms of the kinds of sex they enjoy (connecting, intimate) and with whom (relationship partner).
So why might women get the reputation of only wanting commitment, even nowadays? Lindsey offers some insight:
When it comes to heterosexual partner selection, women tend to be more picky because they have more at stake, with the potential pregnancy and all. She's also less likely to orgasm — 35% less likely.
While orgasms aren't always necessary to have a good time, they're often the part of casual sex people are looking for. If women are less likely to have one, that might downplay the desire of casual sex somewhat.
That said, infrequent orgasms don't make a person automatically desire commitment. While culture might urge heterosexual women to settle down with a man and encourage young men to sow their wild oats, people don't subscribe to everything they're told. We find our own ways, like what we like, and few of us represent what the world considers normal — even those of us who try.
Myth 8: Oral And Anal Are Safe Alternatives To Vaginal Sex
Different kinds of sex come with different risks, and so what's a safe activity depends greatly upon how you define safe. Debby explains:
If your only concern is pregnancy risk, then yes — oral sex and anal sex are safer alternatives than vaginal intercourse. However, most people have concerns about more than pregnancy, and should — given that the US has particularly high rates of sexually transmissible infections (STI). STIs can and are passed through oral sex and anal sex. If you're having oral, vaginal or anal sex, let your healthcare provider know as different kinds of STI testing may be recommended for you (for example, rectal STI testing if you are having receptive anal sex).
Transmission rates for STIs vary based on different practices and so many factors can increase your risk no matter what you do. For example, unprotected oral sex immediately after brushing your teeth, which can cause small tears in the gums, can be riskier than protected vaginal sex. Under the right circumstances, the inverse can be true as well. You always have to assume a reasonable amount of risk when engaging in sexual behaviour. Play it safe regardless of the activity and you'll have less to worry about.
Myth 9: Women Don't Watch Porn
To some extent, watching porn is a guy thing because most porn is marketed towards men — both straight and gay. That said, pornography geared towards women does exist and women do enjoy pornography. Lindsey provides the numbers:
Almost a third of women report having watched porn and more than 10% of men don't. Plus, when researchers study the physiological indicators of porn on the body, men and women respond equally to sexually explicit material. Their groins fill with blood, muscles tense up and for the women, a big myth debunk, they get wet — so not a guy thing.
So while it isn't only a "guy thing", that perception causes a bit of a problem in how both genders see and experience sex. Debby explains:
Most mainstream porn is made by men with other men in mind. It's not surprising, then, that most of the sex acts we see in porn are more focused on men's pleasure than women's pleasure. For example, one study found that porn showed disproportionately high rates of anal sex, fellatio, and two-girl-one-guy threesomes. The market is changing a little with more "ethical porn producers" and more female directors, but it's still a largely male audience.
What can you do to make porn an enjoyable part of a relationship? If you want to watch it with your partner, discuss what's suitable for both of you. If you just want to enjoy it alone, bear in mind that what you see isn't necessarily what you'll get. Don't masturbate solely with pornography — use your imagination as well. Variety keeps things interesting, and prevents one activity from becoming too frequent in your sexual repertoire.
Myth 10: Great Sex Comes Naturally
Does great sex come naturally? If you ask a handful of people you'll get just as many answers because nobody seems to agree. Some people have great chemistry and don't have to work at it. Other people don't have interests that collide in the throes of passion and have to put in more effort. So which is it? Debby explains why it's a mix of both:
Sometimes people have phenomenal chemistry and everything clicks for a night or the first 3 or 6 months they're together. But most great sex takes practice, patience, and a little forgiveness. Great sex takes accepting each other's bodies and your own. For couples in long-term relationships, it sometimes means having sex to please your partner, knowing that another time he or she will have sex to please you (because your desires aren't always in sync). Some sex will be for tension release, other times it's so you can go to sleep, or to feel closer after an argument, or to make a baby, or to feel in love. One of you might fart during sex. One or both of you is bound to have sexual problems at some point. For example, our 2009 NSSHB data show that about 30% of women reported pain the most recent time they had sex and about one-third had difficulty with lubrication. With about 1 in 5 men feeling they come too quickly, and societal pressure for erections as strong and reliable as superheroes, sexual problems and pressures abound.
So with all those problems, what can couples do to keep having great sex throughout their lives? Debby offers some advice:
Great sex takes care. It takes making mistakes and getting over them. One study found that even among satisfied couples who have regular sex, sex was only "very good" about 20-25% of the time and "good" about half of the time. Kind of like your favourite restaurant — sometimes it's amazing but most of the time you just wouldn't want to eat anywhere else. And sometimes it's kind of "meh" but you keep coming back regardless because you know that most of the time it's pretty great.
So don't be greedy. No single thing is amazing every time. Great sex would cease to be great if it didn't vary from time to time.
Remember: We Still Have More To Learn
We've had sex for many, many years, but only recently started studying it. We still have much more to learn. While this posts represents what we know now, things may change in the future. Remember to always keep an open mind and keep learning. Human sexual education still has a long way to go.
A very special thanks goes out to the gracious contributors to this post:
Dr. Amy Marsh, clinical sexologist and sex counselor.
This story has been updated from its original publication.