The internet has changed how kids learn about sex, but sex ed in the classroom still sucks. In Sex Ed 2.0, Mashable explores the state of sex ed and imagines a future where digital innovations are used to teach consent, sex positivity, respect, and responsibility.
Have you ever had a weird question about sex? We want to know about it. Fill out this Google Form and your response may be included (anonymously) in a future story.
If you have played the game telephone, you know what happens to clear information when you’re only allowed to speak about it in whispers: The truth gets jumbled as hell.
Taboos about sex, fears about desire, and squeamishness about discussing our bodies, has led to an abundance of whispers about sex and everything that surrounds it. Those whispers result in some serious misunderstandings, that are sometimes hilarious, and other times dangerous.
“When adults are silent about sex and sexuality, they leave a massive vacuum for young people,” Lucinda Holt, a sexual education advocate with the educational organizations Answer and Amaze, said. “Kids and teens fill that vacuum with what they hear from their friends and what they stumble on online. If they think sex and sexuality is a topic they can’t ask about, they think it’s a topic where they have to make up information.”
“Myths wouldn’t be a thing if we made accurate information about sex and sexuality accessible to young people.”
Although scientific understanding about reproduction, birth control, and human sexuality has increased dramatically over the last half a century, some age-old myths persist. Additionally, new trends and technologies have led to a rise in bogus information. And in the U.S. and Canada, there are renewed efforts to squash comprehensive sexual education programs; that is, sex-ed curricula that don’t rely on abstinence-only education, teach consent, and address issues like sexuality and gender identity. Several scientific studies and medical papers have shown that sex ed makes teens more well-equipped to navigate sex and relationships in their present and future.
“Myths wouldn’t be a thing if we made accurate information about sex and sexuality accessible to young people,” Holt said.
Luckily, there are plenty of resources out there for young people (and inquisitive adults, too) about some of the most common questions, as well as ways to get experts to weigh in on your extremely niche or personal concerns.
But there are some myths that just won’t quit, and questions that the curious keep asking. Mashable spoke with sex educators, advocates, and medical experts to learn about the most common misconceptions around sex. And these badass truth-tellers quickly got to work debunking our biggest subterranean legends.
Here’s the truth about sex myths and misconceptions you need to know.
1. The ‘You can’t get pregnant “ifs”…
FALSE – this one isn’t hard.
Perhaps the most mythic class of sex myths. Teens (and adults too) have no shortage of questions about what can or cannot cause pregnancy, and what sorts of extenuating circumstances can impact a sperm’s journey to its would-be egg.
“If a penis is in a vagina and ejaculates semen there, no matter where that happens, there’s a chance of pregnancy.”
The list of “ifs” our pros have heard is truly impressive. There’s a whole class related to how water impacts sex, whether you can get pregnant through your other, erm, orifices, or if you do some sort of post-sex dance moves. The list goes on. But the truth is a lot less complicated than the questions, says Jennifer Johnsen, senior director for digital programs and education at Power to Decide, which aims to empower young people to make informed decisions about sex.
“If a penis is in a vagina and ejaculates semen there, no matter where that happens, there’s a chance of pregnancy,” Johnsen said.
Here are some popular “Can I get pregnant ifs…”
Floating semen in a pool or hot tub: No! Our experts say there is no way for an errant water-bound semen to swim its way into a vagina.
Oral sex: No! Ingesting sperm cannot lead to pregnancy.
If someone ejaculates anywhere except in or very close to a vagina: No! Sperm cannot grab a bus pass to a woman’s cervix.
From pre-cum: Pre-cum, or the small amounts of ejaculate that a man can emit during sex but before ejaculation, does contain sperm. So getting pregnant from pre-cum is possible — but unlikely — if you’re having unprotected sex, but a man doesn’t ejaculate inside the vagina. Pulling out before ejaculation is almost as effective as the typical use of a condom, said Nadine Thornhill, a sexual education advocate and educator.
And here’s the flipside. You can get pregnant despite all of these things:
You have sex in a jacuzzi or hot shower: Yes you can get pregnant. Water, heat, or chlorine will not neutralize or wash out sperm.
It’s your first time: Yes, you can get pregnant if it’s your first time.
You’re having sex on your period: This is unlikely because ovulation usually occurs in the two weeks after your period. But it is still possible.
If you stand up after sex: You can still get pregnant. Standing up after someone ejaculates inside of you will not stop sperm from doin’ their thing.
If you shower or wash after sex: same as standing up.
If you have not had your first period yet: This is incorrect. That’s because you ovulate for the first time before your first period. So if you have sex before your first period, there is a small chance that you could become pregnant.
That’s the bottom line, folks.
2. An unplanned pregnancy means you’ll be scarred for life:
FALSE – It’s personal.
Speaking of pregnancy, there is a perception our experts have encountered that if you do become pregnant, it is an earth-shattering, life-destroying event. And certainly, the choice of what to do after becoming pregnant is a big one that can impact people in a multitude of ways.
“It can be a moment of crisis in their life, and that’s something that we’re experts in helping folks go through,” said Courtney Benedict, associate director of medical standards implementation at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “But not all people feel that way.”
It’s important for women who become pregnant to know that they have lots of options. And, crucially, it’s something many people have been through before, and from which they have moved on.
“About 45 percent of pregnancies are not planned at that time,” Jennifer Johnsen said. “Unwanted pregnancies are a very common occurrence for someone to experience in their lifetime. People don’t necessarily understand that. Whatever shade of negativity somebody might feel, people should have the perspective that it’s really a common thing to happen. And hopefully that will bring down the level of taboo in our society.”
3. There’s no male birth control
It’s true, a male pill is still in the works. But men actually have one of the safest and most accessible forms of birth control easily at their disposal: the beautiful, flexible, STI-and-pregnancy preventing … condom!
4. Condoms aren’t effective
A ripped condom is the center of so many rom-com plot lines that some people approach our rubber friends with skepticism. That perception is also exacerbated by some abstinence only sex-ed programs, that falsely claim that condoms don’t work, Holt said.
Condoms are 98 percent effective at preventing pregnancy.
Condoms are 98 percent effective at preventing pregnancy. And they’re also the only method of birth control that also protects against most sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
“We know that abstinence-only programs will often claim that condoms are not effective, or they will use an efficacy rate that’s lower than the actual efficacy rate,” Holt said. “When you do this, then young people think, why should i do this if it doesn’t even work. In fact, if used regularly and effectively, they prevent pregnancy and STI. And it’s the one thing that’s going to reduce your risk of an STI if you’re going to have sex.”
Don’t buy any of these excuses if some partner is trying to wriggle out of wearing one:
You need to find the right size: A basic condom can stretch over someone’s forearm without breaking. Certainly, condoms should be comfortable, but there is no need to buy into magnum marketing ploys (or excuses). Most condoms should fit most penises.
You need a brand name: People are sometimes skeptical of free condoms or non-brand name condoms. In reality, a condom is a condom. Some might have fancier flavors or lubes, but there is no such thing as a “crappy condom.”
People are also still somewhat confused about how to use condoms. Here’s the golden rule: Use one condom, no more, no less, to have safe sex. Here are some very wrong myths:
You can reuse them: No! Condoms are single-use items.
Doubling up is a good idea: No! Two heads may be better than one, but two condoms for one head means slip/rip/tear city.
You can use other condom-like items in a pinch: No! Put away the saran wrap and sandwich bags. Only actual condoms will effectively prevent pregnancy.
You got that, people?!
5. Having HPV as a man is no big deal
Our experts said that a lot of misinformation persists around many STIs; Holt said that often, people just don’t think that STIs will happen to them.
One of the STIs that causes the most confusion is HPV, Planned Parenthood’s Benedict said. And that’s understandable. HPV is a virus that technically has no cure. There are many strains of this virus. It is sometimes asymptomatic, and there’s no way to test for it in men. And though there is a preventative vaccine for some of the most harmful, cancer-causing iterations of the virus, a person’s immune system — not an external treatment — is what’s responsible for suppressing it.
So if you’re a man, HPV might not seem like such a big deal. Sometimes HPV can cause genital warts in both men and women. But if it’s a virus that often has no symptoms, and there’s no test and no cure, what’s there to worry about, anyway?
In fact, if a man learns that he may have HPV, he should tell his partners, whether he has sex with men or women. HPV can cause cervical cancer, and in rare cases, throat, and anal cancer. Men can also get an HPV vaccine, which would really just be better for everyone, now wouldn’t it.
6. Hormonal birth control is bad for you
FALSE – It’s safe, but a personal choice.
Experts report that concerns about hormonal birth control, like the pill, the patch, or hormonal IUDs, persist despite the fact that the pill is one of the most studied, and proven medications of all time.
All of these experts stress that birth control is a personal choice, and that women should choose the method they feel most comfortable with. However, misinformation and “toxin free” movements are contributing to birth control myths.
“If someone does not want to take exogenous hormones, there are plenty of other methods,” Planned Parenthood’s Benedict said. “But truly, hormonal contraception has been around for decades. The safety and efficacy is very well established.”
Despite the proven effectiveness and safety that our experts referenced, here are myths and concerns about hormonal birth control:
It causes weight gain: There is no evidence that the most common types of hormonal birth control cause weight gain. In fact, there are some reports that link it to weight loss. But weight fluctuation is a normal bodily occurrence, and it is hard to link one way or the other.
It can increase your risk for breast cancer: The “slightly increased” risk of breast cancer is so small that it does not prevent doctors from prescribing hormonal birth control even to women with a history of breast cancer in their families. What hormonal birth control can do is reduce the risk of some cancers, like ovarian cancer.
It can harm your ability to get pregnant after you come off of the pill: There is no evidence of that taking the pill even for long amounts of time has any effect on a woman’s ability to become pregnant once she stops taking it and her body resumes a non-hormonally regulated cycle.
Having a hormonally regulated cycle is worse than having a natural cycle: This is a personal choice, but there is no scientifically proven negative consequence to regulating your period. Additionally, using the pill doesn’t pump your body full of “toxins” as some anti-birth control posts on Instagram purport. “The hormones in these methods are very similar to hormones that we make within our body,” Benedict said. “We’re basically just telling the ovaries, stay quiet, no need to release an egg. And there’s nothing that’s not safe about not ovulating.”
What’s getting lost in a lot of the fear about birth control is all of the benefits. It can reduce cramps, cause more regular periods, or cause periods to go away — which, according to science, is perfectly healthy.
“The pill is one of the most studied medicines of all time,” Johnsen said. “People should choose their birth control based on what they’re comfortable with. For people who don’t want to use hormones, there are plenty of other methods. But regarding the idea that you need a break from hormonal birth control, or that using hormonal birth control continuously to skip your period is dangerous, there is a large body of medical research that shows for most people, it’s a perfectly safe and effective way to prevent pregnancy.”
7. Teenagers are rabid sex monsters
FALSE – arousal is different from desire.
It’s true that teenagers may have hormonal levels with more extreme highs than people in adulthood. But the new and at times elevated levels of hormones don’t mean that all teenagers are horn dogs who can’t keep their hands off one another.
“Teens may have an arousal response that is higher than other stages than life,” sex educator and advocate Thornhill said. “But arousal is not necessarily the same thing as desire. And just because someone is sexually aroused, it doesn’t mean they want to have sex with another person. It just means they’re responsive to stimuli. There’s an interest in sex, but it’s not this uncontrollable animalistic urge that cannot be tamed and controlled.”
8. Men and women have “sexual peaks” at different ages
FALSE – what the heck is a ‘peak’ anyway?
A myth has persisted for years that men have a “sexual peak” in their teenage years and women “peak” in their mid-thirties. This is untrue in a few ways.
“A sexual peak is a bit absurd on the face of it because everyone’s experiences are so unique”
“There’s no biological determinant on age,” Johnsen said. “That’s just not the case.”
The first hole in this myth comes from the word “peak”: What is a peak anyway? This myth likely originated from the Kinsey research about sexuality in the middle of the 20th century, Johnsen said. That study actually counted up how many orgasms people were having at different ages. Other research has quantified how hormone levels change throughout a person’s life and determined that a “sexual peak” is the time during which a person has the highest levels of hormones in their body. Hormone levels naturally fluctuate in accordance with puberty and age, but also with totally variable experiences like life stressors or major events like pregnancy. So the very idea of a “peak” is a wishy-washy one.
The second problem is that the question of “peaks” depends so much on personal life experience.
“A sexual peak is a bit absurd on the face of it because everyone’s experiences are so unique,”Johnsen said. “People experience pleasure in ways that are not necessarily tied to orgasms. The notion that you would tie those numbers to a sexual peak almost sets people up for disappointment.”
9. Consent is just about sex
FALSE – consent is a topic that translates to many areas of life
Many sex-ed advocates say that one of the best ways to ensure a comprehensive sexual education, and therefore healthier relationships, is by beginning sex-ed early — as early as pre-school.
That might sound wild, but what sex-ed looks like for a teenager would be very different from the lessons that young children would learn. For example, early sex-ed would involve lessons about communication and boundaries. Learning to express and honor other people’s needs is something children can learn at a young age, and is also a lesson that will benefit them down the line.
“One of the misconceptions is that consent is just about sex,” Thornhill said. “Really consent is a much broader social lesson about respecting other people’s space and bodies. It’s about really letting people decide for themselves how they want to receive affection, and love.”