As of July, only 29 US states and the District of Columbia mandate sex ed, and of those states, only 11 require that the information provided be medically accurate, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit research and policy organization that focuses on sexual and reproductive rights worldwide. Additionally, the use of social media can allow misinformation to spread more rapidly, including among those actively seeking accurate information, according to a 2021 study by the University of Louisville in Kentucky.
Misinformation and misconceptions can lead to consequences, including unplanned pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and diseases, and increased fear and stigma around sex and sexual health, said Kristen Mark, a sex and relationships researcher and professor in family medicine and community health at the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Institute for Sexual and Gender Health in Minneapolis.
Here, sex educators and researchers break down some common misconceptions, and share accurate information that you may not have learned in traditional sex education.
Sex and sexual health aren’t just about the physical act
Often people believe sexual health is only related to sex itself, New York City-based sexuality educator Logan Levkoff said. In reality, sexual health is a “state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality,” according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It has to do with how we take care of our bodies in a holistic way,” Levkoff said, “how we navigate mental health, the access we have to the information and services, the culture we’re living in.”
Understanding and promoting sexual health can allow people to feel empowered in their bodies and sexual decisions, and can open up discussion around these topics, potentially allowing people to challenge these misconceptions more directly.
‘Normal’ does not exist
The most common question Levkoff fields is “Am I normal?”
“People don’t want to feel like they’re weird, they’re the outsider, that there’s something wrong with them,” she said.
Some people might wonder if they got their first period at a normal age. However, menstruation, including the onset and length of one’s period, varies from person to person, according to the Mayo Clinic.
There is no single definition of normal, according to Levkoff. Since each person is unique, searching for normal may not be the most beneficial thing. Instead, people can learn about their own bodies and desires, Levkoff added.
Sex can be pleasurable
Growing up in a suburb of Charlotte, North Carolina, Alexa Hulse, 20, learned in public school that people have sex to conceive a child. There was no discussion around the female orgasm, and the male orgasm was discussed in the context that it helped sperm find the egg to create a baby.
The reality is that sex is pleasurable, the University of Minnesota’s Mark said. In fact, the No. 1 reason humans engage in sex is for pleasure, she added.
“I was very fearful of sex,” Hulse said. “There was no discussion of pleasure. It was only have babies and fear, because you didn’t want to get pregnant and didn’t want to contract an STD or an STI.”
With the recent US Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, eliminating the constitutional right to have an abortion, people have been saying, “Don’t have sex if you don’t want to get pregnant.”
But for many people who have sex and try to avoid getting pregnant, limiting access to reproductive health care can be a burden, Mark said.
“Contraceptive methods and access to reproductive health care such as abortion are really important components to ensuring that people can engage in their human right to have pleasurable sexual experiences,” she said.
Moreover, sexual pleasure can have health benefits, including better general health, better sleep, less stress, improved cognitive functioning and higher quality of life, according to research.
STIs are not always visible
Stigmas that people who have sexually transmitted diseases or infections are “dirty” and those who don’t are “clean” have dominated narratives around sex.
However, STIs are more common than people think. In 2018, 20% of people in the US had an STI on any given day, according to a 2021 study in the journal Sexually Transmitted Diseases.
And people may have an STI and not even be aware of it since most are not noticeable, said Debby Herbenick, professor at the Indiana University Bloomington’s School of Public Health and author of “Sex Made Easy.”
“The only way to tell if someone has an STI is to get tested for STIs, which all sexually active people should do from time to time (the frequency varies based on a person’s own sexual behaviors and risk factors, so check with a healthcare provider to see what they recommend for you),” Herbenick said via email.
Levels of sexual desire vary
Low or high sexual desire does not mean there is anything wrong with you, Herbenick said. People’s sex drives often fluctuate based on outside factors such as stress levels, she added.
Furthermore, there is a common misconception that men always want to have sex and women do not, Mark said. These assumptions can cause people to worry that something is wrong with them, when really, sexual drive and desire is not based on sex or gender and varies by person.
Teaching comprehensive sex ed doesn’t mean people will have more sex
In the US, only 11 states and the District of Columbia require that the importance of consent to sexual activity be covered in sex education, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Consent, or an agreement between parties to engage in sexual activity, is an important component of sex, Mark said.
Some believe sex education is about morals and values, but it really is about health information, including understanding bodily autonomy and consent, Mark said. Sex education gives people the opportunity to learn that saying yes is just as important as saying no, and vice versa, she added.
Covering topics such as consent in sex education classes does not mean people are going to run out and have sex, Mark said. Instead, it means people will understand how to navigate the world better, both when it comes to sex and when it doesn’t, she added.
In fact, abstinence-only sex education has been shown to be ineffective and harmful, according to a 2017 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Younger children can have comprehensive sex education beginning in kindergarten, a 2021 study in the same journal found.
“It’s going to involve talking about bodily autonomy and the right to have the ability to say no to touch to your body if it’s not wanted,” Mark said of sex ed for younger kids. “It’s about learning about boundaries and respect for your own body.”
Young people might not have the same level of trust in the future if adults don’t answer their questions, Levkoff said.
“If a young person, no matter how young or old, has a question, they deserve an answer,” she added. “It’s about how much information we give, the delivery system, the values behind it.”