These Old-School Myths Everyone Keeps Telling Girls About Sex Need to Go
"There is no way we'd allow any other academic program to consistently fail to prepare students for life after school," Last Week Tonight host John Oliver said in August of sex education in the United States. "And human sexuality, unlike calculus, is something you actually need to know about for the rest of your life."
But not only does our country fail to educate young people about sex — only 22 states and the District of Columbia require comprehensive sex education, and abstinence-only sex education has been proven ineffective — our culture also frequently perpetuates damaging lies and myths about the basic human act. What's more, these lies are often disproportionately and uniquely disseminated to young women.
These are some of the worst lies we need to stop telling girls about sex, according to the young women who've heard them.
Losing your virginity is transformative.
Losing one's virginity has long been upheld as a sacred and even life-altering experience.
"Sex is presented as this magic transformation, whether good or bad," Sabrina Nelson, 19, told Mic. "Sex makes you bad; sex makes you a slut. Sex marks your magical foray into the world of womanhood."
Although she was ready "to feel different, more grown up or something," the first time she had sex, Nelson said the experience "felt normal — inconsequential, even ... It just felt like another experience on the continuum of my lifetime of sexual experiences."
Nonetheless, virginity isn't necessarily framed this way for women.
"We only speak of virginity when it comes to women," 19-year-old Cheyenne* told Mic. "Society has constructed the idea of virginity to shame women of their bodies."
Therese Shechter, the filmmaker of How To Lose Your Virginity, agrees.
"The concept of virginity is all too often tied to how we talk about women's morality and sexual choices," she told Mic in May. In fact, "male virginity wasn't even discussed as a thing until the 20th century," she said.
"I think people should define virginity however they want, or dismiss the concept of it altogether if it's not useful to them," Shechter concluded then.
Sex only happens between men and women.
The way we talk about virginity further illuminates another lie perpetuated about sex: that it's only legitimate if it occurs between two heterosexual individuals of different genders.
"We only speak about sex and the loss of virginity within the binary, exclusively as penetration, therefore invalidating [homosexual] sex," Cheyenne said.
It's a heteronormative notion that's reinforced in the sex education many young women receive — both at home and in the classroom.
"My mom gave me the 'sex talk' when I was in fifth grade by explaining that sex was putting a penis in a vagina, which made it possible to have babies," Chloe,* 18, told Mic. And she wasn't the only one taught to equate heterosexuality with sex itself.
Cheyenne said her school's sex education curriculum was "very heteronormative" and even further entrenched in damaging gender roles.
"I was taught to fear my body and fear what it could do to men and fear what men were capable of," she said.
Pregnancy is the only possible unwanted outcome of sex.
The overwhelming message teenagers get about sex is that they shouldn't have it at all: In fact, since 1982, more than $1.7 billion of federal funds have been devoted to abstinence-only sex education, according to RH Reality Check. Even when comprehensive education is provided at all, pregnancy prevention is often significantly emphasized over any other kind of health-related risks like STIs. It's a reality that likely contributes to the fact that half of sexually active people will contract an STI by age 25, according to the American Sexual Health Association.
This silence not only detrimentally perpetuates ignorance and the spread of such infections, but shame as well, especially for women.
Women who have STIs are taught "that you're damaged goods, that you're dirty, that you'll never get married, that nobody will ever want to have sex with you again and that you must have done something to deserve the STI; it's really a blemish on your character," Ella Dawson, a herpes-positive writer, told Mic in September. Education about STIs, both in terms of prevention as well as destigmatizing the profiles and experiences of those who have them, would go a long way, she said.
"I didn't feel that STIs were talked about enough," Cheyenne said, recalling her own sex education. "I realize it's not the first thing on my mind when I think about a sexual partner, and I think it should be taken seriously and emphasized in the first introductions to sex."
Consent is straightforward.
While many young women have been taught "no means no," or that a lack of consent equates to sexual assault, their lived experiences are frequently more complicated. For example, Cheyenne said she has been in situations where even after giving consent, she felt uncomfortable or wanted to stop having sex.
"I wish I had been told that I have the right to stop and that I have the right to change my mind," she said. "There's so much shame around changing your mind in the middle of sex because we've prioritized male desire. If he doesn't finish, you're a bitch, and that's just not right, because most of the time women don't even get turned on."
Journalist Rebecca Traister recently explored this complicated dynamic in New York magazine. Many young women routinely consent to "joyless, exploitative" sex because "the game remains rigged ... male sexual needs take priority, with men presumed to take sex and women presumed to give it to them," Traister wrote.
A lot of women find themselves consenting to sex "where we don't matter ... we may as well not be there," as recent Harvard graduate Reina Gattuso wrote in a Feministing post earlier this year. "We are often hurt in ways more subtle and persistent," Gattuso elaborated to Traister in New York magazine. "And we can often totally forget that at the end of the day, sex is also about pleasure."
As Feministing editorial director Maya Dusenbery told Traister, while emphasizing a straightforward understanding of consent may be necessary in the context of rampant sexual assault, the goal should be to move past this.
"I don't want us to ever lose sight of the fact that consent is not the goal," Dusenbery told New York magazine. "Seriously, God help us if the best we can say about the sex we have is that it was consensual."
Girl's shouldn't vocalize their desires.
And, yes, it is important for women to look beyond consent to pleasure.
"I never thought about pleasure as a part of my sexual experience until I started having sex," Cheyenne told Mic. The silence that surrounds women's sexual pleasure, she added, persists because women are still "trained to be mothers, and motherhood is the only reason we should be having sex."
Cheyenne said the fact that she's a woman of color makes pleasure all the more complex.
"As a black woman, who is often portrayed in media only to be sexual, it was hard finding this balance," she said.
In addition to realizing that women can enjoy sex, young women would benefit from learning how to advocate for that pleasure, Chloe said.
"Girls should not be shamed for having desire. It is a double standard that men are supposed to constantly want sex but girls are told to never openly express desire," she said. "I have found that you rarely get what you want unless you ask for it."
*Some of the subjects interviewed did not want to use their last names.