Ten Myths About Sex that Can Wreck Your Relationship
by David Yarian Ph.D.
As a practicing sex therapist I often speak with couples who are struggling to find a more satisfying sexual relationship. Sex has come to feel to them like just another household chore – or some kind of big exam they are about to flunk! Lost are feelings of relaxed, happy, playfulness.
Sex is supposed to be enjoyable and fun! Our bodies are exquisitely attuned to experience pleasure. Too often, mistaken beliefs about sexuality create expectations and self-judgments that prevent lovers from finding the pleasure and joy they seek.
I’ve listed below ten myths about sex that are common in our culture. These inaccurate ideas lead to much unhappiness and suffering. I invite you to be compassionate with yourself as you inquire into the nature of your own beliefs about sexuality.
Myth #1: Sex is instinctual and should just occur naturally.
Not so! Sex is learned behavior in humans, and a few of the other higher primates. Psychologist Leonore Tiefer makes this point in her eloquent book of essays entitled Sex is Not a Natural Act. It’s different for dogs and cats and birds and . . .
Humans learn how to make love – and there are few good ways in our culture for this learning to take place. Every other skill necessary for successful adult functioning – like reading and math and good manners and driving and job skills and how to get along with other people – is taught over and over, for years, by parents, teachers, religious institutions and our communities.
This leaves young people with a vacuum of reliable information in the sexual arena. A sex ed class in school and a “Big Talk” from a parent and moralizing directives from clergy are not enough for our children to be ready for happy, healthy sexual relationships.
Nature abhors a vacuum, the saying goes, and it’s certainly true here. Kids (and adults, too) are curious, and our curiosity about the mysteries of sexuality is usually directed to the underground training opportunities that are readily available in our culture:
Locker-room and sleepover discussions with “well-informed peers”
Media images of sexuality and sexual relationships
Michael Castleman in his book Great Sex has compared learning about sex from watching porn to learning how to drive by watching action movies filled with high-speed chases and spectacular crashes. Action movies (as well as porn) may be fun to watch, but it’s not the way you drive in the real world after the movie is over. Consumers of porn – and the female version, romance novels – may not fully realize that these fictional representations are not accurate and factual guides to adult relationship behavior.
Myth #2: Sex = sexual intercourse.
In our cultural shorthand, “sex” is typically understood to be “sexual intercourse”: penis-in-vagina activity, culminating in ejaculation. Yet this formulation drastically limits our understanding of this rich and complex human phenomenon.
When President Bill Clinton was defending himself during his impeachment hearings he famously declared, “I did not have sex with that woman.” He meant, apparently truthfully, that he did not have intercourse with her. Yet everyone who heard this knew without any doubt that what happened between them in the Oval Office was sexual.
Limiting our understanding of sex in this way serves to limit the scope and depth of sexual pleasure and enjoyment. Do you remember how thrilling your first sexual explorations were? How much territory there was to explore before ever arriving at intercourse? Too many adults speed past these enchantments, shortening time for relaxed foreplay and sensual caresses, hurrying to “have sex.”
Sexual intercourse is sexual behavior, an expression of sexual desire. Our sexual energies run deep, stirring us throughout our lifetimes in ways beyond knowing. Limiting the primordial power of Sex to simply intercourse doesn’t do justice to this fundamental life energy.
We are sexual creatures, from birth to death. We experience our sexual energies, thoughts, attractions, and sensations whether we are “having sex” or not. Clever advertisers know that a pretty girl or a handsome guy in front of a product helps to sell it. Handsome politicians or attractive news anchors or gorgeous movie stars generally are more successful than those who are not so sexually appealing.
Myth #3: Orgasm is the point, isn’t it?
Someone once calculated that the average male orgasm lasts between 6 and 9 seconds, and with the average frequency of orgasm the total time spent in orgasmic bliss in a lifetime was about eight hours. That doesn’t seem like very much, for an entire lifetime!
Making an ejaculatory climax the whole purpose of sex is similar to taking a long journey through beautiful scenery with eyes squeezed tightly shut, asking only, “Are we there yet?” This stingy approach to the manifold pleasures of sex shortchanges everyone.
Male and female genitals are loaded with nerve endings, with greater density than any other part of the body. That’s why sexual touch feels pleasurable. Holding the breath and straining to reach orgasm shuts off many pleasurable sensations.
There is a sort of gunslinger mentality in American culture about orgasms. Each one is another notch in the belt – without an orgasm, the sexual exchange isn’t complete or worthwhile. Post-coital conversation is too often limited to: “Did you come?”
Tantra teaches a meditative approach to sex, where breath and wordless connection amplify the intensity of sexual pleasure without falling over the cliff of orgasm. Maintaining a high state of arousal while at the same time being completely relaxed results in an unimaginable, timeless state of ecstatic bliss.
Orgasm is a delightful and profound experience. But it can be so much more than nine seconds of pelvic muscle spasm. Take some time to explore what is possible!
Myth #4: Lovemaking only happens when both people are in the mood.
OK, in the beginning of a terrific relationship, both people may be in the mood most of the time! But as a long-term relationship matures, this is less likely to be the case. Add in a couple of busy careers, a child or two, and it may seem nearly impossible for the stars to align themselves in the way they once did.
The good news is that this myth is not reality. As life becomes more busy with time demands and responsibilities, it often becomes necessary to make time for loving. This may mean scheduling time for making love. With regard to the recurring objection that “this is not romantic”: is it somehow “more romantic” to hardly ever connect sexually?
When you’ve made time to be together, it’s important not to expect that you will both be aroused and filled with desire immediately. Take time to talk about something more than what bills need to be paid, or what tomorrow’s schedule looks like. Make eye contact. Remember what brought you together in the beginning.
Enjoy being in your lover’s presence. The feelings of desire and arousal will come, if you make room for them.
Myth #5: Talking about sex takes the romance away.
“If I tell you how to touch me, or let you know what I like in sex, it won’t be romantic anymore.” This feeble attempt to preserve the mystery of sex usually misfires. The reality is that the only expert in how to touch you is – yourself! Only you are on the inside as you experience your lover’s caresses. Your partner, however well-intentioned, is guessing. Perhaps he or she is skillful and observant of the many little clues you emit regarding what you find pleasurable, but you are the one with the golden information. “I love it when you touch me exactly like that!” is a true gift to endow upon your loving partner.
Giving feedback to your partner about what you find pleasurable in a given moment is a wonderful gift. He or she can proceed to love you more confidently – and you’re the beneficiary. It’s important to recognize that what felt terrific yesterday may or may not feel terrific today. Yesterday’s weather report doesn’t tell us much about today’s weather.
Talking about sex can be one of the most sensual experiences you can share with your lover. It’s similar to the pleasure taken when enjoying a fine meal at a 5-star restaurant. Lingering over the menu, discussing the delightful possibilities of the dining experience to come, savoring every bite, sharing tastes from each other’s plates, talking about the meal afterwards – the presentation, the flavors, sauces, speculating about ingredients – all of these things add resonance to the experience of eating. Think about your sexual experiences with your partner as 5-star “meals” to be savored and talked about.
Don’t forget about the power of anticipation! Planning and looking forward to a special treat intensifies, prolongs and deepens the pleasure of the anticipated experience of sensual delight. This is another way in which talking about sex not only does not preclude romance, but actively increases it.
What about talking during sex? (Try it, you might like it!) Putting sexual thoughts and feelings and actions into words with your partner can be very interesting.
Myth #6: For a good relationship you should have sex X times per week/month/year.
Ever since Kinsey’s landmark studies of American sexual practices, we’ve been obsessed with counting – number of partners, frequency of sexual intercourse, how many seconds until orgasm, how many orgasms. And with this comes the belief that there is some canonically correct “way to do it”, a magic formula that, if met, guarantees sexual satisfaction to all.
This persistent demand that sex somehow be broken down into its simplest tangible components paradoxically leaves the puzzled practitioner less satisfied.
Gina Ogden’s wonderful book The Heart and Soul of Sex critiques this American fetish of wanting to count everything. She points out that it is the quality of sexual experience that matters far more than the quantity of various acts -- the ineffable quality of a lover’s touch upon one’s body, the spiritual powers that are unleashed in sexual alchemy as two lovers play together.
With regard to the perennial question of frequency of sexual contact between partners: it’s the interesting challenge that every intimate partnership faces. Rarely do two long-term lovers experience sexual desire at exactly the same moment. It’s also likely that these same two partners experience hunger -- or fatigue -- on different schedules as well. But it seems easier to negotiate the mutual satisfaction of those needs, perhaps because we’re more practiced at discussing them openly and calmly, and take it less personally.
Obsessing about “what’s normal” dismisses the reality of the complexity of human sexuality. There is no normal! What matters is that sexual interaction be completely consensual, the delightful result of two adults discovering how to dance their sexual and sensual dance together. It’s entirely likely that that may be different each and every time.
Myth #7: It’s best to find what works in sex, and stick to it.
This is the formula for boring sex! Perhaps, at first, it is a way to try to feel more confident. In the long run, though, this leads to dissatisfaction and frustration. This would be similar to choosing to eat the exact same thing every day for lunch. While some may prefer this, most people relish the variety of different foods, different tastes, and different experiences.
Human sexuality is a complex mix of desire, sensuality, thoughts, feelings, yearnings. It is highly variable, with moods like the weather. Whatever we think sex is, it’s more than that! Trying to stuff all this complexity into a programmed routine can only lead to a declining level of satisfaction and enjoyment.
Sex is most enjoyable when both persons are fully in the moment, inventing their playful interaction as if for the first time. Or maybe, for longtime lovers, it’s more like improvisational jazz or dance as they return to favorite themes now and again amidst the exploration of new material, combining it all into a kaleidoscopic tapestry of delight.
Myth #8: Sex is for the young; when you’re old you get beyond it . . .
The truth is quite the opposite: with maturity comes an ever-increasing capacity for intimacy and sexual satisfaction. Older lovers are more experienced and more able to put into words what they feel and what they want. Older lovers are more confident and more knowledgeable. Older lovers are better at knowing how to relax together while in the midst of a highly intense experience. Older lovers can experience the delights of sex more deeply than they did when they were first starting out.
Humans are capable of sexual loving well into “old age” – in many cases, until their final days. With appropriate adjustments, it is possible to make love throughout your lifetime. (See my article, Making Love for a Lifetime)
One challenge for older lovers is that there are few media images of senior love: most movies and television dramas seem to focus much more on representations of young love, without wrinkles or low back pain. This is unfortunate, for few of us measure up to the standards of physical beauty put forward by the advertising and media industries. Older lovers may lack confidence, comparing themselves to these idealized images.
To identify sexual expression only with what we experienced as twenty-somethings is to overly limit ourselves. Aging bodies may become less supple, even as aging minds often become more supple. The challenge of making love for a lifetime is to continually communicate with your partner about how to find mutual satisfaction. Creative adaptations may include changing positions, using lubricants, adding pillows for support, exploring alternatives to intercourse, etc. What’s important is the goal of giving and receiving pleasure.
Myth #9a: If my husband looks at another woman, or at porn, it means he doesn’t want ME.
Myth #9b: If my wife doesn’t make love with me it means she’s over sex.
Please refer back to Myth #5 concerning the importance of talking with your spouse about your sexual relationship! Many people indulge in a great deal of hypothesizing and guesswork about what their partner’s behavior means. A compelling hypothesis can stir strong emotions, which may have little basis in fact.
Much of the work of couples counseling is about unpacking these interpretations, and helping each partner to express the truth about themselves in a way that can be understood. Without talking to each other there is simply no way to be 100% correct in your guesses about what is going on with your spouse.
Myths 9a and 9b are common interpretations of one spouse’s behavior by the other. While they may be correct, it is very likely that they are incorrect, in whole or in part. When a man takes notice of another woman’s charms it does not follow that he no longer desires his wife. He is not necessarily planning an affair. Watching porn on the internet and masturbating may be simply an efficient way to obtain a few moments of pleasure. Few men are likely to feel that looking at another woman or masturbating is a satisfactory alternative to a meaningful sexual connection with their wife. These behaviors could represent disappointment or anger about the lack of a mutually satisfying sexual relationship, but you can’t really know until you talk about it.
A husband’s pessimism about his wife’s lack of desire may lead him to an overly simplistic conclusion – she’s over it. If they were to talk about it openly, he might discover any number of other realities. Perhaps she is hormonally challenged by menopause, or perimenopause, and lacks adequate estrogen or progesterone or testosterone to feel fully sexual. Perhaps their sexual technique needs modifying for her to be completely comfortable in her body – alternative positions, additional lubrication, more time to relax and become completely aroused, more support for her head or her neck. Perhaps she experiences deep pelvic pain due to vestibulitis or overly-tense pelvic floor musculature. Maybe she isn’t feeling close to him because he never talks to her anymore about anything of the heart. But it’s a big stretch to leap to the conclusion that she no longer desires intimacy or closeness with him.
It’s vital that you check out your conclusions with your partner to see if your interpretation of their behavior is correct. It’s highly unlikely, given the complexity of sexuality and relationships, that what is going on is simple. Patience is an important virtue in opening up to your intimate partner. Listening is a critical skill in your sexual relationship!
Myth #10: Giving kids too much information about sex will take away their innocence.
While it is certainly possible to give children sexual information that is inappropriate, most young people in the United States are woefully deprived of adequate, age-appropriate information. It is an illusion to believe (think ostrich, head-in-the-sand here) that children are not curious about and interested in their sexuality – as kids are curious about most things in their world!
The sweet innocence of childhood is not taken away by information about sex. It can be taken away when violent, confusing images from the media are allowed to fill a vacuum left by the absence of compassionate guidance from parents and concerned adults. Childhood innocence can be disrupted when a child has not been taught how to recognize inappropriate, abusive touch.
Sexual ignorance is no protection. Sexual ignorance means leaving the well-being of our children – who are future adults -- up to chance.