This is how sex myths still rule our lives

Written by Sophia Smith Galer

Journalist Sophia Smith Galer’s new book, Losing It, dismantles the sex misinformation so many of us regularly encounter. Here she recounts the biggest myths she came across while researching the book

“Every time you have sex,” I remember her saying, “you will lose your special glue. And when you have lost all of your special glue, no husband will love you.”

I was told that by an external speaker during a sex ed class at school as a teenager. No matter that there were girls in the year group who were gay or who had already had sex. No husband was going to love us if we were ‘special-­glueless’, and despite any other more open-minded information that the school gave me, I was left thinking that my sexual history would always be tied to my value as a person. I was fed a lie presented as fact.

If you think young people are no longer exposed to ideas like these, you would be wrong; a few months ago, a father contacted me to tell me that his daughter was being taught contraception “wasn’t real love” at a Catholic school. And the problem goes beyond just the education system, too: in my new book, Losing It, I chart how we are exposed to sex myths from countless spaces that are supposed to be trustworthy, including news outlets, doctors’ websites and influencers with followers in the millions. We also hear them from the people we care about most – our best mates, our parents and our sexual partners themselves.

Time and time again, I found that both the research and the experts in the field had the knowledge to counter some of the world’s most pervasive sex misinformation – and yet, the lies still were still being repeated. There’s no reason I should have ever heard the phrase “special glue”, for example; I was taught it a few years after studies in the US revealed that abstinence-only education harms young people and promotes sexism.

Special glue was part of the myriad of false messaging that shaped my early sexual identity as one that was passive and defined by the partner I was with rather than my own sexuality. Exposing how many people continue to endorse these myths, and then debunking them, is one part of how we begin to dispel them. That’s what I set out to do in Losing It – now it’s your job as a reader to share this knowledge with others.

Here are a few of the most pernicious ideas I encountered while researching the book. 

Sophia Smith Galer

The Tightness Myth

Sarah Walser, a junior doctor in the US, was in the middle of one of her clinical rotations when she had to look twice at the note pinned up in her clinic hallway. It read: “All rooms should have: two extra virginal, two virginal, eight regular, two long.”

The notes were referring to vaginal speculums, instruments that medical professionals use in examinations. That some in the medical community employ the terminology of ‘virgin’ – a social construct with no biological reality – to somehow describe vaginal shape seems shocking. But the tightness myth, in which someone’s vagina is wrongly believed to be ‘loosened’ by sexual activity, can be found everywhere.

You only have to type it into Google to see how widely this lie is sold as fact; you will find it in countless porn search terms like ‘tight pussy’, and it’s also how innumerable OnlyFans performers advertise themselves online. We also know that the ‘vaginal rejuvenation’ market is exploding, possibly surpassing $5 billion (£3.84bn) by 2026, and that ‘tightness’ procedures are part of this.

But porn aside, the fact this idea is being employed in women’s health is both bizarre and dangerous. Good sexual function for us during sex is partly determined by our pelvic floor. ‘Tightness’ is hardly the right word for it; your pelvic floor muscles contract and relax depending on how you’re feeling in the moment. A pelvic floor that is too tight or tense is not good – it might cause sexual pain conditions like vaginismus, constipation and incontinence. When we’re having good, aroused sex, we aren’t tight; nor are we loose – our muscles are simply working, supported by lubrication.

So, next time you see a clinic claiming they offer services that ‘tighten a woman’s vagina’, please approach with due caution – and think about who exactly they’re intending on tightening said vagina for.

The Pain Myth

The truth about sexual pain is that it can be common for British women; different studies have suggested anything from one in 10 to one in 13 of us experience painful sex. But common does not mean normal. What’s often not explained is the root of why we’re experiencing pain, and that it’s usually eminently treatable. The reasons can be complicated: everything from our overall levels of health and wellbeing at the moment we’re having sex to how anxious or aroused we are can impact how comfortable sex is for us. For people like me, whose sexual pain is rooted in a deeper, psychosexual cause, treatment is at hand in the form of psychosexual therapy.

The problem is that a lot of us get told to expect pain, and so when we experience it we don’t necessarily believe it’s a problem or something we should see a doctor about. I certainly had no idea psychosexual anything existed and was completely unable to recognise a disorder I’d developed because I’d never heard of it.

A lack of arousal for cis women during heterosexual sex is also part of this miserable picture for women; 95% of both men and women orgasm by themselves, but the minute they have sex with each other, that plummets to 65% for the women in regular relationships and 18% during casual sex. Pleasure remains absent as a word from the entire sex ed curriculum in England. And so, in not teaching us about pleasure or pain, we’re left quite clueless when it comes to dealing with either. 

The Consent Myth

A 2014 paper on anal sex between heterosexual partners in the British Medical Journal found that there was an acceptance of female reluctance and an expectation of pain for women. Yet, there was an equal acceptance of coercion from male partners. “Some men seemed to push to have anal sex with their reluctant partner despite believing it likely to hurt her,” they write. “Even in otherwise seemingly communicative and caring partnerships.”

You probably didn’t get taught about coercive sex acts at school, likely because your school either skipped it altogether, or because it focused on the law around it. You might have been shown Consent Is Like A Cup Of Tea, a video that equates having sex with someone to offering them tea – and not to offer tea if they are drunk, unconscious or if they say no. The problem is, as the above research shows us, consent is not a cup of tea; when everything from coercion between otherwise loving partners to a complete negligence of bodily autonomy is normalised, consent isn’t as simple as just saying no.

When I interviewed sex educators for Losing It, I discovered that there is a resounding cry for sex education to better include two topics: power and gender. Power dynamics, heteronormativity and the societal acceptance of behaviours that hurt marginalised groups should be at the centre of sex ed. It’s a myth that consent is about saying yes and no; consent is about power and agency, personal and systemic. The power we all deserve over our own bodies, and an understanding that we are not entitled to holding power over others.

So many of us weren’t given access to the comprehensive and inclusive sex education we deserved as young people. Thankfully, sex offers a lifelong set of learning experiences; each moment an opportunity to learn something new and unlearn something we’ve previously held to be sacrosanct, necessary or ‘what I’m expected to do’.

Armed with information, we can define and choose however we want to live our lives for ourselves – inside the bedroom and outside of it.

Losing It: Sex Education For The 21st Century by Sophia Smith Galer is out now, published by William Collins, £14.99 

Images: Getty and Brian Prentke

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