Sex myths debunked
Medically reviewed by Tia Jackson-Bey, MD
~ SEPTEMBER 2022 ~
It’s no secret that movies, the media, and probably some of your own friends have portrayed sex in a way that’s misleading, or in some cases, downright misinformed.
You may not realize it, but some of these expectations or incorrect assumptions about sex may have an impact on your sex life or even lead to intimacy issues.
We’re living in a time when we know our bodies and we’re more in tune with our health than ever. So, looking back at some of the points about sex that “experts” have touted over the years, it’s worthwhile to separate fact from fiction.
We debunk some of the most common sex myths you’ve probably heard and (once) believed.
Myth: Sex burns major calories
Truth: Experts estimate 30 minutes of sex burns 85 to 150 calories. Theoretically, you need to burn about 3,500 calories to lose a pound of body weight, so if you were using up 100 calories every time you had sex, you could lose one pound if you had sex 35 times. The problem is this: most people are not having sex for thirty minutes. Instead, the average duration of sex is closer three to seven minutes, according to a study in The Journal of Sexual Medicine. (Fun fact: Sex may not burn a lot of calories—but having sex once a week may help you live longer.) Your best bet is to enjoy sex for all the great things it can do for your pleasure centers and feelings of closeness and intimacy. To actually get fit, make sure you’re eating healthy and getting at least 30 minutes of movement each day.
Myth: There’s a 10-year difference between women’s and men’s sexual peaks
Truth: Men’s testosterone peaks at around age 18, but women’s estrogen levels peak in their mid-20s. Since low hormone levels have been associated with lower sexual drive, some have asserted that when your levels are at their highest, your drive must be at its peak. But if we believe frequency of sex to be the factor that matters most in sexual peak, then there’s no difference between men and women. Sexual desire constantly fluctuates in both, and is related to many more factors than age. Over the course of a lifetime, you will see your sexual desire and activity go up and down many times.
Myth: Sex can give you a heart attack
Truth: Having sex more often is associated with having a healthier heart. A study in The American Journal of Cardiology found that men who reported having sex twice a week or more had a lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease than men who had sex once a month or less often. This seemed to be independent of erectile dysfunction, which is a demonstrated risk factor for heart disease. The chance of having a heart attack while you are having sex is also thought to be very low. What if your heart has already had problems? The reality is that the physical exertion most people put in when having sex is similar to walking up two flights of stairs.
Myth: Oysters and chocolate are turn-ons
Truth: No study has ever shown any sexually enhancing effect from oysters. They do contain a lot of zinc, which is good for sperm health…but otherwise, scientists have found no special ingredient to suggest it has any sexually enhancing effects.
Several studies suggest that chocolate is tied to lower blood pressure and better functioning of blood vessels, which may enhance blood flow to the penis (important for erections) and to the woman’s pelvic region as well, which stimulates arousal. However, this is just speculation.
Myth: Men think about sex every seven seconds
Truth: A 2011 study in the Journal of Sex Research may have debunked this myth. Looking to tally up the true number of times men (and women) actually thought about sex in a day, the university had 238 students keep track of their thoughts about food, sex, or sleep for one whole week.
The findings revealed men think about sex far less than you think, averaging about 19 sex thoughts per day instead of the nearly 8,000 thoughts per day that would occur if men were really thinking about sex every seven seconds. Thoughts about food came in close second, with 18 thoughts per day, while sleep garnered 11 thoughts per day. As for the women, they averaged about 10 thoughts about sex, 15 thoughts about food, and 8.5 thoughts about sleep each day.
Myth: Women always experience orgasm with penetrative sex
Truth: Not all women have an orgasm during penetrative vaginal sex. In fact, a 2017 study published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy found that only 18.4 percent of women said intercourse alone led them to have an orgasm while 36.6 percent said clitoral stimulation was necessary for orgasm during sex.
Meanwhile, an additional 36 percent indicated that, while clitoral stimulation was not needed, their orgasms felt better if their clitoris was stimulated during intercourse.
Myth: Sex can affect sports performance
Truth: This theory has been debated for many years, with coaches often telling their athletes to abstain from sex before big games or competitions. However, a 2016 study in the journal Frontiers in Physiology suggests sex has little impact on athletic performance—and could actually have a positive effect.
Myth: Having sex can cause a pregnant woman to go into labor
This belief is so pervasive that even some medical professionals have suggested that their full-term patients should give it a try. But not only does having sex near your due date not induce labor, in some cases it may actually delay it, according to a 2006 study published in Obstetrics & Gynecology. Ohio State University Medical Center researchers found that women who were sexually active in the final three weeks of their pregnancies carried their babies an average of 39.9 weeks, compared to 39.3 weeks for women who weren’t having any sex. If you’re expecting and unsure, always work closely with your care provider.
Myth: Women take longer to get turned on than men
It turns out that there may be no difference in the time it takes men and women to reach peak arousal, according to a 2007 study published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine. The researchers used thermal imaging to measure blood flow to the genitals in a group of 28 men and 30 women who viewed videos that were either neutral, humorous, or erotic. They found that arousal time, as measured by the time to peak genital temperature after viewing the sexually arousing video, was the same in both groups.
Myth: Blackouts, storms, terrorist attacks and pandemics cause a baby boom nine months later
The theory is that thanks to a a blizzard, bomb scare, virus lockdown or some other factor that interrupts the lights and internet, people decide to cozy up and entertain themselves in other ways. While this sounds like a fun plot to a rom-com, it’s an urban legend, says S. Philip Morgan, a Duke professor of sociology and demography and author of a study looking at the effects of these events on birth rates. The data simply don’t support the idea of a “blackout baby boom,” he says.
Research from Morgan and others actually suggests that in times of societal uncertainty—particularly when economic worries are prevalent—birth rates may drop for the year ahead.
Myth: Sexting has a negative impact on relationships
Much has been said about the downsides of sexting. But when it’s done in a consensual way in a committed, secure relationship, it may take your sex life from rote to raging.
Sending sexual messages and pictures to your significant other increases not only your sexual satisfaction but also your overall happiness in your relationship, says Emily Stasko, MS, MPH, lead author of a 2015 study on the impacts of sexting on relationships. The committed relationship part may be key, however, as people who identified in the study as single found that sexting had the opposite effect, reducing sexual satisfaction.
Myth: Sex and intercourse are one and the same
Intercourse generally means penetrative sex. However sex can, and should, include so much more than that, says Melissa Coats, a licensed professional counselor and sex therapist in Alpharetta, Georgia. Sex has an emotional component and encompasses a wide variety of sexual activities, which may or may not include intercourse, she explains. Conflating the two can cause a lot of trouble for people dealing with things like pain during intercourse, erectile dysfunction, or past traumas. “It’s a myth that every time you have sex, it must include intercourse or it somehow doesn’t count,” she says.
Myth: You can tell who has an STD
“A very common sex myth people believe is that you’ll be able to tell if someone has an STD by looking at them,” says Robert Huizenga, MD, author of Sex, Lies & STDs. The truth is that many STDs don’t show outward symptoms or may not show up until much later. There’s no substitute for getting a medical screening and being totally honest about the results with your partner—and expecting the same transparency from them, she says.
Myth: Having a much younger partner means mind-blowing sex
Has Hollywood sold you on the desirability of being a “sugar daddy” or “cougar?” It’s not always what it’s cracked up to be. While a May-December relationship works for some people, a study published in the Review of Economics and Statistics found it wasn’t always ideal, at least in the context of marriage. Researchers found that those married to a much younger or older spouse had lower earnings and education levels than couples who had similar ages. Of course this is just one study and not the last word on optimal relationships.
Myth: There’s no such thing as too much masturbation
Delayed ejaculation—meaning when men struggle to have orgasms due to a reliance on porn and masturbation—is more common than you think, says Cyndi Darnell, an Australian clinical sexologist and sex and relationship therapist. Both men and women can become so accustomed to a certain kind of pressure and speed from stimulating themselves that they find it difficult or even impossible to orgasm with a real-life partner, she explains. A reliance on porn can also give you unrealistic expectations of how your partner should look and act in the bedroom.
Myth: Breakup sex is a terrible idea
Hooking up with your ex can make your breakup more complicated, but it doesn’t necessarily prevent someone from moving on, according to a 2018 study published in The Archives of Sexual Behavior. Researchers found people who pursued sex with an ex were more likely to be emotionally attached to their former partner, but it didn’t seem to increase their chances of distress, intrusive thoughts, or low mood. However, if the relationship was toxic or abusive, it’s probably best to keep your distance or seek support from a therapist.
Myth: Sex toys are “cheating”
“I’ve heard a lot of myths about sex toys, such as they can ‘break’ you or ruin you for ‘real’ sex,” says Stella Harris, certified intimacy educator and sex coach and author of Tongue Tied: Untangling Communication in Sex, Kink, and Relationships. “It’s not cheating if you bring toys or masturbation into your partnered sex! Everyone needs a helping hand sometimes, even if it’s their own. Don’t hesitate to touch yourself during sex, or encourage your partner to do so.”
As long as they are used in moderation adult sex toys won’t reduce your genital sensitivity or do other physical damage. You do need to be careful, however, to pick only sex toys that are safe and non-toxic. Silicone, steel, Pyrex, glass, or specially laminated wood are the only materials certified as safe for use inside your body, according to a Yale University review.
Myth: A woman’s vagina can reveal how many partners she’s had
Vaginas can temporarily stretch to accommodate the passage of something sizable—how else would women ever survive childbirth?—but they don’t stay stretched out, Harris says. That means multiple partners, a partner with a large penis, or using large sex toys don’t affect the vagina. How tight or loose a vagina feels depends on the woman’s genetics and the fit between her and her partner.