For most people, sex ed wasn’t exactly groundbreaking.
Mine, for instance, hailed abstinence as the only option and attempted to scare us away from sex with photos of untreated STIs (which, ironically, was not paired with any information about actually reducing your risk of STIs). The final project involved carrying around an egg “baby” for a week without cracking it — an exercise in the hardships of parenthood, obviously.
So if your sex ed was also lacking, here are a few things you might have missed, courtesy of sexual health experts.
1. Sex isn’t just penetration.
Sex ed probably taught you that sex = penetration. If something is going into something else, it’s sex! But this “intercourse discourse” is pretty limiting and stigmatizing for anyone who either doesn’t have sex that way or doesn’t orgasm that way, sex therapist Ian Kerner, PhD, founder of Good in Bed, tells BuzzFeed Health.
Since a lot of sex ed focuses on penetrative sex (usually in the context of reproduction), it’s worth noting that your own sex life may look nothing like that.
“Most people don’t necessarily fit into that one model of what counts as sex,” sex educator Logan Levkoff, PhD, tells BuzzFeed Health. “There a lot of ways to get pleasure and feel intimate and be satisfied, whether or not it falls into some silly old idea of what sex is supposed to be.”
2. There are a lot of random factors that can screw with arousal and orgasm.
“Arousal has a physical and psychological component,” sex therapist Dr. Madeleine Castellanos, author of Wanting to Want, tells BuzzFeed Health. And both of those typically need to work together for everything to go well.
So if you’re too tired, too stressed, or too drunk, it might be harder to get aroused or have an orgasm. Other factors that can play a role are certain drugs (like antidepressants, antihistamines, or opioids) and certain health conditions.
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3. Birth control is not one-size-fits-all.
There’s the male condom, the female condom, the IUD, the implant, the ring, the shot, the patch, literally dozens of different birth control pills. Basically, you have options. It’s up to you and your doctor to determine which one works best for you, and it may take a little trial and error.
As with all medications, there’s a risk of side effects when starting birth control, so be sure to tell your doctor if anything feels off so they can help you find a method that actually makes life easier.
4. STI testing is necessary and not weird at all.
It’s actually just part of being a responsible, sexual adult, says Levkoff. What you should get tested for — and how often — will depend on your age, your anatomy, and your sexual habits. Here are some general guidelines, but for personalized recommendations it’s best to go to your doctor or a sexual health clinic.
Most STIs can be spread through oral, anal, and vaginal sex, and some can even be spread through skin-to-skin genital contact. So just because someone says they “haven’t had sex,” it doesn’t mean they’ve never been exposed to STIs. Getting tested is the only way to know for sure.
5. You won’t always know when someone has an STI (even if it’s you).
If you were shown some fearmongering photos of chlamydia and genital warts, you’re probably under the impression that STIs are glaringly obvious. That’s not the case. Most STIs come with no symptoms at all, and the only way you’ll know you have one is by getting tested.
On that note, there’s also no way to tell if your partner is STI-free either, even if their genitals look pretty damn amazing. So get tested regularly, and ask your partner to get tested, too. Here’s everything you need to know about getting tested.
6. Masturbation is not embarrassing, regardless of your gender.
Pretty much every mention of masturbation in sex ed and pop culture is about men and/or penises. It’s as if the mere thought of someone with a vagina masturbating is too ridiculous a concept to entertain.
Please be advised: Masturbation is not weird, embarrassing, or shameful for anyone of any gender. “The idea is that you understand what feels good to your body … And that you know your body is capable of pleasure on its own,” says Levkoff.
Plus, it can benefit your health and sexual functioning. “If you don’t know what feels or looks like the norm for your body, it is near impossible to identify when something is unusual for your body.”
7. The clitoris and the penis are pretty damn similar.
Chances are you learned all about the internal organs of a biological female, like the vagina, ovaries, and uterus. Meanwhile, the clitoris — basically the boss of all the orgasms — was barely even mentioned. “We like to equate vaginas and penises like they’re the same, but it’s actually the clitoris and the penis that are far more similar,” says Levkoff.
So for anyone who missed that five seconds where they talked about this in sex ed, the clitoris is a small erectile structure located just above the urethra and vaginal opening. It’s packed with nerve endings, which is what makes it so similar to the penis; plus it even swells a bit during arousal, like an erection. The part you can see is partially hidden under a little piece of skin called the clitoral hood, but the nerve endings of the clitoris actually extend down the sides of the vulva — so there’s more to it than you think, says Levkoff.
8. For someone with a vagina, it’s not unusual to not orgasm during sex.
“There are plenty of women who love penetration and have an orgasm from penetration,” says Castellanos. “But the vast majority of women need some level of clitoral stimulation to reach climax.”
The problem is, most sex positions don’t stimulate the clitoris, says Kerner. Easy fix: Do more stuff and don’t just rely on penetration! In fact, research shows that women are more likely to orgasm if you cycle through a variety of sex acts (like vaginal sex + oral sex + manual stimulation).
9. Likewise, penises aren’t the end-all-be-all of sexual performance either.
It should also be noted in sex ed books that the biggest, hardest, longest-lasting erection doesn’t necessarily equal the best sex ever.
“I can’t tell you how many young men I see who have anxiety-induced erectile disorder,” says Kerner. “Part of the pressure of that comes from this intercourse-based model where men feel they need to rely completely on their penises for pleasure.” Quick reminder: There’s a lot you can do with your hands, mouth, and toys.
10. Most of those gender stereotypes around sex are essentially bullshit.
Men think about sex every six seconds and women hate giving blow jobs, AMIRIGHT?
Sure, those statements might be true for some people, but to generalize an entire gender like that isn’t productive or helpful. Instead, it can make someone feel confused or stigmatized if they don’t fall into those categories — like if a guy isn’t constantly ready for sex or if a girl has a higher libido than her boyfriend. There’s nothing wrong with you if that’s the case; there’s just something wrong with the way we’ve historically talked about sex.
While it’s true that physiological responses to arousal and sex do differ depending on your anatomy, when it comes to sexual preferences or behaviors, it varies from person to person.
11. Respect gender and sexual diversity — even if you don’t fully understand it.
There’s a difference between sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. And it’s important to remember that any one of those things does not automatically dictate another, says Levkoff.
While it’s helpful understand the various nonbinary identities and forms of sexual expression, it’s even more important that you are respectful and sensitive to this diversity, regardless of how familiar you are with the lingo. That might mean challenging heteronormative/cisnormative assumptions when you see them (like a list of sex tips for “everyone” that’s actually just for cisgender straight women) or asking someone what pronouns they prefer.
12. Condoms are the best protection against STIs and HIV, regardless of what birth control you use.
Condoms are pretty freaking magical. They’re up to 98% effective at preventing pregnancy (when used correctly and consistently), and they protect against STIs and HIV. But according to a recent CDC report, only about 57% of sexually active high schoolers used a condom the last time they had sex.
One reason might be that more people are relying on long-acting hormonal birth control methods like the IUD or implant, says Levkoff. That’s great! But since hormonal methods offer zero protection against STIs and HIV, you still need to use a condom with them. “Dual use is your best option yet,” says Levkoff.
FYI: Condoms and dental dams can protect against STIs during oral sex, too.
13. Consent is a principle that’s relevant to every aspect of our lives, but especially our sex lives.
From borrowing someone’s pencil to bailing on dinner plans, consent comes into play when you respect someone’s answer and their ability to give it.
And while a big part of consent includes the right to say no to sex (or some part of sex), Levkoff stresses that it’s equally important to consider under which circumstances you would feel it’s right to say yes. Consent is about setting and respecting boundaries, trusting yourself, and keeping communication open.
14. Porn can be great, but it’s not meant to be a realistic guide to sex.
“I meet so many young people who tell me in the absence of quality sex ed that porn is their main way of learning about sex,” says Kerner. That’s…not ideal.
It’s not that porn is bad or shameful; it can be fun and liberating and sexy. “It exists because it serves a purpose,” says Levkoff. But it’s important to differentiate porn sex from real sex and not let it lead to unrealistic expectations — just like any other form of media we consume.
15. Never be embarrassed to talk to your doctor about sex. They definitely won’t be.
Whether it’s a body thing (like wtf is this bump/rash/smell?) or a sex thing (why does it hurt when I have sex? Why am I not getting wet/ejaculating/getting turned on?), your doctor can probably answer it, says Levkoff.
If you really don’t feel comfortable talking to your primary care doctor about sex, ask to be referred to a gynecologist or urologist. This kind of stuff is right smack in their wheelhouse, so that might make it easier to bring it up in their office.
17. Talk about sex. It’s fun and informative!
Listen, you probably don’t enter into a relationship assuming that the other person already knows you love steak, hate sushi, drink your coffee black, and have a peanut allergy. So why would you expect them to know about your sexual preferences without talking about it?
“[Many couples] don’t know how to talk about what feels good, what doesn’t feel good or when sex hurts,” says Kerner. “They don’t know how to share a turn on or a fantasy or how to ask their partner what they’re interested in sexually. They don’t know how to insist that a partner uses a condom during sex.”
So instead of viewing sex and sexual health as topics that are too embarrassing or inappropriate to talk about, let’s encourage more open dialogue about this stuff.
18. Critical-thinking and decision-making skills are incredibly relevant to your sex life.
Think about that one tip everyone is constantly telling young people about sex: Wait until you’re ready. WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN? You know what would have been a lot more helpful? Learning how to know when you’re ready and what to do when you are.
To figure out what those answers are for you (because they’ll be different for everyone), ask yourself questions like: Under what circumstances will I feel comfortable and excited about having sex with someone? What do I want (or definitely not want) from my sex life? What’s impacting the way I think about sex and relationships? Etc.
19. And finally, there is no such thing as ~normal~.
It’s the one question everyone wanted to know going into sex ed — and the one they probably still had when they left: Am I normal? Is what I do or how I feel or how I’m built normal?
“That’s representative of what a huge opportunity we have to recognize that sexuality is incredibly varied,” says Levkoff. “There is no such thing as normal.”
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