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6 Things People Still Get Wrong About Sex

Penis size, anal sex, G-spots, oh my...
Image: Seth Laupus

For more than 15 years, I've taught human sexuality classes to thousands of college students. I've also answered sex questions for magazines, newspapers, and websites. In other words, I've seen and heard it all. And thanks to the barely-there state of sexual education in the US, there are a number of myths that just won't go away. (As of 2014, most schools still preach abstinence as the best way to avoid pregnancy and STD transmission. And only 35 percent of classes teach students how to correctly use a condom, according to the Guttmacher Institute.) These are the six misconceptions I find myself correcting most often—while wishing I didn't need to.


You Can't Have Sex During the Placebo Week of Birth Control
I regularly hear from teens and young adults who are worried they might be pregnant after having sex without a condom during the so-called "placebo week" of their birth control pill pack. What this tells me is that many women and men don't know how birth control pills work. They wrongly assume that the pill only "works" to prevent pregnancy on days when active hormonal pills are swallowed, as if every pill provides just 24 hours of protection. Nope! In fact, most birth control pills work by preventing ovulation, stopping the ovary from releasing an egg. Most women take combination estrogen/progestin pills, which suppress ovulation. Some take progestin-only pills, which less consistently suppress ovulation but are still highly effective at preventing pregnancy through other mechanisms. (Combination packs may have no-hormone weeks but progestin-only pills do not.) As a result, women who take the pill as prescribed are highly protected against pregnancy throughout the month—and even during the week when they are expecting to have their period. There are different kinds of combination birth control pill packs. Some are 21-day pill packs, and then you go without a pill for 7 days before starting a new one. (Protection continues during that week, but you need to start the next pack on time.) Other packs—like 28-day, 90-day, and 365-day—often include 7-day stretches of pills that may be non-hormonal, what some people call "placebo pills," estrogen-only pills, or pills that contain supplements such as iron. Again, pregnancy prevention continues even during these "non-active" period weeks. All that said, if you or your partner is anxious about pregnancy risk, why not double up on protection? Some couples use condoms and birth control together—which also helps protect you against STIs. Birth control pills plus withdrawal ("pulling out") is another option that will give you greater peace of mind.


The Average Penis is Bigger Than 6 Inches
Pop-up ads for penis enlargement pills—well, that and porn—have done a number on the average guy's perception of his penis size. When asked to guess, most guys will say they think an average erect penis is about 6 or 7 inches long. I've had countless men write to me, worried that their perfectly normal-sized equipment is inadequate. Yet nearly every study—and there have been many over the years—finds that an average erect penis size is somewhere around 5.4 to 5.6 inches long. In a study of 1,661 men that my Indiana University team conducted, we found an average erect length of 5.57 inches, with nearly 1 in 4 men measuring 4.7 inches or smaller. Research also generally finds that the best predictors of sexual satisfaction are things like how often a couple kisses, cuddles, and the extent to which they feel emotionally intimate or psychologically connected. It has almost nothing to do with the size of either partner's genitals. Most of us would do well to put away the measuring tape already.

Most People Have Tried Anal Sex
Although the number of Americans who have tried anal sex at least once has increased substantially over the past three decades, very few Americans enter the back door with any regularity. According to the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, about one third of Americans have had anal sex at least once. However, only about 12 percent of Americans report anal sex in any given year—and not surprisingly, it's more frequently reported by gay men, bisexual men, and bisexual women. Yet many of my college students think that anal sex is "the norm"—and describe feeling pressured to try it. Considering anal sex is reported as painful by most women, this is a particularly difficult behavior to feel pressured into. That said, if you and your partner are into anal sex, that's great—I simply recommend using lots of lube, communicating frequently and openly with each other, and taking it very slow at first. And if they're not into it? There are dozens of other ways to keep things interesting in and out of bed. Whatever you do, don't pretend to have the "wrong hole" just to get your way—some research has found that up to 10 percent of college-aged guys say they've used that strategy. That's not being smooth; that's rape.

There's Something Wrong if a Woman Doesn't Orgasm
Although most people feel like orgasm is an important part of sexual satisfaction, not everyone orgasms every time. And decades of sex research is clear that it tends to take many women longer to learn to experience orgasm than it takes for men, probably in part because women tend to start masturbating at a later age. Since masturbation helps us learn what feels good and how to reach orgasm, it's no wonder that this knowledge takes longer, on average, for many women to acquire. Messed-up gender norms also mean that women don't often feel as empowered to insist on orgasm even when they know what gets them there. No matter your gender, if you're going to have sex with someone, you should always be a decent, giving, and curious partner. Find out what they like. Ask for feedback on your touching, licking, thrusting, or whatever else. Try to improve your skills using apps like OMG Yes. But if a woman hasn't had an orgasm by early adulthood, it does not mean her body is broken or her clitoris is numb. So many women think their bodies are to blame when, in reality, most people are fully capable of experiencing orgasm. Often, it just takes a combination of time, practice, patience, communication, and pleasure-focused play.

Committed Couples Can Stop Worrying About STIs
The US has ludicrously high rates of STIs compared to countries like the Netherland, France, Sweden, and Germany—a fact often attributed to differences in sex education, affordable health care, and the level of sex positivity that exists in the culture. Even more challenging is that fewer Americans seem to be using condoms these days. As I mentioned before, many teenagers never get much education about condoms in schools, and when they do, it's limited to information they receive in ninth or tenth grade—well before many people are even sexually active. Here's what you need to know: Condoms are literally the only device we have to protect against STIs like chlamydia, gonorrhea, and HIV. People often stop using them just a few weeks into seeing someone, often before they even decide if they're exclusive. Get tested, get treated, and use condoms for at least a month longer than you think you need to.

The "G Spot" is the Key to Endless Orgasms
I'm not sure if it's because the idea of a "spot" conjures up an image of a magical button that produces infinite waves of pleasure, or if there are just some seriously tall tales being shared among men, but quite a few guys have told me that they were pleasantly surprised to learn the truth about the G-spot. They were also a little disappointed to find out that it wasn't a secret spot inside a woman's body that, if touched just once, would lead to orgasm after orgasm after orgasm. The so-called "G-spot" is actually an area felt through the front wall of the vagina that, if stimulated—usually with firm pressure—may or may not feel good. In other words, sometimes G-spot stimulation leads to orgasm, and sometimes it doesn't. If it's not your partner's thing, don't sweat it—you've still got a whole body, and brain, left to work with.

Debby Herbenick is an associate professor at the Indiana University School of Public Health, research fellow at The Kinsey Institute, and author of Because It Feels Good: A Woman's Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction.