As a sex therapist, I have found that even the most well-informed individuals can have inaccurate assumptions about sex. This is unsurprising as there is much misinformation about sex spread through the media and societal norms, and many people don’t have access to reliable sources. I have identified six misconceptions that are common among the people I work with in therapy, friends, and sometimes even my peers in the social work and therapist communities.
1. Good sex just “happens” and shouldn’t require much education or practice.
I work with people who feel embarrassed and ashamed because they feel they don’t know how to please their partner. In some cases, they didn’t learn about sex growing up and have had limited opportunities to practice. Sex feels awkward and they feel like they are failing. The first thing that I help these people understand is that their experience is perfectly normal! Sex is a natural function for the body, but it does not “just happen.” It takes time and effort to get to the point of everything flowing naturally, and it’s normal for there to be a learning curve with each new partner.
Sex is similar to dancing. First, you must learn the dance! You have to become acquainted with the music, the steps, the dance “language,” and the etiquette—these are the elements of “sex-ed” that I teach couples. Second, it takes practice! The more the couple practices, the more they will flow into spontaneous dance moves together. Third, good sex, like dancing, requires communication between two partners. Your sexual partner cannot read your mind, nor should they try. Actively communicating about sex before, during, and after helps each partner feel confident and learn the things that worked (and those that did not).
2. Sexual desire should happen spontaneously. If it doesn’t, it means there is something wrong in your relationship.
The most recent research on this topic revealed that most women and a significant minority of men have responsive rather than spontaneous sexual desire. In fact, only 15% of women and 75% of men have spontaneous sexual desire. In other words, most women (and many men) don’t spontaneously start thinking about sex while doing the dishes! They have to intentionally cue themselves or be cued to switch into “sexy mode.”
What does this mean for you? This means it’s normal to not want sex all the time. It’s also normal to want sex regularly. What is important is that you accept yourself as you are. If you’d like to have more sex with your partner, there are ways to prioritize that and cue your body’s responsive sexual desire, as well as learn and respect your partner’s sexual desire template.
Don’t plan sex with the same mind-set that you plan your chores, work, or other responsibilities. Plan it with the same mind-set that you plan something you are looking forward to—like you would plan a fun night out, a visit with a friend, or a relaxing night in.
3. Scheduling sex takes the fun out of the sexual experience and makes it a chore.
I can understand this response. We schedule everything else in our lives—why should we have to schedule sex too? Sex is supposed to be fun and spontaneous, not rigid and regimented, right? To this I say: I agree. Don’t plan sex with the same mind-set that you plan your chores, work, or other responsibilities. Plan it with the same mind-set that you plan something you are looking forward to—like you would plan a fun night out, a visit with a friend, or a relaxing night in. It doesn’t need to be extravagant, it just needs to be intentional. Set aside quality, focused time together.
The benefit of scheduling sex is that life is busy. Most couples don’t have the luxury of a lot of free time in which both partners will be interested and available for sex at the same time. This does not mean anything is wrong! It simply means you’re busy. So, cut yourself a break and put a sexy date night on the calendar. Planning it with a positive mind-set may allow you both to prepare mentally and physically and cue yourselves to get in the mood.
4. Your body should be able to respond in the same way every time you have sex.
Our bodies are complex, multilayered, amazing organisms. Sexual response is impacted by many factors at any given time. This can include everything from what you had for lunch, to your stress level at work, to your feeling of connection with your partner, to your sexual self-confidence—hundreds of factors come together to influence your bodily response during sex. Your body is not a robot. It will respond differently to the same scenario from one day to the next. One day, orgasm and arousal may come easily, the next day not. This is normal!
In fact, it can be interesting to learn how your sexual response changes from day to day. What is important is that you and your partner come to learn and respect your own and each other’s needs and desires. Be willing to listen to your body, learn about your turn-ons and turn-offs, prepare for sex, and set aside distractions when possible. These are all wonderful ways to gain confidence as you learn the unique and exciting ways in which your mind and body respond to sexual interactions.
5. The best time to have sex is at night right before bed.
Bedtime does not have to be the go-to time for sex. Many people are exhausted by the time they lay down for sleep. Trying to muster the energy to have sex while your body is shutting down for the day is not necessarily the best recipe for satisfying sex. If nighttime is the best time, I advise couples to go to bed early. Don’t crawl into bed at your normal bedtime and expect to have sex then. Carve out time and set your intentions.
Also, consider that sex doesn’t always have to happen at night! Many couples find that morning is best, or afternoon, or right when you get home from work. Keep an open mind and don’t give up. Be patient with yourself and your partner as you work to find the times that work best.
6. It’s normal to feel pain during sex (BDSM aside).
It is not normal to feel pain during sex. The general rule is that if sex hurts, stop or adjust. There may be moments when there is rubbing or chafing in certain positions, in which case lube or switching positions may help. One of the most common sources of pain I hear about is women having intercourse before their body is fully aroused. During arousal, the entrance to the vagina relaxes, the vagina lengthens, and the uterus tilts up and away from the vagina. These changes, along with lubrication, make space for penetration and intercourse to happen.
This can also apply to men. Although the initial signs of arousal often happen more quickly for men than for women, it can take time for a man to build into a full-body state of arousal. In general, I recommend that couples plan for at least 20 minutes of kissing, stroking, flirting, and foreplay for their bodies to become aroused; it may take longer. And, of course, use lube if you need it! There are many other reasons a person might have pain during sex. Please seek help if you have pain during sex—talk to your physician and consult a sex therapist.
- McCarthy, B., & McCarthy, E. (2012). Sexual awareness: Your guide to healthy couple sexuality, 5th Ed. New York, NY: Routledge.
- Nagoski, E. (2015). Come as you are: The surprising new science that will transform your sex life. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks.
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