The Societal Misconceptions That Impact Our Sex Lives
Innumerable factors—both physical and psychological—can negatively impact our sex lives. At any given time, disinterest in sex might have something to do with hormonal fluctuations, depression, exhaustion, agitation, the to-do list running through your head...you get the picture.
As a culture, we're pretty good at recognizing these factors and cutting ourselves some slack. But many struggles in the bedroom actually have their roots in the biopsychosocial, meaning they're caused by a combination of biological, psychological and social factors. Hormones, depression and dirty dishes cover the biological and the psychological, but leave out the social.
We don't often think of the sociocultural factors that can lead to unfulfilling sex because they're systemic, making up the building blocks of our beliefs around sexuality. Unfortunately, because we don't perceive the beliefs we carry around inside us, we never think to question them. Rather, we accept them as normal, using them to inform what we think we should be doing or who we should be sexually.
"But when you feel the need to be everything, that's a really dangerous pressure," said Uchenna Ossai, P.T., D.P.T., a pelvic health physical therapist and sexuality educator and counselor based in Austin, Texas. "It decreases your negotiating power in terms of sexual functioning, in terms of sexual activity and in terms of self-advocacy. You think you have to do that in the bedroom."
When you're preoccupied with what you believe you should be doing, there's no space left to think about what might actually bring you pleasure.
The usual social suspects
Men are from Mars; women are from Venus
"I think the biggest myth is the idea that women are unfathomably complex, even to themselves, and men are simple," said Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., a sex educator and researcher in Massachusetts and the author of "Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life," a book on women's sexuality.
This myth, in turn, leads to related myths, such as the suggestion that men are always down to get busy while women are never in the mood, or that it's easy for men to get off while a woman's orgasm is perpetually elusive.
"If we think men are simple and that when they want sex, what they want is to put their penis inside somebody else's body and ejaculate there, we are erasing all of the complex emotional experiences that person is having around love and vulnerability and trust and pleasure and joy and shame," Nagoski said. "If we think women are so unfathomably complex, we let ourselves dismiss a woman's experience when it goes beyond two or three variables."
In reality, research indicates sexual struggles cross gender lines. Both men and women can experience a lack of desire, and there are plenty of women who have desire to spare.
As for that pesky orgasm gap? We'll get to that. But first, let's dispel some more myths...
Having 'low' libido means you're broken
There's no such thing as a normal level of libido. There is no measuring stick. Thus, the unanswered question remains: low in relation to whom?
Our libido rarely syncs up perfectly with our partner's. Yet the person with the lower libido is often considered the problem.
If you and your partner are having a hard time finding that happy medium, it's not a "you" problem. It's a "couple" problem.
Everyone else is having way more (and way wilder) sex
Thanks to the silence we carry around our sex lives, we tend to make a lot of assumptions about what other people are doing in the bedroom. We think we're the only ones who enjoy the missionary position. We feel bad we don't like dirty talk. If we have sex once a month, we assume everyone else is having it at least once a week. If we have sex weekly, we assume everyone else is doing it daily.
No surprises here: When we play the comparison game, we don't give ourselves the space to interrogate what we truly enjoy.
Orgasm is the goal of sex
Sex has long been seen as a goal-oriented activity that ends naturally in orgasm. Orgasm, however, is not the only valid form of pleasure.
"An orgasm doesn't necessarily translate to pleasure," Ossai said, pointing out that feeling seen and respected can be a lot more fulfilling than the big O.
"I'm not saying don't have orgasms," she explained. "I think it's just a little bit more fluid. People bring so many expectations into sex, but if you just follow what makes you feel seen, what makes you feel good, what makes you feel respected—if you center yourself—it'll come, literally and figuratively."
You must be able to orgasm with penetration
Speaking of orgasms, thanks to good ol' Sigmund Freud, many of us believe it should be easy to orgasm through vaginal penetration alone. This stems from Freud's assertion that vaginal orgasms are "mature" orgasms, while clitoral orgasms are "immature."
If you follow the research, you know this is hogwash. One study shows that 81.6 percent of women can't orgasm from intercourse alone, and others have shown similar results.
This glorification of vaginal orgasms is rooted in heterocentric norms and, as a culture, we are only just beginning to discuss how penetrative, penis-in-vagina (PIV) intercourse is not the only, or only valid, type of sex.
"There's this internalized patriarchal expectation of sex that it's not good unless the penis is there," Ossai said, adding that a measure of pleasure that excludes everything but PIV intercourse is extremely limiting and restrictive.
Identities impact sexuality
What we believe about people we see as "other" can impair their ability to enjoy fulfilling sex lives. There are stereotypes that are obviously not borne in fact, such as Black men being hypermasculine and Black women hypersexual, while Asian women are seen as submissive. We may sometimes desexualize people with physical or neurological disabilities, or assume promiscuity of people who are not cisgender and/or heterosexual.
These assumptions affect the way we approach sex with people of varying identities. Meanwhile, folks within marginalized communities may internalize these stereotypes, making them a part of their own sexual scripts.
In a world in which our sex lives are already so constrained by what we think they should look like, the "othering" that occurs to people of marginalized identities only adds additional layers of constraint.
How to approach systemic issues on an individual level
We have so many more sociocultural expectations around sexual performance, from how long we should last during penetrative sex to how "tight" our various orifices should be to what it means if we want to incorporate sex toys into our partner play. But what all of these myths and expectations come back to is how we define what it means to be normal.
Normal. It's such a slippery term. And when our myths around "normal" sexuality are so systemic and deeply ingrained, how can we possibly push back against them?
The first step is to acknowledge that myths are just that: myths. Once you've made this mental leap, you can start to explore how each one applies to you.
"Consider your own experience," Nagoski said. "Consider what messages you learned where, and whether or not those things are working for you or whether they're things you'd prefer to discard."
Afterward, you can discuss your conclusions with your partner and give them space to interrogate their own beliefs.
Ossai suggested people seek adult sex education.
"The sex ed we receive does not talk about pleasure or cultural identities," Ossai said. "But the more you explore these aspects of yourself, the more clearly you see their impact on your sexual satisfaction."
Nagoski noted that most education around sexual struggles falls into one of two camps: It either provides instructions on how to conform to the cultural ideal—and the sexual scripts that come along with that ideal—or points out how broken our culture is.
But there's a missing piece between those two approaches.
"What is true for you that is not the script?" Nagoski asked. "That's the key."
Do you still feel outside the norm?
"First of all, you're not broken," Nagoski explained. "Two: Let's get a working definition of what counts as normal sex. Normal sex is when everyone involved is glad to be there and free to leave with no unwanted consequences and no one's experiencing unwanted pain.
"It is not you that is broken," she continued. "You just don't like the sex you're having. It is normal not to want sex you don't like."
"You're in discovery mode," Ossai added. "You're in transition. You're just learning here; understanding where you're at."
She suggested we ask ourselves what it is we want to feel and what we want to move toward.
"Are your desires wrapped up in what your partner wants or what you want? Both are valid," Ossai explained. "But if you can map it out, see where those feelings and those fears are coming from, you can figure out next steps. It's not that you're broken, but you're in a place where you're not happy or content. How can you move out of that space?"