Cover Page

50 Great Myths in Human Sexuality

Pepper Schwartz
Martha Kempner



Not so long ago, a member of the US House of Representatives said that he knew that a woman could not get pregnant if she was raped against her will. He explained that there was some sort of organic process in the body that would prevent conception under “legitimate rape” conditions. We can’t imagine where he learned this. He claims doctors told him but unless they were lying or joking we can’t imagine anyone who had gone to medical school actually believing it. It so ridiculous that it would never have occurred to us to include it as a myth in this book. And yet a grown, well-educated man—a member of Congress, no less—believed it firmly enough that he was comfortable repeating it as fact to a television reporter.

We don’t think that this myth is sweeping the nation but it reminds us that there are some amazing misconceptions about human sexuality out there, many of which are certified by self-anointed “experts” and passed on as gospel, and some of which are even taught in our schools. Some are so misleading as to be dangerous while others may cause needless worry and anxiety.

We are all victims of swallowing a myth or two during some point of our lives; nobody gets all the right information, and sometimes early information sounds right until we learn it was actually quite inaccurate, but possibly not before we’ve told others what we first thought.

During Pepper’s freshman year of college, she was in a suite with a number of women, most of whom were virgins when they arrived. One by one, most of the young women acquired boyfriends or entered into an intense dating relationship, and got physical. One of the girls got pregnant the first time. She was shocked. She was sure that “you could not get pregnant the first time you had sex,” or that the odds against it were so great that she didn’t need to worry. Like there was a sex-freebie, and after that things got serious. (That myth was very common in those days and still tossed around often enough that we did include it in the book along with the much newer myth that the soda Mountain Dew could prevent pregnancy when drunk in large quantities or used as a douche (see Myth # 25).

Myths have consequences. If we believe that a woman can’t get pregnant the first time or during her period, some of us won’t bother with contraception at those times. Even seemingly innocuous myths can change our behavior. If we believe, say, that red-haired girls are naturally hornier, some shy redhead is going to get come-ons that she doesn’t like, and feel like she has to live up to expectations that she can’t, or doesn’t want to, fulfill.

It gets even more difficult because many beliefs about sexuality are based on personal or societal values and not scientific fact. And values changes. A couple of generations ago, mothers would tell their daughters to stay virginal until marriage because, as the saying went “He’s not going to buy the cow if he can get the milk for free.” That may not have been bad advice before the sexual revolution started to change women’s behavior in the late 1960s and 1970s. It might not even be bad advice now, but it doesn’t reflect today’s reality in which virginity, not sexual experience, is often more of a cultural burden to women. Despite this reality and the fact that today’s teens have sex earlier and get married later, the abstinence-only-until-marriage movement of the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s told young people in no uncertain terms that premarital sex was harmful. While some may continue to value premarital virginity and should be allowed to act on their beliefs, it is inaccurate to say that not doing so is harmful.

Other myths were just never true. Sometimes the facts are distorted because of political agendas. For example, some antiabortion activists have literally made up physical and emotional consequences for abortion (see Myth # 29) because they want to scare women enough so that they will not have an abortion. And still others have some basis in historical fact but are no longer true today. It is no longer true, for example, that young women and teens should avoid IUDs out of fear of their future fertility. The newest versions of this contraceptive method are safe for women of all ages.

For this book we picked 50 myths about sex. We admit it was hard to narrow them down. We picked them first if we thought that a lot of people believed them and might never know the truth unless we put them in this book. Second, we picked ones that had misinformation that was so dangerous that we were worried that people’s reliance on them could seriously hurt them (emotionally or physically) or others (through discrimination). Finally, we picked ones that had good research to the contrary; we didn’t want to be guilty of the same thing our book is trying to address! You can probably think of a lot more. And we’d be delighted if you wrote us and suggested others (there’s always the second edition!).

We do want to address a few things before we delve into correcting misinformation. For the most part we focused on research from the United States and the cultural issues that are specific to this country. Attitudes about human sexuality are so different around the world that it would have been impossible to address each myth on a global scale. That said, we do include comparisons with other countries and cultures in some of our myths to help explain how variable beliefs can be and how societies can influence perceptions.

We also tried to be inclusive of same-sex couples wherever possible. Obviously, certain myths—like those about getting pregnant—are exclusive to heterosexual couples. Others are dedicated to correcting misunderstandings about gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender individuals and couples. Many myths, however, like those about faking orgasms or the importance of simultaneous orgasms, probably originated with heterosexual couples but can be applied to anyone. In these myths we tried to include research on same-sex couples wherever possible. Unfortunately, for many aspects of sexuality and sexual behavior, there has not been nearly enough research done on lesbian and gay couples. We are hopeful that as same-sex marriage and relationships become more open and accepted in our society, more researchers will begin to look closely at same-sex couples. (Perhaps that second edition we were talking about can include more information.)

Finally, we want to make sure that our readers understand that because beliefs on human sexuality are so often grounded in personal values and opinions, some of what you read will reflect our beliefs. Our opinions are grounded in science and we present that science to you throughout the book. Of course, we think it is only fair that you know that our opinions are also grounded in our collective years of experience working in the field of human sexuality, writing, researching, and teaching. And given this experience, sometimes we just couldn’t help adding a little advice into our entries.

Ultimately, we hope these pages clarify, enlighten, and entertain you. Just because these are serious matters doesn’t mean we can’t have a little fun with them.