Sex. Just the mention of the word can bring up a lot of different feelings and reactions. It’s a topic that often mixes with an individual person’s beliefs and values. There are often a lot of expectations surrounding sex and sometimes a lot of feelings of shame. Sex is pretty important, yet, perhaps because of the tricky nature of the subject, it’s rarely talked about in meaningful ways.
Unfortunately, that means people search online and get their ideas about sex from not-so-trustworthy sources rather than close friends or family. And even some of the good sources can unintentionally perpetuate beliefs that they got from a bad source.
The last thing I want to do is cause even more shame and misleading expectations. However, after working through my own sexual baggage with a therapist and talking to a few close girlfriends about their own struggles, there are a few things I really wish women would stop thinking about sex.
Myth #1: It’s possible to have casual sex without emotional connection.
I picked this belief up in college, where I received many of the ideas and messages that still inform my feminism today. This “feminist” idea, however, was one that I got rid of as soon as I started learning more about the human reproductive system. It’s actually pretty impossible to have sex without connection, especially for women. Sexual activity stimulates the release of oxytocin, a hormone that contributes to a feeling of trust and bonding between two people. So, sex literally bonds two people together, and that bond is pretty difficult to erase by sheer will power and thinking, precisely because it’s a hormonal bond.
Yet, in college I felt bad about feeling connected with a guy I had sex with because of the messaging surrounding me. Knowledge and experience have taught me my feelings weren’t wrong, the culture around me was wrong. Culture told me that my body could be used, and that would make me happy. Now my pro-sex feminism looks like this: recognizing the power and allure of sex, but also respecting the biology of sex by deciding to only have sex with the man I can fully trust.
Myth #2: The best way for women to explore how they like it is by themselves.
In my human anatomy classes in college, I learned that female sexual pleasure was different than men’s, which unfortunately meant it was emphasized less than a male’s pleasure. I heard time and time again that the answer was to explore by myself before I could enjoy myself with another person. But like my beliefs about casual sex, there’s a stark difference in how I expressed my pro-sex feminism a couple of years ago than the way I express it now. Today, I think that female pleasure is best explored with a fully committed and trusted partner.
I’m not alone in this understanding of sex. Take this study, for example, which found that women have orgasms more in relationships than hookups. It can be awkward to have conversations about what you like and don’t like with someone else, but it’s actually the most natural way to have sex. And it’s much easier to have those conversations when there is good communication in the relationship and respect, both foundations to a trusting relationship.
Myth #3: Sex is the most intimate way of expressing love.
This one is subtle yet dangerous. I say that because believing this actually led me to use sex as a way to deal with any feelings of sadness or inadequacy in a relationship. Instead of working through an argument by talking it out, I would pretend I was fine and have sex. Rather than explain to a partner that I was going through an anxiety attack, I ignored the feelings and started making out with my partner instead. It became almost impossible to form truly intimate connections with anyone.
Thankfully, therapy helped me learn to express myself through other forms of intimacy. I can cry with my fiancé without worrying what he will think. I now know that my fiancé feels truly loved when we set aside time to exchange ideas and thoughts about politics and religion. And the most touching moment with my fiancé this year involved sharing the innermost thoughts in our souls during a marriage prep weekend.
What’s more, sex will be more intimate when you are emotionally close to a person. Not only will it be easier to communicate during sex, which is extremely important, it will mean more. Sex is not just a physical act, it’s meant to involve body, mind, and soul.
Myth #4: Men want and need it all the time.
For some reason, men are expected to want sex all the time. In reality, there are men who have low sex drives, men who prefer sex in committed relationships, men who don’t achieve orgasm easily … basically a man’s sexual needs and desires are just as diverse as a woman’s. It doesn’t mean he’s any less attracted to you, or even that there’s a problem at all. Human biology is unpredictable, and mismatched sex drives happen all the time. If it’s happening to you, don’t have shame about seeking professional help, and use the experience as a starting point to create lasting intimacy emotionally, spiritually, and physically.
Further, it’s important to remember that our sex drive isn’t as out of control as our culture would have us believe. We have been convinced by the culture that we need sex all the time in our relationships. The implications of this messaging means that women (or men) give into or tolerate an unrealistic need for sex—through casual sex, porn, or even sex prematurely in a relationship. The fact is the drive for sex is just like any other desire, which means it can be controlled like any other desire. I may really want to eat an entire chocolate cake before a long run when I’m training for a marathon. But I know that would be bad for my body (and my running pace). Similarly, a man or woman may really desire sex, but since sex has implications for each individual and relationship, that desire should be ordered in a way that is respectful and loving to the woman, the man, and the relationship.
Myth #5: You can’t stop once you’ve started.
There's a very common misconception that once you’ve started having sex in a relationship, you might as well keep doing it in other relationships. I definitely fell into this trap. After I had sex for the first time in high school, I found it far too easy to agree to sex in many (but not all) relationships afterwards. In my mind, it was hard to justify why I should have sex with one person over another. But it is totally reasonable to justify that. No questions asked.
Similarly, it’s entirely possible to stop having sex in a committed relationship. And no, you don’t have to break up to do that. A few months after my now-fiancé and I started having sex, I realized that it was very important to me to reserve sex for marriage, whether that was with him or with someone else. So, I told him that holding off on sex was important to me, he agreed, and everything in our relationship went on the way it had before (minus the sex, of course). Yes, it was hard. But it was worth it to me. If the person you’re having sex with reacts badly when you tell them you don’t want to have sex anymore, well, I think that may be a sign that you need to re-evaluate the relationship.
Of course, discovering sexual pleasure and desire and sex as expressions of love are much easier in the context of a committed, exclusive relationship, and you can’t get more committed and exclusive than marriage. For those who think that sounds old fashioned, I’ll offer one final thought: The equality that feminism promised me has never been more real to me than in my relationship with my fiancé. The shame and expectations surrounding sex are less intimidating with him, because we’ve built a relationship that is constituted by so much more than sex. I know he loves and respects all of me—mind, soul, and body—for me, and not for anything I’m willing or not willing to do in the bedroom. I believe every woman deserves nothing less than that certainty of love and respect.