As educators, there are dozens of common questions that our students ask about sex, bodies, and relationships. While we hope that youth have access to information that is accurate and comprehensive, we know this isn’t always the case. As young people navigate the tricky waters of adolescence, they begin to ask questions that often come from assumptions and misunderstandings about sex and intimacy. While adults are generally able to sift through messages that contain inaccuracies or even fantasy, youth are still learning about their bodies and sex so they don’t always know what’s true and what isn’t. Media they view and stories they share with one another can all influence their expectations of what is normal.
In this post we’ll talk about some of the more common myths that we hear in our classrooms so that we can better understand where they come from and why they are harmful. We will close by sharing some ways that you can help young people in your life filter through the misinformation they encounter.
“Everyone else is having sex.”
First, let’s just get this out of the way – there is no right age for a person to have sex. Young people often ask us questions like, “How old were you the first time you had sex?” or “What’s the right age for sex?” These questions demonstrate their concern about being “normal” if they haven’t had sex by a certain age, which makes sense when you think about the fact that social media, movies, and music can make it seem as though everyone is sexually active. There isn’t one age that’s right for everyone, and the truth is that less than half of high schoolers will have sex before they graduate. This myth can negatively effect the expectations that young people set for themselves and others.
“Men always want to have sex.”
During puberty, a person with a penis will start to get erections more often (and sometimes for no reason at all!) due to the hormonal changes in their body- but some people interpret this as evidence that they’re always interested in sex. This can be dangerous for a number of reasons. First, it removes consent from the conversation. Just because a person has an erection does not mean that they want to have sex. Second, the idea that men always want to have sex implies that if a person with a penis is not interested in or chooses not to have sex, there is something “wrong” with them. This can create pressure for people to have sex regardless of how they feel or what they actually want. It is important for youth to know that they can always say no to anything they don’t want to do, including sex, no matter their gender.
“Your butt will get bigger when you start having sex.”
You’ve probably encountered myths similar to this one, implying that people can tell once you’ve had sex. This specific myth is likely related to the fact that a person with a vagina’s hips often broaden during puberty, which can create a more “curvy” appearance. Still, the truth is that it isn’t possible to tell if a person has had sex by just looking at them. A harmful effect of this myth is that it can stigmatize folks who have curvier bodies and lead people to make judgments or assumptions about them and what they’ve done.
“Once your hymen breaks, you’re not a virgin anymore.”
Perhaps the most well know myth involves the hymen breaking or tearing when a person with a vagina first has vaginal sex. The hymen, which is a piece of skin inside the vaginal opening, varies from person to person. For some people, the hymen may cover over all or part of the vaginal opening, and for others it might be much higher or much lower, so it’s not really covering the opening at all. Many believe that the hymen provides a way to tell whether someone is a “virgin” or not, but the truth is that the hymen can change or tear for lots of reasons, such as if a person plays sports, rides a bike, or uses tampons. Sometimes a person’s hymen will just stretch instead of tearing, and sometimes the hymen may not change at all. Either way, the hymen is not a reliable indicator of whether someone has had sex or not. Just as we said above, no one can tell by looking if someone is having sex; the only way to know if someone has had sex is to ask them!
Further, virginity isn’t a medical term which means it doesn’t have a definition that the experts agree upon. This also means that people have a lot of different ideas about what it means to be a virgin and what “counts” for losing (or protecting) virginity. Some people define a virgin as someone who has never had any type of sex, while others might say that only vaginal sex “counts.” In any case, placing significance on the hymen’s role in virginity can shame people with vaginas for having sex and re-traumatize people who have experienced sexual assault or abuse.
These myths can cause a lot of confusion among young people when it comes to sex, sexuality, and their bodies. They can negatively affect young people’s expectations of sexual relationships as they transition into adulthood, and they can leave young people with more questions than answers. You might be asking yourself, “what can I do?”
- Correct misinformation. Myths often come from a place of curiosity, assumptions and storytelling. Youth will fill the gaps in their knowledge with the assumption that what they hear and see is truthful. As educators, our job is to correct misinformation and provide youth with the tools they need to make the safest and healthiest decisions for themselves. Organizations and websites like Planned Parenthood and Sex Etc. are great resources for both youth and adults when we need reliable info about sexual health.
- Acknowledge that there can be different messages and values surrounding sexuality. Making space for multiple interpretations and understandings of relationships and intimacy can create room for safe and healthy decision-making as a young person moves into adulthood. Accept that there are varying definitions of virginity and sex and let youth decide for themselves what’s important. Approaching the conversation in this way also lets youth know that different is normal, and there is no one set of expectations for them when it comes to sex and relationships.
- Practice conversations surrounding sex to let youth consider their personal values before they’re in a sexual situation. Education empowers youth to value their own opinions and bodies while deciding on sexual readiness and what type of sexual expression feels right for them. Practicing conversations beforehand can help prepare youth to better navigate difficult or challenging situations that they may encounter.
- Have open and honest discussions about sex and sexuality. Again, this gives young people an opportunity to explore their own values, with all of the facts in mind, which is essential to their health and well-being. Talking about this topic openly can also help to reduce stigma and remind young people that having questions about sex is totally normal!
- Display empathy and active listening when youth ask questions. Puberty can cause young people to feel more self-conscious, like they’re the only ones experiencing these changes. The truth is that many of them are sitting there wishing they could ask the same question. Validating their questions, encouraging feedback, and connecting them to resources all let youth know that they have a right to this information, which helps them stay engaged and take the topic seriously!
- Understand that your own assumptions and values on sex and age-appropriate behavior can impact the conversations you have with young people about sexual health. Your values can become apparent to young people based on the discussions you have, the language you use, and the topics you discuss, avoid, or speed-through. Keep in mind, it is not the job of an educator to share their personal values in the classroom. It’s best to direct youth to a trusted adult in their lives so that they can talk and figure out their own values. Our job is to state the facts and provide a range of values, not insert our own.
The stories and myths that youth hear influence their opinions and attitudes towards sex, bodies, and intimacy. As youth-serving adults and sex educators, we have the opportunity to answer questions and provide young people with information that can help them decide what is right for them! Dispelling myths can empower youth to make healthy, informed decisions about sex and sexuality as they become adults. Young people deserve to decide what feels right as they know their bodies and relationships best.