Myths busted I - ‘men are from Mars, women from Venus’...

1. A man who gets lot of sex is ‘cool’. A woman who gets lots of sex is ‘easy’.

Any self-defining man or woman (or person who doesn’t identify with either or just one gender) have the right to decide just how much, or little, sex they chose to engage in. Sex can be a lot of different things to different people: it can involve penetration, or no penetration, toys, words, physical contact….almost anything that two consenting adults want to engage in and feel comfortable with. However, these adults need to enter into that act on equal terms, with equal rights to safety, pleasure and enjoyment. Neither person should be judged differently. Sexual double standards or societal shaming of self-identifying women who engage in free sexual activity-still exist. It is up to us to challenge them and call them out.

What do you think she means? No means no!

(Illustration by Elyssa Rider)

2. Women are naturally silent and submissive in bed. Men are naturally loud and dominant.

Luckily, everyone is different, and all desires vary depending on an individual (which makes the world a much more interesting place!). One cannot and should not make sweeping essentialist generalisations about gender (what a woman is, or what female sexuality is, or what a man is or ‘likes’). Moods and desires are not determined by arbitrarily assigned chromosomes. On the contrary, moods, desires, and preferences are cultivated over time and can change. We must be open to this possibility both when thinking about our own sexuality and that of our partners, however they identify themselves on the gender continuum.

3. Men only want sex. Women only want love.

Self-identifying men, women and any other individual not identifying with the gender binary (categorisation of human beings into males and females) want many different things at different times in their lives. Sex can be a wonderful way to express love, friendship and affection, but also be a pleasurable activity for people who are not involved romantically. However, respect, mutuality, consent and the well-being of all people involved need always to be ensured.

4. When a woman has sex with a man for the first time it will hurt: the hymen has to break, and that will cause the woman to bleed.

No! There is a popular misconception that the hymen breaks the first time a woman (or a person with a vagina) has sex, but hymens can vary an awful LOT. There are many different kinds of hymens, from imperforate hymens, which completely cover the vaginal opening and must be medically opened in order for the person to menstruate, to septate hymens, which feel like a strand of skin across the vaginal opening. Truth is, hymen usually doesn’t bleed. Any blood with first penetration is more likely due to general vaginal tearing from lack of lubrication.

5. A man always wants sex. There is something wrong if he does not. It’s his partner’s task to calm him down.

No matter how people identify (as men, women, non-binary, gender fluid or whatever else), there are multiple reasons why they may or may not want to engage in sexual activities. So much depends on their mood, physical and mental health, worries, previous experiences and traumas, attraction and feelings towards their partners. There are also people, including self-identifying men, whose sexual orientation falls under the so-called ace umbrella. These includes asexual, demi-sexual and gray-A people, who, with different nuances, do not, or do not often experience sexual attraction. Pressuring anyone who does not feel like having sex to conform to sexual expectations is harmful and disrespectful. At the same time, it is most natural for self-identifying women to experience strong sexual desire, and they should absolutely feel free to initiate sex if they feel comfortable doing it.

6. It is normal for women to experience pain in sex. There’s nothing really you can do about this.

In many cases, a self-identifying woman (or a person with a vagina) experiences painful sex if there is not sufficient vaginal lubrication (even though more serious medical conditions exist and can be discussed with medical professionals). When this occurs, the pain can be resolved if you are more relaxed, if the amount of foreplay is increased, or if you and your partner use a lubricant. There are also many self-identifying women who do not experience any pain, and women who may occasionally experience pain- it is very much dependent on your mood and psychological state. If you experience discomfort during sex you most definitely can take steps to act upon it.  Do not be afraid to ask a partner to do something differently, to use a lubricant, or indeed, to just stop altogether. All of these things are ok and reasonable. Often partners are more relaxed and the sex gets better when they have talked about these issues.

7. Women do not masturbate. They do not experience sexual desire in the same way men do.

Self-identifying women, and well as individuals of any gender and sexual orientations, can most certainly masturbate and very often do. Women’s sexual desires have been historically portrayed as shameful, perverse or dangerous, with great damages on all of us. Masturbation is a great way to explore our bodies and sexuality and to understand our likes and dislikes, and entails by no means anything wrong, dirty or, say, unfair towards a partner. However, no one should ever feel obliged to masturbate and/or engage in any other sexual activities if they do not feel like it, or ever feel ‘abnormal’ because of it.

8. Heterosexual sex naturally ends with male ejaculation.

Certainly not! Sexual activities are a dialogue between consenting and enthusiastic people, and no one’s pleasure matters more than the other. Sex does absolutely not have to end with male ejaculation if the other partner does not want it to end. You should definitely not be afraid in setting claim to your sexual pleasure, or in communicating what you would like the partner who has just ejaculated to do.

9. It is shameful, or unmanly, for a man to express fears, dislikes, anxieties, traumas connected with sexuality and consent.

Self-identifying men, just like anyone else, have their own sexual history shaped by positive and negative experiences. It is a sign of strength and maturity from anyone to be able to share emotions and vulnerabilities. Unfortunately long-standing gender-based stereotypes shame and ridicule men for showing their more vulnerable side. Let’s not buy into this damaging narrative and allow ourselves, and all our partners, to be honest and truly present in an out of the bedroom!

10. Women tend to say no when they actually mean yes, or just need to be persuaded.

Certainly not (see all reflections above)! We get that consent is complex to understand and communicate: people may consent to sex as they feel pressured into it/ are scared of the consequences of rejecting their partners/ have been socialised into thinking that there is no alternative to something someone else imposes on them. It is important to be mindful of all these circumstances, and make sure we and our partners are freely and enthusiastically consenting to any sex we are engaging in. At the same time, whenever anyone is actually able to articulate a no, forcing them into whatever unwanted activity is wrong and harmful. This doesn’t mean you don’t have the right to ask your partners to discuss the reasons of their no or the emotional impact this had on you. Yet this needs to be done respectfully, and possibly with a cool mind: there is a huge difference between an honest conversation and trying to manipulate someone or making them feel guilty for asserting their boundaries! Gender stereotypes based on assumptions about what men and women should be, do or want harm everyone, and often do not allow people to express their true emotions and desires.

11. You can assume the kind of sex someone wants to engage in by what genitals they have.

Untrue - anyone of any gender and sexuality may have myriad reasons for not wanting to engage in certain kinds of sex. These reasons might relate to trauma, to pain or pleasure experiences, to gender identity (i.e. some trans people with penises may not want to use their penises for penetration in sex - some trans people with vaginas may not want their vaginas penetrated), etc. These and many others are reasons why it's important to communicate clearly and obtain consent for any form of sexual act, rather than assuming that someone consenting to a certain kind of sex means they consent to all kinds of sex.

12. Lesbian women never met a true man, who would have been able to change their minds. (aka: Sex with a woman doesn’t count, it’s basically just the foreplay without the sex).

Sex with women (or between self-identifying women) definitely does “count” in the way that heterosexual sex does. So long as two consenting adults are enjoying mutual pleasure it counts as sex. Sex does not exclusively refer to penetration, although self-identifying lesbians or bisexual people can engage in penetration (simply with their hands or with an ever evolving range of sex toys). Sex is not better or more legitimate when it takes place between a man and a woman. Sex is not simply penis in vagina penetration. It is many things to many people, and self-identifying women who have chosen to engage in consensual sexual relations with other women have made a personal life choice. Nobody should attempt to ‘change’ this.

This course has been created by GenPol, a think-tank on gender and politics based at the University of Cambridge, in cooperation with Serlo.

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