6 sexual health myths busted

By Alistair Gardiner
Published January 16, 2024

Key Takeaways

Wherever you find a taboo topic, misinformation, misconceptions, and myths are sure to follow—especially when it comes to sex.

With so many fallacies in circulation, it's not surprising that many people hold false beliefs. Refresh yourself on these six sex myths to help improve communication about sexual health with your patients.

Myth #1: STIs always cause symptoms

STIs (or STDs) can present with various symptoms depending on which bacterium, virus, or parasite causes them. Spread from person to person through bodily fluids like blood, semen, and vaginal discharge, symptoms can include sores or bumps, painful urination, unusual discharge from the genitals, pain during sex, rashes, and abnormal bleeding, among others.

However, symptoms of an STI may take years to appear—and in some instances, may not materialize at all. That's the case with chlamydia.

“In fact, many people have absolutely no symptoms, for example, with chlamydia,” said OB/GYN Alyssa Dweck, MD, in an interview with The Zoe Report.[] “This is why we test all [people with vaginas] routinely during an annual exam so treatment can be offered even for those with no symptoms.” Testing is especially important for those engaging in sexual activity or having sex with a new partner. 

According to CDC data, one in five people in the United States has an STD.[] Click here to learn more about this epidemic at MDLinx.

Myth #2: Women have a lower sex drive than men

Popular culture and societal norms often leave us with the impression that all men are sex-obsessed and will jump at any opportunity for coitus, while women are more reserved and far less interested in sex. This is a sexist myth, according to sex researcher Justin R. Garcia, PhD, executive director of the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University.

In an interview with Insider, Dr. Garcia cited research that found libido is experienced at similar levels among people regardless of their gender when it comes to arousal, motivation, and frequency of sexual desire.[] Gender norms and inaccurate methods used in research are to blame for common (and false) assumptions about gender differences and libido. 

While women’s sex drive can be influenced by factors like pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause, none of this means that women inherently have a lower sex drive than men.

Other factors that affect sex drive are non-gender specific, including age, levels of physical activity, stress and mental health, diet, quality and quantity of sleep, weight, illness, and others. Libido can also depend on setting stimuli and the person or people you’re with.

Myth #3: Douching is a good way to clean your vagina

This is an old myth—and, in fact, douching may cause the opposite of the intended effect. 

Vaginas are “self-cleaning,” according to the Mayo Clinic, and do not require any cleaning outside of normal bathing.[] In fact, douching can throw off the natural balance of your vagina and increase your risk of infections like bacterial vaginosis, a type of vaginal inflammation resulting from an overgrowth of anaerobic bacteria which are naturally present in the vagina.

In her interview with The Zoe Report, Dr. Dweck said that douching typically does more harm than good, adding that “there’s no benefit in putting anything in there for the purpose of cleaning it.”

Myth #4: Too much sex will stretch out your vagina

According to Dr. Dweck, the idea that frequent sex or even childbirth will cause your vagina to permanently stretch out is inaccurate. While giving birth will result in changes to your vagina, this part of your body has a lot of elasticity and it will return to its original state after a period of recovery. “The vagina is an incredible structure and is quite forgiving after childbirth and sex,” said Dr. Dweck.

While you may lose some tone in your pelvic floor muscles after giving birth, this isn’t necessarily permanent either. Pelvic floor physical therapy will help strengthen both these and the levator ani muscles, according to OB/GYN Jenn Conti, MD. All of that said, aging and hormonal changes can eventually influence the elasticity and tone of the vagina. 

“These muscles often take a hit with pregnancy and giving birth, and benefit from pelvic floor physical therapy work,” said Dr. Conti. “But the idea that the vagina actually stretches out is false.”

Myth #5: Sexual dysfunction is just a hormonal problem 

Sexual dysfunction affects an estimated 43% of women and 31% of men, according to the Cleveland Clinic, with symptoms like difficulty achieving or maintaining an erection and absent or delayed ejaculation in men, and inadequate vaginal lubrication and an inability to achieve orgasm in women.[]

While a common assumption is that these conditions are exclusively caused by an imbalance of hormones like testosterone and estrogen, sexual dysfunction can also be the result of a wide range of physical and medical conditions. These include diabetes, heart disease, various neurological disorders, and alcohol and drug abuse or misuse.

Sexual dysfunction can also be the result of stress, anxiety, relationship problems, past trauma, and concerns over body image or sexual performance. Numerous medications can cause sexual dysfunction as a side effect, including antidepressants, blood pressure medications, diuretics, and some over-the-counter antihistamines and decongestants. And then there’s the question of ubiquitous sex supplements on the market, which lack monitoring.

Interestingly, marijuana appears to play a role in sexual function, with the cannabinoid receptor mapped to several brain areas involved in sexual function, according to studies.    

To learn more about sexual dysfunction, check out our earlier reporting on female and male sexual problems that doctors should be aware of. 

Myth #6: Condoms are fool-proof

While using condoms is one of the best ways to prevent STIs and pregnancy, they are not 100% effective or even 99% effective. According to the CDC, the male condom has a failure rate of roughly 13%, while female condoms have a failure rate of 21%.[]

Hormone-based female contraceptives have a far higher success rate in preventing pregnancy, but they provide no protection from STIs. Combined oral contraceptives, which contain estrogen and progestin, have a typical failure rate of 7%. Similarly, the birth control patch and the vaginal contraceptive ring (both of which release the hormones progestin and estrogen), have a failure rate of just 7%.

Contraceptive methods that are the most effective at preventing pregnancy include intrauterine devices (known as “the coil”), which have a failure rate of between 0.1%-0.8%, and the implant, which has a typical failure rate of 0.1%.

On the other hand, all of the methods above are more effective at preventing pregnancy than “fertility awareness-based methods,” which involve tracking the days of your menstrual cycle during which you are least likely to get pregnant. According to the CDC, these methods have a typical failure rate of up to 23%.  

Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter