When it comes to sex and all its intricacies, you’d be hard-pressed to find a woman who didn’t buy into at least one misconception about it growing up.
A lot of mistruths about intimacy and pleasure get spread around ― and certain facts are left out entirely ― thanks to stigma, strict upbringings and abysmal sex ed in schools (where not all programs are inclusive of students’ sexuality). And don’t even get us started on Google, which can take nearly any health-related question down the scariest internet rabbit hole.
All of this leads to confusion about sex and sexuality.
That’s why HuffPost asked women what they wish they’d known about sex and their sexual health when they were younger. Here’s what they said:
It’s OK to discover sex at your own pace.
“When it comes to sexual exploration, most people tend to pace around perceptions of what others are doing rather than their own readiness for sexual experiences,” said Mahlet Endale, a licensed psychologist based in Atlanta.
Endale said she has encountered patients who’ve described feeling pressured to partake in sexual experiences “simply because they felt their virginity was something to get rid of rather than feeling ready to have sex.”
For Karen Fratti, a 35-year-old based in New York, this particular point couldn’t ring truer.
“I wish I knew at 16 when I lost my virginity, and well into my 20s, that I had some agency in the matter,” she said.
There’s no shame in going to Planned Parenthood or a local clinic.
Taking ownership of your sexual health, which includes getting checkups at a clinic like Planned Parenthood, should be celebrated rather than admonished.
“I wish I knew all of my options once I became sexually active. I went to the local Planned Parenthood for everything because I could afford it and they took such good care of me. But there was this perception that it was the shameful option,” said Chrissa Hardy, a 33-year-old Chicago resident.
“I had to discover it on my own, as it wasn’t discussed in any sex ed class, and it was sort of a secret among the women I knew,” she continued. “I hate that we ever carried an ounce of shame for being proactive about our health.”
Sex ed doesn’t always give you all the facts or information you need.
Fratti wishes she’d known how much knowledge she really lacked as a student. She also wishes schools paid more attention to sex education to help their female students gain a better understanding of what was going on with their genitals and reproductive organs.
“A lot of issues surrounding gender, reproductive rights and so much more could be solved if we desexualized sex ed and [made] it about science and how things work,” she said.
Fratti attended a Catholic school in Pennsylvania until she was in sixth grade, then switched to a public school in the same area. “There was no sex ed at my Catholic school and the public school one was focused on not getting pregnant or AIDS, and [lasted] like one hour out of a whole school year,” she said.
It’s not your fault if you’re struggling with your fertility.
Research shows about 9 percent of men and 11 percent of women who are of reproductive age have experienced fertility problems. Verona Harry, 59, was one of them, and said she spent much of her late 20s and early 30s blaming herself and resenting her own body for not being able to conceive a child.
“I was living in Kingston, Jamaica, while trying to conceive my first child. After years of trying, I was 32 years old and still childless,” she said. “Back then, I didn’t have the resources, and the shame attached to possibly being told that my body was ‘broken’ and could not produce children was enough to keep me from seeing a doctor. Perhaps if I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have been so hard on myself.”
It’s perfectly normal — and highly encouraged — to get tested.
Best friends Rochelle Codner and Gizelle Fletcher, who now live in Indiana, said they both had a hard time finding safe spaces to get tested for sexually transmitted infections.
“I wish I knew more about how and where to get tested,” Codner, 28, said. “I didn’t find somewhere until I was 18, and while I was practicing safe sex and using condoms, I was always terrified that somehow it didn’t work or I would be one of those unlucky ones.”
The signs of STIs aren’t always what you think.
Fletcher said she didn’t always understand the symptoms of sexually transmitted infections, partly because they were laden with stigma. She wishes she’d had a better education on the subject, as well as information on what to do if she was experiencing any signs of an STI.
“For one, I wish I knew razor bumps weren’t signs of herpes. But I didn’t have a way of finding that out without being shamed, and Google wasn’t very helpful,” said Fletcher, 28. “I also wish that I was encouraged to get tested and knew of places to get that done.”
Intimacy with a partner isn’t always about sex.
Chelan Smith, a 36-year-old lifestyle blogger, says she wishes she’d known that affection and closeness with a person transcend the basic act of sex.
“I wish I knew that sexual intimacy was not just a physical thing. That it really got better the more you took your time to get to know the other person,” she said.
It’s OK to ask a doctor about anything related to sex.
“I wish I had somewhere to go to ask these [sex-related] questions, other than my friends, who knew even less than I did,” Fletcher said.
Doctors, in particular, have heard it all. There should be no shame in seeking their medical advice, and no patient should fear any judgment from their physician about their sexual health.
Your pleasure and comfort is just as important as your partner’s.
Sex isn’t just for the other person. You should feel good (and safe) in the moment, too. Fratti said that she wished she’d known she could speak up about those things.
“Even when I thought I was having fun and it was ‘fine’ sex, [I wish I’d known] that I could make it better and have an opinion about even the position we were in,” Fratti said. “Took me a while to find my ‘voice’ and feel empowered to make the sex I was having — and even masturbation — about myself.”
Hardy said she also wished she had felt more empowered when she was younger to find what was enjoyable for her.
“Because I had so few resources and examples of how sex should be and feel for women, I went years having bad sex ― boring, and in some cases, painful,” she said.
It’s OK to explore sex.
The majority of these experiences are unfortunately more common than most people think, Endale said. Communication, owning your needs in the bedroom and prioritizing your sexual health is vital. But mistruths and secrecy about sex can impede a younger person’s understanding when they’re trying to learn about it all.
It’s past time for these misconceptions to be dismantled so sexual knowledge expands for younger generations, Hardy said.
“I didn’t think it was important to prioritize my sexual needs or try anything new because I would potentially be judged or shamed,” Hardy said. “I hate that. I can’t get that time back, and I don’t want the next generation of women to suffer the same ... nonsense.”