The Truth About Sex

Pros in-the-know tell the truth about what everyone’s doing in bed

Photography by Getty

FACT OR FICTION: Women hit their sexual peak in their 30s; men do in their 20s.
FICTION. Blame pioneering sex researcher Alfred Kinsey: This myth comes from his early studies, which found that 18-year-old men and 36-year-old women reported the highest frequency of orgasms per week, explains Lori Brotto, director of the University of British Columbia’s Sexual Health Laboratory. “But what that figure doesn’t account for is the frequency of the 18-year-old man’s masturbation, which likely accounts for this high frequency of orgasm,” she says. Another reason Kinsey’s stats were skewed: He carried out his early surveys in the 1940s, back when it was socially acceptable for younger men to brag about their conquests but taboo for young women to kiss and tell, points out sex educator Petra Boynton, a social psychologist at University College London in England. Although women don’t experience a sexual peak as a “biological event,” Brotto says, your sex life probably will get better with time: Studies show a woman’s orgasmic ability increases with age as she becomes more comfortable with her body.

FACT OR FICTION: Men have innately higher sex drives than women do.
FUZZY. If you go by the research, men do consistently report higher interest in sex and more active pursuit of it, says Lucia O’Sullivan, professor of psychology at the University of New Brunswick and an expert in sexual health behaviour. “The evolutionary argument is that this is true because of the sexes’ different reproductive goals,” she explains. “Sperm is cheap, so men are [genetically] programmed to want sex as often as possible, whereas women need to be choosier because of the implications of getting pregnant.” That said, this is just a broad-strokes generalization, not a hard-and-fast rule: Not all men have higher sex drives, says O’Sullivan, just as not all women have lower sex drives.

FACT OR FICTION: Certain positions (say, woman on top) guarantee orgasm.
FICTION. “Although technically all women can orgasm, there isn’t one specific position that works for everyone,” says O’Sullivan. Boynton says guaranteeing anything in sex is problematic, since there’s no “one size fits all” model when it comes to how we get pleasure. “The problem with articles stating the best positions is that they never suggest you can move around and try different things while you’re in that position,” she says. “It’s almost like playing Twister: They tell you where to put each part of your body and you just have to stay there and hope you don’t fall over.” Instead of trying to emulate someone else’s favourite sex position or moves, experimenting—and having fun!—is much more likely to get you off. Concentrate on getting to know yourself and your partner, then communicate what works.

FACT OR FICTION: Men are genetically wired to bed-hop.
FICTION. First, not every guy wants to sow his wild oats in every field, and second, that desire has more to do with culture than with nature. “This idea that men are hard-wired to want multiple partners more than women do is nonsense, as is the flip side of that—that women need romance in order to enjoy sex,” says Cory Silverberg, Toronto-based certified sexuality educator. “However, it is true that the idea of having multiple partners is marketed more aggressively to men. Men are socialized to believe they should always want sex, and lots of crazy sex, with lots of different women, while women are socialized to want a steady partner.” In last year’s National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (NSSHB), done by researchers at Indiana University (and the largest survey of its kind), men expressed greater satisfaction with their last sexual encounter when it was with a steady flame versus with a casual fling. This goes against the argument that men want sex with different partners, says Dr. J. Dennis Fortenberry, one of the study’s lead authors.

FACT OR FICTION: It’s natural for sexual passion to wane over time in a long-term relationship.
FACT. In the early months of a new relationship, “that crazy roller-coaster type of passion is characteristic,” says O’Sullivan. Credit your body’s rush of feel-good chemicals with your busy-as-bunnies sex life at the beginning. “During that time the body produces higher levels of dopamine, which gives us a drug-like high, as well as oxytocin and prolactin, which promote connection and attachment,” she explains. Eventually, those brain chemicals return to a more normal state as the relationship becomes more companionable and less rip-your-clothes-off intense. Although the waning of sexual passion is common—and it doesn’t necessarily mean something’s amiss in your relationship—we’re constantly bombarded by messages that say we should be doing it more and better, which can leave us feeling inadequate. According to Boynton, we often read stories about sex that are purely aspirational and set up an impossible standard. In reality, you can still keep the home fires burning no matter how much time has gone by—it just might take more effort and creativity than it did at first.

FACT OR FICTION: If a man is physically aroused, it’s a sure sign he wants sex.
FICTION. Surprisingly, this isn’t always the case, says Brotto, pointing to a Boston University study that looked at the difference between erections that men achieved by watching an erotic film versus using a vacuum device. “The researchers found that only men in the former group also had an increase in psychological sexual arousal. The other group was not aroused in their minds,” Brotto explains. “So an erection doesn’t necessarily mean a man is in the mood and wants sex—it could just be a sign of good blood flow and a strong sexual reflex.” Because there’s a widespread belief that men’s sexuality is all about the penis, it’s assumed that a hit of Viagra can solve all their problems in the sack. But that’s not so: “About half the men who get a prescription for Viagra never get a refill,” says Silverberg, “so it obviously doesn’t fix the issue for those men.”

Heterosexuality is the norm.
FUZZY. If we’re talking pure statistics, then this statement is fact, says O’Sullivan, as more people report being straight than otherwise oriented. (The NSSHB found that seven percent of women and eight percent of men identify themselves as gay.) But beyond the numbers, things aren’t so simple. Lisa M. Diamond, associate professor of psychology at the University of Utah, surveyed young women over a 10-year period to examine their attraction to both genders, and found that women’s sexuality is more fluid than men’s and can flip-flop throughout one’s life. “Heterosexuality is one of the biggest norms we expect people to fit into,” says Silverberg, “but it’s an assumption that is a bit of a trap. Saying something is ‘normal’ is a value judgment that makes it harder for people who want to ?identify themselves as anything other than straight.”

FACT OR FICTION: Women are harder to satisfy in bed than men.
FACT. There’s truth to the idea that women in general need more foreplay (and different types) to climax than men do. In the NSSHB, researchers concluded that “women tend to be less easily orgasmic than men,” which backs up numerous other studies. They found that among the guys who did just one sexual activity the last time they had sex with a partner, nearly 92 percent achieved orgasm—but in the same scenario, only 55 percent of women did.

Nearly half of all women have a sexual dysfunction (like low libido).
FICTION. The most widely bandied-about (and controversial) statistic about sexual dysfunction claims that it affects a whopping 43 percent of women. That figure comes from a 1999 U.S. study that asked people if they had experienced any of six problems—such as lack of desire for sex, an inability to climax or performance anxiety—for at least several months in the previous year. Those who said yes to even one symptom were included in the 43 percent. But in Brotto’s view, the numbers for female sexual dysfunction are a bit inflated, and some critics in the medical world have accused drug-makers of hyping the condition to create a market for a future “pink Viagra.” Says Brotto: “Female sexual dysfunction and difficulties do exist, and I see them all the time in my practice. However, that doesn’t mean women suffering from this are going to be responsive to a medication, because the majority of cases related to [low] sexual desire in women are not related to anything hormonal or even medical.” It’s much more common to see low libido caused by unhappiness in a relationship, fatigue or stress, and no pill will make those problems suddenly disappear.

You can catch an STI even if you use condoms.
FACT. Sadly, we don’t have any way of protecting ourselves 100 percent against sexually transmitted infections (STIs). “Condoms are a decent barrier method when used properly, and they have a relatively low failure rate,” says O’Sullivan, “but there are problems with the way people use them.” If you put the condom on after starting to have sex, or have to flip it over because you started rolling it on the wrong way, you may be risking exposure to STIs. Size matters, too—the size of the condom, that is. “Wearing a condom that’s too big can allow seepage, while one that’s too small can result in breakage. Both scenarios allow STI transmission,” warns O’Sullivan. Plus, condoms don’t shield you from herpes or all strains of HPV (human papillomavirus), so play it safe and get tested regularly.