(CNN) — Accurate and comprehensive sex education can be hard to find in America, and people aren’t always aware that they’re not getting enough information.
As of this July, only 29 US states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education, and of those states, only 11 require that the information provided be medically accurate, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit research and policy organization that focuses on sexual and reproductive rights around the world. In addition, the use of social networks can allow misinformation to spread more quickly, even among those who actively seek accurate information, according to a study conducted in 2021 by the University of Louisville, in Kentucky.
Misinformation and misconceptions can lead to consequences, including unplanned pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections and diseases, and increased fear and stigma around sex and sexual health, said Kristen Mark, a sex and relationships researcher and professor in family medicine and community health at the Institute for Gender and Sexual Health at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine in Minneapolis.
We spoke with educators and researchers to break down some common misconceptions and share insightful information you may not have learned in traditional sex education classes.
Sex and sexual health are not limited to the physical act
People often believe that sexual health is only related to the sexual act itself, said New York sex educator Logan Levkoff. Actually, sexual health is a “state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality”, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“It has to do with how we take care of our bodies holistically,” Levkoff said, “how we navigate mental health, the access we have to information and services, the culture that we live in.”
Understanding and promoting sexual health can allow people to feel empowered in their sexual bodies and decisions, and can open up debate around these issues, potentially allowing people to challenge these misconceptions more directly.
“Normal” doesn’t exist.
The most common question Levkoff faces is, “Am I normal?”
“People don’t want to feel like they’re weird, that they’re the weird one, that there’s something wrong with them,” she says.
Some people wonder if they had their first period at a normal age. However, menstruation, including the start and length of the period, varies from person to person, according to the Mayo Clinic.
There is no single definition of what is normal, according to Levkoff. As each person is unique, looking for the normal may not be the most beneficial. Instead, people can learn about their own bodies and desires, Levkoff added.
sex can be pleasurable
Alexa Hulse, 20, who grew up in suburban Charlotte, North Carolina, learned in public school that people have sex to conceive a child. The female orgasm was not discussed, and the male orgasm was discussed in the context of her helping the sperm find the egg to create a baby.
The reality is that sex is pleasurable, said Mark of the University of Minnesota. In fact, the No. 1 reason humans have sex is for pleasure, he added.
“I was very afraid of sex,” Hulse said. “There was no talk of pleasure. There was only talk of having babies and fear, because you didn’t want to get pregnant and you didn’t want to get a sexually transmitted disease or an infection.”
With the recent US Supreme Court ruling that reversed the Roe v. Wade, removing the constitutional right to have an abortion, people have said, “Don’t have sex if you don’t want to get pregnant.”
But for many people who are having sex and trying to avoid getting pregnant, limited access to reproductive health services can be a burden, Mark said.
“Contraceptive methods and access to reproductive health services, such as abortion, are really important components of ensuring that people can exercise their human right to have pleasurable sexual experiences,” he said.
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are not always visible
Stigmas that people who have sexually transmitted diseases or infections are “dirty” and those who don’t are “clean” have dominated narratives around sex.
However, STIs are more common than people think. In 2018, 20% of people in the United States had an STI on any given day, according to a 2021 study published in the journal Sexually Transmitted Diseases.
And people can have an STI and not even be aware of it, since most are not noticeable, said Debby Herbenick, a professor at the Indiana University Bloomington School of Public Health and author of “Sex Made Easy.”
“The only way to know if someone has an STI is to get an STI test, which is something all sexually active people should do from time to time (the frequency varies depending on each person’s sexual behaviors and risk factors, so you have to see a health care provider to see what they recommend),” Herbenick said by email.
Sexual desire levels vary
A low or high sex drive doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you, Herbenick said. People’s sexual desire often fluctuates based on external factors, such as stress levels, she added.
Plus, there’s a misconception that men always want to have sex and women don’t, Mark said. These assumptions can cause people to worry that something is wrong with them, when in reality, sexual drive and desire are not based on sex or gender and vary from person to person.
Teaching Comprehensive Sex Education Doesn’t Mean People Have More Sex
In U.S.A., only 11 states and the District of Columbia require that the importance of consent to sexual activity be included in sex education, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The consentor agreement between partners to engage in sexual activity, is an important component of sex, Mark said.
Some believe sex education is about morals and values, but it’s really about health information, including understanding bodily autonomy and consent, Mark said. Sex education gives people the opportunity to learn that saying yes is just as important as saying no, and vice versa, he added.
Covering issues like consent in sex education classes doesn’t mean people are going to run out and have sex, Mark said. Rather, it means people will understand how to get along better in the world, both when it comes to sex and when it doesn’t, he added.
In fact, abstinence-based sex education has been shown to be ineffective and harmful, according to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Younger children can get comprehensive sex education starting in kindergarten, according to a study Of 2021, published in the same magazine.
“It’s going to involve talking about bodily autonomy and the right to have the ability to say no to contact with your body if you don’t want to,” Mark said of sex education for younger children. “It’s about learning about boundaries and respect for your own body.”
Young people might not have the same level of confidence in the future if adults don’t answer their questions, Levkoff said.
“If a young person, whatever their age, has a question, they deserve an answer,” he added. “It’s about the amount of information we give, the delivery system, the values behind it.”