5 super common sex negative beliefs (and how to unlearn them)

By Sara Kloepfer

Sex positivity and sex education go hand in hand, so it’s no surprise that the opposite is also true. The sex negative beliefs that can be found in every facet of our culture — from media, to societal norms, to everyday conversations — are often rooted in a lack of education. 

Let’s also not forget that a lot of the sex negative messages in our culture come from the centuries-old resistance to any type of sexuality that threatens the heterosexual, patriarchal nuclear family unit. This means that breaking down these beliefs is going to take a lot of time. It’s totally okay and understandable to have a learning curve; a lot of people have been steeped in these beliefs since they were young, so unlearning them doesn’t happen overnight. Becoming sex positive is all about questioning and exploring where our beliefs about sex and sexuality actually come from — and whether they continue to fit in the expanding landscape of sexual expression. 

Here are some of the most common sex negative beliefs, and ways to push back on them:

1. Women who have a lot of sex don’t have any self respect 

Hello, slut-shaming! A lot of people share this belief when it comes to women, but when it comes to men who do the same, they are instead congratulated for being studs. This belief that having a lot of sex or having sex with multiple partners somehow reflects a person’s sense of self worth is based in the deeper idea that sex itself is inherently bad, risky, or dirty. And while sex isn’t a 100% positive experience for everyone all the time, it certainly isn’t shameful, immoral, or unhealthy. Sex is about giving and receiving pleasure, and having a lot of it simply means that someone likes to feel good. It doesn’t mean they respect themselves any less or take sex any less seriously than people who engage in it differently. 

2. Virgins are losers, especially the older they get 

On the other end of the spectrum from slut-shaming, people who don’t have sex, or don’t have it early enough, are also shamed. While the concept of “purity” is valued in young women especially, once they remain virgins past a certain age society deems them a pathetic “old maid.” While women are more likely to be shamed for having a lot of sex than men are, the opposite is true when it comes to virginity. From The 40-Year-Old Virgin to Colton’s season of The Bachelor, mainstream media has shown that male virgins past a certain age are targets of ridicule. Toxic masculinity is behind this emphasis on sexual experience as a marker of manhood. But just as having sex doesn’t impact someone’s worth, neither does not having sex.

3. Having casual sex is riskier 

People who have sex with multiple partners, especially those they don’t know very well, are often judged as engaging in risky behavior. The assumption underpinning this belief is that a person who has lots of casual sex is careless about their sexual health. It also conflates having sex with being unhealthy, unsafe, and even “dirty.” While risk for an STI or unintended pregnancy is higher if you have more sex or more partners, a person who discusses STI status with their partners, uses barriers, and gets tested regularly is engaging in safer sex practices than someone who is monogamous but doesn’t take any of those precautions. 

4. Having an STI means someone is dirty 

When someone tests negative for STIs, they are often referred to as “clean,” implying that someone who tests positive is “dirty.” But more than half of all people will have an STI at some point in their life, and most STIs are treatable. Society assigns a moral value to STIs that isn’t applied to other types of infections and illnesses. The possibility that you might catch the flu from your partner is completely normal to most people. It makes sense that people want to avoid getting and passing along STIs (just like with any other infection), but the fact that they’re transmitted sexually doesn’t automatically make them worse than other types of infections. The stigma associated with STIs is often worse than the infection itself — and actually contributes to the spread of STIs by creating a culture of silence and shame. Having an STI is as normal as having a cold, and should be treated as such. People don’t think someone is “dirty” for catching a cold from kissing (i.e. not taking precautions before being intimate), so getting an STI from having sex shouldn’t be any different. 

5. Sex toys aren’t as good or valid as partnered sex 

Ah, sex toy stigma. The belief that penetrative sex with another person (particularly penis-in-vagina sex) is the only kind of sex that matters is rooted in conservative religious ideals about sex as strictly a form of childbearing. People, especially women, who masturbate with vibrators are often told that it can “numb” or desensitize them and make it harder to orgasm during partnered sex. Not only is desensitizing your genitals not actually possible, but warning against vibrator use because it might impact partnered sex sends the message that partnered sex is superior to masturbation. But neither is inherently better, it’s your personal preference! Not everyone gets off in the same way, and some people find masturbation less stressful or triggering than partnered sex. 

Many people are apprehensive about introducing sex toys during partnered sex for fear of intimidating or embarrassing their partner. The implication here is that including a sex toy means that you believe your partner is inadequate. And while there is definitely a sensitive way to introduce toys without hurting your partners’ feelings, it actually shouldn’t matter if you prefer partnered sex with a toy. People like what they like, and if better sex is possible wth a sex toy, why not?

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