What Do We Actually Know About Sex?

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I’m returning from New York, where I keynoted a big Planned Parenthood event.

It’s wonderful to speak to groups of people who support sexual rights. It always feels like visiting family. (The family that makes you feel welcome, not the family that wonders if you were switched with their “real” child at birth.)

After I spoke, I saw an old friend, and the subject of pornography came up (I hardly go anywhere anymore that it doesn’t). An influential sex-positive researcher, she told me she favored full access to sexually explicit materials—“except, of course, snuff films,” she said.

That brought me up short. Here’s a world-class sociologist, a tremendous force for good in the world, and she’s talking about snuff films—movies where actual people actually die while making the film, which very sick viewers then watch for sexual pleasure.

I told her there’s no such thing.

“Of course there is,” she said.

I asked if she’d ever seen one. She hadn’t.
I asked if she knew anyone who’d ever seen one. She hadn’t.
I asked if she knew anyone who knew anyone who’d ever seen one. She hadn’t.

“But various law enforcement people talk about it, and they say they exist,” she said. I totally believe that they say that. But I asked her if any of these prosecutors, detectives, or cops had ever seized one, shown her one, or even seen one. She said no.

She and I travel in very different professional circles which only overlap slightly. So between the two of us, we’ve got most of the sex profession covered. And together we’ve been at it over half a century. To top it off, she’s one of the world’s experts on sexual violence.

So if neither of us has seen a snuff film, or knows someone who has, I’m certain they don’t exist.

What’s interesting, though, is the enduring power of this myth. Like Bigfoot, delicious fat-free lasagna, or moderate Republicans, people insist there is such a thing. Nobody’s seen one, but the myth is so persistent that somehow it’s up to the non-believers to prove the thing doesn’t exist—which, of course, can’t be done.

People are especially prone to believing myths about sex. Part of my job is to challenge such beliefs: That the internet is full of pedophiles waiting to kidnap our kids. That porn is a gateway drug that leads to watching kiddie porn. That masturbation within marriage is a form of infidelity. That love always leads to desire, and that lack of desire reflects a lack of love. That condoms don’t work. That abstinence does.

What’s even more interesting than challenging these myths, though, is asking why these ideas persist in the face of people’s actual, contrary experience. In most marriages, at least one partner masturbates. Most Americans who pledge abstinence until marriage have sex before marriage. At some point most people love someone and yet have insufficient desire. And so on.

Everyone agrees that we desperately need more communication about sex—between partners, between parents and children, among physicians, psychologists, and sex therapists. But communication with inaccurate information is worse than no communication at all.

That’s a main disadvantage of do-it-yourself sex education websites and blogs—where people write in with their problems, and others offer their “opinion” and “experience.” This advice is often gender-biased (“most women are selfish in bed”), fear-and-danger oriented (“never let your daughter go to frat parties”) moralistic (“porn is an evil intrusion into the sanctity of your relationship”), or just plain wrong (“sooner or later, menopause kills everyone’s sex life”).

The internet is the sex educator’s worst nightmare—a chance for everyone to reinforce everyone else’s ignorance. So this week, do yourself a favor—just ask yourself, “When it comes to sex, how do I know what I know? Why do I believe what I believe, anyway?”

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