The Myth of Normal Sex (or, an open letter to the NHS)

Dear NHS,

While doing research for a safer sex workshop that I’m giving, I spent some time exploring the sexual health section of your Live Well website. For the most part*, I think these pages are an excellent resource, full of important information delivered in clear, accessible language. I like your masturbation FAQs. It’s because I respect these pages as a whole that I wanted to point out a little thing that struck me in the course of my reading.

In the STI pages, there is a list that defines different sex acts before describing their associated risks. One of these things is not like the others… let’s play Spot the Difference.

Vaginal penetrative sex

This is when a man’s penis enters a woman’s vagina.”

Oral sex

Oral sex involves sucking or licking the vagina, penis or anus. Some men and women (gay and straight) choose to do this as part of their sex life, and others don’t.”

Anal penetrative sex

This is when a man’s penis enters (penetrates) his partner’s anus. Some people choose to do this as part of their sex life, and others don’t.”

Wow, I really like that reassuring sentence about how some people choose to do things and others don’t. It’s great to know that I have options, that desire is personal, and that I’m not weird if I don’t want to do things that some other people do.

Only, wait a sec, what was that about “vaginal penetrative sex” again?

Vaginal penetrative sex

This is when a man’s penis enters a woman’s vagina.


And… “some people choose to do this as part of their sex life, and others don’t”? Right..? No, I guess not. I guess that’s just sex. Normal sex; full sex; real sex.

I’m sure this omission is just a little slip, and not intended to reinforce the almighty myth that sex between a person with a penis and a person with a vagina will obviously involve the former going into the latter – that sex, in fact, is penis-penetrates-vagina.

This myth implies that when there’s no penis present, or no vagina, the sex happening is lesser, ambiguous, always qualified in some way (“lesbian sex”, “gay sex”… what exactly is that, anyway?), which in turn diminishes the very sexuality of folks whose sexual partners have genitals similar to their own. Equally, messages about “safer sex” can fly over the heads of (especially, but not exclusively, young) people, who have been so inculcated to understand sex as vaginal penetrative sex, that everything else seems safe by default.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with vaginal penetrative sex (except, perhaps, the cumbersome number of syllables). But it’s not all there is to sex. And, to be clear, lots of people aren’t into it. People with vaginas and people with penises and people whose genitals don’t fit neatly into one of those two categories. Some people are into it sometimes, but don’t want or need it to be the “main event”, or to happen every time they have sex. For some it is pleasurable, but not orgasmic. For some people it is boring. For others it is painful. For some it is not physically possible.

Some people choose to do it and others don’t.

And some people choose to do it, for years, for decades, without wanting to or enjoying it, because the idea that that’s what sex is is so ingrained as to make opting out seem impossible. Which seems like an awful shame.

I realise I may be accused of being a nitpicker (and it wouldn’t be the first time), but because I respect the tone that your writers are clearly trying to create, I think it’s worth asking for some consistency. Your website helpfully tells me that the page in question is “due for review” in November 2015. I’ll be checking in.

Yours faithfully,

Kitty May

*I’ll write another letter soon about the inconsistencies I noticed between your obvious efforts to provide support and information for trans people, and the consistent equation of penis with “man” and vagina with “women” throughout most of the sexual health pages. Bet you can’t wait!

Please note: I think the NHS is amazing, and believe it deserves and needs the support of everyone in the UK.

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