Jessica Gross | Longreads | August 2015 | 14 minutes (3,532 words)
Rachel Hills’ first book, The Sex Myth, presents a radical deconstruction of our cultural narratives about sex. Hills, an Australian journalist and blogger who lives in New York, argues that we have imbued sex with undue meaning, treating it as one of the most important markers of our identities. This overemphasis, she writes, is the root of both our fear of sex as a dangerous force and our lionization of it as a vital act. Moreover—and this is the part I found most revelatory—Hills describes how we have moved from decrying promiscuity as dirty to treating sex as a source and symbol of liberation to, now, upholding sexual adventurousness as the ultimate good. Being promiscuous and adventurous in bed, she argues, has transformed from being an option to an obligation. Conversely, having vanilla tastes, or a seemingly less-than-exciting sex life, has come to be regarded as a badge of shame. Hills’ wish: that we treat all sexual appetites and practices (including not having sex) as legitimate and, further, that we deemphasize sex’s role in our self-definition.
Hills and I—who work in the same writers’ co-working space in downtown Manhattan—wandered to Washington Square Park on a hot afternoon in June. We discussed her writing process, delved into the theory of her book, and talked about grade school crushes.
This book was seven years in the making. Could you start by telling me how the idea first came to you, and whether it then took a while to get the guts to pursue it as a project?
When I was 24, I was walking home from a party with a friend one night in Sydney, having a casual conversation. My friend is a very outspoken, forthright person, so she just turns to me and says in this kind of outraged-at-herself way, “Rachel, can you believe that next month it’ll be two years since I’ve had sex and one year since I’ve kissed anyone?”
I think I tried to play it cool at the time, but it was a revolutionary moment for me. I had, to some extent, bought into this idea that we have about people in their twenties, and single people, and the kinds of sex lives that they have. Even though my sex life was very barren—nothing to write home about, or to write about in a book—I assumed that most other people I knew had sex lives that were very different. So the fact that this girl, who I considered to be really cool, was admitting she had a sex life that did not fit our culture’s idea of what cool is, was really interesting to me and unexpected.
How did you go from that recognition to deciding to write about this issue publicly, in a book? I’d imagine that to be a little nerve-wracking, because you’re in some sense inviting the judgment that you’re writing about.
I guess that’s one good thing about it having taken such a long time, because at the time that I had the idea, my sex life was for me one of my greatest sources of shame. It was one of the things that I definitely did not want to talk about with other people. But I was a freelance journalist at the time and, as you know, when you’re a freelance journalist, you are constantly looking for things to write about. Another friend of mine, an indie publisher, was doing an anthology of essays by 20-something writers about sex, and I said, “I have this idea. Let’s talk about how we’re not having all the sex that we think we’re supposed to be.”
I created a LiveJournal survey, through which I heard from a whole bunch of people about what their sex lives were like. Writing that article was quite invigorating. People were really into talking to me about it—not just the people who I was interviewing or surveying, but, you know, you’re out at coffee with your friends and you talk about what you’re working on and suddenly they’ll tell you about the aspects of their sex lives that aren’t living up to the ideal. By about six months after that first conversation, I knew that I wanted to write a book.
Was any part of you was nervous about the feedback you’d receive?
It’s definitely been an evolution in terms of being more open about that stuff. Throughout the entire time that I wasn’t having sex, I would talk about it with my close friends, but it’s certainly not something I was advertising. And it’s really only through the long process of writing the book and becoming more comfortable with myself, because I’ve aged as well, that with people who I am close friends with and then sometimes less close friends with I’ll just blurt out the actual facts of my life because I don’t think there should be judgment attached to it.
The book features a ton of material from interviews with young men and women about their sex lives. How did you find your interviewees?
I think my approach to researching the book was quite academic in a lot of ways. I don’t have a Ph.D., but I did enroll in a Ph.D. program in order to write the book. I think that that was a really useful process to go through, because I think if you’re writing about complex ideas, you should understand where your ideas fit. And I couldn’t have written the book I had without the academic research.
After I did that first article and the little exploratory survey, I spent probably about a year and a half in the library—not non-stop, I had a job as well—reading all of this academic work around sexuality. I was taking these kernels of gut instincts that I had, which at the time concerned how we’re sold this false idea of how young people have sex, and trying to understand how people were engaging with those discourses. It was probably in about 2009 that I started doing the earliest interviews, and those were in Australia. I did maybe forty interviews there, and then I moved to London and started writing a book proposal based on all the academic reading that I’d done and those interviews. By that stage, around 2010, I had a very strong idea of what the theory of the Sex Myth was. After I sold the book at the end of 2011, I did all my American and my British interviews. By then, the sell was that I’m writing a book for Simon & Schuster about young people and sexuality looking at these various ideas, who wants to talk to me. And fortunately, very, very many people did.
I did about two hundred interviews in total—I did interviews over the phone, I did interviews in person, I traveled around the U.S. even before I was living here. I think I visited 20 cities in 35 days or something.
Why did you decide to focus on millennials?
Well, it’s because I was 25 when I started working on the book. I was young, and there was this huge public discussion about young people and sexuality, probably even more than there is now. It was a huge subject of public panic. Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs had come out a couple of years before, and I don’t think that book was intended to create panic, but I do think that’s how the media responded to it. There was this whole discourse of, “Young people are so raunchy now”—a panic about young people having all this casual sex on college campuses. I didn’t believe those discourses, necessarily. But it was interesting to see that they were in great contrast to the experiences that I was having and the experiences that the people around me were having.
So I wanted to say, well, what’s really happening? That’s part of why I focused on millennials. I recognize in some respects it is a shortcoming of the book to have focused on young people; it’s not like older people don’t have sex lives. But I do wonder if perhaps the people who are in their twenties are more likely to be grappling with the kinds of questions that I raise in the book, whereas I think for the most part, when people get a little older, they’ve often dealt with questions about the role sex plays in their lives.
To get into the Sex Myth itself, part of what you explain is that we have vast misperceptions of how much sex other people are having. One survey you reference found that 40 percent of respondents had hooked up with three or fewer people throughout college, and that one in five hadn’t hooked up in college at all. You then take it further: not only do we think that people are having tons more sex than they really are, but we attach a moral value to sexual openness and performance. We used to uphold being pure and chaste, and now it’s not just that we accept promiscuity and adventurousness, it’s that it has become the new imperative.
I think of the Sex Myth as the weight that we attach to sex, and this idea that whatever we do when it comes to sex has huge meaning and is greatly significant. Sex is the window into our attractiveness, sex is the greatest pleasure that we can have, sex is a measure of how intimate our relationships are and how intimate other people want to be with us.
But then on the flip side, we’ve also got this idea that sex is terribly dangerous and if people are doing it in the wrong way, terrible things will befall our society. In our society, we often think of those two threads—the celebration of sex and the condemnation of it—as being the opposite of one another. But what I argue is they’re actually two parts of the same force, which is this idea, as I say, that whatever we do in relation to sex is really significant and holds this heavy weight. That makes it harder for many of us to behave sexually in a way that is true for us, or to do that without anxiety.
So what is our motivation for believing this so strongly? How does this belief system benefit us?
Well, I think the benefit is that it’s kind of fun and romantic and dramatic. It’s very exciting to think of sex as this overpowering force. To some extent it is a reality of sex: being attracted to somebody and having sex with them, particularly for the first time, is really exciting both psychologically and hormonally. And partly that’s because of the huge significance that we have attached to sex and sex-related acts, like kissing, but also it’s just because it releases a whole bunch of really exciting hormones and you hopefully get orgasms out of it and that’s really great as well.
And then of course there are the biological results that can happen of heterosexual sex. In the majority of human history, without reliable birth control, having sex has been this really risky thing. And so you can see why people would think it was dangerous and why they would want to control it and why it would be mythologized as this really powerful force.
Necessarily, there will be backlash, as there is when anyone writes something that is at all controversial. Are you a person who’s sensitive to that kind of thing?
Unfortunately, yes. [Laughs] But I am prepared for this book to make people angry on both the right and on the left. That’s disappointing, because particularly when you’re inside of politics, you want people to like you and agree with you. But the reality is that whatever it is that you believe ends up being reduced to a sound bite, and people will dislike what you do sometimes based on the substance of it, but sometimes it’s based on an interpretation and a gut instinct.
I’m wondering what the feminist response will be, because I feel like some parts of the feminist world are very invested in the importance of sex as a source of liberation. And you’re kind of saying, well, this is actually unhelpful.
Mmhm. But, on the other hand, I’m not saying that it’s unhelpful to have lots of sex or to have casual sex or to be sexy. Those things are all fine and they can be empowering and liberating on an individual level. I think what isn’t helpful is the idea that this is what empowerment looks like, and this is what you have to be doing, and if you’re not, then there is something wrong with you or you’re being repressed. It’s just a slightly more expansive view of sexual freedom. And while there are absolutely some feminists who will disagree with that, I also think that it’s a view of sexual freedom that feels really intuitive to people younger than me who I speak to.
In the book, you write that we’ve come to think being desirable will protect us from pain. I think that’s very true.
Particularly when I was younger, whenever I felt more insecure I’d put more effort into trying to be attractive. If I look back on my younger, sexually insecure self, I’d be like, “Stop bleaching your hair and stop starving yourself. This stuff doesn’t necessarily make you more attractive.” To get all Brené Brown on you—
Go for it.
—it is embracing your vulnerability that allows you to connect with people, not putting up this front of, “Oh, I am so hot, I could have whoever I want, I don’t need you.”
One fun fact that I really enjoyed is that quick ejaculation used to be upheld as exemplary.
I mean, I don’t know if it was upheld as exemplary from a pleasure perspective, but I say Kinsey regarded the premature ejaculator as being a superior male for evolutionary reasons. Evolutionarily, it makes sense: you’re able to spread your seed really quickly and get the job done. And probably, if you rewind to much earlier days of humankind, before we had sex in nicely protected rooms, if there’s a predator coming to attack you, it’s much more handy to be able to get it done in ninety seconds rather than twenty minutes.
It was also really interesting to me to discover that the time in which the average man takes to ejaculate has expanded a lot. As far as I’m aware, sociologists haven’t looked into why that is, but it seems to me it’s a response to the social norm, to what’s desirable.
You write a lot about the connection between the Sex Myth and commodity.
Yes. Sex can be a way in which we express who we are symbolically, like the clothes we wear or the music we listen to. So I think a lot of the anxiety that people have around sex—are they doing it right, are they doing it wrong—comes down to this idea that sex reveals the type of person we are, that it’s this immensely revealing act.
Sex is something that you can perform, and it’s not just the performance of pleasure for your partner, it’s a performance in itself. And I think particularly in the more instructional media we have about sex in our society, it’s often packaged as part of a broader picture of how we present ourselves. You have the right job, you have the right high heels—this is obviously very feminine, but maybe that’s why women worry about it way more than men—you have the right body, you have a really active social life and you also have a really awesome sex life, because it’s part of this idea of what it means to be a hip, successful person.
You talk about young girls who have crushes, and point it out as an extension of the wider cultural obsession with sex and its meaning. But I remember having very intense crushes when I was in second grade, and I don’t think it was simply a response to what I saw in the culture.
Well, yes, children obviously through time have explored each other’s bodies and had curiosities. So I’m certainly not denying that young people have sexuality. Back when I was in kindergarten I had crushes on three boys, and I left little notes in their lockers.
What did the notes say?
One of them was a picture of a cake, which I had drawn, and I wrote “happy” at the top. My mom was like, “He’ll think it’s his birthday if you draw a cake and write ‘happy’.” [Laughter] So I was definitely aware of boys, right? But I guess it’s like that with adult sexuality. Adults have sexuality, but adult sexuality is shaped by society and culture as well. And I do think that when I had crushes on boys in kindergarten, when I was five, I had no desire to have sex with them or to look at their penises or anything. It was five-year-old desire. But I also think it’s learned. What girls are participating in, I think, more so than sexuality, is bonding with each other. And I also think that little girls have grown up with fairy tales and boys and Prince Charming. One of the things I wondered about when I was writing that chapter was, what happens to little lesbian girls? They probably still have to talk about liking boys; you’re not going to be talking about the girl you have a crush on. Maybe in the next generation, they will.
The Sex Myth is a grand, overarching, cultural theory. When you cite individual examples, you do so in the context of that theory, but I wondered how you considered the effects of individual psychic histories. For example, you describe a woman named Natalie, who believes she needs to be superhuman in order to be attractive: someone who never smells bad, never says the wrong thing, never has a hair out of place. She is a perfectionist. When I read that, it seemed clear it was coming from someplace much deeper and more raw, that it had to do with the way in which she was raised, not just her existence in this culture.
The thing is, these statements are not all of how we feel, and often we can feel two particular ways at the same time. So having interviewed Natalie, I can say she’s had lots of sex and lots of people have found her attractive. So obviously, on some level, she understands that people are attracted to her, but when she’s grappling with things, she feels like what is attractive is somebody who is perfectly desirable.
And obviously, also, there are some people I’ve interviewed who are totally psychologically well adjusted and are not at all influenced by the Sex Myth. They have normative sex lives, most of the time, which enables them to feel more comfortable with things. And probably, the Sex Myth affects neurotics more than it affects other people. So I’m not saying it’s a universal thing. But I think that it’s common enough, and perhaps what’s common is the sense of difference that people who aren’t living up to the norm, in whatever way, feel. And there are lots of people who aren’t living up to the norm in infinite numbers of ways. Anyone who has ever felt like a loser because of their sex life, that’s who this book is for. If you feel totally well adjusted, and have always loved your sex life, then maybe this book is not for you.
That is such an interesting statement, that neurotics are probably affected more. I think it’s probably true that neurotic people, who have a relatively unstable sense of self, more easily absorb any kind of overarching cultural ideal because it’s a replacement for self-definition.
Yeah, exactly. But I think regardless of the individual’s reaction to it, I think it is true that our society tells us that we’re supposed to be sexual in particular types of ways, that whether we’re in a relationship or we’re single, we’re supposed to be desirable, we’re supposed to be seeking out sex—not too much, because that will make you desperate, but sex is supposed to be on our radar. If we’re in a relationship, we’re supposed to be working to have an interesting sex life, although of course ideally that would happen automatically.
I think that those things are true and I think that it’s true that our culture alternately elevates and demonizes sex. The impact that that has on the individual is obviously going to differ from person to person and I pick the most interesting people, and the people who it affects quite acutely, and whose stories illustrate that.
* * *
Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York City.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.