A condensed version of this article was published at Junkee.
Writer Rachel Hills first began thinking about the ideas discussed in The Sex Myth: The Gap Between Our Fantasies & Reality, her first book released this Wednesday, in around 2007 or 2008. “There was a lot of stuff in the media about hookup and raunch culture and it painted a very exaggerated and hedonistic picture of young people and sex,” she says.
Hills’ sex life at the time didn’t look at all like what pop culture, like Gossip Girl and the Sex & the City movie, was telling her it should. To assuage her insecurities, she started writing on her blog, Musings of an Inappropriate Woman, and places like Vogue magazine about sex and found “lots of other people were feeling the same way, [and] that’s what inspired me to start looking seriously into those ideas.” After seven years of research and interviews spanning Australia, the U.K., Canada and college campuses in the U.S., The Sex Myth was born.
Currently living in New York, Hills is a veritable Carrie Bradshaw for a new generation, having parlayed her interest in The Sex Myth into a regular column for U.S. Cosmopolitan. She also tweets at @rachellhills.
I know you’ve spent at least seven years working on The Sex Myth. Can you give me a brief rundown of how the book went from concept to fruition?
I started thinking seriously about the ideas that are in The Sex Myth in about 2007/2008. There was a lot of stuff in the media about hookup and raunch culture and it painted a very exaggerated and hedonistic picture of young people and sex. I think most people have the media literacy to be able to look at articles that talk about 17-year-olds falling out of trees while they’re having sex or “g-stringed baboons in oestrus”, which is one of my favourite phrases, and understand that this is not what’s happening on most people’s’ Thursday or Friday or Saturday nights.
What was interesting to me was that those stories were the pointy end of the bigger narrative happening around sexuality in our culture. Even if we weren’t hearing these very exaggerated stories, the same narratives were being told in a more subtle, insidious way in magazines, on the web and in TV shows. So there was this overall picture of sex as something that was constantly available and of course you were doing it and if you weren’t doing it there was something wrong with you.
My personal interest in the subject came from the fact that my sex life didn’t look at all like that at the time and it was something that I felt a little uncomfortable about; like maybe there was something wrong with me. When I realised that lots of other people were feeling the same way, that’s what inspired me to start looking seriously into those ideas.
The case studies and the way you weave certain people’s stories throughout the book, like Portia, Courtney and Yusuf, lend a certain familiarity and an informality. Was that intentional?
It was really important to me that the book was accessible to its readers. I wanted to write a smart book, and in some ways it’s a very theoretical book in that it references Michel Foucault and Anthony Giddens, but I think that those theories are most useful when you can see how they apply to people’s everyday lived experiences. The case studies both give the reader a break in something that could otherwise be exhausting to read but it enables you to find yourself in other people.
What was the interview process like?
I just wanted to talk to anybody who wanted to talk to me! I wasn’t particularly fussy.
My main criteria when I started working on the book was age. The vast majority of the people interviewed in the book are in their twenties, ranging from 16 to 32 or 33 for the most part. The reason I decided to interview younger people primarily was mostly because I was quite young myself. When I started working on the book I was 25, and part of my question was around the portrayal of my generation’s sexualities which then became the scope of my research. I now feel like the book could have benefited from interviewing older people as well but that would have taken longer. It took eight years to start with so it’s probably best to limit the sample to some extent!
The people I interviewed in the book are from Australia, the U.S., the U.K. and Canada. The reason I spoke to people in those countries is because we share a common language and that enables a similarity of culture. When the language changes, often social ideals and standards change as well.
In chapter three you talk about asexuality. Last year Time magazine declared a “transgender tipping point”. Though one is about gender identity and the other sexual orientation or preference, do you think we’re close to an asexuality tipping point where people might start to understand what asexuality is?
Five years ago would we have known that trans issues would be such a big part of the conversation around gender and sexuality? Not necessarily because those issues were much more marginal then.
I wonder, what would an asexuality tipping point look like? If it means a discussion of asexuality in the media, then I feel like we’ve already been there. What’s most important in understanding asexuality as a sexual orientation is to come to an acceptance that sex isn’t this constant thing that everybody is always doing and thinking about and at the centre of everybody’s lives. Like gender, sexuality is a spectrum, so it’s not just that you’re sexual, so you’re constantly humping people, or asexual, and you have no interest at all. We all sit along different points of it and I would like to see an acceptance of the fact that we all have a different interest in sex and access to sex and we don’t all want to lead the same kind of sex life.
And a difference interest in sex throughout different points in our lives.
Exactly. When I was doing some of my more academic research, I came across a couple of sociologists from the U.S. who were doing most of their publishing in the 1970s called John Gagnon—great name!—and William Simon. They were the first people to look at sex as a social activity. One of the points they look at is the fact that sexual desire does change throughout the life cycle. Sex can feel incredibly urgent in youth, the early years of a relationship or when having an extramarital affair. But there are other times in your life when sex falls into the background and other things might be a priority.
There’s a portion on beauty and how being beautiful not only makes you desirable to others and in turn makes them desirable but that a certain level of beauty makes people think you’re sexual, even if you’re not. Does beauty take the power structure of sex to another level?
The relationship between desire and desirability is the core of The Sex Myth. If you want to succeed in any one aspect of the contemporary sexual ideal probably the most important are being desirable and desiring. First you have to want sex, then you have to be attractive enough to get it.
There was a lot of talk from your subjects about who chooses whom when it comes to sex. Ashley says “you want to appear like you are choosing to sleep with the other person, not like they are choosing to sleep with you” while later in the book Brit says “if a guy wasn’t having sex, people figured it was because he chose not to. Whereas if a girl wasn’t having sex, the only explanations were that she was religious or because she was undesirable.” It reminds me of Jersey Shore, for example, when the guys were lauded for picking up as many chicks as possible but the women were called sluts when their sluttiness actually enabled the men to get some! Can you unpack these double standards a little further?
I don’t know if Brit’s point necessarily reflects my own experiences and observations, but if we take it as being true, she is inverting the expectations. So instead of being slut-shamed, like the girls in Jersey Shore, she is shamed for not being attractive enough to get a man in that heterosexual situation.
One of the things I talk about in the book is that the feminine ideal that women are aspiring to is not this pure, submissive virgin/wife character that women might have been taught to aspire to in times past. It’s someone who is self-actualised and in control, as Ashley spoke about, and who has sexual agency, who wants and likes sex. This new feminine ideal where we’re expected to desire sex still happens primarily in relation to other people. As a society we’re largely for it for women, but it still seems to be more responsive; so her desiring sex means that she says yes to somebody when they want to have sex with her. There’s still a taboo around female masturabation or owning a vibrator because they’re associated with female desire and getting off because you want to not because you want to please your partner.
In chapter five you talk about masculinity and sexual assault. How important was it for The Sex Myth to explore “the rape myth” that certain kinds of women/people can’t be raped?
Rape culture is obviously a huge issue within feminist debate at the moment. There are some really great thinkers—Clementine Ford in Australia comes immediately to mind and in the U.S. Kate Harding has a book on rape culture coming out a couple of weeks after mine—working on that issue. Rape culture is only one part of the politics of sex and what I wanted to do with the book is take a very broad view of how we’re expected to be sexual beyond the gendered politics of sexuality in which men behave one way and women behave another so I wanted to go beyond that but I was conscious that there were other people who were doing it really well.
Men bragging about how many women they’ve slept with solidifies heterosexuality. Do you think “bromance” movies like Magic Mike XXL play into and/or subvert “masculine straightjackets”, as you call them, and if so, how?
The “masculine straightjacket” is this idea that in order to be a “real man” you have to behave in a certain way. You have to be sporty, good with women, tough, you can’t show emotion, you can’t be a girl and you can’t be gay, because those things are treated as the opposite of what a real man is.
In terms of Magic Mike XXL, I think it does challenge some conventional aspects of masculinity. I like that the men in Magic Mike are in some ways incredibly masculine and stereotypically heterosexual but they’re also allowed to have this softness to them. They’re allowed to do things, maybe because they’re so conventionally masculine in other ways, like be into yoga or dance to the Backstreet Boys, that aren’t considered a threat to their masculinity. But on the other hand, they’re still fist bumping about the women they’re picking up and their masculinity is still very much derived from their success with women so I’m not sure that it completely challenges it; it’s still very conventional in a lot of ways.
I don’t talk about this in the book, but I met an academic from Connecticut recently, Christin Munsch, who’s looked at how men are able to play with and challenge masculinity. The interesting thing she found in her research is that guys whose masculinity isn’t going to be called into question—who are socially powerful or considered to be attractive by most people—actually have the most latitude to challenge other forms of masculinity. So men at the top of the social strata are most able to challenge things and men in the middle, who might be more insecure about themselves, might be more likely to cling to the “masculine straightjacket”. So Magic Mike is very much in line with Munsch’s research.
Have you seen Trainwreck?
Not yet, but I love Amy Schumer so I’m planning on seeing it at some point. I’ve heard about the narrative the film takes [damaged, promiscuous woman is saved by good man] which is weird because it’s not what you would expect from Amy Schumer. She proudly and deliberately talks about the fact that she is sexually active and that she has slept with a lot of people in situations that some people would consider to be unsavoury or promiscuous and reclaiming that is a big part of her work. So it’s kind of strange that this film would follow that conventional narrative. I wonder if that’s just about the rom-com format; it’d be pretty hard to create one that doesn’t end like that. It’d be pretty cool, though.
It might also be that it wouldn’t have gotten greenlit if it didn’t have that fairytale ending…
That’s a great point. Because films do need a large number of people to see them, compared to books! They really do have to appeal to a broad audience.
I watched a couple of interviews with Amy that have gone viral and I know that she really rejects the idea that that character is damaged. I think she said in that interview with KIIS FM that she thought of the character as someone who was having fun and [the character] didn’t think of herself as damaged. And then things change and she falls in love hence that conventional happy ending.
Something that I was aware of with The Sex Myth is that I wanted to veer away as much as possible from this narrative that people’s sex lives weren’t up to scratch but then something happened and oh, they’re having great sex. It’s a trap I fall into a little bit in the book but it’s really hard not to because those are the stories people tell about their own lives. We all like to tell our stories about our happy endings. I once was lost but now I’m found. Things used to be bad, now they’re better. That narrative of we’ll be happy in the end when we find a nice man or woman to be with is as much entrenched in our culture as the narratives that I talk about in The Sex Myth.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.