‘The first layer of the Sex Myth was the most obvious: the media myth of a hypersexual society…The second, less obvious, dimension of the Sex Myth was the cultural and emotional value invested in sex: the belief that sex was more special, more significant.’
Feminist and journalist Rachel Hills spent seven years researching the limits of our cultural understanding of sex. In what may bring huge relief to readers, the resulting book, The Sex Myth, proves through scientific and anecdotal evidence (Hills conducted almost a thousand interviews around the Western world) that when it comes to sex, there is no normal.
When Hills and I talk on the phone, it’s clear her experiences have fuelled her passion to deconstruct pressures to conform. ‘I look back at when I was young and think, “Why did I believe everything I read in Cosmo?”’ she laughs. ‘Pop culture is essentially stories that our society likes to tell. We see these same stories being told over and over.’
The Sex Myth examines representations of sex in TV and film – the mad dash to strip a boy of his virginity before the end of high school in American Pie, the romance in Gilmore Girls – and in non-fiction, too. She writes that in her early 20s, the media panic about promiscuous youths or the ‘aspirational hedonism’ of magazines didn’t look like the sex lives of her or her friends. Overwhelmingly, pop culture tells a single story about sex.
As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, the danger of a single story is that it is incomplete, and it becomes the only story we know how to tell. In this way, the depictions of sex in pop culture are a way of enforcing behaviour. The Sex Myth’s feminism understands pop culture as an instructive mechanism – and what we’re instructed to pursue is casual, frequent sex. Promiscuity, it seems, is the map to empowerment. In contrast to this, Hills tells me, ‘True freedom is the capacity to have whatever kind of sex life you like.’
Part of the beauty of The Sex Myth is that it unearths interviewees who, unlike in the single story, are experiencing a dry patch. ‘I think that going through periods of not much sex is a really normal part of life,’ Hills tells me. ‘It’s not mentioned in our society, and if it is mentioned it’s in a really freaky character – for example Ted in How I Met Your Mother.’
Some may interpret Hills’ work, which declares the prude just as empowered as the promiscuous, to be opposed to sex positivity. This feminist movement can be defined as regarding all consensual sexual activity to be healthy and good – but is often misconstrued. ‘The most common view of sex positivity,’ Hills tells me, ‘Is that their politics says sex is oppressed in our society and thus we should take it back and reclaim it. But they’re not saying that in order to be empowered, you need to be having lots of polyamorous or BDSM sex; they just want people to have the sex lives that are right for them.’
At its heart, that’s what The Sex Myth is all about: by exploring a diverse range of sex lives, Hills gives readers the critical skills to have sex without oppression, and the permission to do so without judgement.
What’s more, The Sex Myth resists choice feminism. One of the greatest flaws of this liberal ideology is the assumption that people act in a vacuum, and make choices free from expectations and norms. ‘When it comes to sexuality and empowerment,’ Rachel says, ‘Part of the problem is this idea that we have a choice in the first place.’
The emphasis on individual choice is a reflection of our capitalist society. Hills explores how this system influences our lives, and closely examines how our roles as consumers impact our sexual choices. ‘In this generation, post-1980, I think of us as being children of neoliberalism. It encompasses how we have been taught to think of ourselves and self-actualise.’
Hills’ book also examines the sense that sexual acts communicate personal taste and therefore perform identity; that our desirability is irrevocably linked to what we buy; and that sex is a path to status and self-worth.
The Sex Myth impacts men as well as women. Hills interviewed hundreds of men, and devotes a whole chapter to exploring masculinity. ‘It’s really problematic that sex is always framed as being an issue that concerns women,’ she says. ‘Men’s sexuality is treated as being natural – but men are influenced by culture as much as women are. It hurts us because we’re considered the aberrants that need to be constantly monitored, and it hurts men because they are not given any language or cultural space.’
Hills also sought out trans and queer perspectives – like interviewee Noah, a twenty-two-year-old trans man living in Seattle. She tells me that it was incredibly important to her that people like Noah were involved. ‘My book on sexuality is to appeal to people who believe their sexuality is marginalised in some ways, and that obviously includes people who are trans and queer,’ she says. ‘Part of the reason I was drawn to write the book was because the ideas I wanted to explore weren’t really coming up in feminist discourse.’
Hills’ work is important; as well as giving us the language to deconstruct enforced sexual norms, she allows us to discover the sex lives of hundreds of different people. And in this, The Sex Myth dismantles the single story.
Lou is an ambassador for The Sex Myth; her role involves starting a conversation about the many issues raised in the book. All views published here are her own.