We’ve come a long way from the repressed Victorian middle-class mores that led us to think that sexual desires and expression were dirty, sinful or evidence of mental illness. There is still a long way to go before we have total acceptance of all sexual and gender identities, but we’ve become much more free and open in, and much less afraid of, exploring ways to be sexual
In Rachel Hills’ book The Sex Myth, she describes this as “the source of our downfall and freedom”. When how you ‘do’ sex and sexuality can reflect every possible connotation – transgression and obedience, resistance and submission, freedom and oppression – there comes with it the concomitant fear that we might be doing it wrong.
Hills examines and deconstructs the social and cultural norms that lead us, in English-speaking nations – particularly the US, Canada, Australia and the UK – to believe that our sexual desires and behaviours are such a critical part of our identity, that failure to match or exceed our expectations causes significant anxiety.
So what, exactly, is the Sex Myth? Hills says that “at the heart of the sex myth is the idea that sex is unlike any other facet of human life: more powerful, more transcendent, and an expression of more authentic truth than any other activity.” She goes on to show throughout the rest of the book the ways this manifests – particularly through interviews with people in their teens and twenties – as a fear that the individual’s sex life is not an accurate reflection of who they are, or what they should be.
Interviewees’ concerns mainly centred around thinking they were missing out by not having any, or enough, sex, or that the sex they were having wasn’t the sort they were supposed to have, given their self-identity. For example, people who valued purity and virginity ‘accidentally’ having sex, or very sex-positive people whose sex lives were non-existent or not sufficiently adventurous. Whatever you’re doing or not doing, Hills observes, you can’t really win.
Hills uses her interviews to illuminate how the Sex Myth ties into consumer culture, attractiveness, gender performance and romantic relationships. All these elements unify to reveal the Sex Myth as a regulatory force, and one to which we readily subscribe because there are rewards for buying into it.
If we aren’t straight, we have to struggle with how we fit into the received paradigm, and if we are in a relationship that “looks” right, sex becomes the place where we expect the magic to happen
She begins with consumer culture, which “facilitates desire by infusing everything it encounters with meaning.” Everything from your shoes to your music library is external proof of who you really are. So “consumer sex promises that we will discover ourselves through sex. Who we sleep with, what we desire, and the acts we engage in are all part of a broader expression of personal taste.” Which is true, but since we’ve already culturally decided that it’s the ultimate expression of our identity, to have the wrong kind or amount of sex is a kind of personal failure, something to be obsessed over: something to be ‘fixed’.
Why is this mission so critical? Because it ties into how we measure attractiveness, and thereby perceived value. There are psychological and social benefits to being considered attractive, and being desired by those you desire is an affirmation of this value.
We learn very early on that, particularly for women, being pretty is important. Hills references Emily Armstrong who wrote Pretty Is a Set of Skills. Making the effort to be pretty can be a way of indicating sexual availability. By dressing in a way that aims for “mass-approved hotness”, the effort itself is “attractive not only for its aesthetics but because it suggests one might be open to sex.”
Being hot, then, is part of a behavioural package showing that we are ready to go. Some of Hills’ interviewees admit to often acting out desire – always having a boyfriend, always pulling at the club – even when they have zero sexual interest in the other party, because it is so important for them to be seen desiring and being desired in return. It’s all performance, for the sake of maintaining the identity of being sexual.
This aspect ties neatly into the gender performance part of the Sex Myth. Hills notices this both in gay and straight communities (N.B. In this case the term ‘gay’ is used to denote gay men, and not necessarily other groups in the LGBTQ+ community) – there is a very clearly defined way of being masculine or feminine in one’s sexuality, and this ties into the larger gender binary which feminism so often confronts. ‘Masculine’ sexuality “is framed as something that just ‘is’ – an uncomplicated biological urge” which creates pressure to exhibit desire and sexual intent, but also goes unexamined due to its supposed simplicity. ‘Feminine’ sexuality is seen as an opposite – complicated and mysterious, and with the duty to play “the role of the sexual sentry, of saying no however much you might want to say yes.” The kind of sexual expression we’re attracted to is also linked to that binary.
The author notices two related, very gender-specific behaviours; one is from a 2007 study that shows the “girl hunt” as a social ritual of male bonding in college-age men. At first blush, this seems offensive, akin to the street harassment that’s about men looking “alpha” to their friends and relying on the silence of women to reinforce this. However, when Hills later observes that women have a parallel inclination – talking about boys/men as a way of bonding that begins in childhood, “a social theatre that continues into adulthood” – it’s clear that the underlying drive is the same.
Because of how the Sex Myth tells us we are meant to express our sexuality, our sexual “role” is something of a common denominator, and therefore a shared experience we can use to relate to other people of the same gender and sexual orientation. However, this is also something that works between genders and sexual orientations. I certainly use talking about relationships as a way of bonding with people; it’s the implication of shared emotional vulnerability that is at the core, not whether I’m talking to or about men or women. It’s the presumption of romantic relationships as universal that makes them common ground.
This is where Hills brings media and pop culture into play. While there are obviously plenty of films, novels and songs about things other than romantic love, our culture makes it clear that there is something different and special about romance. Hills reports on a 2009 study that shows children’s films contain implied messages about sexuality: “heterosexual romance [is] portrayed as ‘magical’, ‘exceptional’ and ‘transformative.’” She suggests that our culture “teaches us that romantic relationships are the most interesting types of relationships there are, and that these exciting connections properly unfold between girls and boys.” Before we reach adolescence, we’re full of received ideas about heteronormative romantic relationships: how they’re not just the most important relations we’ll have, but will also dramatically affect who we are – for the better.
As we reach sexual maturity, this is translated into our expectations for ourselves within romantic relationships. If we aren’t straight, we have to struggle with how we fit into the received paradigm, and if we are in a relationship that “looks” right, sex becomes the place where we expect the magic to happen.
We then have all the added weight of the Sex Myth to make us doubt it – if we don’t feel magical, exceptional and transformed, maybe we’re doing it wrong: we can’t just have sex, we have to be good at it. Non-performance is pathologized, either as a reflection of physical dysfunction or some deep problem within the relationship. Anything less than a high sex drive is something to remedy. The problem, Hills writes, “is not that we are ‘doing it wrong.’ It is that we have been told that there are only a handful of very specific ways to do it right.”
Hills suggests the most insidious thing about the Sex Myth, and the source of its tenacity, is that “believing in the Sex Myth can be a lot of fun.” By buying into the various ideas about its importance it means that doing it becomes more exciting – when we succeed in fulfilling whatever expectations we have for ourselves, there is a high psychological reward. But Hills warns that this is ultimately more damaging than pleasurable, because of the way it transforms acts into identities, “weighing down our sexual desires and histories with an excess of significance.” And to fight it, to escape its power, we have to realise and embrace the truth that our sex life is not who we are – and it is not the only road to transformation or self-actualisation.
Some reviewers have made hay out of the idea that Hills’ book is saying most people have way less sex than everyone assumes. This is not her point
What’s interesting about this is that we are to a large extent defined by our actions, so there is logic and a kind of truth behind the Sex Myth. Who we desire and what we desire, and more importantly how we act on those desires, are all part of who we are. The distinction Hills makes is in showing that we may be hiding our true desires, or lack thereof, because of the cultural expectations of what our sexual behaviours ‘should’ be. By analysing the Sex Myth, Hills hopes that we can uncover the ways in which it is stopping us from accepting ourselves, and let go of the grip it may have on our hearts and minds.
The Sex Myth is a fascinating read and, by highlighting individual voices and experiences, Hills is able to cover a wide range of ways in which expectations and judgments are formed around sex and sexuality. In addition to the larger points above, she covers politics, class and slut-shaming, among others. The breadth of the work means that it’s more of a survey and starting point for deeper analysis than a truly in-depth look at each element, but this is an intelligent and well-observed beginning.
Hills covers a lot of ground, but it is a real criticism that I felt the absence of discussion of race, people with disabilities and sexual and physical identities outside of male and female, gay and straight. She does nod briefly to non-English-speaking nations, though that too is beyond the remit of the book. It would have made for a longer text, but these should have been addressed.
One thing it’s key to point out, that Hills notes towards the end of her book, is that the age bracket of her interviewees is hugely relevant. Once people get into their 30s and beyond, there is less anxiety about sexual behaviour and taste failing to reflect identity. Generally speaking, this might apply to every kind of identity angst – part of growing older is learning to accept yourself as you are, and understanding the ways in which the expectations we form at a younger age can be based on stereotype and generalisation.
While the Sex Myth doubtlessly affects all of us at any age, it is most strongly tied in to the overall search for identity and self-actualisation that runs from adolescence to late twenties. This is not to say that older readers wouldn’t benefit from reading – indeed, I found myself often nodding in recognition, and certainly have received ideas about what my sex life should look like and definitely doesn’t – but that perhaps those in their teens and twenties would gain the most.
I hope the Sex Myth as an idea comes into common parlance as another branch of the patriarchy/kyriarchy, because as Hills portrays it, it is excellent shorthand for expressing the ways in which we’re taught to think about what our sex lives should look like, and the internalised and social judgment it creates. Some reviewers have made hay out of the idea that Hills’ book is saying most people have way less sex than everyone assumes. This is not her point. The point is that we imbibe a myriad of ideas about what sex should be, instead of letting ourselves want what we want. Less, more, outside, inside, with one person or a thousand people – none of this should have a value judgment attached. It just is. And that’s ok.
Pictured is an image of the front cover of The Sex Myth. The title and the author’s name, Rachel Hills, are picked out in red against a beige background. In between the title and the author’s name is a sub-title, which reads: ‘The Gap Between Our Fantasies and Reality’. The image is taken from goodreads.com and used with permission.