Sexuality, and its absence or presence from our lives at any given moment, often affects the way we view ourselves, and how others view us. What we’d like our sexuality to look like often competes with what our sexuality actually looks like, and we live in a society that perpetuates this battle. From mainstream entertainment to social media, we are routinely bombarded with often contradictory messages regarding normative sexuality and what that is supposed to look like. Hook up too much and get slut-shamed, don’t hook up enough and get accused of being a prude.
In reaction to these dominant cultural messages, many resort to depicting their sexuality in a way that befits such ideas – even if that depiction is not wholly representative of one’s true sexual self.
Australian born author of The Sex Myth, Rachel Hills, discusses the significance of the language that we use to represent our sexual selves, and the effects that our words and culture have on our publicly perceived sexual personas.
At what point did you realize that the way you were thinking about sex was not serving you?
That’s a big question! My starting point with the book wasn’t a feeling that the way I thought about sex was “wrong,” necessarily. It was more a sense of not belonging that over a period of years became politicized. I was deeply ashamed of my sex and relationship experiences when I was in my late teens and early twenties. But where historically we’ve talked a lot about women being shamed for being sexual, I was ashamed because I felt like I wasn’t sexually experienced enough.
I’d grown up thinking of sex and romance as a given – you got to high school or university, got a boyfriend or girlfriend, and it all unfolded easily from there. And when it didn’t happen like that for me, my intuitive response was that there was something wrong with me – indiscernible to the naked eye, but there nonetheless.
It was the realization that there were lots of other people out there whose relationship histories didn’t look like a Sweet Valley High book or a Cosmo article – and that the feelings of not belonging and inadequacy I felt were shared even by people whose experiences were very different than my own – that led me to want to investigate more deeply the cultural narratives we are told about sex.
Where did this sense come from that people thought you were having more sex than you were?
[Laughs] Well, no one was actually saying to me, “Rachel, you’re having sex X amount of times per week.” But it was something that was broadly assumed of everyone. That if you were a functioning adult, you were sexually active – even though, statistically speaking, there are significant numbers of people – and young adults especially – who aren’t.
I remember the first time I felt self conscious about never having had sex was at a party when I was about 20, and a male friend asked me if I was a virgin. I told him I wasn’t going to answer that question, which then became my stock answer whenever someone directly asked me about my sex life. “That’s personal.” So maybe people did figure it out.
In The Sex Myth, you discuss that a lot of guys–and probably girls too–sometimes talk about sex in a somewhat braggy and exaggerated way, and that checking out prospective partners is a form of bonding for many friends.
Absolutely. I think that applies to all people, regardless of gender.
You go on to talk about how this can also be negative and produce a lot of false expectations about sex and attractability or desirability. Do you think we can retain that bonding experience without perpetuating false self images?
I think that the banter people have about sex is really fun. I enjoy it. It’s often pretty lighthearted; you’re not necessarily talking about what’s going on deep inside of your heart. It’s not a particularly vulnerable space, and I don’t think it’s a terribly authentic space, but it’s a fun space. I guess, part of the question there is, does every space have to be authentic? Maybe inauthenticity can be fun.
But how do you maintain that banter without holding up standards [about sex and desirability] that no one can really live up to?
It’s hard. About a month ago I was having lunch with a bunch of friends, two guys, two girls. And my female friend who was at the table hadn’t had sex in quite a while, it had been a few years. Sometimes that’s something she feels sad about, other times it’s something we laugh about together. Somehow we start talking about condoms.
As always seems to happen.
It just came up. We were talking about condom use and STIs, and I was talking about the pressure that some straight women experience to not use them, and I thought that this was bad, but on the other hand, that some women don’t want to use condoms either. And my friend said, “Yeah, I really hate them and I hate having to use them during casual sex.” Now, if you were any person at the table other than me, you probably would have walked away thinking that my friend has an active casual sex life. I’m not sure that’s what my friend intended to convey – she was probably just saying something that was true for her in a way that wouldn’t put all her cards on the table, but the underlying message was, “I have sex a lot.”
So, how could that conversation have unfolded differently? Maybe she could have followed up her comment with a laugh and said, “not that I’m getting laid that much anyway.” That’s still light, still funny, still banter. No one would have looked at her differently. My other friend at the table who isn’t getting laid much right now either probably would have chimed in and said, “me too!”
So adding that element of vulnerability could have even increased the level of bonding that was happening there.
Exactly. I remember hanging out with another group of people while I was writing the book, talking about stereotypes around female sexuality, and one of the women said she never wanted to be in a relationship where you only had sex three or four times a week.
Wow, that’s a big statement to make.
It could be a really genuine statement for her, and I assume it is. She probably just has a high sex drive! But I chimed in and said, “Well, for people in long term relationships, three or four times a week is actually quite a lot.” The other woman at the table literally breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Thank god, I was just thinking that.” I think that is sex positivity in a way – trying to create an environment where people feel comfortable being themselves when it comes to sex, whatever that might look like for them.
How do you think people can bring this humorous, accessible, vulnerability into casual conversations about sex and attractability?
Reading my book [laughs].
In order for people to feel comfortable making those sorts of interventions, you first need to understand that you’re not alone. You need to understand that not everyone is living up to – or even aspiring to – the same standards when it comes to sex and relationships, and that’s okay. For me, that came from a few things. First: statistics, and realizing that most people weren’t having as much or as glamorous sex lives as we are led to believe. Secondly: talking to a hell of a lot of people, first for my book and later for a column I wrote for Cosmopolitan.com over 2014-2015, and realizing that no matter how “vanilla” or “transgressive” people’s sex lives were, the basic human desire for love and acceptance was the same.
But I also think that just looking at sexuality through a social and political lens is helpful when it comes to self-acceptance. Which in turn makes it easier to interject on the behalf of others, and create a more supportive, inclusive environment for everyone.
And look – I’ve done plenty of bullshitting myself, which might be why I’m so aware of it when other people do it. Even when I hadn’t yet had sex, I was constantly engaging in sexual banter. I never directly said that I was having sex; I never said I hated condoms – because I had no experience with them [laughs] – but I definitely spoke about sex with a confidence and a forthrightness that suggested a great deal more experience than I actually had.
I remember at my 22nd birthday party, a male friend brought me a card that had a picture of a guy’s ass on it. The inscription read something like, “Some people would be offended by this, but I knew you wouldn’t be.” And I wasn’t offended by it, I thought it was funny. But clearly he had this perception of me of being this sexually confident, out there person, when really sex was something that I felt very vulnerable about.
So even you have fallen victim to The Sex Myth.
Obviously. Why else would I have written the book?