Before Rachel Hills lost her virginity at the age of 26, she was consumed by thoughts of sex: What would it tell her about who she was, and why hadn't it happened yet? Was there something deeply wrong with her?
Like many other virgins after doing the deed, Hills was relieved but hardly transformed: Sex had not offered her some new window of truth into her identity. Nor had she been defective, she realized: "It wasn't sex that was the problem but the importance that I, and so many others, had attached to it," Hills, an Australian journalist writes in her new book The Sex Myth: The Gap Between our Fantasies and Reality.
Hills's experience of feeling unnecessarily ashamed about her sex life (or lack therof) motivated her to find out what her peers are actually going through when it comes to their own intimate histories. The first-time author interviewed more than 200 women and men (straight, gay and culturally diverse millennials, mostly) and found that, whether they were having lots of sex or none at all, many felt they fell short. Through her fieldwork she discovered that, even though we know very little about the sex lives of others in our midst, we're increasingly assuming that they're having better sex and more of it than they really are.
While sexual liberation jettisoned restraining edicts, such as sex among marrieds is for reproduction only, it has spawned a new set of problems, Hills argues. The new rules, implicit and explicit, have us fixating on how often we're having sex, the quality of that sex and what it all says about us and our relationships. Today's "sex myth" says we fail if we're not sexually active, have too few partners or aren't sufficiently skilled in bed. Casual sex and creative experimentation – think porn-like positions – are being pushed in the name of unrelenting "sex positivity."
Hills believes this modern cultural and social investment in sex comes at some cost. Through her interviews, she found people were making a lot of aspirational comparisons – and downgrading their sexual experiences as a result. For some who were single and dating, it meant having sex with partners they felt indifferently toward to up their "count," or engaging in sex acts they didn't particularly enjoy to prove they were not inhibited. While she isn't anti-sex, Hills opposes treating sexual performance as another measure on which we can fail – it's not exactly liberal if it's this prescriptive.
"You are not your sex life," is her message to women and men alike.
She observes that all of these new conventions still run alongside older codas: witness "slut shaming," which is still alive and well at high schools and on college campuses. Problematically, the pendulum has swung both ways simultaneously: some are shamed for being too sexual and others for not being rapacious enough. The Globe spoke with Hills, now 33 and married, about reframing the stories we tell about sex.
What are the core messages of the "sex myth," as you describe it?
We live in a society where we're told that the way we have sex is really important. It's treated as a barometer of how well your relationship is going and if you're single, a measure of your desirability. It defines our value and who we are. The rules under which you're supposed to behave change according to what's idealized in society at any given point in time. Today, it's expected that you're doing it regularly, putting effort into it, finding ways to improve your technique and being adventurous. This is treated as progressive and positive.
So how does this approach "regulate" our lives negatively?
If you believe that what you do in your sex life says something very important about your desirability, your coolness, your relationships and your health, the decisions you make when it comes to sex are going to be heavily weighted – emotionally and symbolically. But most people are not meeting the ideal, in one way or another, and this can come at emotional and psychological cost. It can feel deeply like there is something wrong with you.
You dug up a Finnish study that found, as sex positivity took hold in that society, people's personal dissatisfaction with their own sex lives also went up. How does that work?
Sometimes, unintentionally, the celebration of sex's pleasures can produce more rules about what you're supposed to do. Are you having enough sex per week? If you're single, are you regularly dating and seeking a partner and having at least some sexual contact? Are you having good enough orgasms? If you're a man, are you able to hold off your orgasm for long enough? This appreciation of sex can turn into implicit or explicit rules that the sex must be fantastic or at least be happening.
But you found that many people have far less sex than we'd assume.
It's more that people have all different types and amounts of sex, but we're sold this single story about how sex should happen and how often it should happen. Part of my impetus to write the book was the moral panic around hookup culture. We've heard the story of twentysomethings being incredibly debauched and having more sex than ever. When you look at the actual statistics or talk to real people that turns out not to be true.
We're seeing fresh anxieties around performance and what it means to be "normal." How did you see the sex myth playing into the recent approval of Addyi, a new libido pill for women, in the United States?
It's very much a part of the story. The drug medicalizes a normal human variation – that different people want to have sex in different amounts. What this drug is designed to do is make you want more sex if you don't feel like you want enough. But then the question is, what is the proper amount of sex to want? That's a very difficult thing to quantify and to medicalize. The drug taps into concerns that many of the young women I spoke to already had. They had this clear sense of how much sex they should be having. Internally, they felt it should be at least two to three times a week, which, if you're a woman who reads lifestyle media, is the number you've been hearing all your life is "normal."
Aren't big hit shows such as Inside Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham's Girls challenging that idealized sexual script? Very often they present sex as underwhelming – when it actually happens at all.
Comedy is a fantastic tool to challenge the sex myth not just on the grand, pop-cultural scale but also in our everyday interactions. Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, Mindy Kaling and Tina Fey challenge this through self-deprecating humour, which adds a dimension of honesty. Mindy Kaling is my favourite on this. She has quite a lot of sexual partners and has described herself as sex positive. But she's also joked about not having had sex for the first time till she was 23. It gives permission to be multiple ways within the same person.
You write that your sexual history doesn't accurately reflect the person you are inside; you personally are more gregarious. Is it important that those two things line up in people?
It's a question that led me to write the book. I wrote about the shame I felt that I wasn't having sex: Clearly, even though people appeared to like me, they actually didn't, or else they would be having sex with me. But I also felt frustration that stories like mine weren't being told. Stories about people in their 20s or beyond who weren't sexually active – their lives would be presented as miserable.
How do people talk about their sex lives with others?
Unless someone is in a state of grave insecurity and really desperately trying to cover, adults don't outright lie. More often, people tell a partial truth. They allow others to fill in the gap and make assumptions that will align with the rest of how they want themselves to appear. We imply that things happen more often than they might have.
You want people to calm down. I loved this concept from sociologist Stevi Jackson to treat sex "as part of the fabric of routine day-to-day social life." You also wish people's sexual histories were viewed as "an ever-changing and unpredictable series of events," rather than your identity. It seems like a more realistic and mature way of looking at it: there are droughts and deluges.
Exactly. One of the ways that the sex myth regulates us is that it makes us feel like we have to choose something, or we have to be something. That you have to choose to be monogamous or choose to be polyamorous or choose to be vanilla or choose to be kinky. You can actually go back and forth between these things throughout the course of your life.
One woman you interviewed had a plea for the way we talk about sex: "No one ever tells you not to worry about it." You ultimately want sex to be less fraught.
I want people to feel, in a positive way, that their sex lives are less definitive about who they are. You have permission to be whatever way is working for you at that point in time. The most common word I see when people e-mail me is "relief." The book made them feel they were okay in their choices and trajectories.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Sex myths: Hooking up
Just how much sex are randy millennials having? Researchers looking into campus culture have consistently found less hooking up than one might imagine.
For his pivotal 2008 book Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, author Michael Kimmel asked male college students across the United States to estimate what proportion of their classmates had sex on any given weekend. The boys guessed 80 per cent. Kimmel found that the numbers were staggeringly lower, more like 5 per cent to 10 per cent.
The large-scale Online College Social Life Survey, which quizzed more than 20,000 students at 21 American colleges between 2005 and 2011, found that 72 per cent of students had engaged in a hookup by senior year. But surprisingly, 40 per cent had slept with just three or fewer people in all their college years – a meagre tally for the purported hookup generation.
A 2007 survey of first-year university students by Bob Altemeyer, a retired University of Manitoba psychology professor who would canvass his first-year students, found that nearly half of the men and one-quarter of the women were virgins going into postsecondary institutions. Writing in his 2009 book Sex and Youth, Altemeyer found that many of the first-years preferred long-term relationships to hookups, viewed oral sex as "a major sex act" reserved for a romantic partner and often opted for the traditional missionary position.
When it comes to the sex lives of others, there is a startling gap in perception and reality. It speaks to the ways people young and old inflate their sex lives. Of her college years, Sex Myth author Rachel Hills wrote: "You told people about the three weekends during which you did hook up, not the 49 during which you didn't."