The Sex We're Having Versus the Sex We Think We Should Be Having

Rachel Hills's "The Sex Myth" tries to dissect the meaning of sex—without considering that maybe it doesn't mean all that much.

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Aug 4 2015, 9:00pm

In order to write this review of Rachel Hills's The Sex Myth: The Gap Between Our Fantasies and Reality, I was going to count up all of the sexual imagery, sexual references, and allusions to sex that I encountered in the span of one day. Early in the book, Hills claims that we are inundated with excessive and fanciful sexual information, and I was wondering just how much. I gave up counting somewhere between the 16th sex act on the show (Catastrophe) I was binge-watching and a conversation I was privy to wherein a woman declared that 25 was definitely the last year you could lose your virginity without there being something wrong with you--right before my friend revealed he hadn't lost his until he was 26.

I quickly grew sick of tallying all the tits-out girls in advertisements, all the crude jokes on television, all the feminist blogs telling me it's "empowering" to learn these easy steps to have my best orgasms ever. Besides, isn't this why we have scientists, to quantify this stuff for us? I started looking around, but all I saw were metrics about sexual activity, constant studies about how often we think about sex, have sex, and reach climax; about how many partners we have on average and whether our number of partners correlates to income; about how our frequency of sexual encounters correlates to happiness. All in an effort to determine, scientifically, what is average and what is normal, so you can see where you fall on the scale and learn whether you are a pervert or pathetic or doing okay.

Which is kind of what Hills, a "millennial journalist" as the book's description bills her, is doing in The Sex Myth, trying to figure out what sex people are really having in contrast to what sex people think they should be having. As she explains in the introduction, while in her teens and early 20s--round about the time her virginity started to feel like a problem she had to solve--she noticed a big gap between what people said about sex and their actual experiences. She kept wondering if, because she hadn't had sex yet, maybe there was something wrong with her. Maybe she was frigid. And maybe everyone else was having the greatest time in the world, and she was the only one left behind. That wonder remained even after she lost her virginity, and The Sex Myth is an attempt to put some facts and reality on the table. She travels to Australia, Europe, and America to talk to dozens of men and women about their sexual histories.

We have, Hills concludes, unrealistic expectations for sex. For how much we should be having, how much others are having, and how important sex is and should be to us. We in the Western world are obsessed with sex. This is so obvious that Hills rarely bothers to try to explain how or why this has manifested. Basically, we went from being a culture where sex outside of certain parameters was strictly forbidden to our kind of deluded but "liberated," current state. Where sex was once never mentioned and never depicted, now you can't live for ten minutes without someone or something bringing sex to your attention.

Sex, until very recently, could really hurt you in so many ways.

This repression-to-omnipresence is a trajectory: When something is forbidden to you, particularly something that has actual biological urges powering your cravings for it, the space it's not allowed to take up in your life is transferred to your imagination, where it is allowed to grow uncontrolled. If you can't have this thing, then it must be so, so important. Hills acknowledges this in a few quick paragraphs with a Foucault reference and the tiniest of history lessons, but it's important to understand the background if we are going to understand our current state, to realize that the omnipresence is as dissatisfying as the repression and move on from it. There were, after all, some good reasons to try to control sexuality--it wasn't all Christian fear of the body, fear of pleasure, and control of the patrilineal line. Sex, until very recently, could really hurt you in so many ways. Not just in the "and now you will burn in torment and hellfire everlasting amen" kind of way, but in the "you are likely to die in childbirth, syphilitic nose has fallen off your face" kind of way. Sex can still hurt you, but now that we have birth control and antibiotics, and now that God is dead, it's more manageable. As a result, we've gone crazed in the way that a kid sent off to fat camp by a controlling mother sometimes gets around donuts. We do not know how to handle or even think clearly about our freedom because sex still takes up more space in our imagination than in our reality, and as a result we have entirely disordered thinking and behavior around the subject.

The fact that Hills has very little interest in these historical causes, and focuses only on how individuals might behave within this current oversexed environment, is one of the greatest problems with the book.

Living with this fantasy about sex, and without enough frank conversations of how sex is or is not going for others, can give you a dysfunctional relationship with your sexuality. If you think everyone else lost their virginity at 13 and by the way it was totally an amazing thing, I came three times, then your own experience--maybe it was so bad you decided not to have sex again for four years--can make you feel like there is something wrong with you. Like Henry, the 23-year-old we meet in The Sex Myth, whose virginity makes him feel not only frustrated because he has desires he has not found an outlet for, but also like a total loser; his virginity becomes his full identity. Or Cara, a woman whose lack of interest in sex makes her wonder if she is maybe asexual.

We are still granting sex meaning and power that, frankly, it does not deserve.

It's Cara's story that perhaps best illustrates the way we attach exaggerated meaning to sex: When her own desire does not line up with what she expects her desire should be, she goes searching not only for a reason but for a whole new identity that will explain this difference and help her decide how to live her life. She reads online literature about asexuality, a sexual identity that is characterized by an "enduring" lack of interest in sex or a very low libido. When Cara believes she fits into the asexuality label, this changes the way she thinks about herself and her history, and she becomes outraged by sex advice columnist Dan Savage's comments about how asexuals should be obligated to mention their asexuality by the third date, which she finds insulting. (Savage: "Someone who is incapable of meeting a sexual's needs has no business dating a sexual in the first place.") When Hills checks in with Cara later, near the end of the book, Cara reports she has decided she's not asexual after all, that she simply was having disappointing sexual encounters. Now that she is living with a man and having more fulfilling sex, she's feeling sexual again.

It is understandable to want to figure out why you feel a way that appears to differ from the way most people feel, particularly when variations from the norm are still met with violence and condemnation from a noisy segment of our culture. Instead of thinking, I am a person who is maybe not all that interested in sex right now, for Cara asexuality offers an entire identity, a way to help her understand herself and explain herself to others. But to then grant your sexuality the power to overwrite your identity shows that you are still at the mercy of your sexuality, and not in control of it. We have to acknowledge our culture's present pressure to define our sexuality in these terms and admit that this is maybe doing harm as well as good. We are still granting sex meaning and power that, frankly, it does not deserve.

This is part of Rachel Hills's point in The Sex Myth, but it's flitted over instead of examined. Hills raises some provocative questions about the role of fantasy and the way liberation becomes just another form of imprisonment, but her answers remain shallow. The Sex Myth works almost exclusively in the anecdotal mode, with a few scientific surveys and quotes from Foucault thrown in. But its biggest flaw is its focus on the individual, handing her the task of breaking away from this big sexual fantasy all by herself. The book ends in a rallying cry of a last line, saying that to defeat the Sex Myth, "You just need to cast off the stories and the symbolism, and let yourself be." As if a person is ever really able to discard the entire symbolic fantasy of the age and distill herself down to a true essence. As if there were such a thing as a true essence.

We're all trying to figure out the meaning of sex, without thinking for a moment that maybe it doesn't mean all that much. What procreative sex used to mean was, "I am going to dump my genetic material on top of your genetic material and we'll see what happens." What recreational sex used to mean was, "this rubbing parts together feels nice, let's keep doing it." But now sex has formed a kind of aura, from all of the layers and layers of meaning we have bestowed upon it. Now sex tells us whether we're capable of intimacy, whether we're attractive, whether we're "liberated" or "repressed," whom we should associate with, and how we should behave. When it hardens into an identity, it gives us a quick way to explain ourselves to ourselves and to the rest of the world. It normalizes how we think and feel. We forget that when we adopt an identity, it also influences the way we behave and the choices we make. We think we are merely making an external adjustment and finding a new way of presenting ourselves, but we internalize the changes, too (read: Foucault). It is not a wholly benign act.

What's worse, the way we let our sexuality define ourselves opens the door to judgment. It allows us to think that anyone who has more sex than we do (or more sex than we ideally want to have) is a slut, anyone who has less is a prude, and anyone who does it differently is a deviant. We like to think of ourselves as being right, after all--of making the best of all possible decisions. But true sexual liberation is not going to look like a nonstop orgy, all inhibitions discarded and hang-ups tossed to the side. Nor is it going to look like the finally perfect, nuanced list of labels and identifiers that accurately categorizes all of our impulses and characteristics. It will look like a part of our lives that does not hold any more power than any other part. That's not liberation any individual is capable of creating on her own. It's a liberation of a society's imagination.