For Books’ Sake Talks to: Rachel Hills

14th Oct 2015

For Books' Sake Talks to: Rachel Hills
Rachel Hills' thought provoking debut The Sex Myth is a timely exploration of the ideas and received wisdom that govern our sexuality. Its main assertion is that the conventions which banned sex out with specific parameters, have been swapped for seemingly permissive (but equally repressive) messages which position nonstop, orgasmic and adventurous sex as the norm. We spoke to the Australian, New York-based journalist about attractiveness and desire, sexual honesty and writing a polemic.

What was your aim in writing The Sex Myth?

As a teenager and young woman, I was deeply moved by feminist nonfiction. I loved the way that books like Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Germaine Greer’s The Whole Woman helped me to put my personal experiences into social and political context (although, 15 years later, I now recognise that it’s very transphobic in some ways). I wanted to do the same thing with The Sex Myth – put our experiences of sex, an act that is so often discussed in biological terms, into a broader cultural context, to examine what we’re taught to think of as “normal,” and how those ideals affect us.

You talk about popular culture, the media and advertising’s contribution to the sex myth – what part does literature play?

Literature’s obviously a cultural narrative alongside the media and popular culture, and as such it’s going to reflect existing cultural assumptions – and that goes for sex as much as anything else. But I wonder if the thing that makes literature different is that it often focuses more on character and internal conflict – which means that it relies less on sex to drive the plot forward than a TV show or a film might.

What were the most surprising findings from the interviews that you carried out?

I think the thing that surprised me most was the sheer number of people who volunteered to be interviewed. When I did my first big US callout, I got something in the vicinity of 800 emails in 48 hours. I also got a huge response in the UK, when Caitlin Moran tweeted my call for interviewees.

The other thing that surprised me was how much my interviews challenged my own (at that point unacknowledged) misconceptions about other people’s sex lives. At the crux of the sex myth is the idea that the choices we make when it comes to sex define us, both in terms of our value and our identity. So when people have different sexual tastes or histories than our own, there is a tendency to view them as being different to us to on a more profound level, as well – whether it’s casting people with less adventurous sexual histories than our own as conservative or prudish, or imagining that people who are queer, or kinky, or polyamorous are hypersexual.

A lot of people I interviewed for the book had very different sexual trajectories to my own and, when I first started to interview them, I was intimidated by them. But the thing you learn from talking to hundreds of people about their sex lives is that we’re all just human at the end of the day. Few of us are paragons of virtue or perfectly confident sex deities, whatever the stereotypes might suggest.

I also think there’s power in changing the way we talk about desire and attractiveness. Intentionally or not, Hollywood sells us the idea that if you don’t look a certain way – particularly if you’re a woman – you’re not worthy or sex or love.The Sex Myth’s been described as ‘depressing’ because it highlights that it’s impossible to live a sexually authentic and honest life because of issues like victim blaming in cases of sexual violence, and homosexuality still being considered abnormal by some people. What’s your response to this?

It’s funny, because the most common response I hear from people who like the book is just the opposite: that reading it was a relief for them. A lot of women in their twenties in particular have walked away feeling less anxious about their sex lives, and like they have permission to be sexual in whatever way works for them at that particular point in time. But I can understand how for that particular reviewer, the book might read as depressing, like we haven’t made the progress we should have over the past 20 or 30 or 50 years, because our sexual experiences are still regulated.

And also, part of writing a polemic – even a highly researched one, like mine – is that you focus on stories that support your argument. Even with the existence of the sex myth, it’s not like there aren’t people leading happy, fulfilling sex lives, at least some of the time. It’s just that that happens in spite of the sex myth, rather than because of it.

You highlight the fact that women who aren’t young, thin, white and heterosexual have their sexuality marginalised. How do you think we can challenge this?

Part of the problem is that our collective ideas about who has the right to be sexual (or even just who is sexual) are tied up with ideas about who is desirable, which in turn are shaped by images – which as a writer, I find more challenging to disrupt than words. But I think part of the answer is to create, view, and disseminate images of beauty and sexuality that don’t fit the mould that’s typically presented. Sites like Herself or Make Love Not Porn do this really well, as does Tumblr.

I also think there’s power in changing the way we talk about desire and attractiveness. Intentionally or not, Hollywood sells us the idea that if you don’t look a certain way – particularly if you’re a woman – you’re not worthy or sex or love. But everyone is attractive to someone, and most people who experience sexual desire will vouch that their own desires extend beyond cookie cutter images of what is beautiful. For me, at least, attraction is often as much about someone’s energy as it is about the way they look.

When it comes to the type of sex that we’re supposed to be having (frequent, adventurous, spontaneous and passionate), you say that “…the truly ‘radical’ act might be to turn your focus to the sex you actually want to have – however ‘kinky’ or ‘vanilla’ it might be.” What are other ways in which we can loosen the sex myth’s hold on us?

One of the themes I try to drive home in the book is that what we think of as ‘normal’ isn’t just dictated by the people with the biggest microphones – the media, advertising, government, religion and so on. It’s produced through millions of almost-but-not-exact repetitions of the same set of stories, and it’s something we all participate in whenever we talk about sex.

So I think there is a lot to be said for being more aware of the messages we are sending when we talk about sex. One of the things that allows the sex myth to thrive is the secrecy around it – both in the sense of the enormous emotional and symbolic power that surrounds sex, and in the sense that there is one ‘right way’ to do it. We live in a society that talks about sex a lot, but most of the conversations we have about it are either humorous innuendo, or stories that while they usually aren’t outright lies, certainly aim to present ourselves in positive light (whatever that might look like for us).

Talking about sex more consciously doesn’t have to be boring, or po-faced. It might just mean adding some humorous self-deprecation to your witty innuendo, or when you notice someone saying something that suggests that there’s a ‘right’ way to do sex, calling them in. When we do these things, we increase other people’s permission to do (or not do) sex in a way that is right for them, and create a culture that increases our permission in return.

You decided to do your US tour as a series of conversation events rather than readings – how’s that going?

Really well. One of my greatest hopes for The Sex Myth is that it starts conversations. I spent years piecing together the theories in this book, but I’m not under any delusions that it’s perfect. Theories exist to be argued with, debated, applied and adapted to new people, scenarios and experiences. And the best responses I’ve read to the book so far have done just that. So it made sense to me that I would want to do most of my events as conversations with other writers, so that the book could grow through our discussions, and so that I could provide a more interesting, dynamic experience for readers.

What’s next for you?

For the next few months my main focus is on getting [the] word out about the book, and finding ways to leverage the excitement and energy of the people who love it. After that, who knows? There’s another non-fiction book I’d like to write – not sex-related, but still personal-is-political related – when things calm down a little. I’ll have to write the proposal and see if anyone is interested. But it’s kind of nice to have the future wide open, and not to know exactly what comes next.


The Sex Myth is out now and available from Foyles and all good bookshops.