Not Having Sex? Author Rachel Hills Explains Why Your Sex Life is Okay
Ben Schuman-Stoler: Thanks for doing this. Thanks for coming onto the Blinkist podcast.
Rachel Hills: Thank you so much for having me.
BSS: It’s like 9am your time, and you are in the middle of a bunch of projects and work but will somehow manage to do this, I’m sure.
RH: I’ll try to remember what I wrote about in my book.
BSS: Alright, so you wrote The Sex Myth and it got published in English in 2015, right?
BSS: So let’s just start right there. In case someone’s never read the book, what is the Sex Myth?
RH: The Sex Myth is the term that I created to describe the sexual ideal in contemporary western society. It’s this idea that if you don’t have a particular type of sex life, if you’re not having lots of sex, if you’re not being adventurous, if you’re not super desirable – but also if you don’t fit the old criteria of being monogamous and heterosexual and all of those other things – then, we live in a society that tells you that there’s something wrong with you. That your sex life makes you deviant or defective in some way.
BSS: There’s something interesting in there about self-regulation. One of the jumping off points of the book is, we’ve come really far. We’ve come through sexual revolutions, we’ve come through multiple waves of feminism, but somehow we’re not where we should be still. And somehow, all of these gains have led to, in a weird way, more regulation.
RH: Yeah, exactly. That’s exactly my point. That we’ve come a really long way, but we haven’t come as far as we think we have. We haven’t come as far as many of us want us to. And that some of the things that we think of as being progressive or as being liberated can end up serving as a set of rules all of their own.
So, for example, my motivation for starting to write this book stemmed out of the fact that when I was in the first half of my 20s, especially, I was really quite insecure and anxious when it came to my sex life. And whereas maybe 50 years ago a young woman might be anxious about her sex life because she’s fearful of getting pregnant – which is obviously still a concern today – or because she’s fearful that if she’s sexually active people might call her a slut, for me, my fear was bound up in the idea that I wasn’t a good woman because I wasn’t sexually active enough. This meant that I was defective in my attractiveness, and defective in my liberation.
And obviously that’s not going to apply to everybody, but it struck me that we now have these multiple sets of rules that we’re trying to live up to.
BSS: Like what? Can we go a little deeper into that?
RH: Can you give me a prompt there?
BSS: Sure. So, one thing I like in the book is this idea that we cannot possibly reach our potential without sex according to the media or popular culture.
RH: So we live in a culture that tells us that sex is not just a reflection of what we value. It’s not just a reflection about politics or religion, who we are as people. But that it’s a reflection of how valuable we are. It’s a reflection of how well we are succeeding in life.
And so having, you know, the quote unquote right type of sex life – which is what I’m trying to deconstruct in the book because I want everybody to be able to have the sex life that’s right for them at that particular point in time, that’s why I don’t really believe there is a right way – we’re told that we need to have the right type of sex life, which means suddenly being sexually active at almost all times, not literally every moment of the day, but you know, not going through a long drought. It’s always having a partner or having the options of having a partner. Making sex a priority within your relationship, but also as a form of kind of self-improvement and self-discovery is central to this idea of being a successful person.
And this is an idea that goes all the way from childhood in really subtle ways, through to old age.
BSS: There’s this really great example you give of the Disney heroes. Of the Little Mermaid and the Beast – the Little Mermaid needs a kiss to become a real person.
RH: Yeah that was one of the most interesting pieces of research that I found in the book. I was living in the UK for a lot of the period that I was particularly writing the book. And in that time there was this huge media panic there around the sexualization of children.
And the article that I found that I really loved talked about what I think had probably been more usefully called a process of sexual socialization. So how are children learning about the importance of sex, and how are they learning about how they should be sexual in their future lives. And so these articles – I think there were two of them actually – one of them looked at how primary school elementary school-aged girls engaged with concepts of sex.
So they went into this study thinking that they were going to talk to girls about ballet classes and soccer, because these girls were seven or eight. But when they got into the room, all the girls wanted to talk about were their crushes. And even at age seven or eight, partly these crushes were authentic, like they probably did like these boys. But on the other hand, I think they had already learned through – you know, whether it was watching high school musical or hearing the way their parents talk about their relationships with boys – they’d already learned that sex or talking about sex in a broader sense, so not talking about penis and vagina, but talking about liking people and talking about the excitement of having a crush, was this way of bonding with each other.
And that the proper way to interact with boys – if at age seven, eight, nine you’re interacting with them at all, because you know kids can be quite divided in gender at that age – it happens through this lens: you can’t be friends with a boy, instead you have to have a crush on him. Like that’s the only way that boys and girls can engage.
And this is really interesting and problematic for a whole number of reasons, in part because obviously not all of those little girls are going to be heterosexual when they grow up.
BSS: And also because, it ties back into the bigger point of the Sex Myth as like sex all of a sudden is this major, maybe overhyped part of who they’re expected to become?
RH: Yeah and that goes back to the Disney stuff that you were talking about as well. There was another paper that I read in the process of writing the book which looks at how even in this media that is really innocuous in lots of way so when in the UK they were panicking about sexualization of children, they were worrying about Rihanna and Lady Gaga, they weren’t worried about The Lion King and The Little Mermaid, because the latter are media that are clearly targeted at children.
But even within that medium, or even within that kind of media, there is still this emphasis on sex and love as being this totally transformative force. So the study talked about how in The Lion King, in the song “Can you Feel The Love Tonight,” there’s this montage where Simba and Nala are frolicking through the jungle. And there’s this soaring music and fireworks in the background and it says that this particular relationship between the two lions is really significant and magical and it’s the most exciting kind of relationship you can have.
Whereas with Simba and his other animal friends, Pumbaa and Timon, their relationship is I guess important within the scheme of the film, but it’s not as important as his relationship with the female lion. Like it’s a fun light thing, rather than this monumental significant thing that we’re told that romance and sex are.
BSS: And so we’re talking a lot about kids but to now move forward, it becomes dangerous as people grow older, I mean we get to this dangerous impact on the way we see ourselves and the way we act.
RH: Yeah, and I don’t think that sexual content is bad, I don’t think that talking about love and sex is bad. I mean if I did obviously I wouldn’t have written a book about sex and I wouldn’t now have a career of going around and talking to people about sex and encouraging them to talk openly about their sex lives.
But I think that from those early Disney stories to being a teenager where you get this idea that having sex for the first time is the moment at which you go from being a child to being an adult. And that if you are, as so many teenagers are, someone who hasn’t been in a relationship, or who hasn’t had sex – and you know, for a percentage of people this continues on into adulthood – then you haven’t properly become an adult. Those ideas are damaging.
Or that if you are an older single person who, by which I mean, if you’re a single person in their 30s or 40s or even your 20s, who isn’t currently having sex, then that means there’s something missing in your life. Or if you’re in a relationship where you might still be physical intimate with your partner, but you’re not necessarily having sex in the way that people conventionally define it, then that means that there’s something missing in your relationship.
I think that that’s what the problem is. This significance that we treat as a celebration, but that at the end of the day, means that something that should be fun and should be pleasurable ends up becoming this source of unnecessary kind of status anxiety.
BSS: You started talking about how sex, which should be a source of celebration, becomes a source of anxiety. And I guess there are a few ways we can go from your work there, one is this amazing fact of young men taking Viagra, which I think is – which I was pretty shocked by when I read. That’s first of all. And second of all, the Sex Myth to me is an important way to understand something that we can improve about ourselves. You know what I mean? It’s a way to make our lives better. If we understand how the Sex Myth is messing with us, and you know we can somehow overcome it.
RH: Yeah, absolutely, and I think that there are a lot of things tied into that question. Is there a specific thing that I can explore?
BSS: Yeah, that was pretty broad. That was like, “I like your book!” So how about this: You have this great quote that says, “You are not your sex life.” You say, “Cast off the stories and the symbolism, and let yourself be.” And I guess my question is, how do you do that? How are you supposed to do that?
RH: Yeah, it’s a great question. So I think firstly that that section of my book where I say, “You are not your sex life” is probably the section above all others that really gets to the core of what the Sex Myth is. So I said at the beginning I use the Sex Myth to describe this pervasive sexual ideal in our culture, but the truth is, as you would know as someone who’s read the book, the Sex Myth runs much deeper than that. It’s the way in which sex is regulated in our culture. The way in which we’re taught that how we engage with sex is a reflection of who we are and how we’re valued, which runs much deeper than the ideal itself.
And it’s that idea that we are what we do when it comes to our sex lives that makes those ideals, whether the ideals in our community are “Don’t have sex until you’re married,” or whether the ideal is “Make sure you sleep around a lot in your 20s because you need to appreciate your freedom while it lasts.” The Sex Myth is this kind of underlying force that makes those ideals so pervasive and so impactful upon us.
And so whereas I think a lot of the time if we’re talking about sexual freedom, but like how do we change to an ideal so that it’s ok for people to be attracted to people of the same gender as well as the opposite gender? Or how do we change that ideal so that women are allowed to enjoy sex as much as men are? I think that the real question is, how do we make it so that sex is not this core, this kind of key area of anxiety. So how do we break this idea of the Sex Myth.
And as you say, that can be easier said than done. I think that the first element, and this is why I chose to write a book about it, i think that if you’re trying to deal with these large cultural constructs, the first step to dealing with them is to understand them. So the reason I wrote this book was to kind of lay out, well, how does this system of regulation work and how is it impacting us in our everyday lives? Because I know that for me as a writer and a reader, seeing how my experiences connect with other people’s, and connect with historical and cultural trends is something that’s really helpful for me.
I think the second thing that we do in our own lives is stop trying to so closely align ourselves with the ideal. So I think that often when people talk about sexuality, we’re talking about it in a kind of abstract way. So we’re not really revealing what’s happening in our own lives, instead people are more like “Ha-ha-ha sex.” Not necessarily making a joke about it, but I’ve had friends say, “I hate using condoms” and yet I know that these friends haven’t had sex in a number of years. So even if they hate using condoms, it’s not like it’s a regular problem that they’re facing. Or they might say, “When I had my last hook up, when I last slept with somebody, I did this”.
So we’re trying to show that we’re people who are having these successful sex lives, and I think that a really good way that we can break the Sex Myth and break the hold that these ideals have on ourselves and other people is just to be a little more honest when we’re talking about sex with others. To not posture so much. And to admit the kind of grey areas and the vulnerabilities.
BSS: That’s really interesting. The honesty. When I spoke with some friends about the book and I said I was going to interview you this week, they were really interested and wanted me to ask you about methods to discern the authenticity of desire. That’s kind of a complicated thing.
RH: The authenticity of their own desire?
BSS: Yeah,. one’s own desire. Because one thing you say is, in a way, don’t worry about it. You do you. Like, don’t let the media decide how you want to live out your sex life. You do you. And then the question was, yeah, but if we’re being controlled, – or, I don’t want to make it a conspiracy, but we’re definitely influenced by all the media round us and the perceptions of people around us and the way like you say people talk about sex – then how can we say, this is what I actually want and therefore I should go after it in an authentic or honest way? Versus saying, oh, this is something that was imposed on me. What methods are there to discern if that desire is real or not?
RH: That’s a great question. How do you do you, if you don’t know what doing you looks like. And I think that’s something we all face in so many areas of our lives and it’s something I thought about a lot. And you know I guess as someone with a background in sociology, I recognize that our desires – quote unquote authentic or otherwise – are always influenced by the stories that we’re told about what life is and how it should be. So it’s really impossible to separate what you want from what you’re told.
But I also think that if we pay attention to our kind of gut, bodily and emotional reactions to ideas or situations, we can get a closer clue to what it is that we want. So I think of these things as falling into three different categories: you have some things that you know our culture tells you that you should want, that really align with you and make you feel really good. And you know you can’t tell if you want those things because you’ve been told that they’ll make you feel good or because they would make you feel good regardless. But if it’s something that does align – that feels like it aligns with you – then it’s not necessarily a problem that the original idea came. from elsewhere.
Then you have things that you’re told that you should be doing but that just don’t actually sit well with you. That you kind of viscerally kind of bristle up against. And so I think that if you’re hearing that you should do something or you’re hearing that in order to be a successful person you need to make X amount of money or you need to get married or you need to have kids or you need to have sex at least three times a week, but this is something that’s producing a kind of bad feeling in you, then you know that on an authentic level it’s probably something you don’t really want.
And then there are some things that you want but that you’re told that you shouldn’t want but you want them so much and so authentically that even you know that that’s a real thing.
So I guess what I’m saying is that the areas we should really worry about are the areas in which we’re really feeling a kind of visceral disalignment.
BSS: So the second option.
RH: Yeah, exactly.
BSS: And those are the ones that we should consciously take actions to deny?
RH: Well, I think the thing is, you know I interviewed a couple of hundred of people for this book, and most of the people that I interviewed don’t go – didn’t go around doing things that they really didn’t want to do. That wasn’t the problem. The problem wasn’t that, at least in contemporary western society, people were told they should be living a certain kind of sex life so they went out and did that so that they could conform. The issue was that in more cases they did not conform and they carried around that shame and anxiety around it. And it’s the shame and the anxiety that is so much more difficult to combat than the doing or the not doing.
BSS: I like that.
RH: As you say, I think a lot of the breaking down of that shame and anxiety can come from hearing other people’s stories and sharing your own stories with other people. Sharing the parts of you that are so much more complicated than –
BSS: Especially if they’re honest about the way that they’re talking, and not saying, “Oh I hate doing the walk of shame,” even though maybe they never have.
RH: Yeah! That’s something I joke about in one of the chapters of the book. I talk about a conversation I had with a friend where we were talking about this concept of the walk of shame, and I took this kind of typical feminist line, like, “Why do they even call it the walk of shame anyway, they should call it the Stride of Pride. I’ve always been proud when I’ve done it.” And on an intellectual level you know I believe that’s true. We shouldn’t call it a walk of shame if someone’s walking home after having sex. But I think I’ve had like one walk of shame in my life, so it’s not like it was this regular experience that I was having.
BSS: If you could have that conversation again, would you not say that, or would you, at the end, add a postscript, like “Oh, even though I’ve really only done that a couple times or once or however many times?”
RH: Well I did add a postscript at the time, so I don’t know if I would’ve done it differently because maybe being someone who makes silly statements in conversations with friends is something that’s authentic to who I am, to make that sort of statement, and then it’s also authentic to who I am to call myself out on that immediately and to point that out. But yeah I think even though I’m a theory person, and I’m fascinated by studies and how society works, I think a lot of what people who’ve read and loved the book get out of it is reading so many other people talking honestly and anonymously about their sex lives in the kinds of conversations that you normally only get to have with your closest friends and I think that that can create an enormous sense of relief in other people because even if the conversations that you’re having about sex in real life are still mostly performative, you get this kind of peek behind the curtain.
BSS: I really enjoy also the tone, the perspective of the book, is on the level. Even though you cite academic things, you cite, I mean, Foucault, I mean you get into the philosophy, you get into media research and stuff, but it feels like you’re hearing from other people, you’re on a conversational level and it makes it so much easier to relate to finding something authentic you know questioning the thing that you’re doing that maybe you don’t want to do or things you could be doing that you’re not doing. Which I think is special. We’re going to run out of time so I want you to have the chance to talk about how you’re bringing this book you know forward and outside even of the book medium. You said you’re doing a play?
RH: Yeah, so since the book came out in 2015 I’ve spent a lot of my time going around to university campuses and activist groups and you know public lectures and things like that, talking about it. And quite organically out of that one of the people I met approached me with the idea of turning the Sex Myth into a play. So it’s kind of like the Vagina Monologues in the sense that performers tell their own authentic stories when it comes to sex. As well as building upon ideas in the book in order to explore these broader themes that we’ve been talking about in this interview.
So we’re building that out in the moment both in the sense of putting out a show in New York later in the summer and then we’ve also created a tool kit so that people can use this process we’ve created and the book itself as a way to create their own versions of the production. So if you go to www.thesexmyth.com you can learn more about that and get involved in that project.
BSS: Well listen, thank you so so much for taking the time relatively early in the morning to do this – or at least first thing when like the voice isn’t warmed up. Everything was perfect so thank you very much.
RH: Thank you so much, Ben.
BSS: Hopefully we can do this – maybe we’ll check in again once the play’s up.
RH: That would be great.