September 2015

Lisa A Phillips

nonfiction

The Sex Myth: The Gap Between Our Fantasies and Reality by Rachel Hills

When I was single and in my 20s -- the situation of most of the men and women in Rachel Hills's new book The Sex Myth -- I went through sex droughts, long stretches of time when I was Not Getting Any. At times this made me miserable. At times the peace of celibacy was a relief. Often I struggled with a low-level anxiety about not being, in the terms of a physician's gentle query, "sexually active": I was missing out, wasting my youth, and failing to benefit from the deliciousness of sexual liberation.

All my peers, it seemed, were Getting Some: the committed long-term couples, friends bragging about their passionate new romance, and all those other young people out there who, according to media reports, were indulging in transient yet pleasurable encounters and generally having a grand old time without me. These one-night stands -- Gen X's term for hook ups -- in particular mystified me. I didn't have many (and felt vaguely insulted by that fact), nor did I know of many people who did.

What I learned from The Sex Myth is this kind of FOMO about sex is still common, indeed a defining anxiety of her generation of Millennials, born between the early '80s and the mid-'90s. In Hills's own case, she remained a virgin throughout high school and college, all the while feeling like a "secret sexual loser" despite her carefully groomed, flirty, social butterfly persona. Not Getting Any felt "like a mark of failed moral character, the physical manifestation of every flaw I had ever suspected I had and of every defect I feared the people around me were all too aware of but were too polite to mention out loud." Being a virgin wasn't just a matter of not yet finding the right person and situation. Her sexual status felt crucial to her identity. And therein lies the myth: that how much sex we're having, and what kind of sex, and with whom, defines who we are.

Hills interviewed a diverse array of men and women to demonstrate the impact of the Sex Myth. Their stories, along with research in social science and cultural history, help her build her case that we need to free ourselves from this misguided impression. It's a very important point to make. The conflation of sexual activity and identity is pervasive and, as Hills's interview subjects discuss, oppressive, yet often goes without question in our hypersexualized culture.

There's an irony here, because this state of affairs is an outgrowth of the sexual revolution, which was supposed to free us from the oppressive, uptight social mores of yore and allow us to experience sexual pleasure on our own terms, without anyone telling us we're bad. As Hills points out, the contemporary pressure to be sexually active isn't the same as feeling sexually free, or feeling like there's nothing wrong with you if you aren't sexually active. An authentic sexual self is a very tricky concept in a society that judges you not only when you're not having sex, but when you're having too much sex, or the "wrong" kind, or with the wrong person.

Hills demonstrates again and again how very narrow our supposedly liberated sexual norms are. Women's magazines (Hills's favorite scapegoat) promote experimentation with soft kink as the latest Fifty Shades of Gray-inspired trend, while hardcore BDSM'ers who see bondage and pain as central to their sexuality are still suspect. A gay man strives to "look straight" to boost his attractiveness to other gay men. A lesbian pushes herself to have sex more often than she might want in order to defy the cliché of "lesbian bed death." A college boy brags about how his "bro culture" status rises with each sexual score, then admits "there is a fine line between being an asshole as a hookup strategy and having it become who you are."

Some of the most gripping accounts in The Sex Myth come from devout young people under pressure not to have sex outside of marriage. One Christian woman took a pledge at age 12 to stay a virgin until her wedding day, then felt wracked with guilt when, during college, she failed to live up to the pledge. Another woman rejected the beliefs of her religiously conservative community after suffering through an abusive relationship with a fellow Christian. Her next boyfriend was loving and supportive, and having sex with him was, as she described it, liberating, not sullying. These examples underscore that The Sex Myth is a double-edged sword. There's the progressive version -- we can't be fully actualized as people unless we're having a lot of great sex -- and the religiously conservative one -- we can't be fully actualized unless we follow strict rules limiting sexual behavior.

I have no beef with Hills's argument. It's carefully crafted and well evidenced. I did weary, though, of the breezy, magazine-style pithiness and tone. I found myself longing for the less cautious, more ardent voice and scope of polemics such as Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth (which Hills's title clearly alludes to) and Laura Kipnis's Against Love. These polemics never let you forget the importance of what's at stake. The Beauty Myth, for example, isn't just about how much of a bummer it is that women's magazines tout an impossible ideal of female perfection. It's about how that ideal is an agent of misogyny, working against women's economic, legal, and psychological empowerment. Kipnis's screed against monogamy so fiercely indicts conventional morality and romantic mores that even if you're content in a committed relationship, you'll know that you're probably not living your bravest emotional and political life. The Sex Myth lacks that sense of urgency. The feeling the book gives instead is more "I'm okay, you're okay" re: the diversity of our sex lives -- an important message, to be sure, but not a passionate one.

And speaking of passion: I also struggle with Hills's decision, likely for the sake of a tight argument, to consider sex as a phenomenon distinct from emotion -- that is, emotion other than anxiety about our sex lives. The matter of how much sex we have or don't have, what kind, and with whom does pressure our sense of identity. But I suspect that for most of us what matters even more is the challenge of wanting and what that says about who we are. I'm not talking about random horniness here. I'm talking about unrequited yearning, loneliness, and the human drive to seek the balm of intimacy and, yes, sex. Considering contemporary sexuality without this dimension feels clinical and, ultimately, misguided -- a new kind of myth, perhaps, that the importance of sex can be separated from the force of desire.

The Sex Myth: The Gap Between Our Fantasies and Reality by Rachel Hills
Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 978-1451685787
288 pages