Book Review: Rachel Hills, The Sex Myth

There aren’t many books out there that are a) about sex and sexuality, and b) ace-friendly. So when I first came across Australian journalist Rachel Hill’s book The Sex Myth: The Gap Between Our Fantasies and Reality last year, I was pretty excited, but also slightly nervous. (The nervousness I blame on all those anthropology textbooks I had to read for university one semester that told me that sex was inherently what makes us human – and, well, most of what is written about sex in general.)

Turns out that I really didn’t have to worry in this case, because The Sex Myth is one of the most ace-friendly books about sexuality and sexual culture (for lack of a better term) I’ve ever read. So I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on the book here – alongside copious quotes to illustrate why I like this book so much.

The Sex Myth is all about the role that sex plays in our lives and our society – and critiquing the way that sex has become so all-encompassing, so fundamental to our identities and self-worth and ideas of success, that is has become more powerful and more elevated than all other things we do. As Hills puts it:

At the heart of the Sex Myth lies the idea that sex is unlike any other facet of human life: that it is more powerful, more transcendent, and an expression of a more authentic truth than any other activity we engage in. In contemporary Western culture, sex is more than a matter of reproduction, or even recreation. It is the arena in which the self is formed and the ground on which we are presumed to build our most profound intimacies. (p. 35)

The book begins by Hills describing some of her own personal experiences, thoughts, and anxieties about sex, which prompted her to research and write this book. In the process, she realised something that a lot of us in the ace community have also been observing for a long time: that we need better ways of talking about sexuality, and challenging even the most basic assumptions we hold about it. She identifies two layers to the myth:

The first layer of the Sex Myth was the most obvious: the media myth of a hypersexual society, visible in everything from moral panics over wayward youth to the saturation of sexual content in popular culture to the idea that to be sexually liberated – to be confident, free, and above all, true to ourselves – meant being sexual in one very particular way.
The second, less obvious, dimension of the sex myth was the cultural and emotional value invested in sex: the belief that sex was somehow more special, more significant, a source of greater thrills and more perfect pleasure than any other activity human beings engage in. (p. 8)

From there, each chapter explores a different aspect of the Sex Myth, and each is filled with the personal stories and experiences of people of all ages, genders and sexual identities that Hills spoke to while writing the book. The first chapter looks at the idea of sexual liberation and empowerment, and how Western society has largely moved from seeing sexuality as taboo to seeing it as a path to personal fulfilment, status and power. There is also quite a bit of foreshadowing of the way that sexuality has become mandatory, expected:

Where once we were condemned for being too sexual, today we are admonished for not being sexual enough… In our attempt to overturn the rules that once governed our sexuality, we have replaced one brand of regulation with another. (p. 30)

Chapter two delves more deeply into the special status sex has achieved in our society. There is a lot of focus on how an act, something we ‘do,’ has become so hugely significant – so much that it is seen as ‘a window into the truth of who we are as individuals’ (p. 44). There is a little bit of historical discussion, as well as a critique of the idea of sex as a purely biological need or drive, which makes a welcome change for me as an ace reader.

Chapter three is all about the idea of normal: what it is (or more importantly what it isn’t), and how the idea of normal has expanded and changed in some ways, but has also just lead to a whole new set of ideas about normal and abnormal. Hills highlights how contradictory and confusing these ideas can be:

Many of the people I spoke with in the course of researching this book had difficulty articulating what was normal in their city, within their generation, or even within their group of friends. But most of them had no problem listing a swatch of things that were considered abnormal – and these were often contradictory: Having a high sex drive. Having a low sex drive. Abstaining from sex until marriage. Losing your virginity before your fifteenth birthday. Losing your virginity after your eighteenth birthday. Being gay, bisexual, or transgender. Bestiality. BDSM. Pubic hair on women. Not being able to orgasm. Not caring whether or not you have an orgasm. Being in a sexual relationship with more than one person at a time. Not having sex with anyone at all. There may be more than one way to pass as normal now, but there are even more ways to fail to make the grade. (p. 58)

One of the most exciting things about the chapter is that it includes a conversation about asexuality. Even though the woman whose story Hills shares ultimately decides that asexuality doesn’t fit her right, there’s no judgement or disbelief, and being asexual or not desiring sex is treated just like any other identity or preference. The same empathy and lack of judgement comes through in other parts of the chapter, on kink, queer and trans identities, and polyamory, and being ‘vanilla’ as well.

The following chapter focuses on desire and desirability, and how they intersect with things like beauty culture, ideas about sexiness, and the search for socially desirable sexual partners. There’s a lot of good stuff in here, including some interesting commentary on the need to be perceived as in control – to be ‘interested but not too interested’ (p. 120), detached rather than emotional about sex – even though sex still brings up a lot of vulnerabilities and anxieties and emotion about how people feel about themselves or their partners.

Chapters five and six are about masculinity and femininity respectively. I haven’t read the masculinity chapter in enough detail to comment on it properly, but the discussion seems well-balanced and includes experiences of both straight and queer men. The chapter on femininity focuses on the conflicting ideas of what a ‘good woman’ looks like, from the more traditional (but still very much present) ideas of women as submissive and pure, with lives inescapably centres around boys and men, to the emerging ideal of the sexually liberated, fun and empowered woman. Hills writes:

Today’s ‘good woman’ is attractive, self-assured, and pursues sex with the same enthusiasm with which she goes after everything else in life. She may not explicitly refer to herself as a feminist, but her modus operandi is shaped by an ideal of female empowerment. (p. 156)

One of the strengths of the chapter is Hills’ discussion of how, despite the shift to celebrating sex and viewing it as liberating and empowering, the new ideal of the ‘good woman’ is still limited to those who are attractive, white, middle-to-upper-class, and able-bodied:

One of the most common criticisms of the new, sexually fearless feminine ideal is that it doesn’t apply equally to all women. The women who are celebrated as empowered sexual subjects are usually young, thin, white, and heterosexual. Women who deviate from this model – who are older, fat, or have a disability, for example – still find their sexuality marginalised, whether it is framed as a problem, dismissed as revolting, or ignored entirely…

The question of which women are cast as independent sexual agents and which are pitied is also tied to class. For upper-middle-class women, to be visibly and actively sexual is viewed as an expression of empowerment and self-determination. In magazines like Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire and Glamour, sex forms part of a bigger aspirational ‘lifestyle’ package, perched alongside a high-status career, close-knit friendships, and access to designer clothes and shoes as symbols of female power. When an upper-middle-class woman takes pole-dancing classes, wears a short skirt, or experiments with swinging or BDSM, she is read as being modern or edgy. When a poorer woman does the same things, she is seen as tacky, distasteful, or worse, dangerous. (p. 162)

The only thing that was potentially missing from this chapter was a little more on the perspectives of queer women, or even asexual women. What femininity looks like when divorced from a heterosexual context, or from a context where sex is completely out of the picture, would both have been very interesting conversations to include.

Chapter eight is about the increasing emphasis on more frequent, more exciting, more vigorous sex lives, and the way that sex is increasingly marketed as a means to personal health, vitality and transformation. It’s ‘a project for developing a desirable self-identity’ (p. 170), just like going to the gym, getting your hair done, or drinking kale smoothies. (I made that last one up, but it seems apt.) There’s also some discussion of sexless relationships, and how it’s the Sex Myth that makes the idea of a sexless relationship hard to swallow, rather than something being inherently wrong with a sexless relationship – which will resonate with a lot of ace readers:

Most sex therapists stress that being in a sexless relationship isn’t a problem in and of itself; that relationships can be full of love and satisfaction without being sexually active so long as everyone involved is happy with the situation. But when sex is considered shorthand for vitality – whether our own or that of our relationships – the idea of a loving-but-sexless union can be a difficult concept to swallow. (p. 181)

The last chapter and the conclusion make a powerful argument – one, like I mentioned before, asexual people have also been making for a long time now – for needing a new way of talking about sexuality, and a new model. What makes this book inherently ace-friendly is that Hill’s vision for what that might look like emphatically includes the right to not have sex without being seen as abnormal or prudish. The push-back against compulsory sexuality (though not named as such) is incredibly strong, without falling back into judgemental or shaming territory:

We need an alternate way of speaking about sex, one that appreciates the role it plays in our lives without overhyping it as the most important thing. The next iteration of the sexual revolution needs to challenge the root of sexual power in our culture. And that will mean confronting the Sex Myth. It is time to forge a new brand of sexual freedom, a freedom that incorporates the right not to do as much as the right to do. A freedom in which our sexual choices and histories are not burdened with such an excess of significance, in which there is no stigma attached to the gay, the transgendered [sic], or the sexually audacious, but in which there is equally no stigma attached to the asexual, the vanilla, or the carnally prudent. (p. 213-214)

All-in-all, The Sex Myth is one of the best books I’ve read on sex in modern Western society. Hills writes about sexuality without judgement and with empathy, and the wide variety of people whose stories she shares really highlights how diverse sexuality is – but also how powerful the Sex Myth continues to be in shaping what we think of as normal, desirable, empowered. The fact that a book specifically about sexuality also manages to avoid making arguments about sexuality being inherent to human experience that often marginalise asexual readers is icing on the cake.

Cross-posted to The Asexual Agenda.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Rachel Hills, The Sex Myth

  1. I really like the idea of this book. It sounds like it says some good things. Some of the quotes, though, I’m wondering if I’m missing context.

    “Where once we were condemned for being too sexual, today we are admonished for not being sexual enough”

    ^^^ This seems like it needs… contextualizing, at the very least. I don’t believe it as a standalone statement. The “once we were condemned” bit, first of all — which culture and time period is she talking about? Second of all, this doesn’t apply equally to all people. Women are more condemned for being too sexual than men are. Black women are more condemned for being too sexual than White women are. And so on.

    Not that this is necessarily what she’s saying, but the idea of “once sex was bad, and now it’s good” is an idea I know some people believe, and I just want to say here, it’s not actually that simple.

    1. No problem, that’s always the trouble with quotes! That one in particular was part of the larger discussion of the impact that the sexual revolution of the 1960s had (in Western societies), though she goes back a little bit to the Victorian period. It’s not the book for an in-depth historical analysis, but most of what she writes sounds accurate in the big picture from my own knowledge. (You’re right of course that there were lots of different factors at play, always will be.)

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