Rachel Hills, writer
Lives: New York City, USA
Rachel Hills is an Australian writer living in New York who, in many ways, was destined to write about sex. One of the early signs came when she wrote Rachel’s Guide to Love and Relationships:A-Z at the age of 14. It was, she jokes, a very enlightened piece of writing. Later, at university Rachel noticed that everyone seemed to say they were getting laid, but it was a mystery as to when. She didn’t see that many people pick up.
The final sign came in her early 20s, when Rachel’s outgoing and vivacious friend Monica confessed she hadn’t had sex in two years. Rachel finally realised she wasn’t the only one who was feeling inadequate.
Since then, Rachel has spent 8 years researching the misconceptions we have about sex and debunking them in her new book, The Sex Myth.
At the heart of all Rachel’s writing is the question: How do I fit in? Am I okay? This is her story about why we’re actually doing just fine—even if we don’t always feel like it.
One of the reasons you began The Sex Myth was a feeling that what you were seeing in the media wasn’t what was happening in reality. What kind of media representations didn’t gel with you?
In the women’s magazines I read, it was always assumed that you were having sex and you were having lots of it, which definitely wasn’t my life.
I also remember reading an article on salon.com, a little less than 10 years ago, which was about adult virgins. They were all portrayed as these sad, socially miserable people. And as someone who wasn’t having sex at that time, I wished that there were stories about people who weren’t leading this ideal sex life that showed there wasn’t something wrong with them. You can have all different sorts of sex lives.
So you just couldn’t see yourself being represented in the media?
Yeah, and if you can’t see your story you think, I must be the only one. And that’s why the conversation with Monica was so eye-opening because she’s the vivacious and outgoing kind of girl and the fact that she hadn’t had sex in a couple of years made me think, Oh, okay, so maybe I’m not alone.
What was the most surprising thing you found out throughout your research?
A couple of things surprised me when I first started out. Firstly, there were so many other people out there who felt some kind of disquiet about their sex lives. I had more than 800 get in touch with me to be interviewed. It shows the pressure we feel to be normal—and a very narrow definition of normal.
If you can’t see your story you think, I must be the only one.
And the other thing that surprised me was that I didn’t feel sexual enough, and I felt really bad about that, but in doing the interviews I also spoke with people who in the eyes of society at large were probably deemed as too sexual. They all felt that same fear—that they weren’t good enough—that I felt. Perhaps, when I started out, I would have imagined that people who were in situations similar to mine felt that way. And here was a unity in the emotional experience.
If underlying all of this is a question mark in our heads about whether we’re okay, what other assumptions do you feel are stopping us from realising we’re doing just fine?
When I was doing a lot of this early thinking, one of the really important thoughts that I had was not that we’re sold this really specific idea of what we should be doing. It’s that we’re also told that what we do when it comes to sexuality is extremely important to who we are. It determines our attractiveness to other people, our social lives and the quality of our relationships. That’s the crux of why so many people don’t feel okay.
It’s almost like it’s a separate CV we have to carry around that you have to keep bullshitting about, isn’t it?
What I really enjoyed about your take on this is that you think it’s not just what we see in the media. It’s also the conversations we have with one another. How do you call yourself and others out on the bullshit?
A lot of the time when people are perpetuating this idea of the sex myth, we’re not really doing it consciously. We tend not to do it when we’re having our deep and meaningful conversations with out closest friends. It’s more something that happens when we’re engaging in casual social banter.
We’re told that what we do when it comes to sexuality is extremely important to who we are. That’s the crux of why so many people don’t feel okay.
In terms of how to change that, I think the first step is an awareness. Secondly, I think that it’s possible to maintain that kind of light humorous social tone while not perpetuating the sex myth.
To give a concrete example, I was out with a few girlfriends and we were talking about the book and sexual expectations. One of the girls at the table said that she would hate to be in a relationship where you only had sex 3 times a week. Which, could be a saying that is totally true for her, and good for her if she has a high sex drive!
But in that situation I jumped in and said, ‘Well, actually in a long term relationship, 3 times a week is quite a lot. And the third person at the table, you could see she breathed a sigh of relief. She said, ‘I was just thinking that.’ I think in that case, the conversation is still light, everyone has permission to be themselves and they weren’t feeling like there’s something wrong.
Do you feel like that lightness is easier once you’re in your 30s and have had an opportunity to have more sexual partners?
I don’t think it’s necessarily linked to having had more sexual partners but I do think as people move from their 20s into their 30s, they become more comfortable with themselves. But that doesn’t mean that people are having super open conversations. Generally speaking, the conversations we’re having are still largely banter.
Where do you think we get the most social cues from?
These social cues are often really subtle. Obviously babies aren’t talking about sex, but babies are actually a really interesting demographic to look at here.
When you spend time around little kids you realise how much the job of a baby is to learn about the world. They don’t learn about the world by sitting down in a classroom and being instructed. They learn through observation. And I think that a lot of the way we learn about sex as a culture isn’t just through implicit instruction, but just about observing and adapting our behaviour accordingly.
So in my case, I learnt how I was supposed to be through teen and women’s magazines, TV shows and I would hear kids talk about themselves. I’d say that for a lot of other people it’s much the same, a combination of peers and media. It’s just from hearing very similar messages repeated over and over and over and over again, so that we don’t even notice it.
In writing about it so much, how do you feel like you’ve changed personally?
Well, I’ve gotten a lot older, obviously! So it’s often hard for me to tell how much my shifts in opinion have changed because of age and because of the book. I’m definitely more comfortable with myself than I was when I started doing it and part of that I think is because I feel more normal when it comes to what my sex life looks like. But that’s not to say I 100% live up to the media ideal.
What other tricky topics, besides sex, do you want to explore?
A theme that runs through my blog work is this question of, Who am I and how do I fit into the world?
Intellectually, the topic I’m most curious about is how racism plays out in everyday life. I tend to think that each place that you live teaches you something politically and so far the journey that living in the united states has taken me on is learning that racism isn’t something that’s separate to you, it’s embedded in everyday life. It’s something that, as a white person, I almost benefit from and I’m interested in exploring more deeply.
You’re talking about a lot of stuff that many people are afraid to delve into. What are you afraid of?
Being stupid and saying the wrong thing! I’m afraid to talk about race as well, which is why I want to learn more about it.
We need to make room for conversations where people are permitted to get things wrong.
The other thing I was going to say on that front is that even more so now than previously in this age of the internet, there’s this expectation that whatever we say in the world has to be perfect.
The reality is that when you’re dealing with tough ideas and issues most of us don’t know exactly what it is that we mean.We need to make room for conversations where people are permitted to get things wrong. And then maybe called out for getting things wrong.
There needs to be permission to get things wrong, on the way to getting them right—whether it’s about sex, or race, or any number of complicated issues out there.
I couldn’t agree more.
Last question before we wrap up. If there was one thing you could say to a woman who is feeling a little bit uncomfortable about her sex life, what would you say?
I’d say read my book! (laughs). I’d say that her sex life isn’t something that defines her and that she is not a defective or inadequate person just because her life doesn’t fit the ideal that we’ve been led to believe is normal.
Good advice for everyone, I think!
Rachel Hills is the author of The Sex Myth.
Follow Rachel on @rachelhills or check out www.thesexmyth.com