New York-based Australian writer Rachel Hills is visiting this week to talk about sex. Specifically, about the way we’re getting sold short. In a culture and era that prides itself on sexual freedom, Hills thinks sex has become a loaded barometer for how “fun, modern and normal” we are. This raises some interesting issues – and also makes it drastically less fun.
Her book The Sex Myth presents a problem with the way we think about sex. On one hand (and this is what’s usually taught in most high-school sex-ed classes), sex is dangerous and transgressive. On the other, it’s sold to us as a kind of universal solvent: “a symbol of our relationships, how attractive we are … a rite of passage into being a regular, healthy adult.” Both options clearly set the stakes a bit high.
“I want to unpack the idea there’s a sexual ideal at all,” Hills says. When writing the book, she put a call out online for people to share their personal stories. The response was enormous. Like the rest of her research, the real experiences she heard about mainly ran, “counter to this narrative that if you were young and single and even vaguely attractive, you were probably picking up somebody once every week, or at least every month … Statistically, that’s really rare,” she says.
Hills says it’s time to let sex just “be a thing” – not a compulsory, high-performance requirement for success. In her recent TED talk, she argues we might then become freer to make choices right for us; to say yes to things we want to try and no to things we don’t; to be less judgemental of other people’s choices. She’s not saying sex isn’t important, or great – simply that it’s only one of “the pieces of the puzzle of who we are”.
We’re more than just our sexuality, or our sex life. It’s common sense – do we still need to talk about this? A few days before I chat with Hills, Facebook “suggests” an article that tells me I am “dating or sleeping with men for attention or to cover [my] loneliness”. “You may discover you need to have a #ManBan”, it offers, cheerfully. Everything about this rubs me the wrong way. Hills is right – we do still need to talk about this.
Hills’ work is a catalyst, “For people to talk about all the invisible rules and assumptions shaping how they feel they’re supposed to be when it comes to sex … pressures you don’t normally get to talk about.” She is enthusiastic about the way online forums and journalism open up the conversation. “You get much more diverse discourse ... people are more able to find solidarity with people having different experiences.”
She thinks apps like Tinder don’t necessarily change our values around sex. “But they do feed this idea that anyone can get laid whenever they want – and because that is, at least allegedly, a possibility, that must be what everybody is doing.”
It’s not enough to just have sex, either. Hills believes we’re pushed towards a certain type: performance-focused and “not vanilla” – but at the same time, avoiding anything too unusual or too … much. Hills notes there’s still “a lot of stigma attached to non-monogamy … and slut-shaming is an issue that comes up a lot.”
We chat about how labels around sex can be negative, but with increasing recognition of various sexual identities, sometimes also a good thing. Hills used to love doing online quizzes. “You know, What’s Your Secret Star Sign. You might be a Pisces but you’re really a Libra. When people describe themselves,” she reflects, “it gives them a sense of, ‘OK, now I understand who I am’.”
Regardless of sexual identity, the majority of people Hills encounters “have personally felt insecure or alienated” when it comes to sex. “Having those in-person conversations is still really essential,” she says. For her, connecting with her audience and learning from them is the best bit. “I come with the book and a set of ideas, but bringing it face to face with a group of people … it grows into something bigger and more interesting.”
Rachel Hills speaks at the All About Women festival on Sunday March 6, 2016, as part of International Women’s Day at the Sydney Opera House. Buy tickets here.