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Rachel Hills spent three years talking to people about their sex lives and uncovered major anxieties about living up to a sexual standard


Busting the sex myth that everyone is doing it more than you

By Alice Robb on August 3, 2015

When Australian journalist Rachel Hills was in her teens and 20s, she was “consumed by sex,” she writes in her new book, The Sex Myth: The Gap Between Our Fantasies and Reality. “Not by the physical urge to have it…[but] by what it meant,” and what it meant that her life didn’t resemble the “all-you-can eat sexual buffet” everyone else seemed to be enjoying—from the characters on her favorite sitcoms to her own friends, constantly cracking dirty jokes and bragging about their conquests. It was only after an attractive, outgoing friend confided that she hadn’t had sex in two years that Hills, who is now in her 30s, began to suspect that she wasn’t the only young woman who’d been embellishing her sex life.

In fact, research suggests that we systematically overestimate the amount of sex our peers are having. Sociologist Michael Kimmel found that American male college students guessed that 80 percent of their classmates were having sex every weekend; in reality, 80 percent of graduating college students had ever had sex. And in spite of frequent media panics about “hook-up culture,” rainbow parties and copulating teenagers falling out of trees, young people today are actually having less sex than they were a generation ago. For young adults, the most common number of sexual partners in a given year is one. Teen birth rates have dropped by about 57 percent since the 1980s, and the proportion of teenage girls over 14 who had had ever had sex fell from 51 percent in 1988 to 44 percent in 2013.

Sexual liberation, Hills argues, hasn’t liberated us from anxieties about living up to a sexual standard. We’ve simply replaced the fear of having too many partners with the fear of having too few—and in many ways, that’s just as damaging. Over the course of three years, Hills interviewed more than 200 young adults in Britain, Canada, Australia and the U.S. about their sexual experiences and how they felt about them.

The following interview has been edited and condensed.

Women in the World: What is the “sex myth”?

Rachel Hills: The sex myth is this idea that in order to be an adequate person in our culture you need to be sexually active and good in bed. On a bigger level, the sex myth is the kind of regulatory force that shapes the way that we experience sexuality today. Why are those ideals so deep-seated and important to us? Why does it matter to us so much if we’re not living up to them?

I started thinking about this seriously about seven or eight years ago, when the panics around raunch culture and hook-up culture were really rife In the media. I was in my mid-twenties at the time, and these stories certainly didn’t reflect my experiences. They seemed farcical to me. I came to realize, through conversations with friends and acquaintances, that they didn’t reflect the experiences of many other people I knew either. I became really interested in the gap between the stories we are told about sex and how that gap influences the way we feel about our value and our desirability.

WITW: Where do you think the sex myth comes from? Who’s propagating it?

RH: There’s definitely a temptation to blame it on media and popular culture, but I think to some extent, we all are. For many people—young people in particular—sex is a regular part of the conversation, but it’s not something we’re honest about. We may choose to play up the parts that sound more exciting or glamorous.

WITW: How did you do the research for this book?

RH: I spoke to 200 people over the space of three years, most of them between 16 and 32. There were men, women, gay, straight, trans people, people of different ethnicities and religions. I spoke to people not just about what they should be doing during sex but what they thought they should be doing during sex: What were the stories they were hearing from their peers and the media? Did they feel like their sex lives lived up to those standards? Did they ever feel abnormal when it came to their sexuality?

WITW: It seems you found more people who felt inadequate because they’d had too few partners, rather than too many.

RH: Right, the people I spoke to who felt like they weren’t sexual enough were more likely to be quiet about that in their personal lives. I think they were more conscious that they weren’t living up to what was expected of them.

WITW: Did you notice any differences between the way men and women felt about their sex lives?

RH: I think the ways in which we expect men and women to be sexual have become more similar over the past few decades. This whole idea that you’re expected to be able to get sex whenever you want, and you’re supposed to be going after it all the time—that seems new for women, but the women and men I spoke to were aspiring to quite similar kinds of sex lives.

When I asked, “What does a good sex life look like?” so many women seemed to have internalized this two-to-three times a week number that we hear is an average. Often, people to try to beat that number; they’d see it as a minimum.

WITW: Any differences between countries?

RH: Not really. I think that Americans might not entirely realize how influential American culture is. Whether you’re living in the UK, the United States or Australia, you’re consuming the same media and Internet articles; you’re consuming different national variations on the same magazines. The cultural story you hear about sex is very similar.

One minor difference I noticed was that when I was speaking to Americans, religion came up a lot more often. Religion is such a huge part of the public discourse when it comes to sex in this country. That didn’t necessarily mean American women were aspiring to that conventional, “pure” ideal, but it was something they were more aware of.

WITW: Do you have any recommendations for combatting the sex myth on a societal or individual level?

RH: Let’s expand your notions of what it means to be sexually free. Let’s be critical when we hear these exaggerated stories in the media. Call yourself out when you’re perpetuating the sex myth in your own conversations. One night when I was working on the book, I was having drinks with a friend, and we got to talking about the “walk of shame.” My friend quipped that if she’s walking home in her clothes from the night before, it’s probably because she’s stayed at a friend’s house late watching movies. I laughed and said, “Whenever I’ve done it, it’s been the ‘stride of pride.’” I implied that I’ve had this exciting history of one-night stands, which is not necessarily true!

And I’d known my friend for a really long time; she knew what my sex life was like. Five years ago, I might have let that joke really rest, but this time I called myself out on it.