9 Ways To Think About What Sex Is And Isn’t From ‘The Sex Myth’

Sex has a defining place in society and identity, but maybe, argues Rachel Hills in The Sex Myth: The Gap Between Our Fantasies and Reality, it shouldn’t.

The Sex Myth is based on two ideas — first, that our society is hypersexualized, and that being sexually liberated within it means having sex one specific way; and second, that sex is the most valuable, pleasurable, important and defining thing we can do — two ideas that Hills argues mean our sex lives are more regulated than ever even as they appear to be freer than ever. It is not simply enough to be having sex, though obviously everyone is, and everyone is defining it the same way; sex needs to be socially condoned, two to three times a week minimum (but not too much), spontaneous, in different places and positions, adventurous but not too adventurous, kinky but not kinky-kinky, ending in orgasm, and ultimately interesting. This, Hills argues, is evident in everything from the way we exaggerate or self-censor when we talk about sex with friends to the way we manage our appearances to the way we view others and ourselves.

Though the bulk of the sources Hills draws on are centered around heteronormativity and monogamy, it would be inane to believe that queer people escape this type of thinking. The number of respondents asking some variation of “Am I normal?” in the Ultimate Lesbian Sex Survey indicates that, though some of the details may differ, we are just as susceptible as anyone else.

Hills argues that rather than worrying about what sex looks like, we should worry about the singular importance we assign it, and move towards thinking about it as just like anything else. The Sex Myth will make you rethink the way you think about the role of sex in your life, whatever it looks like.

Not convinced? Don’t have time? The following nine quotations illustrate the philosophy beneath The Sex Myth, and how to fight it.

1. Culture demands we speak sex aloud in the name of liberation.

“In the fifty years since the sexual revolution, there have been concrete changes in what we know about sex and the scope of the behaviors we engage in. But the most significant transformations in the was that we engage with sexuality have taken place inside our heads. They are less about what we do than they are about the way we think about sex — about the types of behavior we celebrate and those we condemn. We have moved from a culture that demanded we keep sexuality hidden from view to one that demands we speak it out loud in the name of liberation.”

2. Repression is sexy.

“[F]or many of us, sexuality is still intimately entwined with questions of freedom and resistance.

Partly, this is because the ways in which we are sexual are still limited by culture and politics — especially for those of us who are women, gay or lesbian, or transgender, or whose sexual expression falls outside the continuum of what is considered to be ‘normal’ or desirable. But there is another reason we are able to hold two seemingly contradictory positions — the feeling of being unprecedentedly free and that of being unfairly oppressed — at the same time. And that’s because there is something kind of sexy about the idea that our sexuality is being repressed.”

3. Regulation is still regulation.

“Where once we were condemned for being too sexual, today we are admonished for not being sexual enough. Where it was considered perverse to engage in any activity more adventurous than the missionary position, today you risk being labeled boring if you don’t. In our attempt to overturn the rules that once governed our sexuality, we have replaced one brand of regulation with another.”

4. Sex is seen as consumable.

“[A]n active sex life doesn’t only satisfy us erotically; it represents desirability, self-agency, and charisma. If consumer culture trades on the promise that we will find ourselves through the items we purchase, consumer sex promises that we will discover ourselves through sex. Who we sleep with, what we desire, and the acts we engage in are all part of a broader expression of personal taste.”

5. “Normal” doesn’t make sense.

“For a word that is so central to how we understand sex, what we consider to be normal is surprisingly amorphous. In its most literal sense, what’s ‘normal’ is a matter of statistics: an objective measure of how frequently a given experience, attitude, or behavior occurs within a population. In a medical setting, normality is synonymous with health and abnormality with disease and dysfunction. Culturally speaking, what qualifies as normal and what doesn’t is a reflection of shared values and assumptions. People and practices that are held in high esteem are usually also labeled ‘normal,’ whether their experiences are common or not, while those that are regarded with suspicion and contempt are labeled ‘abnormal.’ Normality, in this social context, is a synonym for ‘okay,’ while abnormality is equated with perversion or defect.”

6. Also we are all using the word “normal” incorrectly.

“What is ‘normal’ is not a value judgment in and of itself. In any group of people, some beliefs, experiences, and physical traits will be more common than others – there will be an average height, for example, and an average number of friends and acquaintances. The issue arises from the moral and emotional weight that we attach to these numbers, when we start using them as a guide not just for what is, but for what we should be.”

7. “Good sex” is whatever sex feels good to your body in that moment.

“If there is anything ‘dysfunctional’ about out current approach to sex, it does not reside in our bodies, but in the way that we perceive sex and sensuality.

We treat sex as something that can be mechanized and perfected, through the acquisition of skills and techniques, the development of ‘signature moves,’ and a focus on the performance of pleasure rather than the sensation of it. But the problem is not that we are ‘doing it wrong.’ It is that we have been told that there are only a handful of very specific ways to do it right. That ‘good sex’ is whatever looks sexy through a camera or sounds exciting written down on the page, rather than what feels good in our bodies in the moment.”

8. You are not your sexual history.

“Our sexual histories are not unblemished mirrors of our souls but an ever-changing and unpredictable series of events that, while they may have meaning in our lives at any particular moment, do not define us.”

9. Sex is neither inherently good nor bad.

“[S]ex is neither inherently good nor bad; neither intrinsically empowering nor oppressive. We don’t need to bottle it up and restrict its use in order to keep ourselves safe, but neither do we need to worship it on order to set ourselves free. And just as attempts to reframe sex as a transcendent, emancipating force haven’t made it free from cultural regulation, nor will problematizing it as a ‘negative’ force eliminate the pressure to be sexual in particular, socially desirable ways.

Dismantling the Sex Myth means seeking a previously unarticulated middle ground, one that is neither blindly affirming nor formidably fearful. It means embracing sex not as a source of transcendence or transformation, but as sociologist Stevi Jackson puts it, ‘as part of the fabric of routine day-to-day social life,’ an act like any other.”

Carolyn Yates is the NSFW Consultant, and was formerly the NSFW Editor (2013–2018) and Literary Editor, for Autostraddle.com. Her writing has appeared in Nylon, Refinery29, The Toast, Bitch, Xtra!, Jezebel, and elsewhere. She recently moved to Los Angeles from Montreal. Find her on twitter.

Carolyn has written 941 articles for us.

18 Comments

  1. I’ve just finished The Sex Myth, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s short and engaging, so very recommended. Thanks for pulling out the best bits Carolyn!

    It’s so refreshing to read someone say that sex isn’t necessarily the most important thing in a person’s life. Sex is great but so are other things. It’s an obvious point really but I’d never realised how much I’d absorbed the idea that sex is more magical than anything else. It feels freeing to consider sex in a holistic way, as one aspect of a multifaceted life.

    • “It’s so refreshing to read someone say that sex isn’t necessarily the most important thing in a person’s life.”

      As the above mentioned in this thread and some other comments below, it is great to see this mentioned. Given that a lot of our pop culture is shaped around “OMG I haven’t had sex in three months, OMG I’m such a freak, I must get laid”.

      As someone who current immediate social environment isn’t particularly conducive to meeting new partners (for various reasons) – I could either choose to actively seek people out on Tinder and it’s equivalents in my free time, or do what I actually do and hang out with my mates, play sport, go running or chill out reading or watching TV and seeing shows.

      Being a raging introvert with a highly social job contributes significantly to these life choices but I still feel like a freak when I realise how long the “dry spell” has actually been (especially as a 30-something).

      • I think the idea that “sex isn’t necessarily the most important thing in a person’s life.” is particularly refreshing as someone whose identity is based around the kind of sex I hypothetically want to have.

        Sometimes I feel weird consuming queer media and identifying so strongly with queer people when I am not having queer sex. But I think that’s silly.

  2. I read this book a few months ago and had a lot of things I wanted to discuss, thank you to Carolyn for broaching it!

    I sometimes think it’s difficult to argue for extricating things/social concepts from their perceived “value” and significance, because it’s hard for anything we do or any component of our lives to exist in a vacuum. But I thought the Sex Myth had a lot of strong points and observations. Great book to summarize!

  3. I have not read the book and I really enjoyed many of the things that were said in this review. This line, ” Hills argues that rather than worrying about what sex looks like, we should worry about the singular importance we assign it, and move towards thinking about it as just like anything else”, is the only thing that bothered me. Although, we should all have our own thoughts and feelings regarding sex, I do not believe that we should look at it like just anything else in our lives. It is a HUGE thing, in my opinion. Truthfully, sex is the only thing that separates any other relationship in our lives into categories like family/friends and lover/partner/spouse, etc.

    • Actually, I really like this idea that sex isn’t that important, or isn’t the MOST important. I mean, I am asexual, so I really disagree with your statement that sex is the only thing that divides our relationships into categories. It is really unimportant to me personally, and the focus put on it culturally is alienating and I just don’t understand it. It’s kind of nice to have a book about sex that doesn’t act as if “sex is the most valuable, pleasurable, important and defining thing we can do.” Just that statement there feels revolting and suffocating to me. Anyways, I haven’t read the book yet, but it is on my list.

      • I hope “revolting and suffocating” thing doesn’t sound super judgey or like a personal criticism. That definitely isn’t the intent! Just trying to express my feelings about this cultural attitude.

    • Sex only separates those categories for certain people though. For many people sex slips across most of those categories or none of them at all. It’s the importance that you place on that sex and the meaning that you assign to it that makes the difference, really.

      I also am uncomfortable with the idea that just because I’m sleeping with someone that my relationship with them becomes more important or somehow different. All of my relationships are unique and intimate in their own ways and sex is sometimes a part of that and sometimes not.

  4. I love these excerpts. Adding it to my reading list.

    As someone who grew up feeling sexually undesirable for a number of reasons, expressing myself sexually (and embracing “deviance” as an affirming identity) became like a Top 10 part of my life for a long time. It really isn’t anymore and that is liberating in and of itself. Like, I am still sex-positive and sexual as a person and interested in kink, but I just don’t assign it the same value I did in my teens and early 20’s. As far as sex in my relationship goes, I’m more concerned that we are communicating well and supporting each other and making time to share intimate experiences and adventures than if we are boning the requisite one time per day/week/month/whatever.

    This book sounds right on, in my opinion.

  5. Added to the reading list.

    I think these ideas are so important. The 60’s and 70’s introduced the idea of ‘sexual liberation,’ but a very limited notion of it. Like, more of a “feel free to have all of the sex you want!” without the corresponding “also, it’s ok if you don’t want to have sex!”

    Sometimes I feel like I’m as neurotic about sex now as I was about food when I was anorexic. Do I have enough sex? Too much? The right kind? It’s exhausting. I think Hills has a good point — sex is cool, but it’s also just another mundane activity. Let’s not blow it out of proportion. Let’s give ourselves a break, and think about other things for a change.

  6. It is really important to consider the programming we unconsciously accept around sex and sexuality. I have shamed myself a lot (and been shamed by others) for not having enough sex or not having good enough sex. It can be crippling when trying to interact with a cute person who you feel in your heart will be repulsed if they hear about all your hang ups in the context of this “liberated” culture.

  7. I definitely need to read this!

    I would argue that queer people have to deal with the idea that sex is of utmost importance more so than straight people: Since our sexual orientation is not the “norm” (in terms of percent of the population), we are forced to talk about our sexuality more often when coming out, introducing partners, ect. (Straight) people then have more questions, observations, ect. about our sex lives than non-queer people have to deal with. For example, when a co-worker introduces her boyfriend, I am meeting a new person, but if I were to introduce my girlfriend, my co-worker now knows I’m gay and from my experience, I am asked more often about “how do you have sex?” and other invasive sex questions. Basically, I sometimes feel like the straight world assumes that sex as an act is a huge part of who I am simply because I’m not straight.

    • Oh my goddess yes! I often feel like queer community has a strong focus on sex as well (depending on the space), maybe due to a lot of implicit pressure both from straight people and other queer people to “prove” our sexuality or queerness

      • and I mean in a lot of various ways like, a heavy cruisey vibe at most queer events and spaces that I go to, and not having a lot of queer events or spaces that are not centered around drinking or dancing, to begin with!

  8. I appreciate this discussion. In my relationships, I have constantly been discounted due to not desiring sex often enough, which also means I have constantly dated people who give sex a high priority or use it as their only form of expression or.. I had a main point which is that this shows me that I’m not the only person who enjoys sex but doesn’t place it as a non negotiable performance. Thank you

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