The Sex Myth: The Gap Between Our Fantasies and Reality, out this week from Simon & Schuster, is an in-depth look at sex and sexuality that explores the attitudes, ideas, misconceptions, and cultural influences that guide millennials. Written by New York City-based journalist Rachel Hills, The Sex Myth is by turns scholarly and intimate, revealing the innermost thoughts and feelings of a small sample of interview subjects. But it is also ultimately depressing.
Though limited in scope, The Sex Myth nudges readers to consider how sexual behavior impacts self-esteem and membership in desired social groups within secular Western culture.
Hills’ original interest in this topic, she writes, came from personal insecurity and she set out to discover what other people in her age cohort were feeling, doing, and saying about sex and relationships. As she began her research, however, she decided to confine her interviews to interrogating the ways sex functions as both a social and biological act for young, single adults. She utilized a tiny sample—approximately 200 men and women from the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. This, of course, means that her findings are quite limited, for despite the inclusion of people of every sexual orientation, race, education level, and social class, it’s impossible to generalize from such a small retinue of subjects. What we have, instead, is a smattering of anecdotal opinion from the largely religiously-unobservant West—members of insular and highly-regulated religious communities, be they Christian, Hindu, Jewish, or Muslim, are not included. Also missing are the voices and experiences of those who are already parents.
Her basic argument is that despite the media’s near-constant references to sex, seduction, and personal allure, there are several “sex myths” that undermine honest and realistic portrayals of human sexual behavior. “The first layer of the sex myth,” Hills writes in her introduction, is “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, [means] being sexual in one very particular way.” That is, sex must always be exciting, spontaneous, and inventive.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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The second aspect of the myth, she continues, is the belief that sex is “a source of greater thrills and more perfect pleasure” than any other activity.
As such, it stands to reason that the idea of sexual freedom, what the media calls “hook-up culture,” has been elevated in the public imagination. “We expect young adults to experiment sexually not only because they are physically mature humans with adult desires, but also because of the broader fantasy of youth as a time of unfettered independence, ripe with possibilities that have not yet been diminished by the weight of responsibility or convention,” Hills writes.
Or do we? The key word here is fantasy, and as Hills documents, reality reveals that most young adults live far less adventurous lives than their elders may assume. “Just as our predecessors were stigmatized for failing to achieve the old benchmarks of sexual purity, so too are many people today suffering for their struggles to meet the new standard of sexual ‘freedom,’” she writes.
What’s more, the media’s focus on websites known for promoting no-strings-attached liaisons has had a deleterious impact on many of the millennials Hills spoke to, fueling their anxieties about what she dubs “performance, desirability, and what it means to be normal.” Add in the pervasive notion of sex as transformative and transcendent, and you have a recipe for insecurity writ large. In short, Hills found that the messages being transmitted to young people are that if they’re not having sex, or if the sex they’re having is more ho-hum than spectacular, then they, themselves, must be doing something wrong.
Things get even thornier if one’s desires are considered kinky or outside the mainstream. “The acceptance of previously marginalized sexual groups like gays and lesbians hinges on their fitting into the ‘norm’ in every other way,” she explains. “It is relatively easy to embrace a pair of conventionally attractive, conventionally masculine men who also happen to enjoy middle-class domestic pursuits like dinner parties, barbeques, monogamy, and the beach.” On the other hand, if the same couple frolics with multiple partners or expresses an affinity for bondage, domination, or sadomasochism, they might get the stink eye or worse from friends or acquaintances, since the ideal pair is expected to conform to a heteronormative, nuclear family model. The reward for this conformity, of course, is social status and inclusion.
Fitting in, and getting the perks of belonging, also influences who we partner with. “Part of the reason we pursue hotness and horniness,” Hills explains, “is because we hope they will make us more desirable and therefore more lovable.” Nowhere is this more apparent than in a chapter called “Masculinity: Inside the Boys Club.” Here, Hills interviews a range of men, most but not all straight. While she notes that expressions of overt homophobia and sexism in her interactions with them were rare, stereotypical notions of gender differences were pervasive. In fact, the idea that “men want sex in a way that women don’t” was dominant. In addition, the men presented their desires to Hills as “fixed and unchanging, an unrelenting biological need” that prompted them to “fuck anyone who will let them, whether they find them attractive or not.”
Hills adds that “bro culture” has other facets as well, and notes that male friendships are routinely cemented through tales of sexual conquest. The work of University of Pennsylvania sociologist David Grazian, cited by Hills, bears this out. Grazian surveyed 243 heterosexual men in 2007. All ranged in age between 18 and 25. His finding? That the men got off on boasting about their prowess and enjoyed heightened status as “players” among their male peers after they dished about their sexual mastery.
Needless to say, Hills continues, “taken to extremes, this kind of masculine bravado can have violent consequences, particularly in environments like sports clubs, fraternities, and the military, which bind men who fit the mold together at the expense of everyone else.”
And women, clearly, are more often than not the ones who pay the price of this grandstanding, because they are the ones who are typically assaulted, “slut-shamed,” or treated like pariahs based on their sexual behavior.
The pressure they feel may be a reflection of that, at least in part. Almost to a one, the women Hills spoke with said they felt as if they “should” be more fun, more fearless, and more aggressive when it comes to sex. That’s easier imagined than done, however, and many spoke of this idealized persona as an impossible standard. Some said they were opting to focus on career or school but nonetheless felt bad about themselves, as if they should be able to juggle everything and do it all. At the same time, they also mentioned fear of being slammed for having “too many” partners or dressing provocatively.
Then there’s the head-heart split. As Hills reports, virtually everyone she interviewed understood that media portrayals of hook-ups and passionate liaisons were no more real than the idea that driving the right car or drinking the right bourbon will lead to happiness and success. “They believed deeply and viscerally,” she reports, “that their value and identity lay in something more than how often they had sex, how many people they had slept with, or how adventurous (or not) they were between the sheets. Being able to identify a false ideal in one thing. To reject it in the most vulnerable, uncertain part of your being, is another.”
In essence, she notes that it’s still hard for many people to shake off the notion that a 30-year-old virgin is anything but a loser or emotional basket case. Similarly, it’s hard not to feel bad when your dating profile gets no hits or when your attempts to contact someone on Tinder or Match are rebuffed or ignored.
Worse, it feels like a sucker-punch to acknowledge that sexual experimentation and risk-taking are as fraught for women today as they were in past generations, that women and girls are often as uncertain and scared in 2015 as their mothers and grandmothers before them.
Nevertheless, as Hills indicates, it’s also impossible to know what it means to live a sexually authentic and honest life when women and girls continue to be blamed for rape and sexual violence; when homosexuality is still considered abnormal by many people (and in much of the world remains illegal); and when sex myths keep most of us feeling insecure about our bodies, dreams, and desires. Lastly, she argues that as long as sex is described as both the source of human liberation and the source of degradation, we’ll likely perpetuate fear, embarrassment, and confusion about our biological and social urges.
Is it any wonder that I found the book—with its cogent argument that millennials are far less sexually liberated that we have been led to believe—depressing?