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The Sex Myth is a very welcome addition to the many books about the changing culture of sex. Rachel Hills scrutinizes current beliefs that we must be "sexy, sexually active, and skilled in bed in order to be adequate human beings." She emphasizes that most people's sex lives do not match up to the ideas that they have or what other people imagine other people are doing. So the book is about the mismatch between our representations of sex and our actual experiences. Hills relies on different kinds of information: academic studies, popular studies, and some anecdotes of people she has interviewed. This is a smart book, full of information from different sources that helps to support or contextualize her analysis of sexuality and gender.
Hills discusses how ideals of masculinity and femininity have changed over the decades and how these play into different conceptions of sexuality. Male gender roles have long been linked with taking a dominant position with a sexual partner, but men are becoming more flexible in their understanding of what it takes to be a man. There's even more change in ideals of femininity. Women no longer need to be passive, and can ask for or even demand pleasure. Hills emphasizes how the idea of a passive woman is a relatively recent ideal and how ancient views of femininity saw women as sexually driven and powerful. Modern women are subtly taught that they need to wait for a special love and that it is unwomanly to demand too much, and this influences their sexual experience. The notion of sexual purity still has a strong hold over many women. But in rejecting that, feminists run the risk of just embracing hook up culture. Hills suggests that this is not necessary empowering or enriching for women.
However, the most interesting part of The Sex Myth is the examination of how we are now pressured to expect a wonderful sex life as a basic requirement of a relationship. There's also more pressure to go beyond vanilla sex and try more kinky sex. Hills is not necessarily against this, and she argues that it may make a relationship more rewarding. But she also argues that there may be a natural ebb and flow of sexual energy in a relationship, and it isn't necessarily a disaster if sex plays a minor part for a while. The danger is that the Sex Myth will make us anxious that we are not measuring up in our lives. By raising the importance of sex in our lives, it makes us feel deficient when we don't live up to ideals. Furthermore, then medicine and experts are there to step in to cure our supposed dysfunctions.
The fundamental proposal behind The Sex Myth is that sex is just not that important in defining who we are. Of course, sex is important to many people, but Hills resists cultural rules telling us how we should live or what choices are worthwhile. It's an interesting idea, and it does seem to be good to be non-judgmental. Maybe it is true that any preference that doesn't hurt others should be acceptable, and we should not judge people who differ from the norm. But there might also be sexual wisdom, and it may be that sexuality is a major part of some people's identity. It might be possible to give more advice than "do what feels good." There may be typical responses to sex and it could be useful to know about them. It might also be that without exploration people just don't know what they like, and so the current flow of advice to experiment with sex and achieve greater fulfilment could really pay off. So Hills's arguments against cultural pressures regarding how we should live our sexual lives, while worth paying attention to, don't show that we should resist all sexual standards. What she does do is show that we should take all the expertise and advice about sex with a pinch of salt.
© 2015 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York
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