You’re Not the Only One on Netflix: The Sex Myth and the College Student

When is the last time you heard this narrative in the media about sex?:

You’re okay. There’s nothing wrong with you.
Do what feels right to you –and it’s okay to not be “doing” anything at all.

Probably not in recent memory, especially the last part! That’s why we so badly need to read and share the conversation started by Australian journalist and feminist Rachel Hills in The Sex Myth: The Gap Between Our Fantasies and Reality (Simon & Schuster, August 2015).

Over six years, Hills did research and interviewed hundreds of men and women around the world about what today’s current sexual ideal looks like and how it affects people's lives. And surprise, she didn't do it because she thought of herself as a ‘sexpert’ — she wrote the book inspired by her own feelings of inadequacy and insecurity in her early twenties.

To describe the prevailing ideology about sex that we find in American (or Americanized) culture, Hills explains the two major parts of the “Sex Myth” that we are sold by the media (and our own social circles):

Sex Myth, Part I: We are in an era of sexual freedom.

The media feeds us a line that all young people are having sex all the time, with moves straight from the front page of Cosmopolitan. We can do whatever we want and be unashamed! Sexual freedom, woo!
But how many times have you heard that fantasy equated to “doing your twenties right,” and not having sex (whether by choice or lack of opportunity) implicitly or explicitly equated to “missing out?”

Hills cites sociologist Michael Kimmel, who found that male college students across the US, on average, thought 80% of their classmates had sex on any given weekend. In fact, the real number is closer to 5–10%.

If the cultural narrative is that young people do and should be having a lot of (especially, ‘unattached’) sex, it’s easy to feel ‘not cool enough’ or ‘not sexy enough’ if that’s not true in your life.

Clearly, such a narrative isn’t exactly the definition of freedom –although it looks much different than the days of yore when sex was constrained in the opposite direction.

Sex Myth, Part II: Your sex life defines you.

If the first part of the Sex Myth is that we’re all free to have (preferably a lot of) sex, the second part is the corollary that our sex lives reflect who we are more than any other trait. People who aren’t having sex or who have ‘vanilla’ sex with a long-term partner are boring. On the other hand, people who brag about their Tinder exploits or openly talk about BDSM are exciting, cool, and sooo 21st century.

To illustrate the point, Hills actually dedicates the book to her friend Monica, who made an impression when she said she had not had sex in two years. All along, Hills had seen her as the outgoing, ‘cool girl’ that would never happen to.

Another striking anecdote is from Hills’ interview with a young 25-year old fashion blogger, who has been with her boyfriend for seven years. Because he has been her only partner and they can sometimes go weeks or months without having sex, Greta feels some discomfort in that “her sex life doesn’t fit her identity as a progressive and powerful young woman.” She’s totally content with the actual sex (or lack of it) that she has, but a Cosmo-type advice column would probably give her “73 tips to blow his mind” that she should be practicing to “get out of a rut” and have a “hot, steamy summer.”

Under The Sex Myth, ‘the personal is political’ more than ever, and what we actually want comes second to what (or who) we want to be.

Side note: One of the tucked-away facts in the book that I found super interesting was a brief passage on how sex became so intertwined with identity. Hills traces this to the beginning of industrial society in the mid-1600s and the move to cities full of strangers. Apparently, there was a switch in norms from feudal society: acts relating to the body (sex, sleep, bathing, etc.) became more private, while matters of politics and civic interest became more public. As sex became more mysterious, it followed that when knowing about someone else’s sex life means you know them very well.

Why else are all slumber party (or drinking) games about ‘revealing’ who did what with whom?

What the Sex Myth means for the college student

Peppered with important statistics, fun anecdotes about interview subjects who land on a wide spectrum of sexuality, and digestible bits of sociology, feminist theory, and historical throwbacks, The Sex Myth packs a lot of information into a format still light enough for a summer beach read.

But I think a life-changing book isn’t one that you recount for the details of the plot line or the statistical research. In the vein of the famous Maya Angelou quote that ‘people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel’…a life-changing, unforgettable book is one that makes you feel something new about yourself.

The Sex Myth does exactly that. Reading the book feels like a relief.

It is a reassurance that sex doesn’t have to matter or carry as much meaning as we are taught it does, and that there are few ways to go wrong.

Thinking about me and my friends’ lives at a university in New York City, there are a few lessons I took away from The Sex Myth that I would want to share with other young folks— especially at the beginning of college, when expectations are all over the map:

  • You don’t have to be hooking up with people to be ‘doing college right’ or ‘doing your twenties’ right. In fact, most people don’t.
  • In a relationship, the amount or type of sex you have does not mark the health or happiness of the relationship (see: the anecdote about Greta and others). And those factors can change in any direction over the course of your relationship, without spelling out doom. (The Sex Myth isn’t just a book for the angsty single person.)
  • As Tinder, OKCupid, and other online dating platforms are normalized, it is totally great to be all over that…or to be over it. Wanting to meet people offline is no more ‘old-fashioned’ or more ‘authentic’ — it’s just what you want, and there’s no need to feel better or worse than anyone else about that.
  • Watch out for the times when you and others perpetuate the Sex Myth; for example, there may be moments when you support the image of having an ‘exciting’ or ‘adventurous’ sex life in conversation, just for the sake of fitting in.
  • Also, watch out for when you default to talking about sex and dating as a way to understanding someone. We definitely shouldn’t keep sex a mystery, but there are so many other questions we can ask each other to instigate real conversations!

Above all else, choose yourself, and share the story of how you do that.

Read The Sex Myth. See the stories we are told about sexuality for what they are — stories — and consider whether they are the ones that could be serving us best (arguably, not). Share the book with people crafting the rom-com plot lines and the news reports about wild parties and sex-crazed teens and the sex advice columns at your favorite magazines (from Cosmo to Esquire). Maybe write down a story about what sex and dating actually look like for you at this point in your life. Share that story. Tell a new story in the way you interact with partners and friends.

By being real with each other, we can #BreakTheSexMyth.

Note: I highly encourage you to follow Rachel Hills on Twitter and Tumblr. She’s awesome, and I thank her for sending me an advance copy of the book.