I first encountered the work of Rachel Hills in 2012, when she interviewed me for an essay in the Atlantic exploring asexuality. The conversation itself was incredibly stimulating and the ensuing piece of work was the best thing I’ve read about asexuality in the media. I’ve been waiting since then for her book, The Sex Myth, with high expectations of what it will include. It doesn’t disappoint. It’s an engaging and thoughtful overview of what Rachel calls “the gap between our fantasies and realities”. The lived space of ambivalence and anxiety in which so many of us dwell, so much of the time, yet which often resists articulation in a sexual culture that offers us an expansive array of ways to talk about sex acts but far fewer to talk about what sexuality itself means to us.
My own interest in this topic stems in large part from my research on asexuality. More specifically, I remember my bewilderment at the clear patterning that could be seen in how those who weren’t asexual had responded to attempts by participants in my research to explain their asexuality to those around them. The same responses came up time and time again: there must be something wrong with your hormones, you’re just a late bloomer, you must have been abused as a child, maybe you just haven’t met the right person yet. Asexuality often proves incomprehensible, at least initially, to non-asexual people: how can someone live without sex? Yet so many do, for significant swathes of the life course, if not as a permanent feature of existence. This prima facie incomprehensibility of asexuality reveals features of a broader sexual culture which often escape notice, at least if we inhabit them unproblematically much of the time.
Throughout The Sex Myth, Rachel’s concern is to understand those experiences when people don’t inhabit this sexual culture unproblematically. As she puts it, “The Sex Myth fades into the background when we are secure in our choices” but “It is when our footing is less solid that it is most powerful”. The uncertainties and stumblings, the private anxieties and unspoken agonies, so often attached to a part of life which is publicly proclaimed to be an unparalleled locus of human fulfilment. She’s a considerate interviewer and engaging writer, never failing to produce a readable pen portrait which nonetheless offers important insights into the wider themes of the book. The prevailing impression I was left with by the book was that everyone suffers under the sex myth, as the space in which one can just be contracts in the face of a creeping pathologization that perpetually leads people to ask “am I normal?” I particularly enjoyed her discussion of the politics of kink to this end. She deftly unravels how our neo-libertine culture often imposes unspoken limits on those drawn to kink and places further burdens on those who lack interest in it.
It’s reminded me of what had once been my post-doc plans: continuing my interest in a/sexuality studies by exploring the lived experience of sexuality for other groups for whom sexual normativity creates profound problems. But maybe looking at outlier cases misses the point, even if it could prove methodologically productive. What really interests me are the everyday experiences, private moments of quiet shame for failing to live up to a standard one might neither assent to nor fully understand. I’d like to excavate this baggage, understand it better conceptually but also explore the new vocabularies to talk about sexuality and intimacy which I’m familiar with from the asexual community but which can also be found elsewhere. Anxiety pervades contemporary sexuality and I’ve yet to encounter a convincing reason why this needs to be the case.