Tell us a bit about yourself!
I’m a writer living in New York City (originally from Sydney, Australia), and the author of a book called The Sex Myth: The Gap Between Our Fantasies and Reality. The book examines the way we think and feel about sex and relationships, and how our perceptions of how we “should be” shape our self-image. It’s based on interviews with more than 200 people, as well as the better half of a decade hanging out in libraries reading journal articles on the history, sociology and philosophy of sex.
When did you first start writing about sex?
I’ve been a freelance journalist for ten years now, most writing on feminist issues. At the time I started working there was a lot of discussion around “raunch culture” – the idea that women were self-objectifying by wearing short skirts, going to pole dancing classes, or reading Playboy – and some of my earliest articles engaged with those debates.
A little while after that I was commissioned to write a story on twenty-something virgins for an Australian women’s magazine, and a little while after that I began working on the ideas that would form the basis of The Sex Myth.
What made you want to write The Sex Myth?
When I first started working on the book, I was at a point in my life where my sex life was my greatest source of insecurity and dissatisfaction – mostly because I wasn’t having any. That dissatisfaction wasn’t just about a thwarted physical urge, it was also about a sense that my lack of sex life signified that I wasn’t desirable, or the interesting, modern, liberal woman I liked to think I was. Which in turn was a reflection of the broader cultural idea that having (good, regular, interesting) sex is part of the package of being a “successful” person, and that if you’re not there’s something wrong with you.
When I realized I wasn’t alone in these concerns, and became aware of the impact they were having on other people, I knew it was a topic I had to explore more deeply.
When you were getting started, was it awkward to ask people questions about such a personal topic?
I didn’t find it awkward at all! Most of the issues I interview people about are pretty personal, whether they’re about sex or not. But that’s not because they’re about what people do with their genitals – it’s because they relate to deeply emotional experiences. Similarly, most of the interviews I did for my book weren’t particularly “raunchy” or explicit. They were just getting people to share their thoughts and experiences.
Are there any ‘tricks’ to getting people to talk such intimate things?
The “tricks” are similar to any other interview – you want to make the person you’re talking to feel safe, like they can share what they think and not be misrepresented or judged for it. And then, of course, you need to follow through on those promises.
When I was interviewing people for The Sex Myth, I’d always start by asking them why they’d volunteered to be interviewed for the book. In many cases, there was an issue they were passionate about, or something about their own experiences they wanted to share – and letting the person share that helped the interview get off to a more natural start.
From there, we’d work through the key themes of the book – media representations of sexuality, the standards they felt they should be living up to, how they felt those standards differed for men and for women, and so on. But the aim was always to keep the interview conversational, and to make it feel as little like an “interview” as possible.
What was the first interview that really surprised you and made you reconsider what was ‘normal’?
For me, the “pain point” that led me to write the book was my fear that I wasn’t sexually experienced enough. But a lot of the first people who reached out to me got in touch because they felt “abnormal” in other ways – because they were kinky, or polyamorous, or transgender, or because they’d had sex with a number of people society deems to be too high.
Talking to them didn’t change my perception of what was normal – in the sense of the sexual standards that are laid out for us – but it did help to take me out of my own insecurities and experiences, and reminded me of the many, many ways in which people can be made to feel deviant or otherwise wanting.
Can you share a few of your favorite stories?
I have a soft spot for everyone whose story ended up in the book. I love the way they talk, the way they think, and how open and honest they were with me, as well.
Probably my favorite story in the book is Henry’s, a twentysomething British guy who was a virgin when I first met him, and who felt terrible about that. Of everyone I spoke to for the book, he probably underwent the biggest transformation. He travelled into London from out of town to speak with me, but was so nervous that he visibly shook as he spoke. A few months later, he reached out again saying he was embarrassed by what he’d told me, and that he had come to the conclusion that he just wasn’t meant to have sex. Ever. A year after that, we were in touch again and he’d just had sex for the first time. Now he’s really into the BDSM scene.
But like I said, I love them all! I love the witty turns of phrase of people like Meghan in Chapter 4, who wryly describes herself as having had “the intellectual depth of a sloth.” I love the wisdom people like Nyn in Chapter 3 and Brit in Chapter 6 brought to describing their experiences. I love that guys like Max and Andrew and Nate gave me a glimpse into how guy-on-guy bonding works. And I personally relate a tonne to interviewees like Cara, Courtney and Sarah, who struggled with not being sexually active in a culture that uses sex to define everything from our desirability to our value.
How have these interviews changed the way you view sex? What do you wish people knew about sex?
In the first instance, they made me feel a lot less alone. I started writing about sex not because I was super sexually confident but because I felt uncomfortable with my sexual history, and the fact that so many other people shared my insecurities came as a massive relief to me. It has come as a giant relief to many others who have read the book as well.
I also feel like talking to people about sex has made me almost unshockable. Acts that other people consider pervy or disgusting are mostly pretty matter-of-fact to me now. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from talking to hundreds of people about sex, it’s that no matter how transgressive a sexual identity or behavior might seem, for the people who are into it, it’s just an everyday, “normal” act. And very often, at its root, it’s about love.
What’s one thing you’ve learned that any of us could apply to our lives, regardless of what our sex life is like?
That there is more than one way to have a good sex life. And you don’t need to have sex in one particular way or with a particular frequency in order to be a desirable, interesting, valuable, or indeed liberated person. Most of us will go through phases where we have no sex, where we have lots of sex, where we are monogamous, where we have sex with people we don’t know very well, and so on, and none of these chapters define us. Nor does not experiencing one of these phases mean there’s something wrong with you, either.
Basically, you are almost definitely okay just the way you are (unless you are sexually assaulting people or hurting puppies), and your sex life doesn’t define your value as a person.
Thanks so much for sharing, Rachel! Do you guys have any questions for her about sex or the process of interviewing so many people?
P.S. Twin Citians! Rachel will actually be in town on August 24th doing a reading at Magers & Quinn! You should go!