Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Sex Appeal, Beauty, and Normalcy: "The Sex Myth" by Rachel Hills

The first time I had sex, I couldn’t wait to tell the first friend I saw. As it were, the first acquaintance I ran into afterward was my high school social studies teacher—I was in college at the time but he was visiting the campus, and I spent what would’ve been a very pleasant coffee date with him desperately trying to not blurt out, I’m not a virgin anymore, Mr. Tatum. After that excruciating coffee, I saw a friend, grabbed her arm, and said what I’d been dying to say. She was excited for me, and asked all the right questions that allowed me to give all the right answers. As we talked, I became aware of the light behind her head, the atmosphere that suddenly seemed thinner, lighter; I remember seeing the faded blue of her chambray shirt as suddenly, intensely vivid and thinking, Everything looks different now. I had been a virgin, and now I wasn’t, and these eyes were the ones I’d be seeing the world with from now on.

This, as laid out in Rachel Hills’ thoroughly engaging new book, is part of the Sex Myth. We’ve come to think of sex as more than something we do for recreation and procreation; western societies now frame sex as a statement about who we are. You’re not seen as complete unless you’re having sex, and plenty of it, and in just the right ways—for all the sexual permissiveness we’ve come to grant ourselves, there are still just as many ways to get sex wrong. The idea of the Sex Myth serves as a regulation of sorts, shaping not simply what we do in bed but our public and private identities.

A book about sex, particularly one filled with as many “aha!” moments as this one, is going to be enough for plenty to pick it up. If you’re interested in beauty and physical appearance on top of that, The Sex Myth has even greater wealth. Hills skillfully lays out the ways that sex has become entwined with people’s images, including how we use appearance to give a managed vision of sexuality. Not that we’re directly advertising our presumed sexual interests on our bodies (though some do). But as Hills points out, it’s easy to overlook the intersection of sex and identity when we tick all the socially approved boxes. Looking like a sexually desirable woman might be on my agenda at times, but I’d never taken the connection between self-presentation and sex farther than that. That’s an easy place for me to reside in because I’ve got plenty of sexual permission: I’m a heterosexual, partnered, cisgendered white chick who isn’t just monogamous but is serially monogamous, so it’s presumed I have the sexual experience a woman in her 30s “should” have. There’s not a lot of deviance I’m forced to hide, ameliorate, or justify. But of course my sexual self-presentation asserts itself beyond my appeal: I dress in women’s clothes, I have long hair and wear makeup, I reveal enough skin to show that I’m not uncomfortable with the mere idea of sex, but not so much that I push the line of “slut.”

In other words, I look “normal,” which files me into a bin with plenty of other compliant-looking women. Looking “normal” is certainly no guarantee of actual compliance (thank heavens), but you wouldn’t know that from looking at the pile of knee-length skirts and tasteful kitten heels lying in our wake. Sex, looks, and normalcy: Humans walk a fine line here to avoid falling on the “wrong” side, and women have more experience in navigating that line than men. (There is no male equivalent of “lady on the streets, freak between the sheets.”) We’re educated in how to look good but not like we tried too hard, how to advertise our sex appeal without looking aggressive. In the same way, the Sex Myth has men and women alike attempting to appear a carefully calibrated line of “normal”: sexually deviant enough to be interesting but not so deviant as to actually be labeled perverted, ready and willing at all times but without any whiff of desperation. It’s a variation on the sexual double bind for women that has existed for centuries, with the twist that it does its policing under the guise of liberation. As Hills writes, “sex doesn’t need to be actively suppressed in order to be controlled.”

More than what our looks might articulate about sexuality, our looks articulate the Sex Myth itself. Both sex and appearance become stand-ins for other qualities—competence, likability, interestingness. Appearance becomes the first step: We see beauty as the route to sex appeal, and sex appeal as the route to so many other aspects of life’s bounty. Trouble is, these routes are hardly straightforward. Beautiful people aren’t necessarily having more sex, nor are they necessarily more confident in their appeal. Meanwhile, the actual route to confidence about one’s sex appeal—having positive early sexual experiences—remains unconsidered in the culture at large, almost shooed aside in favor of juicier mental equations about sexual satisfaction. It echoes truths about conventional beauty: We think beautiful people are happier, more successful, richer, better, but that’s not quite what’s going on. Good-looking people do indeed benefit from the “halo effect” of being treated as though they have all these qualities, but it’s not like they’re inherently happier or more successful than the rest of us, and the halo effect itself is limited, particularly for women. (Being too good-looking can actually cost a woman in the workplace, depending on her profession.) We keep making false associations between beauty and a better life because those associations don’t feel false. Appearance is in and on our bodies, lending the fallacies of beauty the impression of visceral truth. That goes double for sex.

Breaking these associations would mean to break the Sex Myth, and for that matter, much of the beauty myth as well. The question is what breaking those associations would look like. Severing the assumption that good sex equals a good life would allow for more pleasure for pleasure’s sake, for starters, in much the same way that understanding that beauty doesn’t bring happiness can draw us toward a play-based approach to adornment. It might allow us more genuine fluidity in our sexual lives—fluidity of orientation, libido, approaches to partnerships on the whole. It could even just help us take the pressure off.

Moreover, it might also keep sex private. The politicization of certain aspects of sex has been beneficial in plenty of ways (think queer visibility and reproductive rights). One area where its benefits are more dubious is its effect on appearance, particularly women’s appearance. Beauty and sex interact in a particularly odd way: We use appearance (something public) as a manifestation of our sexuality (something private). Certainly I don’t want a world where we can’t express our sexuality through the way we look—we’ve been there, and it didn’t work. But for plenty of women, giving off an air of desirability has nothing to do with actual desire, whether feeling it or provoking it—yet embodying desire has become so enmeshed with the idea of “looking good” that they're practically synonymous. People are making strides to counter this: Witness Man Repeller, the embrace of nail art as potential subversion (as Tracie Egan Morrissey writes, “Men don’t want to fuck you because of the design painted on your nails”), and The Great Maxi Dress Debate of 2015 (the smartest take of which is here). The woman who takes this approach to self-presentation might be just as much—or just as little—a “freak between the sheets” as her more publicly sexual forerunners. The point is that we won’t know.

Leaving sex in the bedroom when appropriate doesn’t mean being less (or more) sexual, nor does it mean sneering at those who do make it more a part of their public persona. What it might do is help us see it for what it is, instead of what it’s not.


  1. Fascinating. I can't tell you how timely and important this issue is to me right now. Raised a boy with male social-education, I was taught certain things about sex; not being raised a girl, I have little clue about how women are taught about sex. In my journey to explore female thought and experience, I've found myself bumping up against a brick wall here -- female attitudes toward sex (and beauty and sexual allure) elude me and it seems impolite to ask about the subject. Which makes your post and this book especially valuable to me right now. Thanks for the post; I'm rushing out to get the book. Both fill a big gap in my understanding of female life.

    1. I think (hope) that this book will be a part of the very sea change that will help transgender people—and other people—see the actual importance of sex, instead of seeing it for...well, for the myth, I suppose, the idea that it's something more. It's hard because trans issues are only recently beginning to be understood by the culture at large, and part of that understanding is based on the idea that sex is an essential part of who we are. This book, in a certain reading, argues the opposite—but it's certainly not arguing for any sort of backsliding on queer and trans rights. Basically it makes me eager to see where we're at with these issues in, say, 20 years.

    2. Good point, Autumn.

      BTW, I bought the book right after commenting and just finished reading it. It presents a worthy and sound analysis of an often-confusing subject. I'm recommending it to my friends.

      Our culture has a distorted relationship to sexuality -- and that's basic heterosexual sex. When it comes to more complex issues (e.g., people like me), there is simply no understanding. I've waited forty years for society to grasp the nature of my existence and it barely has. I don't hold as much hope for the future as you do. The few people who truly care will figure it out; the large majority who don't, won't.

      Thanks for telling me about this book.

    3. Oh, I'm so glad you enjoyed the book! Hmm—I want to be optimistic about the future, but as someone whose sexuality ticks all the socially approved boxes and STILL runs up against myths being told about "me" (or people like me), well, you raise a good point. I suppose bit by bit we chip away at things—at least I hope.

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