By Heidi Stevens
Somewhere, in our imaginations, most likely, exists the just-right approach to sex.
The right number of partners. The right frequency. The right appetite. The right age of first experience, not too young, not too old.
Journalist Rachel Hills, born and raised in Australia, living now in New York, spent plenty of years worrying that this approach was eluding her.
“When I was in my late teens and early 20s, I was consumed by sex,” she writes in “The Sex Myth: The Gap Between Our Fantasies and Reality” (Simon & Schuster).
“I had grown up on a diet of teen magazines that treated sex with cautious reverence, followed by women’s magazines that celebrated it as a symbol of female empowerment,” she writes. “In the conversations I had with acquaintances, sex was at once a subject of nervous excitement and an unspoken assumption, something it was expected that everyone was doing.”
Except her. She’d graduated from high school and completed four years of college without losing her virginity.
Hills, 33, set out to determine whether her assumptions lined up with reality. For “The Sex Myth,” she traversed the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom interviewing hundreds of young men and women, most born between the early ’80s and mid-’90s, to learn about their sexual behaviors and habits.
“For no demographic group is the link between sex, fun and freedom more powerful than it is for the young and single,” she writes.
Which isn’t to say they’re all having a bunch of it. Quite the contrary, she found. Many men and women, gay and straight, revealed similar fears to Hills’ own.
“For most 20somethings, not taking a stranger home at the end of a party is more typical than picking someone up,” she writes.
“But for young people whose experiences don’t fit the fun, free ideal, there can be a sense that they are missing out on an essential part of their youth.”
Statistically, young people are having sex less frequently than teens in previous generations, according to a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.
From 2011 to 2013, 44 percent of females ages 15 to 19 and 47 percent of males ages 15 to 19 had experienced sexual intercourse at least once. In 1988, 51 percent of female teens reported having had intercourse at least once, and 60 percent of male teens reported they had.
In advance of her book’s release, I chatted with Hills about what she hopes “The Sex Myth” accomplishes, beyond setting the statistical record straight.
“We need a new way of speaking about sex,” she told me. “One that appreciates the role it plays in our lives without overhyping it as the most important thing.”
Those choices might include abstaining altogether.
“A new brand of sexual freedom will incorporate the right not to do it as much as the right to do it,” Hills said. “What I’d really like to see is a world in which people aren’t shamed for liking nonconventional sex acts, for being kinky or polyamorous, for being vanilla and monogamous, for being a virgin, for having sex once and then going months or years without having it again. Basically, I’d like to see the weight attached to sex lightened so we could make the choices that are actually right for us.”
That’s a tall order for a culture that uses sex to sell everything from website domains to hamburgers.
“Pop culture is obviously really powerful,” Hills said. “But I hope the book makes people equally interested in how we can change the way we talk about sex in our everyday lives. It could be equally powerful if (we) were more honest in our personal lives, with our friends and acquaintances. I think there’s a lot of space for people to challenge assumptions when they come up in conversations.
“If someone makes a joke about a certain way of life being freakish or loser-ish, we can speak up and say, ‘Actually, plenty of people do that, and it’s fine for them,'” Hills said. “We can all do our part to shed light on the truth and call people in instead of calling them out.”