I met Rachel about two years ago during her tour of the U.S. for research of her book coming out, The Sex Myth. There was an announcement on Feministing of her seeking out interviewees for her book, and of course, being that sex, relationships, and popular culture are some of my favorite topics to converse about, I emailed her immediately for a chance to be interviewed. Luckily, Rachel responded to my message and we met during her stay in Portland. I was excited to potentially be part of her study (not sure if I made the cut, but we’ll see!), but more than that, I was ecstatic to meet an accomplished writer that was writing on topics she’s passionate about. During the interview, we drank coffee at the cafe on my campus. Rachel asked me questions about how the media influenced my thoughts and beliefs on sex and sexuality, and we ended the conversation talking about her career and tips on how I can expand my opportunities for a writing career. Then there’s the little tidbit about us sharing a love for the Tulsa, Oklahoma, boy band phenomenon, Hanson. We sang some songs together, in public, and in the middle of the day. No shame whatsoever! After the interview, we stayed in touch here and there, either through social media, and now with this interview!
Where did the idea behind The Sex Myth come from?
Like a lot of people, it turns out, I felt kind of uncomfortable with my sex life (or lack thereof) when I was in my early twenties. I felt like sex and relationships were something that came easily to other people, and I was some secret sexual loser hiding in the corner and hoping that no one would notice that I wasn’t “normal.” In the sitcoms I watched on TV, characters dated a different person every week. In the magazines I read, sex was a given – something every reader was presumed to be having tonnes of, in interesting and extravagant ways. At the same time, the news media had become obsessed with “raunch culture” and “hooking up,” and this idea that young people were sluttier and more sexually sophisticated than they’d ever been before.
I never really bought into the whole “raunch culture” narrative (see this article I wrote back in 2006), but I did buy into the idea that sex was something very important. That it said something about the kind of person you were: how liberal you were; how desirable you were; how pure you were; how well you fit in with the people around you.
I started thinking about writing The Sex Myth when I realized that I wasn’t the only one who felt uncomfortable with some aspect of their sex lives; that there were loads of us out there, all failing to live up to the cultural ideal in different ways. I wanted to write a book that would dissect the current sexual ideal, but which would also delve into the personal and political importance we invest in sexuality. Why is sex considered a window into our souls? Why is it treated as a barometer of the health of our society? And what role does this mythical importance that we attribute to sex play in regulating our sexual behavior?
What surprised you the most out of the research you conducted for the book?
People ask me this question a lot, and I always find it tricky to answer. I started researching this book so long ago now – back in 2008 – that there’s not much that surprises me anymore. It’s been more a gradual piecing together of a really complex puzzle than a series of “OMFG” moments. That said, one thing that has surprised me – in a very positive way – is the sheer number of people who reached out to me to be interviewed for the book. In the first 48 hours after I did my callout for American interviewees, for example, I was contacted by 800 people. That’s far more than I could ever realistically (or helpfully) speak to, but it was really reassuring to know that this was an idea that connected with people.
What have you learned from the process of writing The Sex Myth, and what kind of advice would you give to yourself if you had the chance to go back in time?
Start writing earlier? I hung out in the library stacks for a year before I started interviewing people; and I interviewed people for a year before I started writing the earliest drafts of the book, which I used to secure my deal with my publisher (Simon & Schuster New York) a year and a half again after that. I believe that time spent reading and thinking is really important, but the process probably could have been compressed a bit. If I were to start working on another big non-fiction book, I would probably spend 3-6 months doing background research and three months doing concurrent pilot interviews before writing my proposal. Instead of spending three and a half years in proposal stage!
The other thing I would advise to anyone working on a book, be it fiction or non-fiction, is don’t be afraid to write a shitty first draft. Because your first draft will be shitty – or at least shittier than your subsequent drafts – no matter how hard you work on it, or how good a writer you are. It’s just the nature of the beast you’re working on. The really good stuff will come in the revisions, so just get the first draft out, and then revise, revise, revise.
I know you recently located to New York after living in London for some time. How has the transition been for you?
Good! I’d visited New York a few times before, so I already knew a lot of people here. And I’d always felt a connection to the city, so I was very happy to move there. I spent the first six weeks I was here running around in a flurry of dinners with friends and feminist/literary/literary-feminist events, and then the next six weeks holed up at my desk turning in the latest round of revisions to my publisher. (If all goes well, I should be handing in the final round of edits in the next few months.) That said, after three months here, the NYC gloss is starting to wear off just a little bit. There are a lot of great people here, but there is also a lot of posing that goes on in this city, and not all of it is backed up by substance.
Being originally from Australia and having the opportunity to live in different major cities across the globe since then, how would you describe the differences and/or similarities in the way that pop culture interprets sex and sexuality? Or is there monolithic messaging around sex and sexuality no matter where you go? (And this obviously applies to westernized/industrialized nations).
I think the main ideas I explore in the book are fairly consistent across Australia, the United States and the UK. Which isn’t overly surprising, since the three countries share a common language and, to a large extent, a common popular culture. And despite the US having a much more religious culture than the other two countries, I’d argue that all three share basically the same sexual ideal: you’re supposed to aspire to be sexy, highly sexed, and good in bed. And they all share the belief that sex is profound, and significant to who you are. And although I haven’t studied them in the same detail, my sense is that this is true of a lot of other Western, industrialized nations as well – France, Germany, the Scandinavian countries and so on.
One thing I have found interesting since moving to the US is the disconnect between the way that lawmakers talk about sex, and the way that ordinary people talk about it. Most of the (admittedly young) Americans that I spoke to while researching my book held quite liberal views on sex. Even if they were politically conservative, or if they had grown up in a religious community, ideals about sexual purity seemed to have a very short shelf-life – especially when it came to the application of those ideals to their own lives. Meanwhile, in the courts and in congress, contraception is a controversial issue; if you use it, you’re a slut, apparently. It baffles me. I don’t understand who they’re trying to appeal to.
Other than that, I would say the main cultural difference I noticed was in what the people I interviewed wanted to talk to me about. The first question I asked anyone I spoke to was why they had volunteered to talk to me; to get a sense of who they were, where they were coming from, and let their concerns and experiences drive the conversation. The British people I spoke to were far more likely to lead with talking about what they did sexually, whereas my American and Canadian interviewees always led with what they thought and how they felt. But for the most part, there was a lot of consistency across cultures – as you might expect, as they are all very similar cultures.
Do you have anything in the works after you’ve published The Sex Myth?
You know, I’m not sure! Until a couple of weeks ago, I was planning to jump into another non-fiction book as soon as this one was turned in. I’d even started working on an outline. But now I’m thinking I’m going to sit it out some more, and wait until the right idea emerges. So, the main things I’ll be working on after I’ve published The Sex Myth may well continue to be Sex Myth-related for a while. A college tour, speaking gigs, maybe a documentary? I’ll have to wait and see where the road takes me, I guess.