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The sex myth buster

1 March 2016
A powerful new voice in feminism

Meet Rachel Hills, the Gender and Cultural Studies graduate shattering stereotypes about sex.

Rachel Hills

University of Sydney alumna, journalist and "accidental sexpert" Rachel Hills.  

Though she didn't know it at the time, the late 1990s and early 2000s would be a transformative period in the life of journalist and author Rachel Hills.

It was during this time that the teenage Hills got her first taste of feminism – through the manifestos of Germaine Greer and Naomi Wolf – and her first taste of writing.

"My friends and I had just discovered the Internet and we would log onto the library computers at lunchtime and we'd read these blogs – usually they were silly musings on pop stars and boy bands – and I realised I wanted to create my own space to write about those things. Nowadays everyone who wants to be a writer has a blog, but back then it was a far rarer thing," she says.

"My blog wasn't necessarily meant for public consumption, it really was just primarily for self-expression. I just had stories that I wanted to tell."

Intersectionality is such a hot issue now among young feminists, but it wasn't really 10 years ago.

Igniting the feminist flame

While it was this love of writing and desire to hone her craft which led to Hills' decision to enrol in a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Sydney, she was also attracted to the opportunities to explore her feminist leanings.
 
"I had started reading feminist non-fiction when I was around 16 years old, so I arrived at the University of Sydney a feminist and I was really excited to take some Gender and Cultural Studies units," she says.
 
"Probably the most influential unit I did during my degree was a course about cultural discourses around race, gender, and multiculturalism in Australia. As students we were forced to confront our own prejudices around whiteness and Australian identity, while also looking at how that intersected with assumptions around gender, class and sexuality.
 
"Intersectionality [the study of interrelations between different kinds of oppressions] is such a hot issue now among young feminists, but it wasn't really 10 years ago, and I just remember it was a course I felt really confronted by, but also a course that forced me – and everyone in the class – to really grow."

The write way to kick-start a career

With a stint as the editor of the revered Union Recorder under her belt, Hills graduated in 2004 with a fierce determination to carve a career in the media industry. 

But with full-time writing and editing positions at leading newspapers and magazines few and far between, Hills was forced to be a little more creative in finding a way to enter her chosen field.  

"I had figured out that since getting a full-time job wasn't necessarily going to be easy, my way into the industry would be to just start working as a freelance writer. I figured that if I wrote articles and I pitched ideas and they were good enough, people would publish them. That ended up being my alternative way of getting my foot in the door," she says.

It did work out that way for Hills. After two years of freelancing she scored a permanent position at New Matilda, which she followed-up with another full-time role at Ninemsn.

When struck with the itch to live abroad a few years later, Hills transitioned back to freelancing. The past few years have seen her move between Sydney, London and New York, all the while racking up by-lines in TIMEVogue, The AtlanticThe New York Times and many more of the world's most-read publications. 

The Sex Myth

Master of sex

Hills has also spent the past seven years working on a project close to her heart, The Sex Myth – a non-fiction book busting some of the myths about sex in our modern world.

"The reason I wrote a book about sex certainly wasn't because I thought I was expert or because I wanted anyone to emulate my sex life. It's because it's an issue that has impacted me profoundly and one I know has impacted others as well," she says. 

Though she's unashamed to talk about it now, Hills admits that being "sexually inexperienced" made her feel like a "loser" throughout her teens and early 20s – but the more she talked openly with friends, the more she realised her concerns weren’t unique to her at all. 

"My motivation for writing the book was a sense of sadness and anger that people like me were treated as 'freaks', 'weirdos' and 'losers' in the media," she says.

While the desire to dispel assumptions about sexual experience was Hills' initial driving force, she says that writing the book also forced her to face some of her own unconscious biases. 

"While conducting research for the book I interviewed hundreds of people from Australia, America and the UK about their sexual experiences. I heard from people who were into kink, people who were polyamorous, and people who self-identified as 'sluts' and whose personal experience was that the world thought that they weren't 'good' women because they had too much sex," she says.

"I realised that just as the media portrays people who are virgins into their 20s as freakish losers, they also portray people with different tastes – for example people who are into kink or aren't in monogamous relationships – as perverts. Neither of these stereotypes are true at all."

The truth is that we're all just muddling through life wanting to be accepted for who we are.

Let's talk about sex

Since releasing her book in August last year, Hills has travelled around the US talking to people of all ages, genders and sexual preferences about how sex impacts their daily lives.

Having recently returned to Australia, the next stop on Hills’ schedule is the Sydney Opera House, where she'll speak in conversation with author, journalist and fellow University of Sydney alumna Julia Baird as part of the All About Women festival.

"In my experience, people really relish the opportunity to talk about sex in an open way, and also in a political way. To talk about what we're thinking and what we're feeling, and how our experiences intersect with the broader culture, is tremendously important," she says. 

"I've come to realise that there are a lot of people who are carrying around the same sense of 'there's something wrong with me' that I was. But I think it's important to realise that there is actually a whole range of normal.

"The truth is that we're all just muddling through life wanting to be accepted for who we are."

Rachel Hills will talk about sex myths at the All About Women festival in Sydney on Sunday 6 March. For more information and tickets, visit the festival's website.

Past students, academics, and friends of the Gender and Cultural Studies program are invited to help celebrate the Department's 25th anniversary later this year. For more information please visit the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences website or email FASS.alumni@sydney.edu.au.