“You were taught to value and expect something from your sexuality that does not match what your sexuality actually is. You were told a story about what would happen in your sexual life, and that story was false. You were lied to. I am pissed, on your behalf, at the world for that lie. And I’m working to create a world that doesn’t lie to women about their bodies anymore.”
– From: “Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life.”
I will be grateful forever to “The Hite Report.” Ditto “The Happy Hooker.” Certain books, at key moments, open our eyes to sexual reality — not the distorted reality of porn or bodice-buster novels, but the real-life reality of what our fellow humans do in private and how our own bodies and brains really respond.
I predict that for some, “Come As You Are” by Emily Nagoski — subtitled “The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life” — will be one of those books.
Nagoski, 37, is a sex educator, proud “sex nerd” with a PhD and past work at the Kinsey Institute, and director of wellness education at Smith College. (Also a blogger at thedirtynormal.com.) Her book focuses in part on a fine irony: Research over the last couple of decades in pursuit of a female version of Viagra — an effort that has failed — has nonetheless added new science to the study of women’s sexuality, science that can be applied to improve sex lives without any little pink pills.
Our conversation, lightly edited:
You say that we were lied to. How?
From the beginning, the day we’re born, the model of sexuality that all of us are given is the one that comes from the expectation of how male bodies work — mostly because, for so long, men were the scientists and the medical providers, they just sort of assumed that the way a man works is how women are supposed to work. So the extent to which a person in a female body does not match a person in a male body is the extent to which they have ‘failed’ to be sexual people.
And what are the ways that women are likeliest not to match?
There are two ways in particular. The first is in what’s called ‘arousal non-concordance.’ Arousal is the activity of your central and peripheral nervous systems in response to sexually relevant stimuli. And it turns out, for men there’s about a 50 percent overlap between what his genitals are doing and how turned on he feels. Basically, if his genitals are responding he’s feeling pretty turned on. That’s not always true, but largely.
“Sex is most satisfying for most women when you’re in a context that is low stress, high trust, high affection and explicitly erotic.”
For women, there’s about a 10 percent overlap between what her genitals are doing and how aroused she feels. And most of the time, that’s because women’s genitals tend to respond to sort of anything, it’s like a ‘just in case’ genital response. It doesn’t mean that she likes or wants what’s happening, it just means that it’s sexually relevant.
And we look at the way women’s bodies respond to sort of anything and we think, ‘Why don’t they actually like or want all these things? What’s going on with that?’ And it doesn’t mean anything is wrong. It just means the way female bodies work is not the way male bodies work. And that’s OK.
So arousal non-concordance means, if you’re a woman and you’re having genital response — wetness, blood flow — that doesn’t mean that, in your head, you’re necessarily turned on. And what’s another big one where men and women don’t match?
The other non-matching thing is in this idea of desire. The model we’re given is that desire should be spontaneous. It occurs out of the blue. You have one stray sexy thought and suddenly your engine is revving and you’re think to yourself, ‘I would like to go find someone to hook up with.’
And that spontaneous desire, out-of-the-blue desire, totally is one way people experience desire. And there’s another way of experiencing desire called ‘responsive desire': You’re sort of in neutral, you’re reading a magazine, you’re flipping through channels, and your partner comes over and starts kissing your neck or caressing your arm, and every cell in your body goes, ‘Oh, right, that’s a really good idea!’ But it doesn’t occur spot out of the blue. It emerges in response to arousal, instead of the desire coming before the arousal.
You also discuss these interesting, research-based concepts of having a sexual ‘accelerator’ and sexual ‘brakes.’ How does that work? Continue reading