It’s rare that a book about sex makes me cry, but this one did. It’s not just a book about sexuality and neuroscience, although it is that — it’s a call to action to women everywhere to see themselves and their sexuality as normal. To understand that they are not broken. To listen to their own bodies and desires instead of to harmful media messages about what they’re expected to feel and desire. To connect with themselves and their partners as women who (surprise!) have sexual characteristics of women. To reject male sexuality as standard sexuality and to claim agency over their pleasure and joy.
You’d think that it wouldn’t be such a radical idea to accept yourself where you are and practice self-compassion — but it is.
I’m getting ahead of myself, however.
The book opens with a chapter on anatomy and explains in great detail the homologous features of male and female genitalia, which is absolutely fascinating. It also discusses at great length the variant features of vulvas and how we’re taught to see them and talks about the myths we perpetuate regarding hymens.
Nagoski goes on in subsequent chapters to introduce the key concepts of her book one by one: the dual control model of sexuality (we all have a sexual inhibition system and a sexual excitation system, and everyone differs in the sensitivity of both); the One Ring in our brains that controls our emotional and motivation systems; sexuality in context and responsive desire (as opposed to spontaneous desire); sexuality as it relates to the stress cycle; sexual non-concordance (when arousal doesn’t match genital response); the brain mechanism that controls goals and expectations, which she calls the little monitor; and how meta-emotions (how we feel about our feelings) affect our sexual lives.
Even if you’re already familiar with some of these ideas, having them all intertwined and presented with stories from peoples’ actual relationships is effective at making everything sink in. Throughout the book, Nagoski keeps referring back to previously-discussed concepts in order to link them together and show how they affect each other. She uses the same central metaphor (a garden) in different contexts to make complex scientific concepts relatable, and continually comes back to examples, analogies, and stories that end up creating a kind of sexy neuroscience schema. She also uses millennial shorthand (I could have done without it, but I use standard punctuation and whole words in my text messages, so that’s just me…) as a way to draw in a younger audience.
And there are worksheets! She provides actual worksheets, available on her website, that you can fill out and use to improve your sex life. As a teacher, I can’t not love that.
Important Takeaways from Come As You Are
- Your sexuality and your body are normal. You are not broken.
- Everyone has the same parts, organized differently.
- We all have a sexual “accelerator” and sexual “brakes,” and everyone differs in how sensitive theirs are.
- How we perceive sensation is dependent on the context in which we experience it; the same experience can feel different in different contexts.
- Stress has a negative impact on desire and arousal; it reduces sexual interest and pleasure.
- Self-criticism creates a buttload of stress.
- Our responses to sexuality are learned, not inherent.
- There is only a ten percent overlap between women’s self-reported arousal and their genital response! For men, it’s 50%. Sexual arousal does not necessarily lead to genital response and genital response does not necessarily indicate arousal.
- Sex is not a drive – you won’t die if you can’t get your sexual interests (not needs) met. Instead, sex is an incentive motivation system.
- Only 15% of women have a spontaneous desire style; 30% of women have a responsive desire style, and about half of women experience a combination of both. As more men experience a spontaneous desire style, spontaneous desire has come to be viewed as standard in sexual narratives.
- Novelty, a focus on pleasure rather than outcome, and ambiguity can increase sexual desire.
- 70% of women do not reliably have an orgasm from penetration alone. Women most commonly orgasm from clitoral stimulation.
- How we feel about our sexuality has a profound impact on our sexuality. If we let go of where we think we should be sexually and accept ourselves where we are (which takes a lot of hard work emotionally), we can start to heal. Better emotional and mental wellbeing leads to a better sex life! Noticing our feelings instead of judging our feelings is a start to this process.
In the introduction of Come As You Are, Nagoski says that the “purpose of [her] book is to offer a new, science-based way of thinking about women’s sexual wellbeing.” I feel well. Read this book, you guys.
P.S. Dear Emily Nagoski,
Thank you for the intense orgasm I had last Saturday night. Focus on sensation indeed.
While I was reading Sex at Dawn, it seemed like every person I mentioned this to asked: “Have you read Mating in Captivity?” I can finally say yes, and I am better off for it. You may know Esther Perel from her excellent and highly popular TED talk about maintaining desire in long-term relationships; it has almost six million views, and that’s just on the TED website. Obviously a topic many people care deeply about, as it affects most of us at some point in our lives. I’m not in a long-term relationship, so I wondered how this book would apply to me, if at all. I was delightfully surprised that it had a lot to offer single people by way of general relationship advice.
Perel begins the book with the idea that we want both stability and desire in our relationships, but that we often forego one for the other, thinking for some reason that we have to. We don’t, she argues. We can have both if we accept that these things don’t necessarily happen at the same time. She stresses that erotic desire naturally waxes and wanes over the course of a relationship, and that it’s normal to go through periods of intense desire and lowered desire.
Within relationships, a feeling of comfort and security can often lead to boredom; Perel says that in order to rekindle desire, you sometimes have to let go of your security because eroticism is fueled by uncertainty. She says that in order to build erotic desire you need separation — that separation begets connection. “Our ability to tolerate our separateness – and the insecurity it engenders,” she argues, “is a precondition for maintaining interest” (p. 36). Sometimes we need distance in order to become closer; furthermore, maintaining a strong sense of self and personal identity — that “me” rather than “we” — allows our partners to see that they might not know everything about us, and there’s something enticing about that mystery. Sexual desire is fueled by yearning and elusiveness, and constant contact / co-dependence smother that desire. She points out near the end of the book that our partners are not ours — admitting that they are choosing to continue to be with us of their own free will is paramount to preserving our attraction to them.
Some of the takeaways that I got from reading this book are:
- Contemporary intimacy has too many expectations placed on it; we expect our partners to be everything to us, but that’s impossible.
- If you want to fall in love with your partner(s) again, watch them doing what they’re good at doing. Try to see them through a stranger’s eyes.
- We can’t expect spontaneity all the time, and making plans creates anticipation. Being intentional in our sexual lives is healthy and builds connection.
- Sexual power play and negotiation can ignite erotic desire; these things create tension and foster creativity. Being playful is a great tool to help nurture our desire.
- We’re always told to be giving lovers, but being selfish in bed once in awhile isn’t a terrible thing. If we can be selfish sometimes with our partners, it’s a sign that we trust them; moreover, it can be a huge turn-on to acknowledge your own sexual needs to your partners.
- When we view a lowered desire or libido fluctuation as a “problem,” then we try to fix it with sexual band-aids instead of looking at underlying causes, and that doesn’t help anyone. Perel puts it this way: our sexual and romantic connections are a “paradox to manage, not a problem to solve” (p. 81). We need to take the time to reflect on these connections.
- Our communication patterns stem from how our parents communicated with us when we were children, and our childhoods “shape our beliefs about ourselves and our expectations for others” (p. 107). The way we balance between autonomy and dependence depends a lot on the way we were raised.
Hands down, the biggest and most important takeaway I got from this book regards communication style. Perel devotes an entire chapter to verbal vs. non-verbal communication; she points out that intimacy based on talking has a female bias, and that men are at a disadvantage at times because of this. That society values and expects verbal communication, but men are socialized to do rather than say (and to be invulnerable), so when they don’t verbalize their feelings, their partners are often offended. “The pressure is always on the non-talker to change,” says Perel (p. 42), not on the verbal communicator to adapt to a different style of communication. She emphasizes that we need to honor ALL of the ways we connect — by doing things for each other, doing things together, touching each other, smiling at each other, spending time in the same room quietly — not just saying how we feel. She goes even further to say that sometimes the sharing of intimate feelings can be seen as coercive if there is an expectation that the partner returns those sentiments verbally. As someone who is a very verbal communicator and easily expresses myself with words, I have been guilty so many times of not seeing the value in my partner’s non-verbal communication. This book has changed that and will shape the way I communicate with partners in the future.
In addition to all these incredibly valuable points, Mating in Captivity includes chapters on parenthood, erotic fantasy, non-monogamy, finding sexual desire inside of a partnership in addition to finding it outside of a long-term partnership, and the Madonna-whore complex. The book is filled with real-life examples to support her theories and case study conversations with clients she’s had as a relationship therapist. This is a useful book even if you’re not in a long-term relationship; the central ideas that run through the text alone are worth reading it for. It’s beautifully-written and both deeply thought and felt. Also, it’s just really fun to read. One-click it now!
(P.S. Esther Perel is hot, y’all!)
I was sort of right.
Not in the way I expected, though. I expected the book to be pro-abstinence; instead, it turned out to be pro-critical conversation and agency. The End of Sex contains a strong critique of hookup culture as a ubiquitous force that places specific normative markers on the sex lives of university students in the United States; it argues that this culture is so dominant that students feel socially coerced into getting drunk and have meaningless (and uncaring) sex on the weekends, then gossiping and / or bragging about it. She says that students feel pressured to engage in hookup culture because they don’t have other relationship or sexuality models to fall back on, and that there are social repercussions for not participating or criticizing it.
For the purposes of this book, Freitas went to seven universities (both religious and secular, public and private) and conducted online surveys and in-person interviews, and had a selection of students maintain journals detailing their relationships. She touches on the history of hookup culture and spends a chapter defining it: who is involved, what it means, and where / why / how it takes place. There’s a chapter on the role of alcohol in casual sex and chapters on social expectations of young women and men in terms of sexual identity and gender roles: young women are expected to express their sexuality via acting as an object of men’s desires, while young men are expected to aggressively seek out sex and encouraged to disconnect from their emotions when it comes to sexuality. She talks extensively about theme parties on college campuses and how these parties promote and perpetuate sexual roles and identities. The last three chapters of the book are focused on ways to opt out of the hookup culture — namely, virginity pledges, abstinence, and dating.
The chapter I found most fascinating was the dating chapter; most students that Freitas interviewed said that they had never been on a date; that furthermore, they didn’t even know how to ask someone out. Students said that for them, dating came post-hookup, if at all. That they desperately wanted to go out on dates, but didn’t. Freitas talks at length about a professor at Boston College, Kerry Cronin, who gave her seminar students the assignment of going out on a date (read more about it here). The students used the class as a justification to ask someone out — as in, “Hey, I have this assignment where I have to go on a date, so, uh, you wanna go out sometime?” — because they didn’t know how to just SAY to someone, “Hey, I like you. Want to get a cup of coffee?” There seems to be a strong disconnect between what young people want (or what they’re told to want vis a vis romantic comedies and television shows) and their lived behaviors.
Of course, the book made me reflect a lot on my college experiences; I definitely didn’t go on dates in university — but I would have loved to. I never felt pressure to hook up like the students in Freitas’s book say they do, but I did hook up – a lot. All of my relationships in university started after I’d already had sex with my partners.
Not to say that Freitas is condemning this practice; rather, she’s encouraging an open dialogue on college campuses about what good sex is and why we engage in the sexual practices, attitudes, and behaviors that we do. About who we are sexually and what we want from relationships. She says that university faculty and staff “should be opening up young adults to a broad conversation about the many possible goods of sex and empowering them to ask about its meaning” (p. 11); that students need to be given space for personal reflection and a chance to discuss hooking up as just “one option among many for navigating sexuality and relationship[s]” (p. 186).As a university teacher, I think this is an outstanding idea. To me, the greatest strength of this book lies in the conclusion, wherein Freitas makes a call to action to folks who work at universities to open a discussion about sexuality, romance, and relationships in their classrooms, on panels, in special programs and lectures, and in freshman orientation. So often in university, students are taught to analyze and deconstruct theories, but never given the opportunity to discuss real-life applications of theories. Students should have a space in which they can talk about desire, pleasure, connection, and intimacy — not just the possible negative outcomes of sex, which is what most college campuses focus on. She makes a very powerful argument at the end of the book that discussions of the personal enhance academic discourse and that conversations about how best to navigate our lived experiences is empowering. All this being said: I still hook up, and I love it. When I’m really into someone, I absolutely want romance, intimacy, and connection, and dates where we talk for hours on end are wonderful. But there’s also something special about getting a text message that says, “I’m going to pop in before meeting my friends on Saturday just so I can taste you.” Whew.
It’s important that there’s room for all kinds of sexual connection in our lives.
Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert
This book has changed the entire way that I look at and talk about relationships, and I honestly believe that the philosophy behind it has the power to radically transform societal relationship narratives. It is a long, thorough, and complex book to be considered carefully, while simultaneously being engaging and fun to read — quite an amazing feat!
Although ostensibly about polyamory, the ideas and lived experiences that went into this book are applicable to anyone who’s in a relationship. Any kind of relationship. In fact, it applies to everyone who cares about another human being. The focus of the second section of More Than Two is self-care, nurturing relationships, communication strategies and pitfalls, and jealousy. Chapter nine, regarding boundaries, is also beneficial for anyone in a relationship. Even though the rest of the book focuses on polyamorous frameworks, structures, transitions, and community, the threads of section two are woven throughout the book, and the authors continuously come back to them, which makes the entire book a beneficial read for all people, regardless of their chosen relationship model.
As this book is largely about building and maintaining ethical relationships within a polyamorous framework, Veaux and Rickert present two axiomatic ethical principles that underlie the content of More Than Two: First, don’t treat people as things. Second, the people in the relationship are more important than the relationship. Within these axioms are the ideas that all relationships should be consensual (which requires a lot of honesty; you can’t give consent without being informed), that we shouldn’t sacrifice the self for the relationship or expect others to do so, that seeing partners as need-meeting machines dehumanizes them, that one partner’s needs are not more important than the other’s (the needs and desires of everyone involved should be recognized), and that we are not entitled to anyone’s time or love — that being in a relationship and giving our love and time is a choice. The Relationship Bill of Rights included in chapter three is invaluable as a conversational springboard.
Some things that I absolutely love about this book:
- It doesn’t present polyamory in a Utopian or ideal way; in fact, the introduction lays out that polyamory is hard fucking work, that it’s not inherently safe, that growth often includes pain, that it means being vulnerable and giving things up, and that we can’t control and shouldn’t try to prescribe how relationships will grow and change.
- It presents monogamy as a legitimate relationship model and specifically claims that polyamory is not more advanced, enlightened, or progressive than monogamy. There are people on polyamory discussion boards who disagree with this interpretation because Veaux and Rickert criticize the relationship escalator and the socialization of Oneitis that stems from fairy tales and romantic comedies; however, I don’t see a critique of the way we’re socialized to believe that we have one true soul mate and that if we don’t find that person we’ve failed as synonymous with a critique of choosing to be in a mindful and ethical monogamous relationship.
- At the end of each chapter are self-reflection questions to guide the reader through applications of the theories and themes of that chapter to his or her (or hir) life. I’m bringing a bunch of these questions with me on vacation and am planning to actually write out answers. It’s like therapy, but for the cost of a book.
- More Than Two espouses compassion and non-judgment in all of our interactions with people we care about; it advocates the use of active listening; and it encourages readers to own their choices (and feelings) and acknowledge that our choices have real-life consequences. It tells us to assume good intention on the part of our partners, which is an incredibly valuable relationship skill.
- It presents the idea that self-worth cannot come from another person; it has to be built from within. That it’s very difficult to have agency within a relationship unless you feel secure, and security is something that has to be practiced. That you must have compassion for yourself in addition to being aware of your needs, value, limitations, and boundaries.
- The authors write about their own experiences and how they’ve learned from them. They don’t present themselves as perfect experts; they present themselves as people who have fucked up, have learned from their mistakes and the mistakes of others, and are in the process of continuing to learn from their relationships and the relationships of others in their communities and networks.
I consider myself ethically non-monogamous; before reading More Than Two, I never would have considered myself a polyamorous person, even though I’ve had the experience of being in love with more than one person at the same time. In fact, I often joke that I’m barely amorous, so how can I be polyamorous? As an intensely introverted person, the idea of committing the kind of time it takes to make a romantic relationship work with more than one person while still maintaining close ties with friends and family and working and having hobbies scares me a bit. Or at least it did. I didn’t realize until reading More Than Two that a lot of poly people have long-distance relationships in which they only see their LDR partner(s) once or twice a year. Or that relationships can be what you choose to make them, which although it seems fairly obvious, is kind of a radical idea. So maybe I am poly. Still figuring that out… and very glad to have Franklin and Eve supporting me along the way.
“Christmas wears me out because of the incest.”
-My mom circa 2001
What she’d actually meant was that her eyes get tired in church on Christmas Eve because of the incense, but it’s hilarious, no?
It’s Christmas in the US right now, and as I so often do at this time of year, I’m thinking of a hot (and vaguely troubling) scene in a book series that I loved as an adolescent. The first books I ever read that mentioned sex, sexuality, and sensuality were those in the Dollanganger series (Flowers in the Attic et. al.) by V.C. Andrews. When I found them (in my attic, of course) at the age of twelve, they opened up a whole new world to me — and to several thousand other adolescent girls, I imagine. A damaging, fucked-up world.
If you’re not familiar with the series, it begins with the tragic and accidental death of a father of four children (a teenage boy and girl and young twins). In a state of shock, their mother whisks them away to live with her parents in Virginia and promptly locks them in the attic for years while trying to score a rich husband. Their super crazy fundamentalist grandmother tries to kill them all because she considers them the spawn of Satan (their father is their mother’s half-uncle), but in the end, three of them escape (one of the twins dies) after three and a half years of being imprisoned. During this time, the eldest son, who is a boy genius studying medicine, falls in love with his sister, who practices ballet in the attic, and sorta kinda rapes her. Aaaaand that’s just the first book.
When I was a twelve year-old girl reading these books, I of course never stopped to analyze the nature of the relationships or the gender roles in the book… I just reacted to the fact that all the male-identified characters seem to be mesmerized by Catherine and her magical feminine powers. They all desperately crave her and can never imagine loving another woman after meeting her. As a middle school student, I was like, “Hell, yes — I want the power to captivate men!” It was my first introduction (to be continued by several books, television shows, movies…) to the incredibly destructive and ridiculous narrative that if the person a woman gives her attention to doesn’t have this reaction to her, she’s failing as a woman. Never mind the fact that the first romantic relationship this character has is with her brother, the second is with an abusive and manipulative husband, the third is with her adopted father, and the fourth is with her mother’s ex-husband. Seriously. V.C. Andrews’s characters and plots are the zenith of clusterfuckery. Also, the writing. Oh, god, the writing:
Where was that fragile, golden-fair Dresden doll I used to be? Gone. Gone like porcelain turned into steel.
So. Awful. She also uses the phrase “rigid male sex part” at some point.
This book series is a revenge fantasy, and much like male-centered revenge stories propagate harmful gender narratives by focusing on a heroic and hyper-masculine protagonist who lives by a code and uses his dark cunning, grit, and brutal strength to leave a trail of bodies behind him on his quest to extract a morally unambiguous revenge, Andrews does the same in this female-centered revenge story by creating a femme fatale character who uses her body and her sexuality to seduce men and emotionally destroy them on her quest to get a horrifying revenge on her mother (who was willing to kill her own children for inheritance) and her grandmother (who was willing to kill her own grandchildren to maintain the family reputation). And you thought your family was dysfunctional.
Anyway, back to the steamy Christmas scene. Cathy and Chris are laying with their heads underneath a Christmas tree, looking up at the lights like they used to do when they were children, and then they have a super hot three page-long makeout session wherein they want to have sex, but they know they shouldn’t because they’re related, but they’re both so completely overwhelmed by their desire for each other that they just can’t help it. I know it’s wrong on so many levels (the abominable writing being more disturbing than the incest: “We melded in a hot blend of unsatisfied desire — before I suddenly cried out, “No — it would be sinful!” “Then let us sin!”), but twenty years later, reading this scene still turns me on. Something about the taboo of wanting someone you’re not supposed to want or can’t have a physical relationship with, the sexual tension that builds from that desire over time, and the release of said tension is crazy hot.
This was supposed to be a funny one-paragraph post about this one scene. Oops! I think that the second book in the series that contains this scene was just made into a TV movie, so if you’re up for a few laughs, I’d suggest watching it with friends and a bottle of bourbon. Take a shot for every time something inappropriate happens.
Specifically, John Green’s Looking for Alaska to the Waukesha Public Library in Waukesha, WI. It seems some parents have freaked out there recently after finding the book on their children’s recommended reading lists from school and then discovering that — gasp! — the book dares to mention sex. Said parents are trying to get the book put behind the library counter in school libraries so that children have to get their parents’ permission to read.
Read about it here, then do a good deed and send the WPL a copy, because apparently, they’re all checked out.
Spread the word! Reading is, after all, fundamental.
If you are a person who has engaged in or who plans to engage in cunnilingus, do yourself and your partner(s) a favor and read this book.
I heard about it first in a Sex Nerd Sandra podcast, and have heard / seen it mentioned on other podcasts and sex websites since, so I finally decided to read it. It’s heteronormative and written in a super cheesy self-help book style; the author makes eye roll-inducing allusions to philosophers and writers to emphasize his points, and the entire introduction is dedicated to selling you on reading the book you’ve already purchased. However — once you get past the intro, She Comes First is pure gold.
Why? Not because of the routines, although the author does lay out several gloriously descript step-by-step routines. Not because of the detailed anatomical diagrams and explanations of the various parts of the clitoral network, though those are also included and pretty bad-ass.
It’s because the author, Ian Kerner, takes the time to drop some knowledge on us that is imperative to the enjoyment of cunnilingus. While I was reading it, I just kept saying to myself, “Yes. Yes. YES! Do people really not know this?” And then I realized: People really don’t know this. He talks about things that I always assumed were just common sense, but upon reading the book have realized aren’t common sense at all — otherwise, they wouldn’t be included in this book.
- A woman’s entire body – not just her vulva – is an erogenous zone.
- More foreplay = more arousal. I cannot stress how much this bears repeating. “But, but…” some of you might be saying. “Cunnilingus is foreplay.” Not if you’re a queer girl! Personally, I consider foreplay to be anything that happens before direct genital stimulation. Things like kissing, caressing and nibbling various body parts (see the first bullet point), talking dirty, etc. The more aroused a woman is before you go down on her, the more likely she is to climax.
- It’s important to pay attention to the entire vulva, not just the head of the clitoris. The clitoral network is vast and includes all parts of the vulva, vagina, and anus.
- It’s REALLY important for the bottom to know that she has all the time in the world because her partner is enjoying it; if a woman feels like her partner is in a hurry, she’s much less likely to enjoy herself or be able to relax.
- Oral sex – any sex, really – should be process-oriented, not product (orgasm)-oriented. Karen B.K. Chan would agree.
- Cunnilingus is most effectively done with the bottom laying flat on her back (not in a crazy porn position) with her legs close together, not spread really wide (of course, there are women who are an exception to this).
11/20/14 Update! The author of this book, Ian Kerner, was recently a guest on Sex Nerd Sandra’s podcast and he was completely delightful. He was unassuming, soft-spoken, intelligent and warm; listen to the podcast here.