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.