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.
I had a student come to my office hours yesterday for a chat. As he was talking to me about his girlfriend and whether or not he wanted to marry her (I’m sure you can imagine my reaction to that… we had a whole conversation about marriage and monogamy), he abruptly stopped and asked, “Jo — have you ever been in a relationship?” “Of course,” I replied, laughing. “Lots of them.” “Then… why are you alone?” he asked. I told him that I’ve been with people who wanted to spend their lives with me and I didn’t feel the same at that time, and that I’ve been with people who I’ve wanted to build a life with, but they didn’t. That it’s just never worked out. That being with someone I really want to be with is more important than being in a relationship just to be in a relationship.
He then said: “Well… aren’t you lonely?” “No,” I said (the answer is more complicated, of course, but I didn’t think it would be appropriate to turn my student into a therapist). “I mean, I date people. Actually, I was supposed to go on a date this weekend, but it was canceled.” “Why?” he asked. After hesitating for a long time and thinking, Can I say this? I answered slowly, “She’s not feeling very well and wants to stay home. She lives in another city.” “Oh,” he said. “So you date men and women?” “Yup!” I answered. “I’m not shocked,” he said (which I find hilarious). And then: “I understand how men and women are sexual, but I don’t really understand about men and men and women and women.” “Well…” I started, reminding myself that we are in a school setting and he’s my student, so I have to tread carefully. “A lot of people think that there’s only one definition of sex, and that’s penis in vagina sex… but there are lots of different kinds of sex.” “Oh,” he said. “I didn’t know that.” (Oof, I thought. I feel sorry for your girlfriend.) I went on: “I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to say any more on the subject, but you have the entire internet at your fingertips.”
We chatted a bit more and he left to meet a friend; I felt lucky that I have students who feel comfortable talking to me about relationships and sexuality, and I feel very lucky that I have students with whom I can be honest with about my relationships. Straight teachers post pictures of their families on the walls of their classrooms and talk about their husbands, wives, and children, and that’s sanctioned because it fits into the narrative about what relationships and families are “supposed” to look like. It’s exciting to be alive during a time when that narrative is changing.
My apologies if this is a bit rambly; I’m writing in a post-Nyquil haze.
I was out to birthday dinner with a good friend recently, and we were joking about how our friends call me “Sharing Jo” or “No Filter Constance” due to my eager enthusiasm to share the most intimate details of my sex life with my buddies (and / or strangers).
Suddenly my friend’s laughter came down a notch to a wry smile as she said, “You know that sometimes we’re not kidding, right? Like, you actually have no filter.” “What?” I asked, alarmed. “Yeah,” she continued. “Like, sometimes, you actually make people really uncomfortable. And when you’re talking about sex and we’re laughing, sometimes it’s uncomfortable laughter.” This was news to me. “Why didn’t anyone say anything before?!” I asked. “They didn’t really know what to say,” she said.
My face grew very solemn, and I sincerely apologized — so much so that she started backtracking and telling me that it wasn’t a big deal… but it is a big deal. Talking about sex, especially in an explicit way, to people who aren’t comfortable hearing about it can be a form of sexual harassment, and I don’t want to be that person. There have been a lot of conversations as of late on blogs and podcasts about consent, and perhaps I should ask for consent before dropping my sex stories on people.
Then she said something else that made me see all of this in a different light. A couple of months ago, I was sitting at a bonfire with this friend and a mutual acquaintance of ours who lives a d/s lifestyle. The acquaintance and I were having a friendly discussion about service dommes, which to us was an everyday, banal conversation. We were sitting away from most of the other people at the bonfire and it was a private conversation. Fast forward to said birthday dinner; my friend says to me, “When you and [our mutual friend] were talking about kink at the bonfire, it was obviously making people uncomfortable because they’re not used to hearing about it.” That’s when I realized that maybe we weren’t making those other people uncomfortable; perhaps my friend was uncomfortable with us talking about it in front of her friends whom she doesn’t talk about the kinky aspects of her life with.
That’s fair. She felt vulnerable and outed via association. I don’t have the desire to out someone as kinky who’s not comfortable being outed. I do, however, have the desire to demystify and normalize kink by talking about it as a regular part of my life. Part of social change is discomfort; I think most of the people I talk about kink with are more curious than they are uncomfortable, but maybe that’s just my perception / bias as a kink-positive person. That being said, this conversation made me reflect on whether or not I am saying too much at times.
And the thing is — I actually do have a filter. When I’m teaching or at work, I don’t speak about my personal life to my students or the school administration. I swear like a sailor in my personal life, but I worked with children for years without once dropping a curse word in their presence. I never talk to my extended family about my sex life, and when I’m in a professional environment I act like a professional. I have a filter.
I choose to talk about sex as a way of helping to change our social landscape around issues of sexuality, relationships, and gender. I want to give people a safe space to talk about their sex lives and relationships. I want to contribute to normalizing sexual practices, feelings, and behaviors that people are curious about but afraid of talking about. My sexual politics are radical in some ways, and I want to make my voice heard. But maaaaybe I don’t need to talk about prostate milking over dinner.
A couple of weeks ago, I was walking down a very narrow dark alley toward my guesthouse in a small city in Southeast Asia when I was silently approached from behind and tapped on the back. I spun around to see a young man nervously clutching a paper in his hand. He looked at the paper and read from it: “Can I come into your hotel and interview you? Let us go inside it will be more comfortable there.” I walked out into the main alley where there were streetlights and people and asked him to repeat himself, not 100% sure I’d heard him correctly. He followed me and read the same sentences again, motioning inside and starting to move toward my hotel. “Hold on,” I said, holding up my hand in a universal stop position (it’s probably not actually universal, but I think he got my drift). A friend of his then magically appeared out of the shadows; they exchanged a few words, and the friend mysteriously melted back into the dark alley from whence he’d emerged.
I looked at the young man, concern furrowing my eyebrows. “You want to interview me?” I asked him. “Yes,” he said. “Are you a student?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “How many questions are there?” I queried. “Yes,” he stated.
I then asked him to hand me the paper, and allllll the questions included were about sexuality. Now, if you know me (and some of you do), you know that I’ll talk about sex pretty much anytime with anyone. But this was weird. The questions included:
Have you had a boyfriend or husband?
Do you have a husband or boyfriend now?
Have you ever kissed a man?
How many men have you dated?
It got more risqué from there, until the last two:
Have you ever had sex with a man you didn’t know?
Would you mind if I touch you?
What. The. Fuck. The questions weren’t actually written in grammatically-correct English; I wish I’d taken a photo of the paper, but it seemed awkward to say, “You can definitely NOT come into my hotel, but hey, mind if I take a picture of your questions real quick?” Some of the questions had non-English words randomly thrown in — probably where the translating app / software couldn’t find a direct translation.
I told the young man that these questions were too personal for me, and I wouldn’t do the interview. I looked apologetic, but I was really thinking, “HOLY SHIT. Does anyone really do this? And how do they feel as the questions get progressively more sexy? Eek!”
Has anyone else experienced anything like this? My guess is that it was his buddy who put him up to it as a way to score with foreign women, but who knows? Thoughts?
Disclaimer: As much as I desperately wish I were, I’m not a scientist – if there are any scientists who read this and think, “That’s not right!” please let me know!
Every week, I listen to an insightful and fascinating podcast on sexuality, relationships, and dating called Sex Nerd Sandra (I highly recommend it!); this week’s topic was on how and why we pick our partners. Her second guest, Kate Loree (a marriage and relationships counselor) talked a lot about the neurochemistry and endocrinology of relationships and sex — what happens in our brains and endocrine systems when we’re attracted to someone, when we sleep with someone, when we date and enter into relationships.
She argued that the person you’re attracted to / the person you have passionate, lustful, insatiable sex with isn’t necessarily the person you should settle down with; that sexual attraction happens because of serotonin and dopamine, but those things shouldn’t be the basis of wanting to grow old with someone.* Sandra countered with this question: “If I can’t trust my brain chemicals, then what can I trust, and what is love if not that feeling?”
This got me thinking a lot. I’m struggling with the idea of sexual desire and the desire to be in a committed relationship being mutually exclusive. I know for sure that I wouldn’t want to start a relationship — the kind that takes negotiation, communication, and compromise — with someone who I didn’t have great sex with. That being said, everyone has different priorities when it comes to sex, romance, dating, and relationships. There are people for whom finding a partner who is willing to commit, work together, sacrifice, and compromise is most important. There are people for whom finding a good co-parent in a romantic partner is the most important thing. In addition, situations, attraction, and people change, and there are a lot of couples who stay in committed partnerships / companionships but who no longer have sex, or who find sexual fulfillment outside of their primary partnership. And to that I say: You do you!
For me, good sex is non-negotiable.** And really amazing sex takes hard work. It takes open communication, negotiation, and compromise! If great sex takes the same kind of hard work that great relationships take, couldn’t it be the beginning of building a foundation of a strong relationship?
Loree also talked about the role of cortisol in emotional and physical pain resulting from being separated from a partner; cortisol is a hormone that spikes when we feel stress. When this happens because of separation from a partner, it’s akin to going through drug withdrawal since so many neurotransmitter and hormone levels elevate when we’re with someone we desire (dopamine, serotonin) or love (oxytocin, vasopressin) or both (again – not mutually exclusive).
I was ecstatic to hear this! I know that sounds ridiculous, but I’ve spent the past few months thinking I was absolutely insane because I’m dating someone who lives in another city, and every time we say goodbye, I feel real, visceral, physical, searing pain that lasts for days. I sometimes find myself in the middle of my hardwood floor on my hands and knees in a puddle of uncontrollable, sudden onset tears and think, “Why is this happening to meeeeeee?!” And now I know. So thanks for that, adrenal glands!
It felt good to hear Sandra talking about her experiences with this, because it’s always nice to know that you’re not crazy and other people feel this way, too.
I’ve had really great sex with people I didn’t have an emotional attachment to, and have loved people I’ve had good, but not incredible, sex with. And once in my life, I was lucky enough to have both. Right now, I’m struggling with this question: If I’m having mind-blowing sex with someone, but I’m also experiencing romantic feelings for that person — real, valid, haven’t-felt-like-this-in-years feelings — do my romantic feelings just come from the hormones? In the beginning of a relationship (with NRE working its magic), how do we know the difference?
*She later went on to say that building a relationship should be the result of a conscious decision to be with someone who helps you self-actualize.
**A friend said to me the other day, “I think you’re like me – your heart lives in your vagina.”