“Come as you are”, Emily Nagoski (2015) Scribe
Book review by NoMo member, John
All my life, I’ve been interested to read anything I could get my hands on about sexuality, and this book is much the most insightful guide to women’s sexuality I’ve come across. She stresses that there are more differences within each sex than between the sexes, and difference doesn’t mean anyone is wrong – just different. So she emphatically isn’t generalising, but she does emphasise that the prevalent view of sexuality has traditionally been based on male experience, and she busts a number of myths around situations common to women, all based on sound, referenced scientific research – information I found flabbergasting. Men and women will wish “why weren’t we told all this before?” The book is nearly 400 pages; here’s a summary of key points.
Genital response does not equal enjoyment – two different parts of the brain are involved. Genital response just means that something sexually relevant is observed: it may arise from watching a wildlife documentary about bonobos copulating, or watching porn, hearing the neighbours getting passionate, being present but horrified at a BDSM club, or even getting raped. The fact that she’s wet does not mean that she’s enjoying herself, or that she is consenting. Equally, she may be enjoying what’s happening, and feeling turned on – but no genital response. Genital response is like Pavlov’s dogs, who could be trained to salivate in response to a bell – it indicated expectation of food, but not that they were enjoying what they were eating.
Non-concordance is a thing. If your genitals are responding, and your brain is feeling enjoyment, you are concordant. If one process is happening without the other, you are non-concordant. Men who use Viagra do so because they experience non-concordance – enjoyment fired up, penis not. Men tend to be concordant about 50% of the time, but women only 10%. Viagra increases the blood flow to the genitals, in both men and women. But blood flow doesn’t equal enjoyment. Non-concordance applies to orgasms too: pelvic contractions don’t equal enjoyment – orgasm can occur during rape. It’s the enjoyment that counts.
Arousal can be spontaneous, or responsive. Those who are mainly responsive tend to get turned on only in the right circumstances. Spontaneous arousal is common for about two thirds of men, and one third of women. Responsive arousal is common for up to 10% of men, and about half of women. About 6% of women experience neither. The remainder experience both types of arousal. A high proportion of women with responsive desire have never pleasured themselves, or reached orgasm on their own. If you masturbate regularly in your teens and twenties, you tend to have a pretty good idea of what touch turns you on; regardless of any shaming messages in our culture, you know that sex can be highly pleasurable, as well as quite varied; you associate sex primarily with your own pleasure and satisfaction. If you’ve experienced sex only in a relationship, and your early partners were not very skilful, you may have had little pleasure, and you associate sex with attending to your partner’s feelings, or expressing your affection for them – you may not expect pleasure or satisfaction yourself, or know how to get it. About 12% of women have not experienced orgasm by age 28.
Arousal requires two separate processes, which Nagoski terms the “accelerator” and the “brakes”. These act independently, and can be more or less sensitive in each individual. If your sexual accelerator is insensitive, it is a bit like having a heavily loaded lorry trying to climb a steep hill from a standing start. It doesn’t mean the brakes are on, it just requires a lot of effort and enough incentive to make the effort. If your accelerator is sensitive, you get turned on very easily. The brakes tend to be distractions like stress, tiredness, shame, depression, worry, self-judgements. If your brake is sensitive, you very easily feel inhibited, even when your accelerator is saying “Go!” The good news is that each of us can find out what specific features boost our accelerator, and reduce the brake.
Context is all. “Context” can mean what else is happening in life, trust in our partner, being in the right setting, having enough time. An unhappy context readily hits the brakes. In a neutral environment, some stimuli will arouse our curiosity to approach closer, some will cause us to move further away. In an environment we find deeply unpleasant, almost any stimulus will lead us to withdraw. In a very safe, homely setting, almost any stimulus will lead us to get closer and want more
Stress: fight, flight or freeze. When we are frightened or angry, the sympathetic nervous system gears us for fight or flight: adrenaline, heartbeat, focussed attention etc. We act physically, then, once we are safe again, the parasympathetic nervous system relaxes us again. But there is a 3rd response: if we cannot win a fight, or escape, we freeze – act dead, as a way of minimising pain. If we survive, the trauma can remain locked in our body, if we do not have some way of discharging the trapped feelings. Since many women have experienced sexual trauma, when they froze to protect themselves, any further sexual situation can trigger this stress.
Sex is not a drive. A “drive” is about survival, and acts like a thermostat to return us to a baseline state. If we’re hungry, thirsty, or sleepy, too hot or too cold, we feel an unpleasant internal trigger, and act to restore a baseline. If we fail, we die. Sex is about thriving; we experience a pleasant external trigger. It can be highly enjoyable and enrich our lives, but we don’t die without it. It’s more like curiosity. Whether you find your long-term partner boring or exciting partly depends how curious you are to plumb their depths. It means that men can’t claim they need to hunt a prey to relieve their sexual desires – they won’t die. In the same way, your curiosity may be deeply disappointed if you miss the last episode of a movie series, but missing it won’t kill you.
You are OK. The key message is that, because we’re all just different, we’re all OK. Your sexuality is not broken, you don’t need fixing or healing. It’s the myths and lies we’ve been told about sex, or the contexts in our lives, which need repairing.