How do you separate fact from fiction when it comes to creating and sustaining sexual desire? In this episode of Relationship Alive, our special guest is Emily Nagoski, author of the New York Times bestseller “Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life.” Her work has been cited by both John Gottman and Esther Perel as a must-read for understanding how desire works, and how to nurture a sexual connection over the long term with your partner. Emily Nagoski and I dispel some modern-day myths about sexuality, and then we reveal some of the new science to help you create more pleasure in your life. And, as Emily says, “Pleasure is the Measure!”
Neil Sattin: Hello and welcome to another episode of Relationship Alive. This is your host, Neil Sattin. What if everything that you’ve been told about sex and desire was wrong? Or maybe not quite wrong, just missing really important bits of information that would help you understand the big picture. As it turns out, there’s a lot that we’ve come to know through science about what turns us on and what turns us off. But this information is relatively new and hasn’t quite made it out to the mainstream or the cover of Cosmo, at least not yet. How do you know if what you’re experiencing is normal? And what can you do to discover more about who you are as a sexual being and to find more connection and sex in your relationship, without creating pressure on yourself or on your partner? Today’s guest has many of the answers to these questions.
Neil Sattin: Her name is Doctor Emily Nagoski and she’s the author of the New York Times bestseller “Come as You Are”, which John Gottman says is the best book he’s ever read on sexual desire and why some couples stop having sex. Esther Perel also refers to Emily’s work. So, if John Gottman and Esther Perel, who, at the moment, come from different camps on the question of sexual desire, if they can agree on Emily Nagoski’s work, then you know that she’s done something truly magnificent. There’s gonna be a lot to cover and, as usual, we will have a detailed transcript and action guide for this episode available to you at neilsattin.com/normal. Or you can text the word Passion to the number 33444 and follow the instructions to get your copy. Emily Nagoski, thank you so much for joining us today on Relationship Alive.
Emily Nagoski: I’m so excited to talk to you.
Neil Sattin: So let’s start at the very beginning.
Emily Nagoski: Very good place to start.
Neil Sattin: Exactly. Where did this book come from for you? It’s about desire and it’s about understanding what makes us tick. And in particular, it’s written for women and about women’s sexuality, though there’s so much relearning for men to do as well. And I’m wondering if you can just create our garden here for us for this conversation. Where did this book come from and why was it so important for you to write it?
Emily Nagoski: Sure. I’d been teaching sexuality in some form and some context, for at least 15 years when I started teaching a class called Women’s Sexuality at Smith College. Smith is a women’s college so I had a class of almost entirely women, 187 of them. And Smith students are not ordinary human beings. Smith alums include Gloria Steinem, and Betty Friedan, and Catharine MacKinnon, and my favorite, Julia Child. And so the very first day, I’m teaching the anatomy class, of course, I just start with the anatomy. And a student raises her hand and says, “Emily, what’s the evolutionary origin of the hymen?” And 15 years I’d been a sex educator, I had never even wondered the answer to that question. So I knew it was gonna be an intense, interesting semester. And it really was. They pushed me really hard. I shoehorned in as much science as I could into this beginner level class. After a semester of really hard work, my last question on the final exam was just tell me one important thing you learned. It can be… Just take the question seriously, you can have your two points no matter what you say. Just tell me one important thing you learned after all this cutting edge science.
Emily Nagoski: And I thought they were gonna say the evolutionary theory, or attachment theory, or arousal non-concordance, or responsive desire, or any of these other things. And more than half of them, of 187 extraordinary students, more than half of them just wrote something like, “I’m normal. I learned that I’m normal. Just because I’m different from other women doesn’t mean I’m broken. I can accept my sexuality as it is, and my partner’s even when it’s different from mine.” I’m grading final exams with tears in my eyes thinking, I don’t know what happened in my class, but I think it must have been something extraordinary and I wanna do it again, and I wanna do it on a much bigger scale. And that’s the day that I decided to write “Come as You Are.” And five years after that is when “Come as You Are” actually got published.
Neil Sattin: And I love these… There’s so many quotes from your book, and one thing that I really enjoyed about reading “Come as You Are” is that literally every chapter revealed something new. So while it all builds on itself, at the same time, I felt like I was walking through a labyrinth and around every corner I found some amazing gem, which is just so exciting when you’re reading a book. But this quote toward the end really was powerful for me. And all it is, is this, “The sexuality you have right now is it and it’s beautiful, even especially, if it’s not what you were taught it should be.”
Emily Nagoski: Yeah.
Neil Sattin: And that really hit me hard because I think so often we do get lost in thinking it’s supposed to be some other way. And when we learn to tune in to what is actually happening in our bodies and accept that, and then use that as the springboard for what happens next, there’s so much power in that moment.
Emily Nagoski: And in one way it’s really obvious that the fastest, easiest way to shut down your sexual well-being is to judge and shame your own sexuality as it – is like is that gonna be a turn on in your brain? For you to hate what’s happening in your sexuality, obviously not. But if you can release the judgement and shame and be like “Oh, look, here’s my sexuality. Being what it is, doing what it does, I know that I’ve been given a sort of like phantom sexual self of what I’m told I should be, what I’m supposed to do, what it’s supposed to be like, and I know I’m supposed to beat the shit out of myself until I meet that standard, but what if? What if just hypothetically I stopped beating the shit out of myself and just enjoyed my sexuality as it is?” It turns out our ability to stop demanding that our bodies be different and allowing them to be as they are, is maybe the single most powerful thing we can do to maximize our sexual well-being. Is it easy? Nope. But it’s almost magical in it’s power.
Neil Sattin: And this might be a good time to start with talking about the dual control system. This is something that probably most people don’t know about in terms of how they think about their own sexual operating system. Can you speak a little bit to what is the dual control’s mechanism and how does that affect whether we’re into sex or not into sex, or feeling desirous and aroused or not feeling desirous and aroused?
Emily Nagoski: Yes, absolutely. This is the fundamental hardware between our ears in the way our sexuality functions. It’s a model developed at the Kinsey Institute starting in the late ’90s, early 2000s, by Erick Janssen and John Bancroft, and it basically posits that sexuality works the way every other system in our central nervous system works. Which is a dual control mechanism. If there’s a dual control mechanism, how many parts are there?
Neil Sattin: Two.
Emily Nagoski: There’s two parts. Exactly, right? The first one is the sexual accelerator. And if the first part’s is the accelerator or the gas pedal, the second part must be?
Neil Sattin: The brakes.
Emily Nagoski: Brake. Exactly. The accelerator is the part most of us are already sort of familiar with… It notices everything in the environment that it codes as sexually relevant. This is all the things that you’re seeing and smelling and tasting and hearing and, crucially, imagining, that your brain codes as a sexually relevant stimulus, and it sends that turn on signal that activates arousal and desire. But at the same time that that’s functioning, there is also a brake that is noticing all the good reasons not to be turned on right now, everything you see and hear, smell, touch, taste, or, crucially, imagine, that your brain codes as a potential threat, a reason not to be sexually active right now. And it sends the turn off signal. So your level of arousal or desire at any given moment is this balance of how many ons are turned on and how many offs are turned off. Sexual well-being is maximized, that is to say, sexual pleasure in the moment is maximized, when you’re turning on all the ons and all of the brakes are turned off. And when I was talking about self-criticism and contempt for your own sexuality being a turn off, obviously, if you’re judging your own sexuality, is that hitting the accelerator? Almost certainly not. That’s one of the very common things that hits the brakes.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. And I think what is confusing is that it’s common for us to idealize one and to completely ignore the other. Or, one thing that was really enlightening in reading about these, is that we come with our own set level for these things. So some of us could have an accelerator that’s really sensitive and easy to turn on, whereas others may not. And that doesn’t necessarily represent a problem that needs to be fixed. And same with the brakes. Maybe you could talk a little bit more about that and why that… Why that’s so.
Emily Nagoski: Yeah, there, there are individual differences in the sensitivities of the brakes and the accelerator in each person’s brain. As far as we can tell from the science so far, they seem to be pretty set. They’re not as set as IQ, but we don’t know of any specific interventions to change their sensitivity. Let’s just assume they’re like personality traits like introversion and extroversion, they are what they are. Most of us are heaped up around the middle. We’re just sort of all about the same, but a handful of people, for example, will have really sensitive accelerators, and a person with a sensitive accelerator, vroom, right? That’s a person who is easily activated, which can be great under the right circumstances and can be pretty dangerous under the wrong circumstances. If a person is experiencing a lot of negative effects, stress, depression, anxiety, loneliness, helplessness, repressed rage we’ve all got it, and they don’t have good mechanisms in place for coping with that negative emotion – they may begin to use sex as an outlet, a way to avoid experiencing those negative emotions.
Emily Nagoski: And that’s where sexual risk taking and sexual compulsivity can come into play, in those folks who have higher sensitivity accelerators. And on the other end of the spectrum, there’s the folks, for example, who might have really sensitive brakes, where the least stray thought, stray fingernail, stray noise in the hallway can just shut everything right down. And those are the folks who struggle most with sexual dysfunction, desire disorders, desire differential in their relationship. For most of us though, it’s not that our brakes are overly sensitive. It’s that we have just a truck load of stuff hitting our brakes all the time and it’s much more common. The usual party line about sexual issues is that, well, you should try adding more stuff to the gas pedal. Try role play, and lingerie, and toys, and porn, and fantasy, and all the things, and those are great and you should try them if you like them. Great. And most people when they’re struggling with sexuality, it’s not because there’s too little stimulation to the accelerator, it’s because there’s too much stimulation to the brake, which is gonna be – some of it – is that self criticism and body shaming.
Emily Nagoski: For some people, it’s a trauma history. For some people, it’s straight up stress. 80 to 90% of people find that stress and other mood and anxiety issues negatively impact their sexual desire. For some people, it can actually increase it, but that’s a different story. And relationship issues, of course are the major factor in things that hit the brakes.
Neil Sattin: What’s a good way for someone listening right now to get a sense for themselves of what we’re talking about and how it impacts them? Like how do I identify what my brakes are and what my accelerator items are?
Emily Nagoski: Yeah, most people have a good sense – if they just sit down and think about it… I’m interested in sex when these things are happening and I am not at all interested and don’t experience pleasure under these circumstances. You can start in a general way with just lists, like what are the things that stress me out that prevent me from being interested in sex? What are the relationship issues that get me stuck so that when I get in bed with my partner, I’m not just getting in bed with my partner, I’m getting in bed with this laundry list of crap, that’s just like gunking up the pipes, and you gonna clean out the pipes before you’re gonna be interested in sex. Another concrete specific way rather than just generically…if you could think about one really awesome sexual experience you’ve had, doesn’t have to be the best one you ever had, just like a really great sexual experience. Consider what the context was that might have been hitting the accelerator and keeping the brakes off. So what was your own mental and physical state? What were your partner’s characteristics? What were your relationship characteristics? What was the setting? Was it in person? Was it in public? Was it over skype? Was it texting and photos?
Emily Nagoski: Was it in the closet at a stranger’s house, at a party, against a wall of other people’s coats? Or was it in your own bed with the door shut and the kids over at somebody else’s house? What was the setting that worked? Other life circumstances is a really important factor. How stressed out and exhausted were you from work and impending nuclear holocaust? What was your overall stress level? And then my favorite relevant factor is that called ludic factors. Ludic related to the word ludicrous. It just means play, how curious and playful and fun could you be? What games were you playing with your partner that were really working for you? There’s actually, if you go to my website, there’s worksheets, the worksheets are in the book and you can also just download them for free, that walk you through these contexts. I recommend that you think through three great experiences and three not so great experiences, not three terrible sexual experiences just three like, “meh” kind of experiences and look for what wasn’t working for you. And when you actually… It takes some time. But when you sit down and take the time to think through what contexts were really working for me. I don’t know why that made that sound. Could you hear that?
Neil Sattin: No, what did you hear?
Emily Nagoski: Oh, sorry, my sister is texting me and the alert came on.
Neil Sattin: Okay.
Emily Nagoski: Sorry.
Neil Sattin: That’s okay.
Emily Nagoski: It distracted me. Let me go back. It takes a little time to sit and actually think through six different sexual experiences, but people really do have surprising insights. People who really feel like they know a lot about their own sexual functioning, when they sit down and think in this concrete, specific way, will notice things they never heard before. A friend of mine went through it and what she realized… She’s in a long distance relationship, and when she actually did get together with her partner, what she noticed was that the expectation that, “Now that we’re finally together, we should be having sex.” That expectation, that sense of obligation, was absolutely the key to her shutting down her sexuality. And she only figured that out by thinking critically through the factors that were hitting the accelerators and hitting the brakes.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. And that’s huge, you talk about that particular one like how you feel about whether you are or not having sex, or how you feel about whether or not you should want to have sex in this moment as being another really important factor in whether your accelerator’s on and your brakes are out of the way, or your sexual car’s coming to a screeching halt.
Neil Sattin: I’m curious to know from, yeah, from your perspective. One thing you just mentioned was the people who do have a really light touch accelerator and the danger for those people that sex could become a compulsion if it’s that’s easy for them to get turned on and to potentially use it as a way to mitigate and cope with the stress and things that are going on in their lives, and in my experience with my clients, and people I talk to, and in my own experience as well, sometimes that those people tend to find themselves in relationships with people who do not have as light touch of an accelerator, and in fact often have quite the opposite. I’m wondering what do you do, and I think part of this is maybe in what you were just talking about with that, the way that you think about whether you should or shouldn’t be having sex, but what do you do to give someone hope who is in a situation – and you describe in your book one of the amalgamated characters, someone named Olivia, a woman who it’s really easy for her to get into the mood to have sex and she’s with a partner named Patrick for whom it’s not so easy. And how do you give a couple in that situation Some hope around shifting that dynamic in a way that, that feels positive for both people?
Emily Nagoski: This actually touches on what has turned out to be one of the most important ideas in the book, which is the nature of desire itself, how desire is supposed to function in our bodies and our relationships. In the case of Olivia, who is the composite character with a sensitive accelerator, she represents about 15% of women who have pretty sensitive accelerators, it means that she also happens to be a person who, when she is stressed out, her interest in sex actually goes up, which is true for, again, about 10-20% of people. And there’s not a gender differential on that one. And she’s with a partner, as so many of these folks are, for whom the opposite is true. So if they’re both stressed out at the same time, Patrick’s interest in sex hits the floor and Olivia’s hits the ceiling. And that’s not in and of itself a problem, but if they start having opinions about which one of them is doing it wrong, that’s when things can get really tricky. Because it’s… If you don’t have a judgement about who’s right and who’s wrong and you’re just like, “Well, our brains are wired differently. That’s how it is,” And you can rationally negotiate a compromise, great.
Emily Nagoski: But if you start feeling bitter and resentful towards your partner for either being too demanding or too withholding, and you’re judging and shaming yourself for wanting too much and being too much, or you’re judging and shaming yourself for not wanting enough and not being enough, that’s when things get really sticky, which is why the “You are Normal.” Mantra comes back over and over the book, You are normal, nobody’s doing it wrong. Both people are right and healthy and fine. The emotional weight that we attach to different experiences of sexual desire is just a social construct that we’re laying on top of it. You get to feel again, totally normal about the way you’re experiencing desire. And the practical solution is just to negotiate. What are we gonna do about the fact that I would like to have the sexy sexes and you are not interested in having the sexy sexes right now? How about we compromise in some way that works for both of us, where you stay with me and put your hand over my heart while I masturbate to orgasm? That way you don’t have to do anything you’re not into and I get to have the connection and the sexual release.
Emily Nagoski: How’s that sound? If we can let go of our judgments of what sex is supposed to be and what desire is supposed to be, that’s a perfectly reasonable compromise. That’s a really helpful compromise. It’s only not helpful compromise if you’re like, “But it doesn’t conform with my expectations about the aspirational culturally constructed ideal of what my sex life is supposed to be.”
Neil Sattin: Right, right. And so this is great because I’m wondering if you can suggest a good way to notice that in oneself. How do I know whether what I want is culturally constructed, or what I actually want, and what would be really important to have on some level?
Emily Nagoski: Dude, I don’t know.
Emily Nagoski: That’s the million dollar question, right? I would say that the distinction we’re thinking about here is not so much what I want, versus how I feel. The word that I use in the book, that comes from John Gottman’s research is meta-emotions. There’s how you feel. There’s how your sexuality… And this is also language I came up with after I finished Come as You Are. I was traveling all around the country and I was talking to students all over, and a student raises her hand and says, “You say in the book, Emily, confidence and joy. Over and over, you use these words, confidence and joy. Can you tell us what you mean by confidence and joy?” And I was like, “No, I have no idea what those words actually mean.” And I had to think about it for a long time. And I finally realized that confidence is knowing what is true, knowing that you have a sensitive accelerator and your partner doesn’t, or you have a sensitive brake and your partner doesn’t, knowing that the context that works for you is one that is really safe, and familiar, and calm, and quiet, whereas the context that works for your partner is one of novelty, and adventure, and risk.
Emily Nagoski: And okay, now you know what’s true. Joy is the hard part, and that’s loving what is true. Even, as I say in the book, when it is not what you were taught, it was supposed to be true. Even if it’s not what you wish were true. Boy, would things be simple if two partners always all the time wanted the same level of sex. Desire differential is the most common reason why people seek sex therapy. Desire differential is also really universal. There is no such thing as two people whose desire tracks the same day-to-day.
Emily Nagoski: Sometimes you have a rough day and your partner doesn’t, so you’re not interested in sex and your partner is. Some days the opposite is true. There is no such thing as people with exactly the same desire all the time. Just being like, “Hey, that’s cool.” That’s what’s true. Fortunately, I also love my partner, and so, we’re gonna work it out together. We’re gonna have conversations that can be calm and loving and affectionate, because we understand what’s true about ourselves, about our accelerator, about the context that work for us, and we love each other and the things that are true about our two different sexualities. There are no judgement, there’s no shame, there’s just accepting that we are two different people, and it’s not just that people vary from each other, it’s also that people change over time. When you’re in a relationship that lasts over multiple years, you and your partner’s sexualities are gonna change and they may not necessarily change along the same trajectories. Joy is loving what is true about both of your sexualities and the ways that they change, whether that feels comfortable and easy or not.
Neil Sattin: And this conversation, I appreciate that you brought up the requirement to as much as possible have it in a loving way, because those desire differentials can create a lot of stress. And as you just mentioned, for most people, no matter where they are in terms of brakes and accelerator, I think somewhere between 80% and 90% of people, that stress it’s going to turn the brakes on.
Emily Nagoski: Yeah.
Neil Sattin: Can you talk a little bit about this… How the stress that we’re carrying around with us every day… What can we do about that? Why is it so important to do something about it, rather than just sweeping it under the rug or pretending it doesn’t exist?
Emily Nagoski: Right.
Neil Sattin: And what’s on the other side of doing something about it?
Emily Nagoski: There’s a whole lot of telling ourselves not to, in a lot of aspects of our lives. We tell ourselves not to feel that way about sexuality. We try to force ourselves to feel a different way than we actually feel. We fight against the truth and reality, and we do that with our stress too. We tell ourselves that we’re supposed to experience, “No, I don’t need to be stressed out about that.” You try to tell yourself, “Relax, just relax.” When your partner, if you’re stressed out and your partner is like, “Why can’t you just relax? Just relax.” Is that helpful? Does that help? Does that make things better?
Neil Sattin: No, right.
Emily Nagoski: No, it doesn’t make things better, right? No, obviously. What has to happen is, instead of trying to just like not be stressed out, you have to move in the direction of the stress, sink down into it, and allow your body to experience it. Stress is a physiological process. It’s like digestion. It has a beginning and a middle and an end. And if we don’t interfere with it, our bodies will move through that entire cycle in a healthy, normal way that doesn’t interfere with our lives. But as human beings with giant prefrontal cortexes and massively social tendencies to wanna control our emotions in order to make other people feel good, we tend to keep the brakes on, on our stress in the same way they keep our brakes on, on our sexuality. And so, we’re walking around with all these activated stress response cycles, stress is the adrenaline, and the cortisol, and the hypervigilance, and the muscle tension, and the digestion changes, and the cardiovascular changes, and like your whole body, and your immune system is suppressed.
Emily Nagoski: Every body system is influenced by the fact that these stress response cycles have been activated. And if you just tell yourself not to feel it, those stress response cycles will stay spinning inside your body waiting to finish and they will wait forever. Most of us are walking around with decades worth of incomplete stress response cycles, just sitting like rocks somewhere in our body waiting for us to let them go. Fortunately, there’s lots of research that tells us what the effective strategies are for completing the stress response cycle. For example, physical activity. This is the obvious one, because the stress response cycle is designed for us to survive threats like being chased by a lion. When you’re being chased by a lion, what do you do?
Neil Sattin: Right, you get the hell out of there.
Emily Nagoski: You run. Yeah. Our bodies do not differentiate between stressors, so your body responds basically the same way to a lion as it does to your boss or to your partner shaming and guilting you about sex, right? It’s basically the same physiological stress response. It turns out, dealing with the stress itself, the physiology in your body requires basically totally different things from dealing with the thing that caused the stress. There is the calm, rational planning and negotiating that you have to do with your partner and then there is the dealing with the physiological stress itself. Just because you’ve dealt with the stressor doesn’t mean you’ve dealt with the stress. Physical activity is the single most important thing that you can do – when people tell you that physical activity is good for you, that’s for real-sy, every day, 20 minutes if you possibly can, literally any form of physical activity, even if it’s just like jumping up and down in your bedroom, any form of physical activity is helpful.
Emily Nagoski: We know that sleep is effective, creative self expression, writing and painting, music. We know that sleep is effective, did I say sleep already? Oh, and affection. So, calm, trusting, especially physical affection, but it doesn’t have to be physical affection, it can just be the loving presence of another human is great. You know what’s also great? The loving presence of a dog. You know what’s also great? Loving presence of a God. If that’s what makes sense for you. Whatever counts as a loving presence for you sitting and being with that presence helps to return your body to a state of calmness so that your body knows this is a safe place to live. I am safe right now. But it takes doing something for real, not just telling yourself.
Neil Sattin: Right. And if you’re doing that over and over, especially finding a way to regulate with another with your partner, then that brings about its own level of healing in terms of your right brain coming back online and your ability to operate from the parts of your prefrontal cortex that…
Emily Nagoski: Right. To think critically, to be curious and creative, all of that comes back only when you have reduced the adrenaline and cortisol levels and reduce the threat level so that the creativity can expand instead of being so focused on just survival.
Neil Sattin: Exactly. Just for your reference listening, if you want to learn more about healing trauma and ways modalities that can help with that we did have Peter Levine on the show, the creator of Somatic Experiencing, that was episode 29. So it’s something for you to bookmark and listen to later, and he’ll be coming back on the show as well. But somatic experiencing is just one. There are all kinds of modalities if you wanna work with a practitioner to help you…
Emily Nagoski: Pat Ogden is another really key person in body based therapy. Pat Ogden and somatic… I forget what it’s called. Pat Ogden is amazing and great, and does really, really good work around healing trauma through the body. What I love about body based strategies for dealing, not just with stress but with a trauma is that you don’t ever have to have insight. You don’t even necessarily have to think about whatever it is that caused the stress or the trauma. It’s a different process. You can choose an insight process if you want to, but if you don’t wanna go there, if you don’t wanna think about it, sometimes you can release this shit from your body without ever having to think about the event that activated the stress. You can just deal with the stress itself without dealing with the event itself, especially if the event is in the past and there’s nothing you can do about it now. Body based therapies are wonderfully gentle, indirect, tremendously effective strategy for helping to return your body to a safe state.
Neil Sattin: Mm-hmm, big recommend from me as well.
Emily Nagoski: There’s a chapter on stress and love, and the stress section is pretty much entirely based on the polyvagal theory and Peter Levine’s work, somatic experiencing, and Pat Ogden’s work in the body-based approach to stress.
Neil Sattin: Great. Yeah, and if you wanna learn more about the polyvagal theory, which Emily just mentioned, check out our episode with Steve Porges, which is episode number 34.
Emily Nagoski: And so you’ve just interviewed my entire shelf of reference books.
Neil Sattin: Basically. That’s my goal, Emily. [chuckle] You shouldn’t have sent me that photo of your bookshelf, and actually send me more ’cause I don’t wanna run out of people. I’m curious if we can talk now about the… ’cause one of the concepts that you discussed that was so fascinating for me was how you broke apart the process of arousal and desire into these different systems in our brain, and there was the enjoying system, the expecting system, and the eagerness system. And I felt like taking it apart like that made it so much easier to understand in a way that’s actually practical for people. Can we dive in and just give a little bit more information to our listeners about what I’m even talking about?
Emily Nagoski: Yeah. When you read sort of mainstream popular science journalism about brain science, they’ll refer to this thing, the pleasure centers of the brain. And if they do that, it’s a pretty good cue that they either don’t know what they’re talking about or they’re simplifying it in a way that’s really unhelpful, because it’s not just the pleasure center of the brain. And calling it the pleasure center is like calling your vulva the vagina, like there’s so much more to it, and if we ignore the other parts, we’re ignoring some fundamental aspects of how the thing works. So if we break it down, yes, there’s the pleasure part, which is just the part of your brain that responds to whether or not stuff feels good, and that’s a little more complicated and we can talk about the ways that your brain responds differently to different stimuli as pleasurable or not depending on the context. Should we do that now? Or should I wait?
Neil Sattin: Sure. Yeah, let’s…
Emily Nagoski: Okay.
Neil Sattin: And I’ll bring us back.
Emily Nagoski: Yeah, the pleasure piece of it is slightly complicated because the nucleus accumbens shell in your brain has an affective keyboard. Everybody’s asleep now, sorry.
Emily Nagoski: So the deal is, if you’re in a sort of a neutral mental state and somebody tickles you, meh. If you’re already in a fun, flirty, sexy, positive, playful, trusting state of mind and your certain special someone tickles you, that even if tickling is not your favorite, in principle, like that could feel fun and lead to other things happening, right? ‘Cause your brain interprets that stimulation as something to be approached with curiosity and pleasure because you already feel safe, and trusting, and playful. But if you are pissed off at your partner and they tickle you, you wanna punch them in the face. It’s exactly the same stimulation, right? The same tickling stimulation but the state of your mind is different, your brain state is different and so your brain interprets the sensation entirely different, not as something to be approached with curiosity and pleasure, but as a potential threat to be avoided or even attacked.
Neil Sattin: Right.
Emily Nagoski: And the only thing that is different is your state of mind, so pleasure is not simple. Pleasure is sensitive to the context in which you’re experiencing it which is why hot and heavy early on in the relationship, you’re in the middle of making dinner and your certain special someone comes over and starts kissing on your neck or whatever. And your knees kinda gets off and you’re like, “Oh, that’s cool.” And things happen. 10 years later, you’re trying to make dinner and you’ve got kids waiting for food and screaming at you and you got 10 years of accumulated frustrations in your relationship. Your certain special someone comes over and kisses on your neck then. You’re like, “I’m trying to… Get away from me. What are you doing?” And again, it’s exactly the same stimulation, but because the context is different, you experience that sensation in a totally different way, and that is a normal way for us to experience sensations.
Emily Nagoski: The problem is not the way we experience the sensation, the problem is that the context changed. And it’s not that the context is broken, that’s just life. There’s always the solution, we don’t have to change us in order to find a solution, we just notice what it is about the context that’s hitting the brakes and making our brain interpret the sensation as something that makes you wanna smack the person in the face and change the context if you possibly can to something that makes you interpret this person’s sensations as something pleasurable to be approached with curiosity. That’s the pleasure component of it. The nucleus accumben shell, woohoo. The second part of this pleasure center is actually the desire part. Eagerness, I called it in the book. Kent Berridge, who’s… Have you interviewed Kent Berridge?
Neil Sattin: Not yet, no.
Emily Nagoski: Oh my God, that’s the next guy on my shelf.
Neil Sattin: Okay.
Emily Nagoski: Kent Berridge or Morten Kringelbach.
Neil Sattin: Okay.
Emily Nagoski: They’re the two key authors on this batch of research that distinguishes between wanting and liking. We talked about what liking is and the ways that it’s dependent on context. Wanting is moving toward, is the actual activation, the desire, approach piece of it, not just the liking of, like, “Woo!” Or “Gleh!” Right? The classic example, that I actually cut from the book, so this is a thing that you will not read in the book, just to differentiate between wanting and liking, in an experiment, they gave… I always imagine it as one of those beer hats where there’s a bottle on one side and a bottle on the other side and straws going into your mouth, do you know what I mean?
Neil Sattin: Uh-huh.
Emily Nagoski: So they gave one of those to a rat, it’s not really like that, but just imagine it’s like that. And in one of the cans, there’s sugar water, which is delicious to the rat, and in one of the cans with a straw going into the mouth, there’s salt water with the salinity of ocean water. How does that taste?
Neil Sattin: Salty.
Emily Nagoski: Yeah, it’s gross.
Emily Nagoski: It’s just a really innately disgusting flavor, because it’s a dangerous flavor, it will give you way too much sodium and make you sick. They teach the rat that certain bells are associated with the sugar water coming in. When they get the sugar bell, they get excited. “Yay, here comes the sugar.” And when the salt bell comes on, they go, “Ah! – gaddigah – I don’t want the salt.” But then they give the rat a drug that reduces their salt level. Now, so this is an animal that has zero pleasurable experience with the salty water. It’s gross, they don’t like anything about it, but when you deplete their salt levels, they will go over to the salt bell and start pushing it and gnawing on it and trying… Be like, “Make this… ” They want the salt desperately because you’ve depleted the… You have a sodium drive that makes you desperate for salts if you don’t get it. If you don’t have the right sodium levels, you can literally die. So their whole body is in this huge activated, “I want the salt.” Though they have zero experience of liking the salt. Does that distinction make sense between wanting?
Emily Nagoski: So pleasure, liking is the pleasure part, enjoying. And then there’s eagerness, there’s desire, there’s moving toward and they’re overlapping certainly, but they are not identical and it is really important that we distinguish it. And then the third component of this mechanism that we usually just call the pleasure center is associative learning, is basically what it is. When I do PowerPoint presentations, I represent it with a drooling bulldog because of Pavlov’s dogs. He trained them to drool with a ring of the bell, all you do is you put food in front of the dog, it automatically starts drooling and you ring a bell. Food, bell, drool. Food, bell, drool. And eventually, you just ring the bell and that’s all it takes to get the dog to start drooling. Does that mean that the dog wants to eat the bell?
Neil Sattin: No, of course not.
Emily Nagoski: Does it mean… Right, of course not. Of course not. Does it mean that the dog finds the bell delicious?
Neil Sattin: No.
Emily Nagoski: Of course, not, right? It just means that the bell has been made food-relevant. It’s associated with food stimuli. So it’s now a food-relevant stimulus. Our genital response, blood flow and all the rest of that, is the associative learning component where if you’re presented with a sexually relevant stimulus, you will get genital response. This is your activating, this is a sexually relevant accelerator response. It turns out there is a not very relevant overlap, there’s not much of an overlap, between what counts as sexually relevant stimulus and what is actually liked, particularly in heterosexual women, so that a person’s body can respond to sexually relevant stimulus… In the research, it’s almost always different kinds of porn, sometimes it’s visual porn, sometimes it’s like they’re being read an audiobook of an erotic story, sometimes they’re even watching bonobo chimpanzees copulating, right? And women’s genitals will respond to this, not as much as to the human porn, but significantly above baseline. If their genitals are responding, does that mean they find the bonobo sex like they really want to have sex with the bonobos? Does that mean they like monkey sex?
Neil Sattin: This is so important. This is like one of the things in your book that… Not about bonobos necessarily, but…
Neil Sattin: But this question of how does our genital response correlate to our actual desire, and this might be a great time to talk about non-concordance.
Emily Nagoski: Right. And for a lot of people the answer is, it doesn’t – particularly for women. There’s about a 50% overlap between genital response, and perceived arousal, or subjective arousal in cisgender men. And about a 10% concordance overlap between genital response, and subjective arousal in heterosexual woman. One of the pieces of research that’s come out since Come As You Are was published, is the distinction that this arousal non-concordance appears to be a factor really just in straight women. We have no idea why there’s a difference sexual orientation, why there’s a difference in gender. It doesn’t matter why there’s a gender difference. We do have this tendency, like is anybody who’s sitting here and thinking right now, “Really, there’s that much of an overlap for guys, what’s the matter with men? There must be… I mean, that’s so strange that they have so much concordance between their genital response and their subjective desire. What’s going on with that?” No, everybody automatically thinks, “Really, women have 10% overlap. That’s really – what’s wrong with women?!”
Emily Nagoski: That’s the patriarchy, that’s the androcentric model of sexual desire, arousal, and response that all of us got raised in, assuming that the way a man works is the way a woman is supposed to work. And the extent to which a woman differs from a man is the extent to which she is broken, and needs to be fixed. And that’s just not true. When a person’s genital response doesn’t overlap with their perceived arousal, when their genitals are responding, and they’re like, “Nope. Not doing it for me” – what that means is that they’ve been presented with a sexually relevant stimulus that they do not want or like, which we can only understand if we know that this pleasure center of the brain does have these three separate channels that interact, of sexual relevance, sexually pleasurable, and sexual desire. They’re related to each other, but they don’t necessarily overlap. And we live in a pretend… In a fucked up enough culture that we’re presented with plenty of sexually relevant stimuli in contexts where we neither want nor like what is happening.
Neil Sattin: Right. And I would think that another way of looking at the statistic for men, the 50% concordance, is that men have the potential to be victimized by their sexual… By their genital arousal, basically.
Emily Nagoski: Yes. Yeah. This narrative shows up a lot in stories of sexual violence against people of every genital configuration. The typical model is a person with a vulva being sexually assaulted, and the perpetrator says, “Well, but you were wet. So obviously, you wanted it or liked it.” I cannot tell you how many students have told me, “Oh my gosh, this explains that experience I had where I was like, “Eh, this isn’t doing it for me,” and my partner was like, “No, you’re turned on. You’re wet.” As though a person’s genital response tells us more about what they’re experiencing than the person does. And the same thing happens when a person has a penis. If blood is flowing to their genitals, they’ve been taught that that’s an indication of who they are. Like their whole identity is tied to that, and it certainly indicates that they must want or like what is happening. But no, it’s a reflex. We would never tell someone, if they bit into a wormy old apple, “Well, your mouth watered when you bit into that wormy old apple, so you must have actually really wanted or liked it. We would never do that. When your doctor taps your patellar tendon and your knee kicks out, nobody is like, “But deep down though, you really wanted to kick your doctor.” We don’t make this assumption with any physiological reflex, except for genital response. And we do it no matter what a person’s genitals are, and it perpetuates a lot of myths around sexual violence.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. In fact, I loved your rewrite of Fifty Shades of Grey.
Neil Sattin: Which I can quote here. In the next edition, Emily thinks that Grey should say to Ana instead of… ‘Cause he, right, he spanks her, and she gets wet, is what basically…
Emily Nagoski: Yes. She consents to it. She doesn’t want it. She doesn’t like it. There is not a single word about pleasure. Her face hurts ’cause she’s squirming so hard to get away. And then, Christian Grey, the spanker/hero/douche bag, puts his fingers in her vagina, finds that she is wet, and says to her, “Feel this, Anastasia. Your body is soaking just for me.”
Neil Sattin: Right. “See how much your body likes this.”
Emily Nagoski: “See how much your body likes this.” Likes this. “See how much your body likes this, Anastasia.”
Neil Sattin: Yeah. So, you’re…
Emily Nagoski: And I wanted to say.
Neil Sattin: Yeah?
Emily Nagoski: I want the next person to say, “See how sexually relevant your body finds this. Which tells me very little about whether you want it or liked it.”
Emily Nagoski: Did you want it, like it? No? Double crap! Double crap is a thing they say a lot in Fifty Shades Grey.
Emily Nagoski: Let me say that I am a romance reader. I read it with an open mind. It wasn’t for me. I value a lot of things the Fifty Shades did for opening up a conversation about erotica and sexuality for women, and it also sold many millions of copies and perpetuated this myth that genital response… ‘Cause here’s the really bad thing about the book, about this particular aspect of it, is that even though she, in an email, goes on to describe the feeling of being debased, degraded, and abused, still, because he said, “Your genitals responded. Feel how much you like this.” She believes him instead of believing what her own internal experience was telling her. ‘Cause isn’t that what we all get taught, is to believe other people’s opinions about our bodies, what they are and what they should be, more than we trust and believe what our bodies are trying to tell us?
Neil Sattin: Yeah and that theme runs throughout your book, of learning how to shed the messages that you’ve been given and the ideas about how things should be, and learning to more deeply trust what comes out of you, what you know about yourself, and what does give you pleasure and what doesn’t, and to bring that to the conversation.
Emily Nagoski: And I’m remembering the question you asked about how do we tell what’s socially constructed and what’s what you actually want and like. And sort of almost everything is socially constructed. Nobody is born with any innate sexually relevant stimuli other than just plain old genital sensations. Like nobody is born being turned on by cars, or high-heeled shoes, or smoking cigarettes, or power play. That’s all learned from culture. That doesn’t mean that it’s not real for you and it’s what you really do want, it just means that that is what you learned, it’s what your culture taught you. And some of those things are just sexually relevant. Like your brain has been taught that those are sexually relevant stimuli. And some of them are things that, in the right context, really do give you gigantic pleasure, and you really do desire them in the right context, in one that facilitates pleasure. Somehow my go-to example of this has been if you fantasize about being cornered by five strangers who just want you sexually and so they take you.
Emily Nagoski: If you’re alone, safe in your bed, masturbating to that fantasy, in reality, the context is you are 100% safe and in control of that. Whereas if, in reality, five strangers cornered you and wanted to have you sexually, that would be physically unsafe, your stress response would kick in, you would only want to get away, it wouldn’t actually be sexy. And the difference is the context. You can, if you wanna create that fantasy for yourself, you can ask five friends to participate in the role play, and communicate really clearly about what everybody’s limits are. But that’s, again, a really different context from five actual strangers.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, so it’s important to revisit for a moment… When you were describing context at the beginning, you were talking about all the factors that shape context. It’s not just like, “Oh, well, the context is the bedroom’s messy and the kids are knocking at the door, so I’m gonna send the kids to Grandma’s and clean the bedroom.” There’s more than just the physical context, there’s all of that…
Emily Nagoski: Yeah. The stuff in the here and now tends to be the easy stuff to fix, the easy stuff to address. I heard someone joking at a romance writers’ conference, “Characters in romance novels have sex when they’re being chased and shot at by the Mafia, and I can’t have sex if there’s still a dish in the sink.”
Emily Nagoski: That’s the easy stuff. The difficult stuff is when what you’re bringing to bed and bringing to the context is years of shame, or years of judgement and blame, or relationship conflict, or a trauma history, or body shame, or gendered roles and ideas about how sex is supposed to work and if it’s not working that way then it’s working wrong. Those are longer term projects. And most of them can be undone through simple, daily mindfulness practices. It does take time. In the same way that it took time to get you to this place, it takes time to shift you out of that place and into a different, more neutral, self-accepting, partner-accepting place. But noticing the gunk, as I call it, the gunk that gets in the pipes, and making a decision to consider the possibility that you could live without the gunk and maybe clean it out is the way to clear up the channel, so that when you get to bed, the context is not one that’s bringing with it all of this historical shit.
Neil Sattin: Yes.
Emily Nagoski: I’ve been swearing a lot.
Neil Sattin: You have!
Emily Nagoski: I don’t know if that’s okay. Sorry.
Neil Sattin: This is an explicit show. It’s totally fine.
Emily Nagoski: Oh good.
Neil Sattin: I’m wondering if, before we go, since you just brought up mindfulness, if you could offer just a simple approach to how you’ve seen mindfulness work. What’s something that someone can do that, over time, will effect that great kind of change?
Emily Nagoski: The simplest version is simply… So when you’re in the process of a sexual experience, you will notice that maybe body-critical thoughts, or sexuality-critical thoughts, or partner-critical thoughts will enter your mind. You just notice them and are like, “Oh, hey! There’s that critical thought. I’m gonna have that critical thought literally any other time that I want. For the moment, I’m gonna put it in the back, and I’m gonna return my attention to the pleasurable sensations happening in my body.” And another critical thought will float through your mind, and you’ll be like, “Oh, hey look! There’s another critical thought. I’m just temporarily, I’m gonna put that in the back, and I’m gonna return my attention to the pleasurable sensations happening in my body.” And with practice, over and over, we become really skilled at noticing those emotions before they dig deep, and even reducing the frequency and intensity with which they float into our minds. It makes a tremendous… There’s a huge body of research. Another person for you to interview, Lori Brotto, does all this research on the impact of mindfulness on women’s sexual well-being, especially women who are in recovery from gynecological cancers, and breast cancers, and other diseases, the impact it has on their relationships and their sexuality, and how to use mindfulness and sex education as a way to maximize sexual well-being in the recovery process.
Neil Sattin: Amazing. Amazing. And I loved how you brought that in your book as well, not only in how you just described, but also in talking about how important it is to see the ways that you do judge yourself and you’re critical of yourself, and how all of those responses are turning your stress inward. You’re creating more stress for yourself, which is putting the brakes on for yourself and gets you in that negative feedback loop. Versus…
Emily Nagoski: And it takes…
Neil Sattin: Being able to heal it through your mindfulness. Yeah? Go ahead.
Emily Nagoski: It requires the decision to prioritize turning off the brakes. You have to decide that it matters to you and to your relationship that you access your own sexual well-being. The couples who… What we learn in John Gottman’s research is that the couples who sustain strong sexual connections over multiple decades are not couples who, hot and heavy, can’t wait to stuff their tongue down each other’s throat all the time. They are the couples who, one, have a strong foundation of friendship for their relationship, and two, prioritize sex. So they decide that it matters for their relationship that they set aside this half hour when they stop dealing with the kids, and work, and family, and friends, and Game of Thrones, and all of the other things that they could be paying attention to. They stop all that and they just pay attention to each other in this, frankly, pretty silly, fun way that humans do, because it matters for their relationship that they have that time to play, and touch, and connect. It’s not the case for every couple that connecting in this way matters for their relationship, but the couples who sustain strong sexual connections, it’s what they do. They make the decision that it matters that they cultivate sexual pleasure and curiosity.
Neil Sattin: Well, you’re blessing us with a great way to end our conversation, while at the same time reminding me of all the things that we could have talked about. I just wanna say…
Emily Nagoski: We could talk about responsive desire, oh… [chuckle]
Neil Sattin: Yeah, oh my goodness. Well…
Emily Nagoski: Read chapter seven. That’s all. Just read chapter seven. They know enough for that to make sense now.
Neil Sattin: Do you have time to give a quick blip on that before we go?
Emily Nagoski: Okay, really quick. Yes.
Neil Sattin: Thank goodness.
Emily Nagoski: The standard party line about desire is that it’s spontaneous. It just sort of comes out of the… You’re walking down the street. You’re eating lunch and… Erika Moen, who is the cartoonist who illustrated Come as You Are, she draws this as a lightning bolt to the genitals. Just kaboom! You just want the sexes. And so you go to your partner with, “I have a kaboom. Can I have the sex? Uh?” And your partner’s like…
Emily Nagoski: So, that is, absolutely, one healthy, normal way to experience sexual desire, is to have it just be… Feel spontaneous and kinda out of the blue. And there is another, totally healthy, normal way to experience sexual desire, it’s called responsive desire. See, spontaneous desire emerges in anticipation of pleasure. Responsive desire emerges in response to pleasure, bearing in mind that pleasure is sensitive to context and not simple. The way this works, there’s really sort of two narratives of how it works. One is the sort of cuddle, snuggle narrative, where you’re just sitting on the couch watching Netflix and your partner comes over and starts touching you, and your body’s like, “Ah, that feels really nice.”
Emily Nagoski: And your partner starts doing other, more interesting things, and you turn and maybe start kissing on your partner, and your brain receives all this stimulation, it’s like, “Ah, that feels really nice.” And you turn and do maybe some more things, and there’s a hand that goes up a shirt, and your brain’s like, “That’s… You know what, how about the sexy times?” Right? It’s kaboom that emerges in response to pleasure. The cuddle, snuggle model. And then there’s the Liz Lemon, “Let’s do this,” model, Where you dump the toys in the toybox, it’s [3:00] on Saturday afternoon, you’d said that you would. “You, me, and the red underwear, here we go. Let’s just get in the bed and go.”
Emily Nagoski: And you put your body in the bed, and you put your skin against your partner’s skin, and you remember that you like this. You like this person. You enjoy these sensations. And you allow your body to remember that this is fun and good. That’s responsive desire. And all three of those are 100% normal…
Neil Sattin: Normal.
Emily Nagoski: Healthy ways. Right? That’s… Many people feel that if you have to set appointments, if you don’t already crave it when you get in bed, then there’s something wrong. Nope. That’s how it works sometimes. Most people will experience all of these different kinds of desire in their life. Some people never experience spontaneous desire. Some people have no experience of responsive desire. What matters is that you just notice that there are differences, and there are changes, and they are all 100% normal. And you can maximize responsive desire. The main way to maximize responsive desire is not to judge or shame it, but simply allow it. You allow desire to emerge from pleasure. My three-word… It rhymes and everything, so you can remember it and tell your friends, is, “Pleasure is the measure.” Pleasure is the measure of sexual well-being. It’s not how much you crave it, it’s not how often you do it, or where you do it, or what you do, or how many people, or even how many orgasms you have. It’s whether or not you like the sex you are having.
Neil Sattin: Mm-hmm.
Emily Nagoski: There’s this sex therapist in New Jersey named Christine Hyde, who uses this party metaphor, she says to her clients, “If you’re invited to a party by your best friend, of course you say yes ’cause it’s your best friend and it’s a party. But then as the date approaches, you start thinking, ‘Ugh! There’s gonna be all this traffic. We gotta find childcare. Do I really wanna put on pants on a Friday?'”
Emily Nagoski: But like, you go because you said you would and it’s your best friend and it’s a party and what happens? Most of the time you have a good time at the party. If you are having fun at the party, you are doing it right. Pleasure is the measure of sexual well-being.
Neil Sattin: Mm-hmm. Yeah. And just as a quick addendum because I love how you suggest this in your book and it’s something we’ve talked about on the show before, sometimes in that context taking sex off the table or making it okay to… That this isn’t leading to sex, this is just about exploring pleasure that can, I think… That’s one of those things that takes the brakes off. Yeah.
Emily Nagoski: It reduces the performance demand. Yes. Absolutely.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. So…
Emily Nagoski: I have actually started recommending that couples, when they… If they set an appointment, they set a date of like Saturday at [3:00], you and me, we’re gonna do something, they set very firm limits on what they’re allowed to do. Sometimes, it means not actually touching each other. Sometimes distance is… And this is the reason why I find both Esther Perel’s model and John Gottman’s model to be helpful, because people vary a lot in what works for them. Some people crave the closeness in order to facilitate desire and some people really long to have distance to have a bridge to cross to move toward their partner. People just have different strategies in the same way our brakes and gas are different. So figuring out what to do in that chunk of time that you set aside for you and your partner to do something or other that feels good, is gonna be different for you versus from everybody else that you know.
Neil Sattin: Mm-hmm. Yeah. So take the time to get to know yourself and what you might actually want in that circumstance.
Emily Nagoski: Yeah. Right.
Neil Sattin: Oh, so many things, and yet we have run out of time. Emily Nagoski, it is so great to chat with you. I think your book, Come As You Are, is really required reading for people to just come to understand themselves as sexual beings in a totally new, actually based on science and not based on fable, way. And especially if you’re a woman, especially if you’re in a relationship with a woman, and even if you’re a man and not in a relationship with a woman, there’s just so much in here that I think will help you…
Neil Sattin: And non-binary people too.
Neil Sattin: Yes. And anyone, wherever you are on the spectrum, this will help you come to understand yourself and how that all works within you. I’m so appreciative of your contribution through writing the book. And if people wanna find out more about you, where can they find you on the interwebs?
Emily Nagoski: The main place to go is my website, which is just emilynagoski.com.
Neil Sattin: Great. And we will have a link to that, along with a detailed show guide, if you visit neilsattin.com/normal, though I’m tempted to make it Pleasure is the Measure, but neilsattin.com/normal, or you can text the word Passion to the number 33444 and follow the instructions. Emily Nagoski, thanks so much. Hope to have you back again sometime!
Emily Nagoski: Thank you so much!
Check out Emily Nagoski’s website
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