reviews

Book review: Come as You Are, by Emily Nagoski

I don’t care how much you think you know about sex, whether relating to the mechanics or the emotional complexities. If you’re interested in sex, you need to read this book.

I had multiple recommendations for this book, so my expectations were high, and yet it did not disappoint in the least.

What was especially great is that it wasn’t just a book on sex education. Its scope extended far wider, addressing many of the biggest issues women have in today’s society, from body image issues to every kind of stress that may be getting in the way of your sex life. While I didn’t find all of it applicable to myself, I appreciated the author going the extra mile to widen her audience for the many women who might be reading her book, to fight the ugly and negative messaging with which our culture is loaded.

One of the most important concepts explained, in my opinion, was that of arousal nonconcordance:

A woman can be perfectly normal and healthy and experience “arousal nonconcordance,” where the behavior of her genitals (being wet or dry) may not match her mental experience (feeling turned or not).

Note: this can also happen to men, as Nagoski explains later.

It’s impossible for me to capture all the ways this book was so amazing and insightful. All I can do is try to capture a range of the best quotes:

[discussing the issue of low libido, or difficulty really enjoying sex]

The problem isn’t the desire itself, it’s the context. You need more sexually relevant stimuli activating the accelerator and fewer things hitting the brake.

*

Stress is usually taught as the fight-or-flight response, but it’s vastly more helpful — and accurate — to call it by its full description: fight/flight/freeze.

…And that is the complete stress response cycle, with beginning (“I’m at risk!”), middle (action), and end (“I’m safe!”).

…And if you’re generally overwhelmed by twenty-first-century life, practically everything else takes priority over sex; as far as your brain is concerned everything is a charging lion. And if you’re being chased by a lion, is that a good time to have sex?

…The key to managing stress effectively is to make efforts to complete the cycle — unlock from freeze, escape the predator, kill the enemy, rejoice.

But stress is more complex in modern humans than in gazelles and gorillas, for a lot of reasons. First, in modern life, we are, as I mentioned, almost never chased by lions. Our stressors are lower intensity and longer duration — “chronic stressors,” they’re called, in contrast to “acute stressors,” like straightforward predation. Acute stressors have a clear beginning, middle, and end; completing the cycle — running, surviving, celebrating — is inherently built in. Not so with chronic stressors. If our stress is chronic and we don’t take deliberate steps to complete the cycle, all that activated stress just hangs out inside us, making us sick, tired, and unable to experience pleasure with sex (or with much of anything else).

…Well, just as you can’t grit your teeth and make a garden grow, you can’t force a stress response cycle to complete. Completing the cycle requires that, instead of hitting the brake on our stress, we gently remove our foot from both the accelerator and the brake and allow ourselves to coast to a stop.

…Physical activity is the single most efficient strategy for completing the stress response cycle and recalibrating your central nervous system into a calm state.

*

Treat cultural messages about sex and your body like a salad bar. Take only the things that appeal to you and ignore the rest. We’ll all end up with a different collection of stuff on our plates, but that’s how it’s supposed to work. It goes wrong only when you try to apply what you picked as right for your sexuality to someone else’s sexuality.

*

when sex is conceptualized as a need, it creates an environment that fosters men’s sense of sexual entitlement. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky illustrates how the assumption that boys require outlets to “relieve their sexual frustrations” facilitates the sexual enslavement of impoverished girls. If you think of sex as a drive, like hunger or thirst, that has to be fed for survival, if you think that men in particular—with their 75 percent spontaneous desire—need to relieve their pent-up sexual energy, then you can invent justifications for any strategy a man might use to relieve himself. Because if sex is a drive, like hunger, then potential partners are like food. Or like animals to be hunted for food.

*

The genitals notice any restaurant they pass, whether it’s Thai food or pub grub, fast food or gourmet (while ignoring all the museums and shops), and say, “This is a restaurant. We could eat here.” She has no strong opinion, she’s just good at spotting restaurants. Meanwhile, the brain is assessing all the contextual factors…to decide whether she wants to try a place. “This place isn’t delicious smelling enough,” or “This place isn’t clean enough,” or “I’m not in the mood for pizza.” The genitals might even notice a pet store and say, “There’s pet food in here, I guess…” and the brain rolls her eyes and keeps walking.

They pass a museum, and the brain says, “I heard about a great cafe in this museum,” and the genitals respond, “This isn’t a restaurant.” But the brain has way more information than the genitals. So suppose the two friends go into the museum, and the genitals see the little cafe next to the gift shops. Then she says, “Oh, I see, this is a restaurant. We could eat here,” and the brain says, “Yeah, this looks great.” Both relevant and appealing!

…Once they find a diner, the brain says, “A diner! I love diners,” and the genitals agree, “This is a restaurant, we could eat here,” unless there’s some pretty compelling reason not to, like a bunch of drunks brawling outside.

…If our two women on vacation came across that diner with a brawl outside, the genitals would still say, “This is a restaurant,” even as the brain dragged her away, shouting, “Let’s get out of here! Call the cops!”

In other words, women’s genitals learn to associate certain stimuli with certain psychological responses that have nothing to do with pleasure or even interest.

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