Book Summary - Come As You Are by Dr. Emily Nagoski
Sex is a highly nuanced topic and it is also a very individual one, but, as a society, we often talk about it in a group-focused way. However, Come as You Are by Dr. Emily Nagoski asks us to consider a new approach to our conversations about sex. Rather than generalizing what we feel we should or should not be doing in terms of sexual practices, Nagoski encourages us to develop a thorough understanding of the biology and psychology surrounding sex and our physiological responses to it.
Nagoski cautions readers not to worry if you think you are having too much sex. Or too little. Or if your sexual preferences have changed over time. Or if your sexual personality has shifted. A key part of a successful erotic life is being able to recognize cues in our bodies and our minds, then leveraging these into highly pleasurable experiences through open dialogue with both our partners and ourselves.
It is a safe bet that at some point in your life, you have questioned the purpose of nipples on men, whether you have spoken the words out loud or simply held them in your mind.
The long and short of it is this: men have nipples because women have them.
There is a biological principle called homology which stipulates that every human being begins with the same anatomical parts. These parts simply arrange themselves differently from person to person.
This is the reason why, for the first six weeks of in utero development, it is impossible to identify differences in sex.
We are all cut from the same evolutionary cloth, but as we evolve into the fullest version of ourselves, our bodies--and our psyches--we experience change.
Following the birth of a child, some women experience a marked change in their sex drive and sometimes even their sexual preferences.
Consider Laurie, one of the author’s clients. While Laurie had always enjoyed sex with her husband in the past, she found that after giving birth to a baby, she was no longer excited to engage in intercourse with her spouse. Instead, she started to prefer pleasuring herself solo with a vibrator as opposed to penetrative sex. Laurie was concerned about this sudden development and felt that there was something wrong with her.
But really, nothing was physically wrong.
Much like your standard Honda CRV, your brain has both a sexual gas pedal and a brake system. If a threat arises (such as a burst of anxiety), your body slams on the brakes, and your ability to become aroused at that moment is diminished.
In Laurie’s case, she could be associating penetrative sex with the trauma of giving birth, or she could be experiencing anxiety around the idea of feeling like she needs to be “up” for partnered sex when she is exhausted from raising her baby. Both issues would lead to a nervous system response that significantly limits arousal.
Other causes of a ‘slam on the brakes’ response?
A lack of trust in your partner or feeling pressure to perform.
At the beginning of every relationship, romantic or otherwise, there is a honeymoon period during which the two parties are on their best behavior in order to impress the other person. With a boyfriend or girlfriend, this duration can refer to a time of intense, passionate sex and strong feelings of connectedness.
But what happens when the spark inevitably wears off?
This is where context comes into play.
Consider the following example.
You are in a flirty and sexual mood when your partner comes over and begins tickling you. This could feel nice and exciting and even lead to sex.
However, if you are concentrating on work and your partner comes over and tickles you, you could find the same sensation distracting and annoying.
Sex works the same way. A sensation can inspire a different reaction depending on the situation and with the proper mood, almost any scenario has the potential to become erotic.
This theory has been tested on rats as well as humans, with the ultimate finding that in a safe and relaxed environment, even intense sexual activity, such as using whips and bondage, can be enjoyable and erotic.
Logically, most of us know that sex is a great stress reliever. However, if we start to feel stressed out, it becomes nearly impossible to channel these negative emotions into a successful sexual experience. For this, biology is to blame.
Stress leads our bodies through a stress response cycle that cannot be cut short just because we like the idea of getting over it and moving on.
Think about being attacked by a lion in the jungle. While you may decide to play dead and ultimately circumvent the potential threat, your body will not immediately recover and go back to normal right away. Instead, you will undoubtedly experience tremors and residual fear for quite some time.
As such, you cannot enjoy sex until your body’s stress response cycle is complete.
So, how do we speed up the process?
The best thing you can do is relieve tension through exercise, getting enough sleep, and even yelling and crying, as this is an effective emotional release.
If you have experienced sexual trauma in your past, you could encounter a cycle where every erotic situation brings up feelings of anxiety and stress. In these cases, experts suggest employing mindfulness techniques to help your mind and body reach a state of calm.
You might be feeling really good about your sex life one day, but then you pick up Cosmopolitan magazine or any number of other women-focused tabloids that preach about improving the quality of your erotic experiences.
As the age-old saying goes, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
By immersing ourselves in this kind of media, not only are we subjected to stories and images that inaccurately represent the typical experience of women, but we are also led to believe that we are inadequate if we are not living up to certain standards.
There is an unsaid expectation in these magazines that in order to have value, a woman must be willing to try every sexual position possible and to enjoy every kind of orgasm and promiscuous game that exists.
But don’t enjoy the ‘promiscuous games’ too much or you are branded as a slut.
The resulting dichotomy is an impossible one: you are either too sexual or too prude and there is no middle ground.
So, how do we avoid the harmful influence of this type of media, particularly when it comes to young, impressionable women?
We start by celebrating our bodies, being kind to ourselves, and minimizing our exposure to magazines that promote low self-worth and negative body image. We are worth much more than what we can provide to a man (or another woman!) in the bedroom and it is time we start encouraging the world to recognize that.
So, your genitals are responding. But, does that mean you are actually aroused? Not always.
There is a cultural tendency for people to believe that if you (say, a woman) are starting to get wet, you are aroused and absolutely want the sexual activity to progress.
However, this is not always the case and it is dangerous for us to assume that it is.
On the flip side, a man could witness something traumatic and experience an erection, but that does not necessarily mean he is looking to engage in sexual activity or even feels aroused. Arousal is just as much mental as it is physical.
Studies show that for women, the correlation between blood flow to the vagina and arousal is actually lower than ten percent.
So, how do we solve the mystery of actual arousal versus physical genital response?
As with any sexual activity, the best way to gauge our partners’ true level of enjoyment is by initiating a conversation and determining the genuine feelings that are taking place. While much of sex seems to focus on the physical, open dialogue is often the difference between a satisfying and a not-so-satisfying sexual experience.
When you ask humans what they need to survive, many will say food, shelter, and sex. But, while food is an actual drive that does guarantee survival, this is not the case with sex.
People can certainly survive without sex and it can be frustrating to not have as much of it as you would like, but nobody dies from a lack of it.
In fact, for many women and men (but more commonly for women), sex is not something that is desired out of the blue. It is not spontaneous, but responsive. One partner could initiate sex and the other partner might not be particularly turned on at the onset, but it is very possible to start developing feelings of arousal during the process. This is why foreplay is so important, rather than jumping straight to penetrative sex with no ‘warm-up’ first.
The Vicious Orgasm Cycle
You really, really, really, really want to have an orgasm. So, you have sex and you try really, really, really hard to make it happen. Ultimately, you end up so stressed out about trying to achieve this goal that you end up failing because increased stress makes it much harder to achieve orgasm. Once this happens once, you become even more frustrated, thus initiating the cycle again.
If so, you are not alone. While orgasming may seem like an all or nothing sort of deal, there are actually thousands of types of orgasms and ways to achieve them. For instance, some women can only reach orgasm by masturbating while some are more apt to reach a climax by a combination of oral and penetrative sex. The possibilities are endless and it can take a long period of trial and error (and an understanding partner) to determine what works best for you.
Your ability to orgasm through vaginal intercourse is actually not as much in your control as you think. It is often predetermined by the distance between your clitoris and your urethra.
The Main Take-away
Chances are, we would all like to be having more sex. No matter how much sex you are actually having, you are programmed to crave it and seek it out, BUT, unlike your biological drive for food, your body can still survive without erotic release.
If you do have the opportunity to engage in sex, though, the realities of it are far more complex than a simple matter of penetration and climax. Through an understanding of your body’s anatomy, response to arousal, and the variation and contextual attributes of erotic experiences, you have the ability to elevate your sex life.
Self-confidence and an awareness of both your body and your partner’s are key--don’t let media representations of ‘ideal sex practices’ stand in your way!
About the Author
Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., began her career in sexual education in 1995 when she became a peer health educator at the University of Delaware, tasked with teaching undergraduate students about stress and sex.
In the years that followed, Dr. Nagoski earned a Ph.D. in Health Behavior with a concentration in human sexuality. Throughout her academic tenure, Dr. Nagoski served as the Director of Wellness Education at Smith College as well as teaching several classes on human sexuality, relationships, stress management, and communication.
Currently, Dr. Nagoski is on the road. She travels, writes, and speaks full-time in an effort to train professionals, college students, and humanity in general about the science and art of sexual well-being.