Emily: When You Can C*m As You Are
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Once you give a TED Talk on arousal and get your work name-dropped on the series Sex Education, you know you’re a bona fide sexpert. For Emily Nagoski, these are just a few of her many accolades, including hosting the new podcast Come As You Are from Pushkin. On this episode of Good Sex, Emily puts on her educator hat and doles out the wisdom she’s accrued over the years. Don’t know how to ask a partner for something you want in the bedroom? You will soon enough.
Keep up with Emily at @enagoski on Instagram and @emilynagoski on Twitter, and listen to Come As You Are wherever you get your podcasts.
As expected, Good Sex contains mature themes and may not be appropriate for all listeners.
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When I was in high school, the only question I remember from the test for our sex ed section, it was a multiple choice question. And the prompt was simply, he’s lying. And the correct answer was the withdrawal method. I’m Emily Nagoski, I’ve been a sex educator for over 25 years, and you’re listening to GOOD SEX. I am the author of cum as you are, and burnout, my forthcoming book is called come together. And it’s about the science of sex and a long term relationship. Did I have a specific moment when I realized how much sexual education was lacking? I have had that moment, over and over and over. This all started for me in 1995. It’s been over 25 years. And the first moment was when I started my own training as a college sex educator going into residence halls talking to my peers. First of all, the fact that I was learning things I didn’t learn in high school or any earlier that I didn’t learn from the medical encyclopedias in my house, or from any of the books at the library. And then I got to Indiana University and the Kinsey Institute. And I realized I had to start from scratch, like nothing that I was taught was true. And then I continued through a master’s degree and into a PhD, where I just kept having my brain melted, learning all these new things, and realizing, and most people don’t have a chance to be a college peer sex educator, and learn the things that I learned all the way back then. And then I got a job at Smith College, and I was teaching a class called women’s sexuality. And every single semester, a student would come up to me after my first lecture, this is like day one, is the hardware I just talked about, like genital structure. And every without fail, a student could come up to me at the end and say, you know, I signed up for this class, because I assumed it was going to be an easy A, because like, I already really know a lot about sex. But actually, I learned a lot today, that comes up over and over around gender stuff, especially because we get taught really early on. I mean, I watched the Nova special watching the sperm penetrate the egg and being told that the sperm were racing each other to get to claim their prize, and to like penetrate the egg. And it’s all just recapitulation of gender norms being assigned to these cells in our bodies. It’s bananas, but also its factually incorrect, it is not a realistic representation of what’s actually going on in our biology. So it’s the gender bias is preventing us from really understanding what’s going on in our biology.
What are some things that people might not realize, could be affecting their sexual wellness. So I use this metaphor in cum as you are, that your brain is like this little patch of rich and fertile soil. And on the day you’re born, your family of origin and your culture, begin to plant ideas about sexuality and pleasure and bodies and gender and safety and love. And as you get a little older, they teach you to tend the garden. And by the time you get to adulthood, you have this plopped full of all kinds of plants, and you didn’t get to choose almost any of it. And a lot of it is simply factually incorrect. So it’s not fair. No, I should say, some people do get really lucky. They get great positive, inclusive, supportive ideas about sex and gender and bodies and safety and love. But a lot of us get some really toxic shit planted into our gardens. And we didn’t choose it. And it’s not fair, that we have to do the work of ripping this stuff out. But it is at least an opportunity for us. We can go row by row through everything that was planted in the gardens of our sexual minds, and make choices about what we want to keep, because some of its good. And what we want to throw in the compost heap to rot. If you experienced trauma, it’s like there was a lightning strike somewhere in the ground and everything is dead and we just need to like allow that patch to be barren for a while and gradually fold in compost, and it will become fertile again and produce more of what we choose to grow there. What strategies do I use to approach sexual health objectively? Honestly, I don’t try to prison myself as objective. Earlier in my career, in the early 2000s, I really bought into the idea of science as a neutral way to study and understand sexuality. And I am still deeply on board with the science. I think it’s really powerful. And it’s certainly an important antidote to the shame and cultural lies that a lot of us are taught. And once I got out of grad school and into the world, it was very obvious that the science was not serving people. When I tried to explain the science to people who had not gone to grad school for sexuality, they were hearing me through the filters, of all the cultural stuff. One of the most important examples of this is arousal non-concordance, which is the idea that actually the relationship between the blood flow to your genitals and your subjective experience of feeling aroused, there’s not necessarily going to be a good correlation between those things. Just because there’s a lot of blood flow into your genitals doesn’t mean you won’t or like, what’s happening. Anyone who is a teenager with a penis will remember, like, you sit in the back of the bus and it’s vibrating a lot, does that mean you are turned on by the bus? Now, like, we know that genital response can happen in the absence of arousal, pleasure, or desire. And when I talk about that, people literally don’t believe me. Because it’s been recapitulated, that’s a sex related stimulus, it means he wants it and likes it.
When I wrote cu as you are, originally, I use the language that the Science uses, which is that it says arousal comes first and then desire, desire emerges in response to arousal. Okay, so when I rewrote cum as you are when I updated it, I changed my language from what the science said, to what people need to understand, which is that it’s pleasure, that generates desire. And if a person does not like the stimulation to their bodies, it doesn’t matter if blood flow increases to their genitals, if they don’t like it. It’s not going to result in desire. Desire is not the problem. Lack of pleasure, is the problem. So there’s, there’s a lot of ways that over the last 15 years, in particular, it has become really clear that the science is falling way behind the culture. And until they catch up, I’m gonna spend a lot more time like interviewing people to find out what’s true instead of going through the science. And there’s the last thing about how I don’t try to claim objectivity is that I know I am in a position in the world. And the way I receive information is shaped by that position. And so it is necessary for me always to remember that like, I’m a cisgender, white lady, I’m married to a dude, I get all this straight privilege. Even if I don’t identify as straight, I get all the neurotypical privilege, even though I am neurodivergent, because I mask well. And the more I can remember my privilege, the more I am reminded to increase the diversity of my language to read my own work, as if I were someone really different from me, to make my work center a future, where I imagine a non-English speaking, migrant Black trans, non-binary single mother, who has equal access to erotic ecstasy as everyone else on earth, when that person has time and space, to turn toward their own body with pleasure, kindness, compassion, that the world accepts that they have just as much of a right to their erotic selves as anybody else. That’s like I have an agenda. And that is it. And I can’t claim that I’m trying to be objective when I have this very clear agenda.
What is the most important group to reach with proper sex education? Yeah, they’re all important. And not everyone is equally prepared to receive sex education from me, because I have a specific identity because I have a specific approach to it. Like I really do love the science. And people who are interested in scientific interpretations of this stuff are going to enjoy my work. People who are looking for astrology and In Tantra, I am not a sex educator for them. I think children are really important audiences for sex education. And I’m never going to be the right person. I teach their parents and their parents. Unfortunately, the way kids learn about sex, a lot of it comes from their parents, and their parents are not even aware of the signals they are sending. So I need parents, my audience is the grownups who didn’t get great sex education, and are trying to make it up. And that often motivates them to change the way they communicate sexuality information to their kids, which changes the next generation, which makes it more likely that future generations are going to have better access to comprehensive evidence based, anti-racist inclusive sex education. And I suppose this is probably the moment to remember that the roots of sector education in the 20th century in America, or the eugenics movement, we started doing sex education in this country in order to teach nice white heterosexuals, how to create healthy families. And so embedded in a lot of like, the standard ideas of how a sex ed curriculum works, is this idea of who the right person is for receiving this information and using it. But those are my audience. Those are the people that it’s my job to reach so that people of color don’t have to explain to those people. When people have conversations about sex, how do I wish they would sound? I wish they would have the conversation at all. To begin with. That all by itself is amazing. People ask me, how do I ask my partner to whatever. And like the answer is like, you just you just ask him. The question is what is stopping you from asking? Because couples have hard conversations about lots of different things, you got to talk about money, you got to have talked about kids, if you happen, you got to talk about work. And you got to talk about the time you spend with other friends, partners and family like we have a lot of difficult conversations. So why don’t the skills you apply in those conversations apply in a sexuality conversation. It’s because there’s a whole additional layer of shame of expect expecting your partner, potentially to respond with disgust and moral outrage, to learn that you are a person who has this fantasy that they will stop loving you and leave you and leave you alone forever, if you dare to expose this specific piece of your imagination.
So often, what’s important you start with the good stuff, always right? We know the sandwich feedback technique of like, good stuff, piece of criticism, and then like good stuff at the end, too. It’s kind of like that only it’s not a piece of criticism. It’s I’m opening myself up vulnerably to something that you might judge. So you start with like, I love our sexual connection. I want to enhance it and expand more. And I trust you so much. And I love our connection so much that I’m interested in taking a risk right now. I want to talk to you about a fantasy that I have. And it’s a fantasy I felt ambivalent about for a long time. But being with you makes me feel safer and more able to accept myself and I want to bring that to you and see if you will share it with me. But I do have fear that when you hear me say this thing, you’re going to reject it. So can I ask that I say what my fantasy is, and then we just take 10 seconds or 30 seconds to breathe, I let it settle knowing that there might be like a big, you know, we got a bunch of crap planted in our gardens and like those weeds are going to come try to strangle our healthy sexuality that we have been working so hard together to co-create for ourselves something really beautiful and authentic for ourselves. And those weeds are still there. So Can we agree that when I say the thing we’re just going to be we’re just gonna breathe in silence for a second, maintain eye contact, be present with each other and not let those fears disrupt who we are together. There were all kinds of people who have conversations around sex and like I want to talk about all the other like when kids talk to parents and when legislators talk to people who vote and when doctors talk to patients and when patients talk to doctors, how those conversations go. But the first thing that came to mind is this most intimate conversation of how we talk to the person we have sex with because so often, isn’t it the case that it’s easier just to have sex than to talk about it? And confronting that fear of having the conversation It is, I think a foundation of transforming the globe. What is the most fun thing I’ve learned about sex? Penises are so much more complex and interesting than we give them credit for. We usually think of the penis is in the same way we think of the clitoris like it’s just the part of the outside. But just as people have been excited to learn about the extended anatomy of the clitoris, I want people to get excited about the extended anatomy of the penis because the shaft extends deep into the body. There are bulbs of the vestibule on a clitoris and there’s a bulb of the penis, too. Which means that when a penis has an erection, when you bend it in different directions, you’re actually bending the shaft partway down its length. You can for example, like rotate the position of a penis around like if you imagine like the pelvis has a clock face, like you start at noon pointing toward your partner’s chin. And you just like gradually go around the clock face having the penis point in different directions and it will all feel different with every stroke because of the difference in the bend of the penis. Another thing is how much fun soft penises are. Why are we so obsessed with erections when soft penises are so entertaining? They’re stretchy. People who can’t fit a full erection in their mouth might be able to fit a full soft penis in their mouth and suck and like play with it. It is such a fun toy that and a scrotum together like it’s a really entertaining package of genitals that we have simplified down to like just like the shaft and the head and up and down.
you can listen to my podcast cum as you are and if you go to my website, EmilyNagoski.com. You can sign up for my newsletter, where I answer questions about sex every month. Thank you for listening to GOOD SEX.
GOOD SEX is a Lemonada Media Original. The show was produced by Kegan Zema and Dani Matias our supervising producer is Xorje Olivares. Executive Producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. Music is by Dan Molad and APM music. If you like GOOD SEX, please rate and review us. Listen and follow for new episodes each week, wherever you’re listening right now. And if you want more good sex, subscribe to Lemonada Premium for some quickies additional conversations between our guests only on Apple podcasts.