Emotional Health

Sex Educator Emily Nagoski and the New Science of Sex (Part Two)


Last week I wrote about sex educator Emily Nagoski’s book, “Come as You Are,” whose subtitle is “The surprising new science that will transform your sex life.” A bold claim, but Nagoski is a true believer and is passionate about the idea that anyone can have a better sex life, if she puts her mind to it.

And “mind” is what it’s all about in Nagoski’s view. Her “dual control model,” which asserts that we have both a sexual “accelerator,” and a set of sexual “brakes” that are both controlling our behavior (and often not cooperating with each other) is a particularly resonant one for women, whose sexuality has been found to be different from men’s. Psychologists have long known that the mind is the single most important sexual “organ,” and this book has very helpful suggestions on how to influence your mind in the direction of more satisfying sex.

For everyone context is very important when it comes to sex, and women are particularly sensitive to having the right context. She goes into great detail explaining the way in which stressors and stress responses can alter the context and cause you to slam on the “brakes.” It is well known that stressors can invoke the sympathetic nervous system, releasing both adrenaline and cortisol. This is the old “fight or flight” response, encouraging us to escape. But if the stressor is one we can’t get “away” from by running or fighting, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, the equivalent of a “brakes” stress response. In this kind of response, the body “shuts down” and defends by “freezing.” One neuroscientist, Stephen Porges, has suggested that this helps facilitate a “painless death” when an animal is cornered and escape is impossible.

It’s self-evident how such a response would inhibit sexual responsiveness. Nagoski says that if we are subject to an acute stressor, activating flight/fight, there is a “clear beginning, middle, and end; completing the cycle—running, surviving, celebrating [your survival]—is inherently built in. Not so with chronic stressors … if 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.)”

This is one of Nagoski’s major points: chronic stress cannot overcome because we often do not allow ourselves to “complete” the stress/relief cycle. To defeat this kind of stress, she says, “completing the cycle requires that … we gently remove our foot from both the accelerator and the brake and allow ourselves to coast to a stop.” Highly important in her way of thinking is the ability to complete the cycle by letting go of the stress before attempting to accelerate once again.

We must not confuse the “stressors” with the stress. Sometimes we think just because we have gotten away from the stressor (e.g. a hard day at work) we have also eliminated the stress that accompanies it. “Emotions are like tunnels,” she says.  “You have to walk all the way through the darkness to get to the light at the other end.” Nagoski says turning to proven stress releasers can be helpful here, including exercise, sleep, meditation, and affection. She also includes various forms of grooming and self-care on this list, which she says many women find soothing.

Women who are trauma survivors sometimes experience “sexually relevant” stimuli as outright threats, of course. Again, Nagoski says it is important to work through these feelings in order to release the brakes, and some people may require professional help to do this.  Other types of stressors in our histories include the three “messages” that are embedded in the cultural context about sex. The big “three” are

  1. The “moral” message: sex is wrong, or shameful.
  2. The “medical” message: sex is dangerous, leading to pregnancy or disease.
  3. The “media” message: you are sexually inadequate if your body is not perfect.
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