Emotional Health

The New Normal: Sex Educator Emily Nagoski Explains That It’s All Good (Part One)


Sex educator Emily Nagoski was hopping mad. She hated the way women’s sexuality was depicted in the extremely popular novel Fifty Shades of Grey. So she did what she has always done: she went into action mode. She wrote her own version of a “bodice-ripper,” titled How Not to Fall, which will be published later this year.

Nagoski is better known, however, for her non-fiction contributions to the understanding of human sexuality, including her 2015 book Come as You Are. She is a very popular speaker whose TED Talk on this subject is as entertaining as it is informative.  I had the good fortune to attend a workshop for professionals that she gave last month. Here she outlined the key tenets of her program for increasing sexual well-being.

A fertile mix of science-based research on brain mechanisms and clinical observation of behavior, Nagoski’s style is nevertheless straightforward and accessible. Taking into account the modern view of female sexuality that asserts that it is not  “male sexuality lite,” as it has been for so long, she sees the two genders as similar and yet distinct and different in many ways. Her system is based on what she calls the “core” insight of the dual control model of human sexuality:

“Developed . . . by Erick Janssen and John Bancroft . . .  (this) . . . goes far beyond earlier models of human sexuality, describing not just ‘what happens’ during arousal — erection, lubrication, etc. — but also the central mechanism that governs sexual arousal, which controls how and when you respond to sexually relevant sights, sounds, sensations, and ideas.”

Nagoski calls this research “the missing link” in our understanding of human sexual response. She compares trying to understand what goes on in a couple’s intimate life by just looking at outward behavior as comparable to trying to understand their marriage but looking at their wedding photograph. In respect to Janssen and Bancroft’s work, she quotes Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman, who said, “You know you have made a theoretical advance when you can no longer reconstruct why you failed for so long to see the obvious.”

Briefly, the dual control model proposes that our sexual responses are governed by two systems, which may or may not act in concert. One is equivalent to an accelerator on a car, and is called the sexual excitation system (SES). The other, equally powerful system works as a brake, and is known as the sexual inhibition system (SIS).  The first is simple enough: it represents the neurological system that responds to sexual stimuli and causes arousal.

The SIS, or inhibition system, is composed of two parts. The first operates like a scan that assesses “anything your brain interprets as a good reason not to be aroused right now . . .  and it sends a steady stream of ‘Turn off!’ messages.” The second brake is “more like the hand-brake in a car, a chronic, low-level, ‘No thank you’ signal . . . Where the foot brake is associated with ‘fear of performance consequences’ [e.g. STDs], the hand-brake is associated with ‘fear of performance failure,’ like worry about not having an orgasm.”

In general, men have a more “sensitive” accelerator, and women have more responsive “brakes.” Still there is a lot of variation between the two groups, and what Nagoski has found to be the most frequent question she gets wherever she goes is this one: “Am I normal?”

Her answer is always the same: “yes.” The range of people’s sexual responses is as individual as there are individuals themselves, and while there are “averages,” the two should not be confused. An analogy is height: while it is average for a man to be 5-foot-10, it is not a sign that he is abnormal (except in certain rare instances) if he is much shorter or taller.

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  • Mickey May 12, 2016 at 12:34 pm

    Yes, we do all KNOW women who are…..My mother had a friend who told her she would start fights with her husband because the make-up would be, well, passionate. I shake my head, we shake our heads. Not me, not some of us. What does excite each of us? Individually, different scenes. Thank you, Dr. Ford.