Emotional Health

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

Crucial to Nagoski’s thesis is the idea of context. “Context changes how your brain responds to sex,” she asserts. The most common example is a husband who approaches his wife in bed by cuddling, gently stroking, or kissing his wife in a way that signals he is interested in sex. Usually that has worked well for him, but now imagine that his wife has recently given birth. The same action may be repellent to her because she feels sore, bloated, exhausted, and preoccupied with her infant. Another instantly recognizable example involves tickling. When you are in a playful mood, this can be fun and cause laughter. If you are not in the right frame of mind, however, tickling can be intensely annoying and feel entirely different.

When it comes to context, there are three systems at work, and they too do not always work together smoothly. The first system, enjoying, represents the straightforward experience of whether or not something is pleasurable on a sensory level. The expecting system is related to what we anticipate will happen next on an intrinsic level. We learn to associate certain things with sex much like Pavlov’s dogs learned to associate the ringing of a bell with being fed and soon started to salivate as soon as they heard the bell. We learn many kinds of emotional things implicitly, and it is because of this kind of deep emotional learning that we each develop a sexual imprint that can be very specific and individual.

The third system, eagerness, represents how willing we are to move toward something. Again, people differ greatly in this respect. Nagoski gives an example of two graduate students. The female partner responded to stress by feeling more eager for sex, while the male in the couple responded in the opposite way: stress caused him to lose interest in sex. As a result, during high-stress periods, like exams, the couple experienced considerable conflict around their mismatched desire.

This couple was also a good example of how the three systems don’t always work well within the same individual. While the female partner experienced increased eagerness for sex when stressed, her enjoyment was negatively influenced by stressors. Learning to distinguish between the three aspects of sexuality helped her straighten out her problem with her partner by seeking more practical and immediate releases for tension.

All three factors are extremely context-dependent. Generally speaking, however, the most optimal context for positive sexual experiences occurs, according to Nagoski’s model, when it is

  1. low stress
  2. high affection
  3. explicitly erotic

Needless to say, there are many variations of this model, which represents the average of what most people respond to. We all know women who for some reason respond more erotically to men who mistreat them than men who are affectionate. And while there are people who are turned on by stressful situations, in neither case does that reliably lead to optimal enjoyment. Things work best when these three factors are working well together.

Women have always known that they are sensitive to context, and now scientific research is backing up their anecdotal reports. Also, Nagoski writes, “the evidence is mounting that women’s sexual response is more sensitive than men’s to context, including mood and relationship factors, and women vary more from each other in how much such factors influence their sexual response.”

What if you don’t have such an optimal context? For example, many women are troubled in the “expecting” area by previous negative experience, like sexual abuse or repressive cultural learning. Others are limited in the “enjoyment” realm by inability to reach orgasm, inadequate sexual knowledge or poor communication with partners. And other people have a problem with matching their “eagerness” for sexual activity with their partner’s interest or availability. Nagoski has recommendations, like the practice of “mindful sex,” on how you can improve things in each of these areas, and claims that everyone can improve their sex life by employing these techniques. There is unlikely to be a miraculous “pink pill” developed anytime soon, but she says the only “magic bullet” we need is to understand “pleasure is the measure” as well as learning to release the “brakes” that we come up against when trying to get there. Sex is good, Nagoski says, and next week I’ll explain some of her tips for having more good sex.

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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.

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