Nov 292011

Hey there folks, I took the long holiday weekend to work intensively on this relationship guide I’m writing (nearly finished!), and let the blog linger a little. But we’re back!

I keep thinking about the beauty and blogging thing, and especially my own thought process when I see folks in the media doing the work folks like me do, but without cameras and an audience.

Over and over, as I considered the issue, I found myself thinking, “…whereas in reality…”

Which I found interesting. Contrasting media with reality.

Because in reality, like at professional conferences, I *NEVER* wonder what role a person’s appearance played in their presenting at the conference. Might their appearance have played a role? Sure, I guess. But I never wonder about it.

And in reality, like sitting around in a bar talking about being a sex educator (btw, ALWAYS go to bars with the sex educators; we are definitely the most fun to drink with), I NEVER wonder how a person’s appearance affected whether or not they have the job they have. Could it have been a factor. Yeah. But I never wonder about it.

And in reality, beauty is various and complex and deep, and each person has a magnetism or charm of their own. Sometimes that magnetism is repellent rather than attractive, but still, it’s a power, and it typically has almost nothing to do with the shapes of their body parts.

In reality, you’re attracted to a person’s energy, their entire personhood, which is there before you when you meet them in reality, as opposed to when you see them on a screen.

In reality, we make decisions and develop opinions about people based on a richness of information that media strip from our “interaction” with that person.

So I’m creating a new rule of thumb for myself, and I offer it to you as something to consider in your life. It’s this:

Spend more time each day with members of your culture, in person, face to face, than you do consuming media about your culture.

I’m not counting email and I’m not counting any time spent at Google Scholar or my school’s library’s website, which I’m classifying as “research” rather than consumption. It might be a false distinction, but it feels right, it feels like that’s a different kind of information consumption. I also wouldn’t count reading a textbook if I were a student.

I’m counting websurfing, watching TV or movies, listening to the radio (though radio is more benign than anything with a video component), reading newspapers or magazines, or otherwise “consuming” culture rather than participating actively in it.  (There is an argument to be made that consumption is a form of active participation, but we’ll just skip that for now.)

My goal with this is to keep myself tuned in to the HUMANS in my life, as more representative of the world I live in than the IMAGES of humans available to me.

Because I don’t have a TV or go to the movies, this won’t actually be too challenging for me. I figure I spend 3ish hours just randomly on the internet most days, not working but just entertaining myself or learning things or whatever. So no less than that being a person out in the world won’t be a massive effort.

And just the process of coming to recognize that I’m healthier – and my culture is healthier – when I participate directly in my culture, rather than observing it mediated through corporations has already helped me move one notch further along the path to liberation from the socially/corporate constructed norms around women’s bodies!

Nov 232011

I’m sure you’ve all heard of the “mind-body connection,” and you may even have heard me argue against it. “There is no such thing as a mind-body connection,” I say over and over again. “That implies that there are three things: a mind, a body, and a connection between the two, when in reality there is only ONE THING: there is only the embodied mind.” Which is true.

As a logical argument, it’s unassailable, and as a piece of motivational speaking it usually goes over pretty well, in the moment.

But then  the person who heard me talk about it goes and lives in the world and can’t shake it intractable illusion that there is a mind and there is a body and they may affect each other, but they sure do feel like separate things.

Indeed, often I can’t help but talk about it as though they’re separate. “If it comes down to you versus your body, your body wins every time,” I tell students.

I talk about The Monkey – the animal, the Earth-bound organism that so many of the highly intelligent, high-functioning students I work with would willingly trade for a robot’s casing, so they didn’t have to sleep, didn’t have to exercise, didn’t feel stress, didn’t have to make decisions about food, etc. “If you had a pet monkey,” I ask, “Would you feed it crap food and never let it exercise or play and tell it how stupid and ugly it was? No, you’d LOVE your pet monkey! So love Your Monkey!”

Which inherently plays on the perceived division of mind and body (monkey). It’s a problem, and indeed a hypocrisy, and at the same time, I can’t abandon the utility of The Monkey metaphor.

The fact is, our ridonkulous brains, capable of generating an all-but-impenetrable illusion of inorganic spirit/mind, are housed in the sticky, needy, reactive mess that is an animal’s body. It requires air, water, and food (in that order). It breathes, sweats, pees, and poops. It notices threats in the environment and responds with adrenaline. It creates velcro between you and your chair 10 minutes before you go to the gym; it tells you, “Meh. You don’t need to work out. Conserve your energy for when you REALLY need it (like when you or your loved ones are being chased by a lion).” Or, “Meh. You don’t need sex – sex is for people who aren’t worried about their survival. You’ve got STRESS, baby, and you gotta deal with the potential LIONS that are hunting you before you can think about sex!”

And you’re never aware – or almost never aware – of why you REALLY decided not to go to the gym or initiate sex; the truth is, your monkey has hijacked your reasoning self and persuaded it that you don’t have the energy to spare.

The body, the monkey,  has multiple holograms of itself contained within your brain – the somatosensory homunculus, the motor homunculus, etc – and the world itself has multiple holograms in your brain – the various functions of visual cortex, the various functions of auditory cortex, the different streams of tactile sensation, smell and taste. The thing we call “the mind” is really just this illusion that emerges when all those different streams of information mix together. Or rather, “the mind,” the stuff you’re consciously aware of, is like a precis, an abstract of all that information.

And like anyone who just reads the abstracts, it’s missing out on pretty much ALL the important stuff.

The monkey read the whole paper, the monkey knows all. Unfortunately, the monkey thinks it’s about, oh, 1million BC today and also she can’t talk. She doesn’t know about, like, agriculture and cola and treadmills and self-help. She knows about survival – her own and that of her family.

I’ll write another post sometime soon about what the monkey needs – care and feeding of your monkey, if you will, to maximize sexual satisfaction. For now, as is seasonally appropriate, I’m giving thanks for my monkey, the physical body that engages sensually with the world, notices potential threats and responds appropriately, notices beauty and responds appropriately. The mind is all well and good – I make my living with my mind – but without the monkey, there would be no mind at all! So this year, I give thanks to the monkey.

Nov 222011

Andrew and Sabrina sent me this photo, described as “vagina cupcakes,” (not by A&S) on twitter:

And my reaction was, “These are beautiful!”

They are! They’re anatomically correct and exhibit lovely diversity, including diversity of menstrual phase. I could only ask for a surgically constructed vulva and a bit more hair. I love them.

My reaction was also, “These are VULVA cupcakes, not vagina cupcakes.”

And then I clicked on the Facebook link to the image and found the comments associated with the picture… Here’s a sample. (I took out the “LOL!!” comments, as contributing nothing of interest to anyone.)


REALLY?!?! That’s all?!?! “Gross” or “hot” are pretty much all people have to say, with little exception?

And in looking closer, I noticed that a distressing number of the “gross” comments come from WOMEN and the “hot” comments come from men (this is why I kept the names in). Which breaks my heart. The general rule was not universally true, thank goodness, but to an alarming degree women viewed the vulvas as disgusting and men viewed them as potential sources of masculine pleasure.

Literally, this makes me want to cry.

On investigation, I’ve generally concluded that they must be made by the folks at Evil Cake Shop, which, I’ll be honest, is a bit disappointing. Can I confess that I had hoped it was some glorious feminist sex-positive, body positive cake shop that specializes in celebrating the beauty and diversity of women’s bodies?

But no. Evilness. Grossness. *sigh*

Still. They ARE beautiful.

Nov 212011

In reading other women blogger’s responses to the disappointingly stupid piece, Womanspace, I ended up watching the video, Perils of Blogging as a Woman under a Real Name, and generally reading about women’s experience as bloggers, especially about science.

While I deliberately limit the personal stuff I put on the blog, like Kate Clancy (whose blog, Context and Variation is AWESOME), I view my own life and experience as inextricable from my work. This post is one example of that.

See, a number of bloggers told stories about being told they were hot, and that their hotness contributed to their legitimacy or interestingness as writers.

My own experience has been being told that I’m NOT attractive and therefore it’s not a surprise that I’m wrong.

Which. I mean.

In reality, it’s the same phenomenon, two different version of having our voices minimized because of our bodies, our appearances.


I mean.

Suppose you got to choose: you can have your voice minimized by people’s perception of you as attractive or you can have your voice minimized by people’s perception of you as unattractive.

Yeah… so… I had this really complicated internal reaction, like bodies don’t matter and haters gonna hate, and at the same time I wanna be a pretty girl too! and is it a coincidence that these women are this successful and happen to be the pretty ones? and will I fail to advance professionally because I fail to conform to conventional standards of beauty and femininity?

(This is me officially hoping that no one decides to comment, “But gosh Emily, you’re pretty!” My attractiveness or lack thereof isn’t relevant to my blog content, which is exactly the point!)

I have had the good fortune of always feeling like I was being taken seriously by my mentors in the academic world – even at times when, in retrospect, I didn’t necessarily deserve it. My appearance and my gender never entered in to it. It is a gift I try to pass on to my own students, to hear their voices without assessing it in terms of their bodies or gender display. Because my looks were not my identity, I viewed them as irrelevant, and nothing in my academic experience made me feel otherwise.

Until I started blogging.

I put a photo on the blog because a friend told me that it helps people recognize that there’s an individual human being sitting in her living room writing these posts, that there’s a face behind the typeface, if you will. A person.

And according to a few anonymous folks on the interwebs, who comments don’t make it past the trash bin, I am an ugly cunt, so no wonder I’m wrong about whatever it is I’m wrong about.

And what I want to know is: if I had shorter hair and were wearing blue instead of pink, and had stubble, would I be told I’m an ugly motherfucker so THAT’S why I’m wrong?

I doubt it. I think my appearance is a justification for dismissing me only because I’m female.

And here’s another complicated feeling:

Have you noticed the phenomenon that most of the women “sexperts” you see in the media are thin, with long shiny hair, big eyes, and a pretty smile? I find myself thinking, “Is it that the people who know the most about sex or are the most effective educators also happen to be conventionally attractive?” Or, “I wonder if the sexperts who are least likely to disturb Big Pharma happen to be conventionally attractive, and what causal mechanism might be at work there?…”

Not to say that pretty, thin, young, long-haired, big-eyed women can’t also be outstanding researchers and educators! But I can’t help thinking that the reason they have the gig is not that they’re especially good at the job, but instead because they’re especially rich masturbation material.

And I feel VERY BAD about the fact that I have these thoughts. It feels totally unfeminist for me to judge them in this way. I actually know a number of them in person, went to school with them, and know that they’re genuinely good at what they do.

An example of someone I don’t know: Take Cara Santa Maria, over at Huff Post’s “Talk Nerdy to Me.” Remember my three criteria for writing about sex science: good science, good prose, good advice. Her’s is perfectly fine science and perfectly fine, if a bit dull, prose. She doesn’t so much do the advice part, so no worries there. Her credentials, too, are unfaultable. And yet I find myself thinking, “She would not have this gig if she weighed 30 pounds more, were 10 years older, or had a less feminine, symmetrical face.”

And then I think, “Is this just jealousy about not being so thin/pretty? Is it professional jealousy that she has a gig like that and I don’t? Is it TRUE? Is it MEAN? Can it be true and mean at the same time? Isn’t it just to be expected that the media will select for conventional beauty?”

So basically I have A Lot Of Feelings about physical appearance and being a sex educator in the public sphere. It feels very complicated and I don’t know what the solution is.

Nov 182011

In looking up something unrelated, I stumbled into this 2010 British Journal of Pharmocology article. You don’t have to read it, I’ll tell you why it’s bullshit.

It’s the first sentence in the abstract, that’s why. It reads:

Female sexual arousal consists of a number of physiological responses resulting from increased genital blood.

Aaaaaaaand, that’s why the pharmceutical industry is stupid.

See yesterday’s post for details.

Happy Friday everybody. Have a funny condom commercial:

Nov 172011

It’s inevitable that a brain scan of a woman having an orgasm would be in the news. The combination of orgasms and brain scans makes it totally irresistable. I get that.

And when I read about it, my first reaction was, “We need massive, expensive technology to tell us that orgasm “lights up the brain’s pleasure centers.” And indeed that is how it is being reported (as in, “During orgasm, activity… peaks in the nucleus accumbens, an area linked to reward and pleasure.”)

Apart from that, there are a couple errors in the article that I need to point out.

1.) Women don’t have a refractory period. This matters because it’s one crucial example of the ways in which we assume male sexual functioning is default the model of “normal” sexuality and interpret women’s sexuality in that context, rather than thinking about women in their own biological terms.

2.) Oxytocin is released in massive quantities at high levels of sexual arousal; orgasm is not the trigger for this. This matters because it counteracts claims that “orgasm is for bonding.” No, if anything AROUSAL leads to bonding; orgasm is not required. See Elisabeth Lloyd’s excellent Case of the Female Orgasm for details.

A broader difficulty with this kind of research is the very problem that Kaplan, with her Triphasic Model, attempted to counteract in the 70s, and which Laan, et al have been trying to counteract with their research on spontaneous versus responsive desire, viz., this kind of study can only show us “how the orgasm builds up from genital stimulation.” In real life (which is the life where human sexuality evolved) orgasm doesn’t just build up from genital stimulation, it builds up from relationships and interpersonal connections and how your day has gone and whether or not the kids went to bed on time.

I don’t mean to be a curmudgeon. I’m as entertained as anyone by the idea of jilling off in a fMRI machine, and I’m probably MORE entertained than most people by pictures of brains changing color. It’s just that I work so hard every day to persuade people that women’s sexuality doesn’t have to be like MEN’S in order to be okay, and that sexuality happens in and is influenced by the context of a whole life, a whole body, a whole relationship.

Do I think this research is interesting? Hell yes. Do I think it’s important? In the end, I think it’ll be really important for us to understand how the brain operates during arousal and orgasm, yes. Do I think this article is doing its readers any good? No. I think it’s reinforcing the idea that sexual arousal and orgasm are products of the mechanical stimulation of genitals, rather than being processes that are crucially couched in a larger emotional, physical, and relational context.

But it’s the most viewed and the highest trending article at the Guardian. So.

You’re swimming upstream, Emily.

I know, I know.

Nov 162011

This year I’m participating in the annual Hot Chocolate Run here in western Mass, which benefits Safe Passage, our local domestic violence shelter.

It’ll be me and 5,499 others, running or walking through the relatively affluent streets of Northampton, MA, to raise money and awareness around intimate partner violence.

Shall I give you some statistics to explain why?

One in four women is a target/victim of domestic/intimate partner violence in her lifetime, distributed about equally across all ethnic groups. IPV is more common in urban areas than rural or suburban areas, and women aged 20-24 are at the highest risk.

Domestic/intimate partner violence disproportionately victimizes women: 85% of survivors are women; 15% are men. Only about 1 in 5 women (1 in 10 men) reports their abuse to the police.

Half of men who frequently abuse their wives also frequently abuse their children.

In about half of all battering relationships, one of the weapons used is sex; sexual assault occurs in about 45% of violent relationships.

IPV increases with unemployment. The national unemployment rate is 9%, roughly double what it was before the economy did a nosedive in 2008.

And domestic violences increases around the holidays. Really, it does. ‘Tis the season.

And yet Safe Passage, like so many shelters and support agencies, has to raise money with a fun run, rather than having guaranteed, permanent federal, state, and local government funding. Which seems shameful to me.

There are lots of worthy causes out there – animal shelters, global poverty, global hunger, reproductive rights, climate change, wildlife conservation, the list goes on.

For me, this is one where I can see the difference my little contribution makes, right here in my neighborhood.

Click the Hot Chocolate Run icon on your right (or right here) to “pledge” for me for the hot chocolate run, or donate directly to Safe Passage.

Or find the shelter that’s in your area (you can start by looking here) and donate to them.

Or talk with your friends and family about pooling holiday gift money to support a cause rather than buy each other more crap and carbohydrates. Last year my sister and her family gave a goat, and then she got the kids little goat-themed stuff, like t-shirts and body lotion.

And finally, if you think your relationship might be abusive, or if you don’t feel safe in your relationship, click here.

Nov 152011

I desperately want to assign my class Susan Frost’s Implications of the New Materialisms for Feminist Epistemology, a dense, challenging, 15-page work of feminist philosophy of science.

It’s stuff like this:

Feminist scientists and historians have done a marvelous job of breaking down the modern binary of nature and culture by showing how the natural environment or aspects of biological processes and behavior are shaped by the social and cultural. Non-scientific feminists, however, have been wary of if not downright resistant to reconsidering biology or materiality as anything but discursive formations, as historically specific products of power relations, linguistic practices, and cultural beliefs….To put the point differently, feminists have been more comfortable with denaturalizing nature than with what we mnight call “deculturalizing culture” – or admitting that matter or biology might have a form of agency or force that shapes, enhances, conditions, or delimits the agency of culture. Yet, this wary reluctance, understandable as it is given historical precedent, is structured by an understanding of causation that binds feminists to the binaries they have otherwise been constructing.

Does a reading like that have a place in a 100-level class?

The reason I want to assign it is because it is very, very hard to explain the idea of “new materialism” in the context of a lecture – I haven’t even been very successful explaining it on the BLOG (despite trying various times, including here and here) – and yet it MUST be explained to them because (a) apparently no one else on my campus is teaching it and (2) it’s integral to my entire approach to the class and to the science of sexuality.

But on a deeper level, does a conversation about the nature of science belong in a 100-level class? Easily the least popular lecture from last fall’s class was the 100 Years of American Sex Research night, when I talked about who and how and what disciplines generated the knowledge I was teaching them. What they liked best in the class is when I explained stuff they’d always wondered about – why some penises are curvy, why orgasm is sometimes difficult and sometimes easy, why it felt like they had to pee during intercourse, how to break a hymen, all the things that are most popular on the blog – and they really kinda didn’t much care about where the answers came from.

It would totally fair of me to boil the entire argument of New Materialism down to, “This is a 100-level, two-credit survey course, and therefore everything I’m teaching is, in fact, vastly more complex than I have time to go into.”

But… I mean, these students are so smart. They’re so hungry. They’re so INTERESTED in critical thinking.

So I’ll ask you nice folks:

If you were in the class, would you rather I dismissed the details of multi-level, reciprocal interaction across biology and culture and instead spent more time on basic health stuff? Or would you rather I skip some of the basic health stuff (which you can find online more or less anywhere) and instead spent more time talking about the theoretical underpinnings of the class?

Nov 142011

The stickers are here!!

The romantic euphemism gave me this fun idea:

Mail me a self-addressed stamped envelope – yes, an actual physical envelope in the mail – and I’ll send it back to you with some stickers!

They look like this:

this is what sexy looks like sticker

And this:
Greenbean is what sexy looks like

And this:
Red Robot is what sexy looks like.

They’re based on this post. They’re 4″ diameter, round paper stickers. They stick to things. They’re fun!

And they’re free!

Send your SASE to:

Emily Nagoski
PO Box 1526
Northampton MA 01061-1526

It’s all part of my taking-blogging-more seriously effort. You’ll notice there’s a URL on the bottom edge of the sticker. That’s my URL. Like, this is my “website” and stuff, not just a personal soapbox for me to whine and be self-righteous, but a platform for promoting a specific idea.

The idea is called “the dirty normal”.

More on what that idea is later. For now… FREE PINK SEXY STICKER!!

Nov 092011

A few things that will seem disparate until you get to the end:

Thing 1: I have said that the difference between ordinary sex and extraordinary sex is: confidence and joy.

Thing 2: Andrew sent me this story about how The Joy of Sex came to be illustrated. It’s adorable and you should read it – both the story and the actual Joy of Sex, particularly now that it’s been revised and updated.

Thing 3: Bill and Desiree and the Comstock series of non-fiction porn. (H.O.T.)

Bill says, “I think it’s possible for couples to be… to get hung up on the idea that it has to be super all the time, that if it’s not special, it’s not okay. And my experience… life long is that peak experience are just that. Not everything is Mount Everest.”

The complicated point which required all three of these pieces is that extraordinary and “GREAT” are not necessarily the same thing.

See, my point of view is that extraordinary sex is simply non-ordinary, and ordinary sex is the worried, uptight, rule-following sex that most people have most of the time. The sex you imagine when someone says, “What is sex?” You know, two young, thin, middle-class, white heterosexuals in bed, in the dark, in missionary position; she’s worried about her orgasm and he ejaculates too soon. Ordinary. Take that formula and add JOY, and all of a sudden it’s extraordinary. No worry about orgasm or ejaculation. No fretting about erection and lubrication. Just pleasure and delight to be here now with this person you care about.

I mean, do you know how many people struggle to feel joy around their sexualities? Me either, but it’s a LOT.

It is a complicated point for a person who gives sex advice. After all, would you buy a sex book that promised to help you feel joyful about the MEDIOCRE sex you’re having, as well as the excellent sex?

(This, btw, is what I mean by “Enjoy the sex you’re having.”)

What makes it even MORE complicated is that the advice to bring joy to sex, to enjoy your sex no matter what it is, is to advise people to like the other person (or people) involved in their sex life. After all, what’s charming about the original Joy of Sex illustrations is the obvious affection between the two people. What’s charming in Bill and Des’s encounter is the abundant love they share. And what, when you get right down to it, is the difference between love and joy?

Once you really like your partner, the only thing between you and joy is, to put it simply, liking yourself as well.

You don’t have to climb Mt Everest, hell no. Frankly, who would want to? Not me. But when you walk up the local hill, walk it with affection and awareness of this moment. Walk with joy, and it hardly matters where you go.

And because I can’t say it often enough:

Confidence and joy.
It’s not about orgasm
Pay attention to your partner
Enjoy the sex you’re having.

That’s really all the sex advice I have to offer.

Oh, and also lube. Especially silicone lube. But that’s really it.