emily nagoski

Feb 122014

Well I mean OF COURSE I’ll write a post about the NYT Sunday cover story about how straight couples with more gender equity have less satisfying sex lives.

I’m going to skip over the things I think the article misses and gets wrong. I’m going to skip over the historical forces in the English-speaking world that have constructed and eroticized the narrative of gender-based power differentials. I’m going to skip over the difference between wanting and liking, the difference between “sexually relevant” and “sexually appealing,” and the difference between “hitting the gas pedal” and “taking off the brake.” There’s really too many problems to address these things directly without, well, writing a whole book. Which I’m doing.

No, for today, I’m going to go right to what I think the article ought to have said:

Sexual arousal and desire are context-dependent. Sometimes Stimulus X turns you on, sometimes it doesn’t, depending on context. Take tickling: when you’re feeling cuddly and affectionate and flirty, and your Certain Special Someone tickles you, that can be fun and feel good and lead to nookie. But when you’re feeling pissed off at the Certain Special someone and they tickle you… you want to punch them in the face. Same stimulus. Different context. Different experience.

“Gender equality” in marriage is like tickling. In some contexts, it leads to hot hot sexity sex. In other contexts, not so much. And I think a marriage with a high degree of gender equality, where both partners have strong ideas about what marriage is Supposed To Be Like, may be a context prone to partners have strong ideas about what sex is Supposed To Be Like, too.

(“I know what a 50-50 marriage should be like,” says the dude in the article so clearly. “But what is 50-50 sex supposed to be like?”)

And the SINGLE MOST SEX POSITIVE CONTEXT is one where both people are open to the sensations and experiences of sexuality, without judging them as right or wrong, without worrying about whether they’re doing it the way they’re supposed to. In other words, the best sex happens when you enjoy the sex you are having, rather than trying to make it what’s it’s Supposed To Be.

In short, 50-50 sex is not Supposed To look like anything. And the very process of comparing what you’re experiencing to some external standard is, in itself, antithetical to great sex. The very concern that you might be broken is the very thing that most often causes people to experience sexual difficulties.

I realize that the original article is more, I guess, fascinating and puzzling than my fairly simple (though not easy) solution. I realize that people have a hard time letting go of external standards around sex – in fact, I have an entire chapter (Ch 9) in the book specifically about how to let go of external standards. I realize that fear and angst around sex have somehow become middle class markers of status and belonging – the way women are culturally mandated to believe they’re ugly and to deride themselves, so middle class couples are mandated to fear that they’re sexually inadequate.

But if you’re willing to trade in (or, as I think of it, trade up) your worry for pleasure, you can do that. You have permission to create a sex life that is unique and right for you, without reference to anyone else. Not even to the New York Times.

I’ll just add one more thing – this bit of wisdom from my grandmother, married more than 40 years to just the one husband. She said, “If both people give 50-50, you have half a relationship. Both people have to give 100%.”

Ruth Una Leonard, folks.

Feb 112014

A tiny post about a tiny article at Time, regarding the approval process for a drugs for women’s sexual desire problems. It ends with this quote:

”In the absence of an approved solution, women with HSDD today are faced with the dilemma of trying unapproved products which could pose a safety risk or living with a condition that has important impact on their lives,” says Whitehead [the head of the pharmaceutical company].

Which is the quote you end with when you’re only thinking about pharmaceutical interventions.

The quote you end with when you’re thinking about ALL treatment strategies is:

“In the absence of an approved pharmaceutical solution, women with sexual desire problems are faced with the dilemma of trying unapproved products OR OF TRYING EVIDENCE-BASED NON-PHARMACEUTICAL INTERVENTIONS, for example a mindfulness psychoeducation group or cognitive behavioral therapy” said Emily Nagoski, who is getting slightly sad about how frequently the media makes the mistake of ignoring non-pharma treatments for low desire.

(For a review see this.)

Seriously people. If someone tells you they’re struggling with low sexual desire and they mention reading a thing that said there’s “no treatment,” please tell them, “There’s no DRUG treatment, but there IS effective treatment!”

Or if you’re looking for a certified sex therapist, go here.

Jan 082014

My editor has two books out this month – Unremarried Widow, by Artis Henderson and Promise Land, by Jessica Lamb-Shapiro – both memoirs (mostly).

I’ve seen excerpts and interviews from both all over my Twitter feed. So much so that lately I’ve been waking up out of dreams in which I’m describing to both authors the science in my book that explains what happens in their books.

Why is walking on hot coals safe? Physics, sure, but also context – Iggy Pop brain v. Spa brain. The perception of a heat sensation is context dependent. See Ch 3 of my still-untitled, not-yet-finished book.

Writing painful but healing? Yup! Because you’re completing the stress response cycle. And also: attachment. Ch 4, over and over again. And over again. And again.

Everyone experiences this, right, when they’re writing a book? It has to be inevitable that you think your book explains, like, the entire universe, right, that you hear pretty much ANYTHING and think to yourself, “I can explain to you why”?

Because I’m pretty sure my book explains the entire universe. And I’m pretty sure I can explain to you why. I mean, this is a sex guide that explains why you can walk on hot coals and also why something that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and I mean that literally.

I am 90+% done with the second draft. When I finish, I have every intention of collapsing in a heap, of not explaining anything to anyone for A WEEK. But in the meantime… everything. Walking on coals, grieving, desire, orgasms, everything.

It is an illusion I will miss, when it goes.

EDIT: Also road rage. My sex book explains EVERYTHING about road rage. Chapter 7.

Dec 032013

If you’re interested in the supernerd part of what I do, go and read David Dobbs’s Die, selfish gene, die.

It’s about the science of gene expression, as an advancement from “selfish gene” theory. And it’s about how that science can sort of explain why selfish gene theory has so much traction even though it really is (past) time for gene expression to take its place.

In this second task, Dobbs lucidly explains to me my own experience ten years ago. Back in grad school I found myself standing the middle of the self-gene-or-group-selection war that’s been going on in evolution for several decades now. There were compelling and complex arguments – not to mention brilliant people – on both sides, and I was reluctant to trust my intellect to choose one. My best friend, who happened to be a philosopher of science, said, “You’re going to have to have an opinion about this, Em.”

It was the writing of two women who set me on the side of group selection: Mary Jane West Eberhard, whom Dobbs interviews in his piece, and Susan Oyama. They write from a systems perspective. It’s complex and rich and subtle and when you bother to slow down and think carefully about the evidence they discuss, the ENTIRE WORLD EXPLODES IN YOUR HEAD.

But it’s a less linear, more dynamic model that does not come intuitively to a mind that has been trained by an industrial-revolution era education system like the U.S. public schools.

Simple ideas win. Of all the many things I’ve learned this year, in the process of writing my book, it’s that there’s no relationship between a true idea and an idea that people remember, understand, believe, or use. The ideas that take over are the ideas that fit intuitively with what we already believe, that are pithy, that can be expressed as a metaphor, a rhyme, or a story – and “story” means “relatable individual relatably struggling to achieve a relatable goal.”

So I loved this article because it showed me how a complex idea can be expressed as a metaphor, a story, and become an idea people remember, understand, believe, and use. Without skipping the hard parts.

In short, if there’s a biology nerd in your life, you could do worse – and I think you could hardly do better – than to buy them a book by one of these authors for Christmas.

Nov 272013

You may have seen the startling headline that New Warning: Morning-After Pill Doesn’t Work for Women Over 176 Pounds.

Some people have asked if that’s right. Well. According to the actual research (PDF):

  • Among women with a BMI under 25, 1.3% got pregnant after taking Plan B (its equivalent, anyway)
  • Among women with a BMI 25-29, 2.5% got pregnant after taking it
  • A BMI of 30 is where it crosses into “not statistically different from women not using EC,” at 5.8%

You’ll notice the research is reporting BMI (which is a height-to-weight ratio), while the headline declares a specific weight. I’ve been trying to figure out how they came up with 176 as the magical weight at which EC suddenly stops working, and I think they just used the “average” American woman’s height, which is 5’4″.

My mom is 5’4, so 176 would put her in the “not effective – use a different method” group. My sister is 5’7″, so at 176 her BMI would be 27, which puts her in the “higher risk but still significantly better than nothing” group. My boss is 5’10, so at 176 her BMI would be 25, which puts her right at the edge of the “very effective” group.

So there’s that.

Also but bear in mind that the researchers aren’t even trying to say anything about cause, and BMI doesn’t really help us theorize. Two women with the same BMI may be very different in their health status, body composition, fertility, hormones, etc. At 176, my body fat percentage would be around 26% because I have the lean mass of a male my height, while a woman with “average” lean mass would have a body fat percentage of more like 33%. How lean mass interacts with emergency contraception, we have no idea at all.

So there’s that, too.

We don’t know what it is about BMI that’s causing the drop in efficacy. We can make up stories until the cows come home – like, it’s a simple mass thing: greater size = more dilute dose; it’s a hormone thing to do with the hormone production of fat we assume people with a high BMI have; it’s a behavioral thing – um, higher BMI women are more likely to have food in their stomachs, which slows down absorption of the medication; maybe women with higher BMIs are more reluctant to obtain EC because they face more overall stigma and so wait longer to take it. We just don’t know.

What to do about it? If your BMI is under 30, don’t worry about it. If your BMI is over 30, use a different EC method like the copper IUD. And of course everyone can do a lot by using effective contraception correctly and consistently whenever possible. Because there’s no prevention like primary prevention.

Nov 152013

This recent NYT article was a surprising reality check for me.

The short version of the article is this: During one-night-stand sex (“hookups”), women don’t tend to have orgasms. Why? (1) Men aren’t motivated to try to give women orgasms, (2) women don’t feel able to communicate what they need to get to orgasm, and (3) orgasm isn’t even always a woman’s goal. “Inequality Reigns,” declares the headline. The article includes interviews with many folks whose excellent work I follow closely, and you should totally read it.

As a sex educator reading all that, my primary response was: I will have done my job when the NYT no longer considers it “news” that women aren’t often orgasmic during hookups.

There are three things I know about orgasm (and you should too) that make this true:

1. “Different” Doesn’t (Always) Mean Unequal. One partner having an orgasm and the other partner not having an orgasm need not be a case of “inequality.” That’s a bit like saying one person eating four slices of pizza and another person eating two slices is “inequality.” The two-slice partner may have enjoyed the pizza just as much, and may feel just as satisfied as the four-slice partner. Difference is not always unjust.

It’s a different thing if the two-slice partner WANTS 4 slices and isn’t allowed to have them, and sometimes that happens and that’s a different thing. But it’s not always what happens, and we don’t need to make the two-slice partner feel inadequate and broken for not wanting more pizza, ya know?

We use “orgasm” as a marker of pleasure and satisfaction because the correlation is higher for men than for women, and men’s sexuality is the default standard against which women’s sexuality is measured. Because, ya know, patriarchy.

So it won’t be “news” that women aren’t often orgasmic during hookup sex when people let go of measuring satisfaction or pleasure with the patriarchal benchmark of orgasm. We’ll use the more universal benchmarks of pleasure and satisfaction.

2. Pleasure and satisfaction are context dependent. The good old standby example: If you’re in a sexy state of mind and someone you’re very attracted to tickles you, you can imagine a circumstance where that feels pleasurable and could lead to nookie. But if that same person tickles you when you’re pissed off with them, how will that feel?

“You want to punch them in the face,” is what students often say when I ask.

It’s the same sensation, but a different context, and so the PERCEPTION of the sensation is different. That includes sexual sensations. It even includes orgasm.

The context that results in pleasure varies from person to person and it changes across a person’s lifespan, but it generally involves high quality stimulation plus some degree of attraction toward the partner to activate the sexual gas pedal, AND a high degree of trust and safety, to deactivate the sexual brake (though this is complicated by the ironic effect, but that’s another blog post – see also this). For many women, the brakes only turn off all the way after they’ve experienced sex with a particular partner a few times.

If the parking brake is on, it doesn’t matter how hard you hit the gas pedal. Inadequate stimulation is part of the equation, but too much brake is very likely a more important part.

It will no longer be “news” that women don’t orgasm during hookups when everyone understands that pleasure is context-dependent, and some women don’t find the hookup context to be the right context for them, even if their partner provided excellent stimulation.

3. This is the difficult point, and I’m still working on finding ways to explain it to people: We’re taught that particular contexts – like hookups – are fun, and when our experience doesn’t match our expectations, we often do the most astonishing thing: we assume that WE ARE WRONG and the expectation is right! We assume that everyone else out there is having orgasms with hookups and we’re just broken.

Or, more strangely, because we engaged in the experience we’ve been taught should bring us pleasure, we assume that what we experienced must have been pleasure. When really it was… not that pleasurable.

What we’re told should satisfy us may or may not match what genuinely does satisfy us. And that’s as true now as it was when women’s sexual choices were constrained to married-penis-in-vagina sex. All of us must go through a process of learning what satisfies us, in which contexts – and our expectations about a context are themselves part of the context.

In short, it will no longer be “news” that women don’t always (or even often – it’s something like 10% of women) orgasm during a hookup when women trust their own body’s experience MORE than they trust what they’ve been taught about how sex is “supposed” to work.

When all of this is common knowledge – orgasm isn’t a a reliable marker of pleasure or satisfaction; pleasure emerges in response to a context that BOTH provides adequate stimulation AND lets the brakes turn off; and we can trust our own body’s experience more than we can trust anything we’ve been taught – then we’ll all have healthier sex lives and the NYT won’t consider it news that women don’t orgasm much during hookups. Everyone would just shrug and go, “No shit, because context.”

And then I can retire.

Nov 072013

So the romantic euphemism and I got together and drew a comic!

Go look at it here! (Our comic is SFW, the ads and other comics… not so much.)

It’s a simplified explanation of the dual control model, as it was taught to me by its creators, Erick Janssen and John Bancroft.

Note that adjective: simplified.

I’ve been battling with myself about where the line is drawn between “simplified” and the dreaded “oversimplified.” The art of writing about science for a general audience is being able to simplify in a way that honors the details you’re not including. The details aren’t what matter. All of the individual trees aren’t what matter. The forest matters a LOT.

The comic is a description of the forest, without talking about any of the trees.

Actually a comic or cartoon is a good metaphor. If science itself is a photograph of reality (which it’s not, but we can get into that later), then a trade book about science is a comic about that photograph, usually drawn from the photo and from life. You’re capturing the spirit of the image. In the book, I’ll often highlight one particular tree, rendering that tree with extra detail to illustrate some specific point I’m trying to make about the forest, but the forest is always what matters. You pull out the tree and tell a story about it.

Simplifying does not come naturally to most scientists. I’ve been having conversations with a dozen or so researchers over the past couple months, figuring out how to talk about their research in my book. Some folks have been very straightforward like, “You missed the point here, this part’s good, and yup, that about covers it, good luck with your book!” And others have had a harder time letting go of details that don’t serve the larger purpose of the book.

In cynical moments, I catch myself thinking, “‘Over-simplifying’ is the point at which the science becomes simple enough for a nonspecialist to understand it and find it useful in their lives.” As if the scientists want to say, “If only you understood the details, you’d see that this ISN’T explicable or helpful!” As if they don’t want their work to matter to people.

In my very darkest and most cynical moments I wonder if the inability to let go of details isn’t actually an inability to see larger patterns in the massive forest of data, that their own work truly seems both inexplicable and useless to them.

In other moments I put my face in my hands and burn with fear and shame that I’m dishonoring the science. Science is my heritage, my culture, my community. Am I abusing and exploiting it?

These moments are particularly bleak when my “simplifications” actually contradict the scientific consensus. I do it three different times in fairly major ways in the book.

I’ll give you one example:

In the book I define orgasm as “the sudden release of sexual tension.” The scientific “consensus definition” of orgasm is along the lines of this one: “a transient peak of intense sexual pleasure associated with rhythmic contractions of the pelvic circumvaginal musculature…” But I can include neither “pleasure” nor “muscle contractions” in my definition because the science has documented, multiple times, orgasm without pleasure and orgasm without muscle contractions, and of course in real life women experience orgasm without one or the other.

The consensus definition includes more detail than my definition, but it doesn’t include the details that matter, and it contradicts the science itself. It’s not helpful, it’s not accurate, and I can’t use it.

And this both crushes and terrifies me. It means that I’m not starting with the photograph itself, I’m starting with dozens of little snapshots, plus real life, and sketching a composite that is more or less entirely original.

“More or less entirely original” is not generally a good thing in science, which is conservative by design. By contradicting the consensus definition, I am putting myself out on a limb, and science has the biggest fucking chainsaw you ever laid eyes on.

But I’ll do it. I’ll do it because my definition of orgasm is the only one that I can use in good conscience; it’s the only one that covers ALL the research I’ve read, as well as being the definition that actually helps women understand their orgasmic experience (or lack thereof).

I must believe that I honor the science – my heritage, my culture, my community – by clearly communicating a definition that actually describes the entire phenomenon it’s meant to describe.

So there I am out on a limb, and either science will hack it off and let me fall… or it will grow around me to encompass the new definition.

I do it three times in the book. In each case, my “simplification” is not just about making the science comprehensible and useful to a general audience, but about rendering the science as accurately (though not precisely) as I can… even though it’s not how scientists would render it.

Anyway. The dual control model is not an example of this. I simplify without contradicting. The comic is a simplification of the chapter I wrote about it, and the chapter itself is a simplification of the science. I sent a bunch of text to Erick Janssen so he can tell me if I’m rendering his forest accurately enough for a general audience to understand it and find it useful. Fingers crossed.

Some other time I’ll write a post about how what I’ve learned from the science of science communication, is that the best way to teach about science is to tell rich, world-revealing stories. In short: to write novels.


Meanwhile, I’m having dreams about chainsaws in the forest.

Oct 252013

[trigger warning, both for sexual violence and righteous anger]

I was going to stay out of it. Of course everyone on earth sent me Emily Yoffe’s too stupid for words Slate piece about how we should tell college women not to drink so that they don’t get raped.

I’ve got other things to do – like, my actual job of preventing sexual assault, just for a start – than join an internet fight about whether or not it’s okay to tell women not to drink as a strategy for preventing sexual assault.

But then the New York Times did this Room for Debate on the topic, and I was stunned to find that they had not included in the debate ANYONE WHO ACTUALLY DOES SEXUAL ASSAULT PREVENTION WORK. I was stunned, too, to find that there is no mention of the multiple decades of research on what WORKS to prevent sexual assault. The focus is entirely on whether or not it’s “okay” to tell women not to drink, not on whether or not it’s EFFECTIVE at preventing assault.

Let me say this as plainly as I can: I don’t care even a little bit whether or not it’s “victim-blaming” to tell women not to drink; I have my own opinions, of course, but political acceptability of any particular approach to preventing sexual assault has only a marginal place in my decision-making about what strategy to implement on my campus.

The primary – and almost the exclusive – criterion I use in determining what approach I will take in preventing sexual assault on my campus is:


That’s all. Anything else would be a waste of my time and resources. Anything else would be professionally negligent. Anything else would be an insult to the students whose wellbeing I serve.

I have this important job, see. I have the job of preventing sexual violence. And if I wasted time and money on an approach that people feel comfortable with but that doesn’t work, I would – as far as my own conscience is concerned – be allowing sexual violence to happen.

So if telling women not to drink WORKED to prevent violence, I would do it. I would do it every day, at the top of my lungs.

It does not. So I don’t.

The thing is, if sexual assault is just about Person A, who intends to do harm, and Person B, who is the target of the harm, then our only options are to try to persuade Person A not to do harm or to persuade Person B not to be in harm’s way.

But the days of seeing sexual violence as something that happens between Person A and Person B are over. If we zoom out from Person A and Person B we will see that there’s Person C and Person D and Person E… all way the way to Person Z. According to Green Dot, Inc, there’s between 20-40 witnesses to some precursor of the violence, who could step in and do something to interrupt the flow of violence and prevent the assault before it ever happens.

When we include the bystanders, we don’t need to think about victim-blaming, because there are no victims!

When we include the bystanders, THE NUMBERS ARE ON OUR SIDE.

Let me tell you three stories of bystander action, and then I’ll go back to doing my actual job and writing my book and living my life:

Story 1: Two students who were trained as bystander peer educators were at a party on campus, where they noticed some dude engaged in what I will euphemistically describe as an explicit sexual behavior with a blackout drunk student, against a wall in the living room. These two students were PISSED at the dude and at the crowd of people who were studiously failing to notice the assault happening right there in the living room.

So they told a friend what they were doing, so that friend could keep an eye out and call for more help if necessary, and they approached the dude. One student put her hand on the shoulder of the blackout drunk student and said, “Do you want some water?” The drunk student nodded blindly, “Yeah, water.” My student put her to bed.

Meanwhile, the other student gave the dude what-for. Kicked him out. Told him never to come back.

They kept themselves safe while still interrupting the flow of violence. They had other options – they could have called the police or spilled a drink on the dude or any number of other things. But being an active bystander isn’t about doing any specific thing, it’s about doing SOMETHING – and something is ANYTHING THAT ISN’T NOTHING.

Story 2: Two different bystander peer educators were at a county fair and saw a couple arguing violently, in a way that made my students feel uncomfortable, unsafe. So they harnessed their fear and stepped into the sphere of the argument and said apologetically, “Hi, we’re lost, could you tell us where to find the parking lot?”

They interrupted the flow of violence. Did they rescue the targeted partner from that dangerous relationship? Did they persuade the abuser to find a more appropriate outlet for that rage? No. But they interrupted the flow. They let the couple know that they were not unobserved. And they showed all the other witnesses that it’s possible – and important – to do SOMETHING.

Story 3: A student who is herself a survivor of sexual violence witnessed a classic sexual predator strategy being used at a bar where she was celebrating a friend’s birthday. A stranger was separating a younger, shy student from the group and buying her drinks – persuading her in an apparently friendly way to come with him. The student couldn’t put her finger on what wasn’t okay, but every cell in her body froze, locked up. All of a sudden, all she wanted to do was go to sleep.

When she recognized what this physiological shift meant – that she was triggered – she turned to a friend and said, “That situation over there is really not okay. I need to go home right now, but I couldn’t leave before I pointed it out to someone. Could you ask the bartender to interrupt?”

Her friend delegated to someone else the job of interrupting the unsafe situation and escorted the triggered student home. I don’t know whether or not the assault in progress at the bar got interrupted and prevented. But I know that student DID SOMETHING. Actually she did two somethings: she told someone what she saw, and she took care of herself. I am so proud of her for both those things.

Again, the question isn’t what’s politically acceptable to say or not say, to prevent sexual violence. The question is WHAT WORKS to prevent sexual violence? And that question is too important for us to be distracted by whose fault it is that violence happens or who should be responsible for stopping it.

We are ALL responsible for stopping it. YOU are responsible for doing SOMETHING, when you notice something not okay – and “something” is ANYTHING THAT ISN’T NOTHING.

Okay then. I’m going back to work.

Oct 152013

In the Desire chapter, I discuss the importance of IDENTITY in creating a context that facilitates sexual desire. The research tells us that when a behavior change is not just something you DO but rather an integral part of who you ARE, you are more likely to make and sustain change.

In this case, identifying as “a woman who loves sex” or as “a sexy hot erotic woman who is curious and playful about sex” contributes to a context that allows a woman to turn off the “offs” – that is, to eliminate all the barriers to having great sex.*

But that’s different for every woman, right?

So I’m looking for more voices to help me see a fuller range of possibility here. In the comments, if you please, complete the following sentence:

“If I were a sexy hot erotic woman who is curious and playful about sex…”

You might describe how you would deal with barriers to sex, like not having the time or energy for sex, relationship or trust issues that interfere with sex, or self-criticism/body image issues that impede sexual pleasure.

You might describe how you would initiate sex or respond to the initiation of your partner.

You might describe how you notice sexual cues, the kinds of thoughts you have about sex, or other cognitive/attentional parts of your erotic experience.

You might describe how you feel about your own and/or your partner’s sexual arousal, desire, and orgasm, or how you feel about giving or receiving pleasure.

You might describe how you would manage the cultural shaming that some people would try to impose on you for being empowered and in control of your own body.

I’m interested in all the different kinds of internal experience that can go with the identity of “woman who loves sex.” Whatever comes to mind for you when you think, “If I were a woman who loved sex…” I want to hear!

* GIANT CAVEAT: Not every woman is or wants to be a woman who loves sex. In the scheme of survival, sex is a low priority, so if you’re stressed, depressed, anxious, lonely, enraged, or simply overwhelmed and exhausted, the entire idea of loving sex may be foreign and unwelcome. THAT’S COOL TOO. In that case, creating space for NOT wanting sex is a crucial first step in creating space for wanting sex!