In January I went to Reno and spent about fifteen minutes explaining the two keys to unlock the door to your own authentic sexual wellbeing.
[SPOILER: the keys are CONFIDENCE and JOY]
And for those who hate videos, here’s a transcript of the talk as it was written (which is not 100% as it was spoken… but almost.)
I am a sex educator. It’s the best job in the world. In the fall of 2010 I taught a class called Women’s Sexuality at Smith College. It was a 100-level introductory class, but I shoe-horned in all the science I could – neuroscience and psychophysiology and even sociology. And at the end of the semester, I asked my students to write down just one really important thing they learned. Here’s what they wrote:
I AM NORMAL
Just because my sexuality is not the same as other women’s, that does not make me abnormal.
Everything is normal. Bringing joy and confidence to sex
I learned that everything is NORMAL, making it possible to go through the rest of my life with confidence and joy.
Of my 187 students, more than half wrote something like, “I am normal.”
I sat in my office and read those responses with tears in my eyes. There was something essential to my students about feeling “normal,” and my class unlocked a door to that feeling.
Moments like that are why I am a sex educator. It’s why I’m here. It’s why I’m here in Nevada, but also: It’s why I’m here. To offer everyone on Earth the keys to that door that stands between them and their own sexual wellbeing.
And so that’s what I’m going to do with you today.
Because you are normal; the science says so. I can prove it.
Ready? Here we go.
The brain mechanism that governs sexual response is called the dual control mechanism – which means it has how many parts? Two. And if I tell you the first part is the accelerator, or gas pedal, that makes the second part… the brake, that’s right.
The accelerator’s job is to notice all the sexually relevant cues in the environment, everything you see, hear, smell, touch, taste, or imagine, that your brain interprets as sexually relevant, and it sends the signal that says, Turn on.
And it’s happening at a low level, all the time. Right now. Just the fact that I’m talking about sex is very slightly sexually relevant.
At the same time that that’s happening, your brakes are noticing all the very good reasons not to be turned on, everything you see, hear, taste, touch, or imagine, that your brain interprets as a potential threat, and it sends a signal that says, Turn off.
And it’s happening at a low level, all the time, in parallel with the accelerator. So right now it’s noticing that you’re in a room full of strangers, which for most people – not all – hits the brake.
So the process of becoming aroused is the dual process of turning on all the ons and turning off all the offs. And it turns out that when people are struggling with their sexual functioning it’s not usually because of lack of stimulation to the gas pedal, but too much stimulation to the brake.
There are lots of things that can hit the brake.
Are you worried about unwanted pregnancy?
Are you worried about the kids walking in on you?
Do you know deep down that your partner loves your sexy body?
Do you love your sexy body?
Did you spend the first two decades of your life in a culture that said sex is dirty and disgusting and dangerous
All those things can hit the brakes.
So the first thing science tells us to do in order to maximize our sexual wellbeing is to think about what activates the accelerator and hits the brake – health factors, relationship factors, psychological factors, and cultural factors – and reduce the things that hit the brake.
I’ll offer two evidence based strategies for doing just that, at the end of the talk.
But first I need to come clean that – as usual when it comes to science – it’s not quite that simple.
I’d like to share with you the only affective neuroscience that has ever made me laugh out loud.
I want you to imagine that you’re a lab rat, and the researchers have implanted a little probe in your nucleus accumbens – the NAc is this little organ in the middle of the emotional brain. So here you are, a semi-bionic, remote controlled lab rat, and you’re in a three-chambered box.
In the first chamber, you find just the ordinary set up that you always encounter in the lab – the lights are on, but it’s fairly quiet. In this chamber, when they zap the front of the NAc, you do this: Oooh, what’s this?
These are “approach” behaviors, exploring, curious, attracted to things in the environment. Moving toward.
And when they stimulate the back of the NAc, you do this: What the hell is that?! – “avoidance” behaviors, wanting to escape. Fearful. Moving away.
Now you go into the next chamber, and the lights turn off, it’s quiet and calm, and it smells like your mother. You love it here, it’s like a spa for rats. In this place, when the researcher zaps the front of your NAc, what do you do?
“Oooh, what’s this?”
But this is where it gets really good: When the researcher zaps the back of your NAc, what do you do?
“”Oooh, what’s this?”
In a safe, calm environment, almost any stimulation can be interpreted as something to be approached and explored with curiosity.
But there’s more! Eventually you move into the third chamber and as soon as you do, ultra-bright lights turn on and suddenly Iggy Pop is blaring – “Lust for Life” is playing at randomly varying volumes, so you can’t even get used to it. Everything about this environment stresses you out – you’re an introverted bookworm in the worst nightclub in the world. And when the researchers zap the back of your NAc, what do you do?
“What the hell is that!?”
In stressful, unsafe environment, almost any stimulation can be interpreted as a potential threat, to be avoided.
We all know this from tickling: when you’re feeling flirty and sexy and your certain special someone tickles you, that can feel fun and lead to further sexytimes, right? But if that same certain special someone tries to tickle you when you’re pissed at them… how does that feel?
As one of my students recently put it, “Violence would shortly ensue.”
It’s the same sensation, but because the context is different, we perceive it in an entirely different way.
So when I say the accelerator responds to sexually relevant stimulation and the brake responds to potential threats, it’s not as simple as, “touch me here, don’t touch me that way,” it’s about noticing which contexts allow your brain to interpret the world as a safe, loving, pleasurable place.
For most people, the right context is some combination of low stress, high trust, and high affection. Which are hard enough to come by, right? But those alone are not the keys to unlock that door, to access your own sexual wellbeing.
Here it is: the moment where I hand you the keys that unlock the door to your own sexual wellbeing. Here they are, glinting on a satin pillow. There are actually two of them, side by side. Can you see them? They’re right here. One of them is marked:
And the other is marked:
“How do they work? Where I can I find them? Explain!”
Confidence comes from knowing what’s true about your body, your sexuality, your own internal experience. Knowing that you have a brake, as well as an accelerator, and that both are sensitive to context. Knowing what’s true, even if it’s not what you expected to be true, or what you were taught “should” be true.
And Joy comes from loving what’s true – about your body, your sexuality, your personhood. Loving what’s true, even – especially – when it’s not what you were taught would be true, or even what you were taught “should” be true.
Confidence is knowing what’s true. Joy is loving what’s true. These are the keys that unlock the door that stands between you and your own sexual wellbeing.
And you’re going to walk out of here today with both of them. And I’m going to tell you how.
But first… I need to talk to you about a cartoon panda.
Have you seen the movie Kung Fu Panda
It’s about a cartoon panda named Po, who becomes a kung fu master through diligent effort, the support of his teacher, and the wisdom of the Dragon Scroll, which contains “the key to limitless power.”
When Po first looks at the scroll, he is disappointed to find that there is nothing written on it. It’s a mirror—it reflects his own face.
And then comes his epiphany: “There is no secret ingredient. It’s just you.”
That is how you get your hands on the keys. Turn toward your own internal experience with calm curiosity – “Oooh, what’s that?” – and you will find them.
Because the key to limitless power… is you.
I’ll give you two evidence-based practices you can do today or any day that science shows can genuinely make a difference:
Stand in front of a mirror as close to naked as you can tolerate. Look at what you see there. And write down everything you see… that you like. And of course the first thing that will happen is that your brain will be filled with all the noisy cultural bullshit about the things that are “wrong” with your body. That’s fine. Just notice those thoughts and let them go for now. You’ve got the whole rest of the day to have those thoughts. Right now, pay attention to the things you like. If it’s your eyelashes, your toes, whatever it is. Write it down.
Do it again tomorrow. And again the next day. The more you practice noticing your own beauty, the more you’ll see what a frickin’ frackin’ miracle you are, and the stronger a hold you’ll have on the keys to your own sexual wellbeing. Confidence is knowing what’s true. Joy is loving what’s true.
If you simply cannot imagine looking at your body and finding something to love, I want you to do this instead:
Sit quietly for a minute or two each day, and visualize your door – that door that stands between you and your own sexual wellbeing. See the door really clearly, and then shine a beacon of kindness and compassion on that door.
Here’s the thing: That door is not innate to you; it was constructed in your brain by your culture and by life experience, and it’s doing an important job. If you’ve been shamed for what’s behind that door, the door wants to keep you safe from judgment and social isolation. If you’ve had your own sexuality used against you as a weapon – one in four women in America, one in six men; one in 4 women in this room, one in six men, and more than half of transgender folks – If that’s you, that door wants to keep you safe from violence, wants to help you survive. And you know what? It’s working. How do I know? Here you are. And I am so glad. I am grateful to your door for helping you survive.
Maybe you still need it closed, maybe it’s ready to open. Either way, the first step is to sit beside it with kindness and compassion.
You can hate the culture that built the door; work to change the culture that built it. But never turn toward the door with hate. Because the door is part of you, too.
Confidence is knowing what’s true about your body and your internal experience. Joy is loving what’s true. Even when it’s not what we expected, or what we were taught “should” be true. And sometimes what’s true is we need our door to stay closed.
I’m a sex educator. It’s the best job in the world. I teach people to live with confidence and joy inside their bodies, which really means I offer them the science that let’s them find their way to themselves.
Because we are all normal. We’re not just normal. We are amazing, beguiling, courageous, delectable, all the way down the alphabet to yawping and zesty.
The science says so.
And now you can prove it.