Emily Nagoski is a sex educator and author of the book “Come as You Are, The Surprising New Science that will Transform your Sex Life”. Sexuality can be a difficult topic because so many of us have been raised with the idea that sexuality isn’t okay. Because of this we avoid talking about it and don’t try to find solutions if we are experiencing difficulties. In my experience, problems with sexual intimacy have ranked fairly high among the issues couples bring up in therapy sessions. Shame over feeling “broken” can also make us uncomfortable bringing it up. The good news is that there is a lot we can do to become more satisfied with this important area in our lives and relationships. I recently attended a presentation Dr. Nagoski gave and found the information so useful, that I thought I’d share some of it here.
All the Same Parts:
The biggest takeaway I got from her lecture (as well as from reading her book) is that throughout our lives we are presented with an idea of what is normal in both our physical bodies and how we approach our sexuality. This presentation comes largely from the media, and leads us to believe that because we are not the same as what is presented, that there is something wrong with us. Dr. Nagoski talks about how we all have the same parts, (physically and sexually) but are arranged differently and that we are not broken or deficient just because we are different from someone else.
The Dual Control Method:
Dr. Nagoski calls them accelerators and brakes. Accelerators are things which signal our brains to respond favorably to sexually relevant stimuli. Accelerators might be things like our partner wearing a cologne or perfume we like, or coming home to a candlelight dinner our partner has surprised us with. Brakes are things which signal our brains that we are not interested at the moment. Examples of brakes can range from things like sitting in a boring meeting to lack of sleep to body odor. Performance anxiety can also be a huge brake. There is a questionnaire to evaluate your sensitivity to brakes (or Inhibitors) and accelerators (or Excitors) at http://www.thedirtynormal.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Sexual-Temperament-Questionnaire.pdf.
How we interpret and respond to brakes and accelerators depend largely on context. If our partner approaches us from behind and kisses our neck when we are in the middle of changing a messy diaper, our response might be very different than if they did the same thing after a romantic dinner. It’s all about context. Dr. Nagoski has a worksheet to help individuals discover what contexts appeal sexually, to them, and what contexts do not, at http://www.thedirtynormal.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Sexy-Context-Worksheets.pdf.
Concordance and Non Concordance:
Concordance refers to the relationship between a physical genital response and an individual’s self reported level of arousal. Men average a 50% concordance rate, which means that half of the time when they are experiencing a physical sexual response to stimuli, they also report feeling aroused. For women, the concordance rate is 10%. One of the things that is often portrayed in media is that when we are physically stimulated, we are also aroused. This leads rape victims to feel guilt for being “aroused” by their rape, when really what happened was just a normal physical response to genital stimulation. It does not mean that it was wanted. It can also lead men who are experiencing erection difficulties to feel guilt, thinking that their lack of erection means they are not aroused by their partner.
Two key terms here are sexual relevance and sexual appeal. Sexual relevance is associated with the physical response to stimuli. An erection stemming from seeing his partner in bed would be an example of an expected sexual stimuli. Sexual appeal is linked to subjective arousal, or an individual’s self-report of arousal. Something can be sexually relevant but not appealing (sexual violence for example), things can also be sexually appealing but not sexually relevant (a fetish for example). Creating healthy, wanted sexual experiences with our partner means creating environments and situations that are both sexually relevant for us as well as sexually appealing.
John Gottman’s research on couples found that the two traits most correlated with a strong, sustained sexual connection lasting decades was 1) a trusting friendship, and 2) making sex a priority. Sometimes when sex isn’t working the way you’d like it to, it feels easier to just let go of sexual intimacy in your relationship. It doesn’t have to be that way. Make a healthy sexual relationship a priority and come in for some couple’s counseling. We can address your concerns and find solutions for them in supportive, respectful ways. I also recommend reading Emily Nagoski’s book for much more of the science and a more thorough coverage of this topic.