let me repeat that, we’re all normal.
Our bodies are normal.
Our relationships are normal.
Our sexual desires are normal.
Our sex lives are normal.
Note: This only applies if you don’t use sex as a weapon. If you do,stop…just stop.
Emily Nagoski is the Wellness Education Director at Smith College. During her keynote at this year’s Guelph Sexuality Conference, she shared one of her most life-changing moments teaching college students about sexuality. When she asked her students, on the end-of-year exam, so, you know, they had to answer – what one thing they learned from the course, the answers were, overwhelmingly, some flavour of “I learned that I’m normal.”
When we (and I mean we of any age, not just young people) talk to our friends, or read sexy novels, or watch movies, we see and hear conversations about sex that often just don’t resonate. We get the message, from those books and movies, that there’s one kind of sexy, and we’re not it. We worry, when we talk to friends, or see their bodies, if our desires aren’t like theirs, or our bodies don’t look like theirs. This reminds me of when I went to Cara Liebowitz’s workshop on asexuality at the Breaking silences conference and she shared how strange and isolating it felt to hear college friends talk about feeling horny, to hear the trope that all young people want sex, and to not know, on a gut level, what horny even felt like.
Another example: Most of us aren’t too interested in sex when we’re stressed, right?
Right – but most isn’t all. Apparently, studies have shown that 80% to 90% of participants reported trouble getting aroused when they were stressed out. That leaves 10%-20% of participants who got more revved up sexually when the stress piled on. Neither way is “right,” it just is – though I’m guessing it makes for lots of misunderstandings in relationships.
Emily wants to help people understand their own sexualities, and figure out what kind of sex (if any) they want by looking at what the science has to say.
If you’re a sex nerd like me – or, just a nerd – this is super exciting. I was on the edge of my seat, frantically taking notes, the whole time Emily was talking.
That said: Relying on the science does have limitations. As Emily pointed out, science still classifies people as either male or female, depending mostly on what they have between their legs. Yeah, there are other ways to measure that, but most of us haven’t had our chromosomes tested. And, even if we did, maleness and femaleness aren’t so clear-cut as all that. Sex and gender are way, way more complicated.
What Emily didn’t mention in her lecture was that there are other unknowns when we’re looking to science to tell us just what the heck’s going on with our sexualities and sex lives.
We’re limited by who gets researched: Is it mostly college students? Mostly nondisabled folks? Mostly people from one cultural background or another? Mostly people who are evaluated as being in “good health?”
How we experience life affects how our sexualities develop. it affects how we relate to our bodies, to other people, to the world around us. Our personal histories can affect how our bodies react, and how we react to our bodies
My biggest take-away from all the scientific research is that the results give us new ways of looking at the world, new ways of thinking about sexuality, and new ways of -possibly – understanding our own bodies.
The research also clears up, once and for all, a misconception that’s been around far too long!
When you’re having sex with someone, listen to what they’re telling you, not whether they’re hard, or wet, or panting, or flushed, or….
The way someone’s body reacts, doesn’t tell you whether they want to be having this sex. It’s called arousal nonconcordance and while the studies show that it happens more to participants who were categorized as women – in other words, people with vulvas and vaginas – this can happen with any person, at any time, for any reason. Yes, even people in long-term relationships can have their bodies act like they want sex, when they couldn’t be less into it. Wanting sex one day doesn’t mean wanting it the next, even if all the physical arousal signs are there.
It doesn’t help that wanting sex is usually talked about in terms of how fast someone got wet, or the fact that their penis was hard. I don’t know about you, but most novels I read take us from casual flirting to full-on arousal (and, implied, full on interest) in less than thirty seconds.
Emily read us a passage from Fifty Shades of Grey (first time i’d read any of it, and I doubt I’ll be reding more). Christian is spanking Ana, and remarks on how much he “knows” she likes it because he sees her wetness. Meanwhile, Ana’s thoughts are all about how much she doesn’t like it, and wondering why she’s doing this, and justifying to herself why this is okay.
Nope, Ana is not aroused, or having fun!
The worst part of judging whether someone wants sex by what their body is doing, rather than on what they’re telling you is when that person’s “no” or “slow down” or “I don’t want this” isn’t listened to. A friend told me recently about a mutual acquaintance who was trying to make out with her. He stopped when she asked him to, but he couldn’t resist observing that her nipple had gotten hard, as if that was some kind of hard evidence (no pun intended – really!) that she enjoyed the contact even if she said she didn’t want it.
Then there are the people who don’t stop. It’s way too common (and makes my stomach turn! – No, scratch that: Fills me with rage!) that sexual abusers will insist that their victims must have liked it, because they got wet, or had an orgasm, or moved their hips, or whatever lie seems to fit best and work to manipulate or discredit the “I didn’t ask for or agree to that.” Little do they know: Science is not on their side.
If the mind is saying no, we listen to that, however someone communicates that to us. period.
Here’s a Youtube video on arousal nonconcordance (fully captioned).
The second most pivotal thing I learnd was this:
Scientifically, sex is not a drive; we don’t need sex to survive, the way we need food, or water, or sleep, or enough sodium (salt).
No one ever died or got injured for lack of sex.
So, what we call a “sex drive,” that feeling that makes us want to get our sexy on? That’s actually called a sexual incentive motivation system. That doesn’t roll off the tongue so well, but there you have it. It’s totally fine if we want to keep calling it a drive, as long as we understand the differences.
A drive is for something we need to have to survive – like I said above: water, sleep, food, certain minerals from food.
An incentive motivation system is an external thing, external attraction, that pulls you into it and compels you to explore. Think of it like being intensely curious about something where you start reading everything you can on it, talking about it all the time, living it day in and day out, versus being dry-throated, fuzzy-mouthed “dying of thirst” thirsty.
According to Emily, when we say we have a high sex drive, we’re basically saying that we have a high curiosity for sex, a strong pull to explore sex or feel sexual sensations.
I have this in my notes, which I really love: Your partner, or a sexual act, is a source of wonder, exploration, curiosity – hot curiosity.
- We do not need sex to survive.
- Sexual frustration will not kill you.
Sexual frustration will not kill you.
I repeat: sexual frustration, lack of sex, unsatisfying sex, not having a sexual partner – won’t kill you. It won’t even make you sick.
The title of this presentation was “Pleasure is the Measure.”
when we shed the things we think we’re supposed to do, or feel, or think, about sexuality, we’re left with what we want.
It doesn’t matter who you have sex with, or how, or why, or where (as long as you’re obeying local laws), or even if you’re having sex at all.
What matters is that it’s what you want to be doing.
It’s not just sexytimes and orgasms that make the plesure happen; it’s feeling safe, happy, secure, not doing things you don’t want to do, knowing what you do want to do.