(I’ve decided to transform the “Is This Feminist?” series into a series of Feminist Friday Reviews. I think framing the question the old way was limiting the books I could meaningfully review. Welcome to the new version!)
I’ve read a lot of books on sexuality, but Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life by Emily Nagoski, published in 2015, actually legit has surprising new stuff in it that I hadn’t heard about before. I finished it going “omg, I need to get a copy of this for everyone I know.” I’m not that rich, so I’m reviewing it instead and telling you to check it out.
I’m suspicious of anyone claiming to have “discovered” a new system that will solve everyone’s problems with “one weird trick they don’t want you to know about,” but Dr. Nagoski is a sex educator. The things she explains are actually old, they’ve been around almost thirty years and originate with sex researchers, and they just haven’t made it into the mainstream discourse yet (largely because, as she puts it: “ugh, patriarchy.”)
There are two models that were new to me and form the scientific core of the book. The first is SES/SIS, or “the gas and the brakes.” The ons and the offs. Most people, if they want to enjoy sex more, try to turn on more ons, but they’d usually have more success if they turned off more offs. Basically, no matter how sexy the situation is, you’re not going to want to have sex if something is putting you off of it. It sounds obvious but in practice it’s not, especially with the way we and the media talk about sex, as something overwhelming and irresistible (especially for men but as a desirable way to do it for women). The second thing is the idea of nonconcordance. A genital response means your body has noticed something sexually relevant. It does not indicate whether or not you’re enjoying yourself, and vice versa. This ties into her model of expecting, enjoying, and eagerness, which describes different stages or types of arousal, and she explains how to use your awareness of it to understand what’s going on with your body. She talks sensitively about trauma, and how with the rates of violence against women, discussing trauma is inextricable from female sexual health (but she does give warnings if you want to skip those sections).
Some other big themes:
- Sex isn’t a drive, nothing bad happens to you if you don’t have it the way something bad happens if you don’t eat or get too cold.
- We all have the same parts in different arrangements, and understanding the biology will help you feel normal, because you are.
- “How you feel about your sexuality is more important than your sexuality itself.”
- The best predictor of your sexual satisfaction is your overall wellbeing.
So, some things you can find in other books, but this is a good mixture of science with help and advice. It’s explanatory but not (too) reductive. That mixture is the main con of the book too, though… It has a kind of self-helpy chattiness and aggressiveness, and way too much “In chapter XYZ or part ABC I’ll discuss this more” over and over and over. It’s directed toward middle-aged women who are unsatisfied, which makes sense because those are the women who will be looking for such a book and presumably because they’re the ones Nagoski wants most to help, but it’s also kind of a shame. This information would help men, whether they’re partnered or not. She only specifically addresses asexuality once, but if you’re ace and want to know more about how to have sex or how sex works, this book would help so much. And yet if you’re not in that narrow target audience of middle-aged unsatisfied women, you’re going to feel like some of it’s a slog or too magazine-like for you.
I will say, I don’t think it’s a case of dumbing-down or thinking women will only read books if they sound like Cosmo. I think she genuinely wants as many women as possible to get access to this information, and not just limit her audience to sex nerds (even though it is frequently very nerdy in the best way). And I think she wants to avoid sounding too medical when she’s talking to women who’ve already been told they have a medical problem over and over again just because they’re not enjoying wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am sex. So don’t let my frustration with the tone keep you away. I highly recommend this book, but for an easy intro to her ideas, check out the book review on Oh Joy Sex Toy or her guest post there!