Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Come As You Are, by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D.

Can we all agree that this book has a magnificent cover?

I wasn't really sure what to expect when I started this book. I tend to take claims like the surprising new science that will transform your sex life (exclamation points implied) with a couple grains of salt. It sounds a little-lot like a headline on an issue of Cosmo. (Maybe? Is that even still a magazine? Sorry I am behind on the times and also writing this at 5am.)

Anyway. I wound up really enjoying this book. I am continually annoyed, as an adult, by how fascinating science is. Why was this never conveyed to me in school, guys. It's not that most of the science Nagoski presents is actually all that shocking. But there was a sort of over-writing process going on in my head while I read. The goal of the text is not just to transform everyone's sex life; it's to prove that all our weird sexual idiosyncrasies are perfectly fine. She says repeatedly in the text: If you're experiencing pain, see a medical professional. If not, what you're experiencing is normal and healthy. It's a really comforting book in that way. How often do we hear that we are normal and healthy?

The book is divided into four sections. First up is The (Not-So-Basic) Basics, with anatomy lessons and an outline of the sexual response mechanism in the brain, along with how those mechanisms interact with the other systems in your brain and environment. Part Two is Sex in Context, because it turns out we don't have sex in a vacuum--our lives and body image and attitudes are all crucial to our sex lives. In part the third, Sex in Action, she writes about sexual response, and both the ways we think it is "supposed" to work, and how it actually works. There's vital information in this section dealing with sexual assault victims that needs to gain traction in how we look at this issue as a culture. Automatic biological response is not indicative of desire, okay. And then part four is cheerfully titled Ecstasy for Everyone (implied exclamation points again) and ties everything together in terms of how we might use the book to work its transformational magic on our own sex lives.

Throughout the book, Nagoski tells the stories of four women. They aren't actually real women, or rather each woman is an amalgamation of many real women she has known over her years working as a sex educator. These were some of my favorite parts of the book since they satisfied my desire for narrative in anything I read. I also thought there was a decent range of experience portrayed, and I imagine most if not all women could find a situation they could relate to.

The subject matter and the way it is presented--here's lots of information, and now here's how to make it help you--makes for a very personal reading experience. I found myself confronting biases I hadn't even realized I'd internalized, assumptions that make me beat myself up on a regular basis. One of these was how we as a culture deal with stress; or rather, how we don't deal with it. So often I tell myself to just relax, it'll all work out, overlooking the fact that stress is a natural biological response. But we used to have a simple means for completing the cycle of stress, like so: Look, a lion! Run!...whew, made it, what a relief! These days, lacking (mostly) a threat as obvious and immediate as a lion, we often get stuck at the fearful reaction, or in freeze or flight or fight, whatever our response to the stressor. And, shocker, this kind of anxiety and stress isn't great for many people's sex lives. Nagoski gives a few techniques for actually getting to the other side of stress, if only temporarily. Exercise is good. Crying is good. If you feel like having a little screaming fit, also good. (I read this chapter and thought about how nice it would be to just be able to go have a little cry and get it out of your system when you're feeling stressed. Must be nice, I scoffed, not being much of a crier myself. And then, lo and behold, twenty pages later and apropos of nothing I was reading at the time, I burst into tears. It was very...lucid crying, I guess. I was very aware that I wasn't actually sad and so it felt a little strange. But after? Totally felt better. Points to biology.)

I don't think you need to have a specific concern to get a lot out of this book; curiosity was enough for me. The science parts could have gone over my distinctly un-sciencey head but never did. Nagoski keeps things at a very human level that really worked for me. Recommended.

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