Dr. Emily Nagoski: Pleasure is the Measure [The Knowledge Project Ep. #66]

Sex educator and author Dr. Emily Nagoski demystifies the science of sexuality and shows us how to shed our insecurities, connect more closely with our partner, and define pleasure on our own terms.

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Why is sex such a difficult and uncomfortable topic for so many people? What impact does pornography have in a relationship? How can we keep the fire burning in our romantic relationships in spite of the stress, responsibilities, and obligations that tend to dampen it?

Dr. Emily Nagoski (@emilynagoski), New York Times best selling author of Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life and Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, answers these questions and so many more in this frank and unflinching discussion about sex.

As you’ll hear in this conversation, Emily has a gift for making awkward conversations fun and playful. And since sexuality is such a broad topic, we jump around quite a bit so we can cover as much ground as possible. We discuss the role of trust in any meaningful relationship, the three conflicting messages many of us grew up on that distort our idea of healthy sex, how to eliminate the shameful stigmas that surround sex in our homes, and six things you can do today to increase the quality of your sex life (including one tip to bump up frequency by 10%.)

WARNING: This episode contains mature subject matter and language that might not be suitable for everyone. Maybe don’t blast this one on your speakers at work or in the car with your child. Use discretion.

Here are a few highlights from our conversation:

We get so excited when our babies touch their feet, right? They’re, “Oh, you caught your feet. That’s so cute.” But when this little girl found her clitoris her dad was just like “no.” She’s not going to remember this moment but it will accumulate with countless other similar moments so that by the time she gets to adolescence she doesn’t know where she got this idea but the idea of her own genitals disgust and horrifies her and she feels like it doesn’t even belong to her.

When it comes to what families can do to promote sex positivity and making sure our kids have a happier, healthier sex life than you have, it has everything to do with that emotional reaction. Prepare yourself for using these words. The more comfortable and normal you can be when these words get spoken, elbow, fingers, vagina, penis, scrotum, toes, ankles, patellar tendon, whatever. They’re all just parts, and when you can react to them neutrally, what that communicates to your kid is “I’m safe to talk to you about these things. It’s not dangerous or scary and if you want to talk about stuff I am an okay person to talk to.”

Almost none of the sex humans have ever had is reproductive. Even before there was hormonal contraception, there was not a statistically significant relationship between frequency of sex and number of pregnancies. Almost none of the sex we have is reproductive. It’s primary function for us as a species is that it’s a social behavior.

The couples who sustain a strong sexual connection have two things in common. One, they are friends. They have a strong friendship with trust at the foundation of their relationship. And two, they prioritize sex. They decide, they choose it. They believe that it matters for the quality of their relationship that they set aside all the other stuff they’re doing.

Frequency does not matter, because again, pleasure is the measure of sexual wellbeing and frequency of sex is not a predictor of sexual satisfaction because people vary so much. There are some people who are like if I don’t get it every day then I don’t feel okay. And other people are like once a month, that’s fine.

The way your brain interprets a sensation changes depending on the emotional state in which you perceive it, which we all know to be true because of tickling. I know tickling is not everybody’s favorite, but if you just imagine your special someone, you’re already in a playful, flirty, turned on kind of thing and your partner tickles you, that can feel playful and lead to other things. Whereas if the exact same special someone tries to tickle you when you’re pissed, you want to punch them in the face a little bit. It’s the same sensation but because the context is different, the way your nucleus accumbens shell interprets that sensation is opposite.

The way the sexual response mechanism works in the brain is the dual control mechanism, which means it’s got two parts as a sexual accelerator which notices all the sex related information in the environment and it sends the turn on signal. But then there’s the brakes that notice all the good reasons not to be turned on right now. It sends a turnoff signal. They’re both functioning at a low level all the time.

Women have the same basic bodily autonomy that is the right to choose when and how they are touched as men do. They have been taught all their lives that they must make sure everyone around them is comfortable and happy and so they will sacrifice their own bodily autonomy for your sake. And women need men’s help to gain full grasp of our own basic bodily autonomy. That we are not required to set ourselves on fire to keep other people warm or to sacrifice ourselves on the altar of someone else’s comfort and happiness.

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