Some thoughts on Dr. Emily Nagoski’s book *Come As You Are*

Almost a year of isolation a’ la social distancing, “uncertain times” and “the new normal” (as of this writing it’s been almost ten months) gets depressing and requires nearly unprecedented efforts to keep optimistic. One thing that’s come to “lift my spirits” (and in fact, my penis sometimes) is taking hour long walks with my dog Yago while listening to audiobooks about sex.

I first read Emily’s Nagoski’s Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life earlier this summer, and I thought it an excellent read then, but listening to it while walking up and down a hilly road, over the past couple of weeks, was a chilling (no reference to the cold, winter, New Jersey air initially intended) and spiritual experience.

Are ya’ readin’ this my fellow lads?!?

Undoubtedly, part of the excitement was LISTENING to the book instead of “reading” it. Secondly, I usually find listening to women talk about sex in general quite hot! All the better when I’m walking and mountains in the background are so beautiful. Makes for erotic as much as spiritual.

Then there was my joy in listening to Dr. Emily Nagoski HERSELF, reading the book. At first, her tone and the way she annunciated this and that struck me as pleasantly cute, not just because it was this mix of matter-of-factness and the obviousness of her genuine passion, but to be honest, I’ve rarely HEARD anyone talk about sex:

1) so holistically (the way she connects the optimization of sexual pleasure with physical and mental wellness) and

2) like it’s…more than NOT taboo or “dirty” to talk about….but that it’s IMPORTANT to talk about, just like it’s important to talk about social justice and politics! Indeed, as much as Nagoski illustrates via the science that holistic wellness tends to equal better sex, there is in fact a political/social-justice dimension, which as a man, and thus someone who is of a privileged gender, in contrast to women, in terms of sex and culture in this case, inevitably requires a deepening empathy to appreciate.

As much as women ought to read this book to explore the maximization of their sex lives, and to saw off the chains of the patriarchy and its sickening efforts at controlling and objectifying women, AS WELL AS the chains of the average male’s sexuality as a default frame of reference for everyones’ sexuality, women included, men likewise ought to read this book, and not only to understand how to participate in the process of a woman cumming, and not only to understand or scratch the surface of the context of the female experience, culturally speaking (and the role context plays in sex for a significant number of women, as Nagoski makes very clear), but SO WE CAN UNDERSTAND OUR SEXUALITY BETTER, TOO!         

As Dr. Nagoski wrote on her website’s FAQ page:

“As far as I know, there isn’t a recent book about the science of men’s sexuality, specifically. But one of the things I learned both while writing CAYA [Come As You ARE] and, even more, while talking with people about it as I traveled all over the world, the ideas in CAYA apply as much to men as to women. So even though it has a pink cover and assumes the reader is a woman – and after all, women spent decades and centuries reading books that assumed the reader was male; if we can adapt, so can dudes! – I think CAYA is the male counterpart of CAYA.”

 Are ya readin’ this, my fellow lads?  

A little about Dr. Emily Nagoski (part 1)

If you’re not familiar with Dr. Nagoski, I’ll defer to the “about the author” section because its succinct such that I see no purpose for paraphrasing, and sprinkle a little from her website.  

She was:

“Director of Wellness Education and Lecturer at Smith College, where she teaches Women’s Sexuality. She has a Ph.D. in health behavior with a doctoral concentration in human sexuality from Indiana University (IU) [where she also] taught graduate and undergraduate classes in human sexuality, relationships and communication, stress management, and sex education. [In addition, she has] a master’s degree (also from IU) in counseling, with a clinical internship at the Kinsey Institute Sexual Health Clinic. She also has a B.A. in psychology, with minors in cognitive science and philosophy, from the University of Delaware

In terms of the content of the book, more specifically, it reveals science and personal stories with the objective to “empower you to follow your own path, to reach for and achieve your own profound and unique sexual potential.” ‘

There are two key mantras that serve as motifs all throughout:CONTEXT

1: CONTEXT

2: “We’re all made of the same parts, but in each of us, those parts are organized in a unique way that changes over our life span” (page 13)

*[Brief digression on the profound significance of “context”:

Interestingly, though the perspective and context of Mark Manson’s book Models: Attract Women Through Honesty, is profoundly different than Come As You Are, (Manson’s objective, as the title says, is to help men “get” women, but in a more sincere, ethical and healthy way than the conventional “pick up artist” would preach–“The only real dating advice is self-improvement. Work on yourself. Conquer your anxieties. Resolve your shame. Take care of yourself and those who are important to you…Love yourself. Otherwise, no one else will” -page 24—; in contrast, Nagoski’s objective is to help women, especially, get off –if they’d like–, in as healthy a context as possible), along with sharing the value of wellness, Manson also echoes this principle of context.

As he put it:

“Context. Whether you chat a woman up in a coffee shop, introduce yourself at a business networking event, or attend a speed dating event is going to make a huge difference.  This question of where and in what context you meet women is what I call demographics, and it is by-and-large ignored by pretty much all dating advice out there today. This absolutely boggles my mind since social interactions are always contextual, and therefore, attracting women is always contextual.”

page 99

Models was initially published in 2011. It was revised and republished in 2015. That same year, Dr. Emily Nigoski published Come As You Are and re: context, in her introduction, she wrote: “What we’ll learn is that context—your external circumstances and your present mental state—is as crucial to your sexual wellbeing as your body and brain. Master the content in these chapters and your sexual life will transform—along with, quite possibly, the rest of your life” (page 14).

So there we have it: from the point of view of a man interested in the nature of how a man attracts a woman, and from the point of view of a woman interested in the nature of how a woman can experience greater sexual fulfillment, they both tap into the same concept: CONTEXT!]*

A little about Dr. Emily Nagoski part 2 and how I can somewhat relate to her

An interesting bit about Nagoski’s path to sexology is the intentionality of her pursuit. As is stated on her website:

“The plan was to use her degree in Psychology (with minors in cognitive science and philosophy) to become a clinical neuropsychologist, working with people with traumatic brain injury and stroke. But even though she loved brain science, her work in sex education and violence prevention made her like who she was as a person, in a way the academic stuff couldn’t. So that’s the path she chose.”

I mention this because I somewhat relate.

My own experience over the last several weeks of deepened focus on my interest in sexuality has helped me begin to “like” who I am, “as a person” in a way I’ve never felt before.

And this speaks to the immense value of this masterpiece and essential book: scientific as it is, the science is so holistic that it becomes not simply about sex, or female sexuality, but it spiritualizes sex and presents a beautiful connection between sex and WHO WE ARE as individuals.

Philosophically speaking, if you believe that to live the good life is to ever improve and thrive to the best of your ability, you’ll appreciate this book’s demonstration of how sex becomes your own reflection, like when gazing at water.

Come As You Are has overall, received very positive reviews, and with good reason.

The Chicago Tribune’s writer of the “Balancing Act” column, Heidi Stevens, was enthusiastic about it. “ ‘Come as you Are’ Just Might Save Your Sex Life,” is the review’s headline.  Stevens cites a remark from the book’s publisher that captures just how valued the book is:

” ‘I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen that ‘Come As You Are’ is the most important book I will ever publish,’ Sarah Knight, senior editor at Simon & Schuster, writes in the book’s letter to readers. ‘The value and urgency of its core message cannot be understated.’”  

An interesting addition to the Chicago Tribune review is that it includes an interview with Emily Nagoski. When asked what she thought “people were most surprised by in your book?” Nagoski said:

“Chapter 7 on responsive desire. The idea that you can be normal and not experience spontaneous desire is huge. One person told me it saved their marriage… When you learn that all you have to do is create a context that allows desire to emerge, you realize you’ve been trying to fix something that isn’t broken.”

Bringing us back to CONTEXT!

The Guardian published a review by Van Badham. (The review cites Betty Dodson, and it strikes me: for a name I encounter so much, why have I not read more about her? As I act on my inspiration to research Dodson a bit, I feel a certain spiritual connection to her in that she moved from an art-focused career to an elevated interest in sex…as I find myself thinking about the different dimensions and layers of self… the poet me, the new writer on the topic of sex me, the old hyper political me…)   

Van Badham described Nagoski’s writing nearly perfectly. She wrote:

“As a literary work, Nagoski’s book deserves plaudits for the rare achievement of merging pop science and the sexual self-help genre in prose that’s not insufferably twee. A few too many gardening metaphors aside, Come As You Are resists the temptation to antique, smirky puns and offers up hard facts on the science of arousal and desire in a friendly and accessible way.”

And in an interesting critique of Western culture re: sex, in the context of Nagoski’s book, she said:

“No adult should really need a book to tell them that getting enough sleep, eating well, avoiding overwork, feeling good about yourself and not banging a loser are essential to sexual happiness.”

Indeed, I can’t help but appreciate this point, as it is, I think, the ultimate essence of Come As You Are.

Live well, have good sex. Self-improve, have better sex. Let life bring you down, even via your self-criticism, and you’re likely to see it bring down the quality of your sex life.

However, alas, I was one of those adults who needed a book to accentuate and explain this important principle. Do we not sometimes miss what’s right in front of us? If it had been a snake it would have bitten you? 

This life-quality and sex quality connection has been significantly meaningful for me, so I consider Nagoski’s work here to be one of the most inspirational and profoundly impactful books I’ve ever read! (Indeed, the only books of equal or nearly equal power… for me… include Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground and Tara Swart’s The Source. In other words, this work is exceptional!)

Emily Nagoski dared me to escalate my honesty, work on my self-esteem and self-confidence, and allow myself to delve more deeply into my fascination with sexuality!

I felt so much inspired energy that I decided to devote my large red Moleskine notebook purely to sex related stuff, and began taking notes on Nagoski’s book.

“Practice replacing self-criticism with self-kindness”

The first point I jotted down was Dr. Emily Nagoski’s explanation on the damage self-criticism (in particular) does to the human body and psyche and ultimately, the quality of one’s sexual experiences.

As I cited in my essay “Some thoughts on desiring to be hot and sexy,” Nagoski explained it like this:  

“[O]ur brains process self-criticism with brain areas linked to behavioral inhibition—brakes. So, it’s not surprising that self-criticism is directly related to depression—and does depression improve your sexual well-being? It does not. Here’s how that works: When you get right down to it, self-criticism is yet another form of stress. I described stress in chapter 4 as an evolutionarily adaptive mechanism to help us escape threats— ‘I am at risk.’ When we think, ‘I am an inadequate person!’ that’s like saying, ‘I am the lion!’ Literally, our stress hormone levels increase. Your body reacts to negative self-evaluations as if you’re under attack. The solution is to practice replacing self-criticism with self-kindness…

Self-criticism is associated with worse health outcomes, both mental and physical, and more loneliness. That’s right: Self-criticism is one of the best predictors of loneliness—so it’s not just ‘I am at risk,’ it’s also ‘I am lost.’” (pp. 157-158).

pp. 157-158

Now, I’ve always had my struggles with self-esteem, but since I’ve been 21, I’ve always TRIED my best to think positively about all things, myself included. Alas, this is easer said than done.

Because I took exceptional pride in learning how to learn while I pursued my Bachelor’s Degree, I came to feel confident about my ability to retain facts, synthesize view points and sources, and offer some observations and raise some questions in the process. What I mean to say is I’m trained to do that. And yet, this sort of confidence and self-esteem boosting does not necessarily translate to LIKING one’s self, or fundamentally liking one’s self. In theory, maybe. But in practice, not necessarily.

Learning about the empirically gained facts on the danger of self-criticism and its rather direct connection to quality of sex experience, as much as I already had learned about positive psychology, the power of visualizing the fulfillment of desires we pursue, et cetera, as Dr. Nagoski explicitly explained it, had a somewhat of a revolutionary impact on me or has become a major part of a revolutionary “chapter” in the book of my “life story.”

Somewhat like filmmaker Paulita Pappel inspired me to challenge my outlook on sex, love, porn, my sexuality specifically, ethics, and embrace the fact that I love sex—i.e., that I’m an erotophile–…in a somewhat similar fashion, Emily Nagoski  inspired me to cultivate some courage to write publicly about things I think and feel about sex that I was beforehand terrified to let anyone know! (A bit more about this in my first article for The Sapiosexual Erotophile blog/column: “Am I ‘obsessed’ with sex or ‘passionate’ and ‘in love with’ it?” )

(A complex inner-conflict of its own—up until I was somewhere between 25 and 27 I was explicitly and passionately open about my love for sex, writing about it, vlogging about it, et cetera. Though I should admit, while I had the nerve to pretend I was somehow Howard Stern or something like that, I think I still felt ashamed of it, like there was maybe something troublingly perverted about me, like I was the freak whose thoughts could not be or should not be expressed… “at the dinner table” –worse than my political and religious-–or anti-religious—thoughts…)  

So it grew clearer to me that one example of how I’ve been quite self-critical is with regard to my sexuality.  Not just in terms of my repressed love for it, but worrying that my appearance wasn’t hot enough, that the way I talk in general seemed jarring and awkward (I can experience such awful bouts of social anxiety even while typing to people on Instagram, that I stammer and don’t always say what I want or mean), that I had a low “IQ,” as I have at times struggled to believe I was much competent at anything.

Come As You Are articulates just how UNACCEPTABLE self-criticism is, and that we must embrace who we are, appreciate ourselves where we’re at, and love ourselves unconditionally. (Not to be confused with refusing to hold one’s self accountable. But there’s self-criticism then there’s self-improvement… which in of itself, feels good, and is constructive.)  

So, like Hannah Givens wrote in her review that she published on her blog:

“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.”

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