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Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Change Your Sex Life by Emily Nagoski is a frequent recommendation of Slate’s sex advice columnists Stoya and Rich Juzwiak—and How to Do It’s regular endorsement has made it Slate’s top-selling book for the past two years. For Valentine’s Day, we asked the columnists to discuss exactly what it is that makes the book so valuable to readers, their partners, and their sex lives.
Stoya: I’ve reread Come as You Are a few times and find something new on each pass.
Rich: I didn’t read it until after we started writing this column. Your repeated references drove me to pick it up, like a lot of readers. I first sort of rooted through it but finally read it in earnest last fall. It’s become part of the How to Do It canon. It’s dedicated to helping women, especially cis women, understand their sexual responses—but men have found it very helpful too.
Stoya: This latest round I’ve read it, I’m particularly struck by what Nagoski says about the stress cycle.
Rich: What in particular?
Stoya: It has to be completed! You have to have your cry, or do your breaths, and feel your feelings. Or all that stress can get in the way of sexual response. But the first time I read it, my biggest takeaway was the “accelerator” and “brakes” framework.
Rich: That was mine too. The brake/accelerator idea, to spell it out, was developed by Erick Janssen and John Bancroft at the Kinsey Institute as a “dual control model” for understanding sex. The two parts are the Sexual Excitation System, which receives sexual stimuli (that’s the accelerator), and the Sexual Inhibition System, which is host to the neurological “off” signals (the brake). Viewing sexual response in this way can help people target issues.
Stoya: Like you said, even though the book is written with cisgender women in mind, I’ve heard from a number of men that understanding this model of sexual arousal helps them understand themselves.
Rich: There’s a large emphasis on context, in particular how that might trigger your brake. It helped me understand more about why I don’t tend to respond in situations where public sex is available, like sex parties. Theoretically, it engages my accelerator, but the environment hits my brake. What I love about Nagoski’s work here is that she doesn’t give you directions so much as reasons and things to consider. There is no unilateral prescription, only guidance for understanding more about yourself. At one point she writes, “This whole book is about paying attention to your own internal experience and trusting your body.” I try to employ that philosophy in this column.
Stoya: And throughout the book she recommends mindfulness.
Rich: During my most recent read, I fixated on “arousal non-concordance,” the idea that sexual material that may elicit a physical response (vaginal lubrication or an erection) is not necessarily sexually arousing. “The body never lies” is, it turns out, a lie.
Stoya: Cis women have basically a coin toss’s chance of arousal concordance, which explains a lot of the “Why am I into this?” questions. (The answer being, “We aren’t sure, but at least you know that the disconnect between your erotic self and your sexual organs is “normal.”)
Rich: Which brings up another point: Normal is a word Nagoski uses a lot (145 times by my Kindle app’s count). I’m not crazy about that word—I believe that nothing is “normal”!—but her point is to affirm and accept by acknowledging the wide variance within human sexuality. The book is as welcoming as its title.
Stoya: Nothing is normal, yet that’s a question Nagoski receives often, as do I: “Is this normal? Am I normal?”
I did an event around Come as You Are with author Charlotte Shane at Bluestockings, a book shop in New York, a few years ago, and the audience was at least one-third men. And every single one of them nodded when another said that he learned things about themselves despite being very much not the intended audience.
Rich: I once advised a guy who wrote into the column to read this book. He’d suddenly found himself appealing to women (after a long period when he’d not been considered as such), and while he was interested in sex, he was having erection issues. These were not issues he was having alone, which suggest they’re more psychologically rooted. Something was hitting his brake. I told him to read the book and explore.
Stoya: That’s wonderful.
Rich: It’s the kind of thing I can recommend without reservation. Nagoski is very focused on being user-friendly, which makes integrating this book into a relationship sensitively fairly simple. Every section has a list of tl;dr bullet points, there are questionnaires, and the aforementioned tone of affirmation.
Stoya: If you think the book might be useful to you or your partner, bringing it up can be as simple as saying, “Hey, I heard about this book, and I’m curious.” Or read or share a passage with your partner.
Rich: ”I have these unresolved sexual issues, and now I at least have hope of managing them.”
Stoya: ”I learned something interesting about myself from this worksheet.”
Rich: It’s really a tool for getting to know yourself and your body even better. Once you cross the hurdle of locating your intent, Nagoski leads the way.
By Emily Nagoski. Simon & Schuster.