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Meme can’t stop worrying about her sex life. She’s in her thirties, and ever since she started taking a new medication, her sex drive has diminished dramatically—she’s concerned if something doesn’t change, it’ll cause problems down the line in her marriage. On a recent episode of How To!, Emily Nagoski, sex educator, author of Come As You Are, and frequently-cited expert in Slate’s “How To Do It” column, helps Meme reframe the way she thinks about sex. Research shows that the people who self-identified as having “extraordinary” sex lives, Emily says, aren’t necessarily having sex all the time. Only by abandoning the expectations that so many of us have internalized about sex can we—no matter our age, relationship, or parenting status—open ourselves up to the best sex of our lives. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
David Epstein: Meme, why did you reach out to us?
Meme: I have a loving husband and when we first met, we had a very healthy sexual relationship. And then I started on some new medication that completely removed my sex drive. Sex doesn’t even cross my mind anymore, even though my husband is the guy all of my girlfriends gush over. He’s truly a wonderful person. What was normal for me in the past was we had sex every day, sometimes multiple times a day. [But then] within six weeks of being on [this new medication], I lost my sex drive. My husband never said anything about it, but I think it’s awkward for him. He would rather not discuss it. I was hoping this was a temporary thing, but this has been going on for years now.
I really do not think my husband would ever cheat on me. I think he would sit down and have a conversation with me before it got to that point, but I don’t want to wait until it gets to that point. Sex is a very healthy part of a relationship that we are missing out on and the couple of doctors that I’ve talked to about it said that there’s nothing that can be done. And if there was, they’d be rich women.
Emily Nagoski: Oh, Jesus fucking Christ. Sorry. I just have feelings when doctors are like “There is nothing we can do to help you. You are just broken.” It is both factually incorrect and morally wrong. No, no. Our sexual functioning changes across our lifetime for all kinds of reasons, sometimes medication, sometimes hormonal, oftentimes just because our relationships or our stress levels change. Just because sex is different from what it used to be doesn’t mean it’s no longer healthy and normal. Framing matters a lot. When you dive into the research of what counts as having a great sex life, it turns out that like how long it takes a person to get to orgasm and how frequently or intensely they experience a spontaneous desire for sex, neither one of those things is a predictor of having a great sex life.
Canadian psychologist Peggy Kleinplatz and her team interviewed dozens of people who self-identify as having extraordinary sex lives. She found eight qualities of great sex and none of these eight qualities was spontaneous desire, which makes perfect sense. I know that the story most of us are told is that how desire is supposed to work is that it’s a drive. You’re supposed to just experience it out of the blue—a lightning bolt to the genitals. Kaboom! You just want it. You’re walking down the street and you want it and you get home to a certain special someone and you’re like, “Hello, I have kaboom. Do you got kaboom? Because we could go boom.” That is one of the normal, healthy ways to experience desire. But another perfectly normal, healthy way to experience desire is what researchers call responsive desire. I heard an analogy used by Christine Hyde, who’s a sex therapist in New Jersey: Imagine your best friend invites you to a party. You say yes, but then as the date begins to approach, you start thinking of childcare, that there’s going to be a lot of traffic, and that you don’t want to put on your party clothes after a long week. But you said you would go, so you put on your party clothes and you show up to the party and what happens?
Meme: You end up having a good time.
Emily: That’s how sexual desire actually works. When we talk to people who self-identify as having extraordinary sex, that’s the kind of desire almost all of them describe themselves as having. They plan the party, they put on their party clothes,, and do whatever else they need to do to transition into a party state of mind. Then they go to the party. They show up—you know, you let your skin touch your partner’s skin and your brain goes, oh, right. I really like this. I really like this person. And you have a good time. That is responsive desire, and it is not just healthy and normal, but the most typical experience of desire, even among people who have not just healthy and normal sex, but extraordinary sex.
Meme: So it sounds like you’re suggesting that perhaps having a ritual that I do to get myself prepped for sex would be beneficial and having sex dates regularly on the calendar.
Emily: Both of those things. And they’re only beneficial if you have fun at the party. So let’s just check and make sure that if you do have sex, do you like it?
Meme: Yes. I mean, I definitely have an issue with orgasms now, which I never, ever did before. So I’m all in my head trying to force something to happen that I just can’t relax and enjoy the moment. Then my husband can sense it and I just feel terrible. I have tried meditating, which I actually do think helps, but if sex is spontaneous, as I feel like is normal, I can’t just stop and say “give me a minute to to meditate and get my mind right.”
Emily: That’s exactly how people who have great sex lives do it. What you had was normal and this is also normal. Nothing that you’ve described to me is sexual dysfunction. It’s just a change in your sexuality, the way sexuality changes over time.
The actual brain mechanism that’s governing all this stuff has two parts. One part is a sexual accelerator that notices all the sex-related information in the environment—everything that you see, hear, smell, touch, taste, or think that your brain codes as related to sex. It sends that turn-on signal that you felt during the hot and heavy, falling in love, spontaneous desire phase of your relationship. And it functions at a low-level subconsciously all the time. At the same time, your second part, the brakes, is noticing all the very good reasons not to be turned on right now. Everything that your brain codes as a potential threat. You self-identify as an anxious person and a worrier—stress, depression, anxiety, exhaustion, and relationship conflict are some of the most common feelings. It turns out, even though most of the sex advice that you get from women’s magazines has to do with adding stimulation to the accelerator like lingerie and toys and roleplay and porn. Those things are great, if you like them, but it’s rarely the case that there’s not enough stimulation to the accelerator. It’s that there’s too much stimulation to the brakes.
So a simple place to start is to write yourself a list of things you know activate the accelerator—the physical appearance of your husband, his kindness, whatever else it is that gives you that warm, floaty feeling of I am so lucky that this is the one who picked me. And then make a list of things that hit your brakes. What are the kinds of things that might be on the list of stuff that hits the brakes?
Meme: I guess overthinking about not being able to have an orgasm and wondering if it will hurt my husband’s feelings that I’m not enjoying it as much as he is. Also, gosh, maybe I’m older than I want to admit, but I’m always really exhausted at night and my husband and I are not on the same sleep schedule. So maybe we should discuss having some morning time activity, because I feel like I would do better trying to have sex in the morning.
Emily: Scheduling sex is a great place to start. I, for one, am busy and there’s not a lot that I get done if it’s not in my calendar. I know people have a reaction to the idea of scheduling sex because it seems not as romantic as just spontaneously initiating sex. But I can think of almost nothing more romantic than the idea that we have so many other things we could be doing with our time, but we set aside a time that’s cordoned off from everything else and literally close the door on all of our other obligations, on all the other identities we have and the roles we have to play in life. And this time is just for this one, let’s face it, sort of silly, wacky thing we humans do.
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