S1: I talked to a woman in Europe who she and her husband and her small children every year would rent the same vacation home and they had great vacation sex one year they couldn’t get that house. And so they rented a different house and it was not the same. She and her husband were like, what is the difference? It turns out that house was so old, the bed was built into the wall, which means it was silent. There was no rocking and noise and therefore no chatter in her head about the kids waking up and wondering what’s up and coming and walking in.
S2: Welcome to How-To. I’m science writer David Epstein. The beauty of an advice podcast is that we’re here to give you the kind of counsel that your friends and family can’t always provide or maybe you just don’t want to ask. And so this week we’re going to talk about what happens in the bedroom or more accurately, what’s not happening in the bedroom and how to fix it. Meet Mimi from Miami.
S3: I have a wonderful, loving husband, and when we first met, we had a very healthy, normal sexual relationship. And then I started on some new medication that completely removed my sex drive. Doesn’t even cross my mind anymore. And it’s just, you know, for the sake of our marriage and trying to figure out how I can get it back.
S2: Mimi’s in her 30s and totally smitten with her husband.
S3: He’s the guy all of my girlfriends gush over. I mean, they he’s he’s really, truly a wonderful person. I mean, what was normal for me in the past, I mean, we had sex every day, sometimes multiple times a day, and it was great.
S2: But then three years ago, Mimi started a business. Her anxiety spiked and she started on a medication called Lexapro.
S3: And it was awful, like within six weeks of being on it.
S2: And though she’s no longer taking Lexapro, her desire for sex never returned.
S3: My husband never said anything about it, but I think it’s awkward for him. And so he would just rather not discuss it. But, you know, I was hoping it is a temporary thing, but this has been going on for years now.
S2: It sounds like you’re shouldering a lot of, you know, worry and anxiety both for yourself and for your husband. I mean, do you have concerns about if it keeps going in the trajectory you’ve been on, that it could be harmful to your relationship?
S3: Or I mean, that’s that’s why I wrote in, because I am worried about that. I do not. And you guys might think I’m completely naive, but I really, truly do not think my husband would ever cheat on me. I think he would sit down and have a conversation with me before I got to that point. But I don’t want to wait until I get to that point, you know what I mean? But it’s a very healthy part of a relationship that we are missing out on.
S2: Mimi’s already begun asking doctors for help, but so far she hasn’t gotten even a glimmer of hope.
S3: The doctor, a 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.
S1: Jesus Christ. Sorry. You can you can cut that.
S2: This is Emily Nagorski. She’s a sex educator. And as you may have noticed, she’s got a few thoughts.
S1: I 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.
S2: On today’s episode, Emily breaks down some common misconceptions and gives tips that can help anyone, no matter your age or your relationship status, have a happier, healthier sex life. Stay with us. As a sex educator with a doctorate in health behavior, Emily Nagasaki’s spent decades trying to change the way we talk about sex.
S1: I mean, I started on this literally the same semester in college that I began my first sexual relationship. And I’ve now been married for approaching 10 years. And I actually did like a little baby Ted talk about how writing a book about sex murdered my interest in sex. I was so stressed and overwhelmed and thinking about sex all the time, I had no interest in having any sex. And imagine if I didn’t know what I know about the fact that sexual desire is going to go away when you’re real stressed out and it will come back.
S2: Emily’s book was called Come As You Are The Surprising New Science that will transform your sex life. The way we talk about sex is often misleading, Emily says. And that can make women like Mimi, who are experiencing a change in desire, feel like something’s wrong with them.
S1: Our sexual interest, our sexual functioning changes across our lifetime for all kinds of reasons, sometimes medication, sometimes hormonal, oftentimes just because our relationships change or our stress levels change, and just because it’s different from what it used to be doesn’t mean it is no longer healthy and normal. The framing of it 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.
S2: Emily’s referring to research from the Canadian psychologist Peggy Klein plots. She and her team interviewed dozens of people who self-identified as having, quote, extraordinary sex lives.
S1: She found sort of 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 Durai. If 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 in your leg. Hello. I have kaboom, kaboom. Because we could go boom. And that is one of the normal, healthy ways to experience desire, but another perfectly normal, healthy way to experience desire the 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 going off on childcare. It’s going to be a lot of traffic. And I really want a part of my party clothes after a long week. I don’t know. But you know what? You said you would go. So you put on your party clothes and you show up to the party and what happens?
S3: You have fun, you end up having a good time,
S1: usually you end up having a good time at the party. And here’s the thing. If you’re having fun at the party, you are doing it, right?
S3: Mm hmm. Yeah.
S1: So that’s how sexual desire actually works. And 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. And 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. 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.
S2: According to Emily, most men, roughly 70 percent, experienced spontaneous desire, that kind of kaboom feeling walking down the street that Emily described. That’s compared to just 10 to 20 percent of women. It’s much more common for women to feel responsive desire and a lot of different things can influence that responsiveness.
S3: So it sounds like you’re suggesting that perhaps having sex dates regularly on the calendar and having like a ritual that I do to get myself prepped for it would be beneficial
S1: both of those things. And they’re only beneficial. Let me emphasize 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?
S3: Yes. So, I mean, I definitely have an issue with orgasms now, which I never, ever did before in my head, trying to force something to happen that I just can’t even relax and enjoy the the moment. And then my husband can sense it and I just feel terrible.
S1: And tell me about your orgasms before.
S3: All of them were fantastic and quick. Like I said, this is really uncomfortable. I’m glad the cameras are off.
S1: And I just say thank you so much for doing this because it is really uncomfortable for a lot of people. And the fact that you’re willing to do it, you’re standing in for so many people who have the same questions.
S3: Well, I appreciate that it does make me a little more willing to share. I have tried meditating, which I actually do think meditation helps. It’s just, you know, if it’s spontaneous, as I feel like, you know, is normal, especially how things used to be, I can’t just like, oh, stop, give me a minute or two to meditate and get my mind right.
S1: You know, that is exactly how people who have great sex lives do it.
S3: All right.
S1: Yeah, well, you had was normal. And this is also normal. Like nothing that you’ve described to me is a sexual dysfunction. It’s just like a change in your sexuality, the way sexuality is change over time.
S2: Again, Emily knows firsthand how sexuality changes over time. At one point, she was actually on the exact same antidepressant as Mimi and her doctor warned her of its side effects.
S1: He warned me that I might experience a reduction in sexual desire. I found that, yeah, my orgasms took a little longer and also my clitoris was not as responsive. So I found myself more orgasmic from vaginal stimulation and especially cervical or uterine stimulation. But imagine if I hadn’t known that just because my mode of stimulation to get to orgasm changed, that didn’t mean I was broken. How much more help I could have had if he had known to tell me that it was just a change and something to like, recognize.
S3: Yeah, no, I agree and I’m already encouraged.
S1: Oh, good.
S2: Here’s our first rule, reframe what’s normal, your sexuality inevitably changes over time that might mean a shift from spontaneous to responsive desire like Emily described. That doesn’t mean that you’re somehow damaged. It just means you have to learn what works. Now, Emily says the mechanism in your brain that controls sexual desire, it’s kind of like a car that either speeds up or slows down.
S1: One part is a sexual accelerator or the gas pedal that notices all the sex related information in the environment. Everything that you see, hear, smell, touch, taste or think, believe or imagine that your brain codes is related to sex. And it sends that turn on signal that you felt during the hot and heavy falling in love, a spontaneous desire phase of your relationship. And it functions at a low level subconsciously all the time. Fortunately, at the same time, your second part of the dual control mechanism, 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. And so do you think worry it’s the accelerator or does it hit the brakes?
S3: It’s definitely what’s causing me to hit the brakes.
S1: Stress, depression, anxiety, overwhelm exhaustion and relationship conflict are some of the most common things. And it turns out, even though most of the sex advice that you get from, you know, women’s magazines and stuff has to do with adding stimulation to the accelerator like lingerie and toys and role playing porn and stuff. Those things are great. If you like them, try them. But it turns out when people are struggling, it’s rarely that there’s not enough stimulation to the accelerator is that there’s too much stimulation to the brakes. Does that make sense?
S3: It does. And that reminded me. So I have a medical marijuana license for my anxiety. And that’s another thing like when I take that before bed, I know I’m going to have an orgasm. And but I, I know that that my husband has said, you know, I don’t want my wife to have to be high to enjoy sex with me.
S1: So that feels like an opportunity for reframing.
S3: Yeah. I mean, it’s I don’t blame them for thinking that, but I mean, I it helps, it helps me sleep. It helps me relax. Like if it helps me enjoy things like we used to, then I don’t see why it matters because I mean there at least once a week, at least when I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do if he’s asleep and we all look how cute he is. I mean, like, I definitely am very attracted to my husband that is not lost at all.
S1: So a simple place to start is with things like that. Write yourself a list of things you know for sure. Activate the accelerator and the physical appearance of your husband is for sure one of them and his kindness and whatever else it is that gives you that warm floaty. I am so lucky that this is the one who picked me. Wow. And then you can 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?
S3: I guess overthinking not being able to have an orgasm and wondering if it will hurt the feelings that I’m not enjoying it as much as he is to also, gosh, maybe I’m older than I want it and that I’m always really exhausted at night. And so here’s another thing. My husband and I are not all the same sleep schedule, so maybe we should discuss having some morning time activity because I feel like I would do better trying to do it in the morning that after I’m already asleep.
S2: Here’s our second rule. Make a list of things that activate your accelerator and your brakes. And instead of trying to just put the pedal to the metal, focus on how you can ease up on the brakes. Maybe that’s a full night’s sleep or meditating beforehand, perhaps a bed that doesn’t creak while you’re thinking about your brakes. We’re going to take our own quick break. When we come back, Emily shares some more practical sex tips that you might not find in a glossy magazine, but that, you know, actually worth. So what do you think, should we have sex tonight and the.
S1: I’m just really constipated.
S4: You really want to. Well, now she set up
S2: this scene from the movie Knocked Up is typical of how we think about bad sex, especially when you’re married like this week’s listener. Meimi, if it’s not wild, passionate and spontaneous, then sex is just boring and unfulfilling. Right. But according to our expert, Emily Nagorski, there’s nothing more romantic than dimming the lights, turning up some music and creating a calendar appointment.
S1: It’s a great place to start, I, for one, am, you know, busy and there’s not a lot that I get done if it’s not in my calendar, I can think of almost nothing more romantic than like we have so many other things we could be doing with our time, like we’re busy, both of us, and we have different sleep schedules and really different work styles. But to set aside a time that’s cordoned off from everything else, we literally closed the door on all of our other obligations. It’s like getting putting on your party clothes. It can be part of the party.
S3: Well, and I guess it’s it’s good to prioritize it because, I mean, I prioritize everything else that’s important in my life and schedule for those things. So I feel like I’m overthinking the the sex date thing as nonromantic when maybe if I just let that thought out of my brain, it could be the exact opposite and be incredibly romantic.
S1: Yeah. Think of like when you were dating, you were dating. That was date sex.
S3: Well, and this is really interesting. When we were dating and we didn’t live together and I knew our time was limited together, I always mentally prepared, like, OK, we are having sex tonight because I’m not going to see him for two more days. So I knew I technically I guess it was just framed differently in my head.
S1: But really it’s the same thing. You look at yourself, you’re like tonight is the night.
S3: The seems so much easier than I thought it needed to be.
S2: Here’s our next rule, schedule time with your partner to have sex, really, especially considering how common response of desire is. It’s really important for a lot of people to have time to prepare for sex mentally and physically before getting started creating this anticipatory time. That can be particularly useful if you’ve been together for a while. And so your relationship doesn’t revolve around date nights anymore. And for those of us with kids in stressful family lives, carving out a set time for that intimacy can be absolutely essential.
S1: One of the people in Peggy Kline Plotts is research said the most important sex accessory is Vaseline. You put it on the doorknob.
S2: Do you think you’ll have to talk to your husband about do you think to be difficult to talk to him and say like scheduling sex is not like something that’s unromantic?
S3: I could see him actually getting really excited about it and think, oh,
S3: she’s actually initiating. And then on the flip side, I could also see it making him not uncomfortable. But maybe like this is weird, but either way, I see him being open to it.
S1: Your sort of task there is to flip the script like you both have scripts in your head of how normal sex is supposed to work and how it’s supposed to be in a long term relationship. And literally every single element of that script is factually incorrect. So you can bring to him, this is me initiating, but I’m initiating it for four days from now. Yeah, because I talked to this lady and what she said is that I have a sexual accelerator, but I also have a break and it turns out my brake needs some time to relax, to let get rid of all the stuff. And here’s a list of the things that hit my brakes. You are not on this list. It’s not you look at you here on the gas pedal list, you are a turn on for me. Look at this list. It is not you. I love you. Attracted to you super hots for you. My lack of orgasm has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the noise in my head.
S3: I think he would after you framed it in that way. If I sat down and showed him my list of breaks, I could just hear him in my head say, well, what what can I do to make it more pleasurable for you? That’s how I’m imagining him reacting to seeing my list of breaks.
S1: Here is a wacky, wild suggestion that I, again, don’t expect you to take. But this is the kind of thing that a sex therapist would recommend. Take orgasm off the table, continue with the same frequency that feels right. Schedule or not, whatever you want to do. But no one is allowed to have orgasms with the other person in the room.
S3: OK, well, that’s that’s interesting. OK, so he can’t have one either.
S1: Yeah, well, it’s only fair because if I say like, you’re not allowed to have an orgasm in order to take all the performance pressure away, that’s one thing. And that’s absolutely a rule that you can make. Like a way that he can help you is to decide that not only are you not expected to, but you’re not allowed to. So this is an opportunity to take away the goal, focus and just play, romp around, explore the full landscape of erotic pleasure that exist in each of your separate bodies and between your bodies and the place they meet.
S2: Here’s our next rule, try to tear up that Hollywood PornHub script in your head that tells you and your partner what good sex should look like, worrying about what should be only hold you back from enjoying what is in one concrete way to get out of that mode is to, at least for a while, take orgasm off the table. Emily, you’ve alluded to drive as not being like a good word, but it also sounds like you’re talking about this as, you know, exploration and maybe, you know, whether it’s medication or aging or changes in stress levels from whatever is going on in your life. Am I right in thinking that it sounds like you’re saying we should think of this as something more of lifelong learning like we do in other parts of sort of our lives and profession, as opposed to like this is something we learned how to do? Right. And keep doing it that way. And if you don’t, then like something’s wrong.
S1: I love that. Use the word exploration, because that is a very precise analogy. So let me just first clarify that it’s not age, OK? The average age at first extraordinary sexual experience, the typical first age among the people Peggy and her team interviewed. Do you want to guess?
S3: I would assume like mid forties. Oh, mid
S2: 55. Wow.
S1: Really, the first thing they had extraordinary sex were they jumped off the edge into the unknown and realized that sex can help them feel connected to the universe and one with the divine.
S2: And this kind of extraordinary sex is not connected to one’s sex drive. Given that, as Emily keeps reminding us, sex drive is a misnomer.
S1: So drive is an uncomfortable experience that pushes an organism out into the world to go solve a problem so that it doesn’t die. Sex is not one of those. This is not even remotely controversial. Frank Beach, the storied animal behaviorist, set it in 1956. Like you are not going to die because you don’t get laid or because you don’t have an orgasm. Sex is not a drive. Nothing bad is going to happen to you physically if you don’t experience the sexual response. But what is it then? It is an incentive motivation system and exploration or curiosity. And we know intuitively that there are times when we feel more curious about the world and less curious about the world. Right.
S3: I feel like this has already been just incredibly helpful. And I really like thinking about it as like an evolving part of life, just like my personality is not what it was five years ago. My sex drive is different art, not drive.
S1: Excuse me. I know sex drive is so much easier to say. It’s so much easier than sexual incentive motivation system. I know everything you got told about sex in like mainstream culture and in high school was different from this, but that was not what’s actually true in the last 40 years of sex. Research have totally dismantled everything that I was taught about sex up until the age of 18. So if your husband’s experience of your lack of initiation is not just about we don’t get to play the way we used to, but I feel disconnected from you because of the ways you don’t approach me sexually. He might have absorbed a cultural script that said that sex is kind of the only acceptable way to give and receive a sense of deep emotional connection and caring.
S2: So here’s our last rule. Instead of trying to amp up your sex drive, which isn’t really a drive, give attention to your drive for connection. Tell your partner the things about them that are on your accelerator list. One thing Mimi told us was on her list is outdoor activities with her husband, like going on bike rides together.
S1: Can I offer one more homework assignment for you? Sure. There is something parallel between riding your bikes together and having sex together, like your bodies are moving kind of rhythmically together. But I would challenge you to notice the way you feel connected to his body. Hmm. When you are moving together through a natural space, even if you’re not physically touching.
S3: OK, no, I can definitely do that.
S2: One of the things that I think you’ve written about the six second kiss, can you tell us a little bit about that?
S1: Yes, this is a recommendation from John Gottman. The way he puts it is it’s six seconds is long enough to be a significant moment, but not so long. You make the kids late for school. It’s a potentially awkwardly long time to kiss somebody. Right. Like, you have to really like and trust that person. That’s about staying in that connection. Until you feel the connection being made in your body, something will shift and all of a stress response ending. In the relaxation response, engaging because you’re reminded as you attend to that sensation that when you are with this person, you are home.
S3: I mean, that makes perfect sense.
S1: There’s also the 20 second hug. If you put your arms around the other person, they put their arms around you and you hold your bodies together and you breathe together until you feel relaxed.
S3: I love hugs, so that would not be awkward for me.
S2: That was one of my favorite parts of the last Winter Olympics when the the gold medal winning ice dancing couple would would do like a 20 second hug before their performances until, like, their heartbeat synched or something like that. I was like, we should all do that. That embrace has become part of their routine.
S1: Maybe we should try it better.
S4: Thank you. I want to hug
S2: somebody after watching a lot of. Thanks to Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moyer for inspiring all of us with their twenty second hug and a big thank you to Mimi for being willing to share her story with us. And we’re really grateful for Emily Nagasaki’s fascinating advice. Be sure to check out her books, Come As You Are and Bernau. And if you’re struggling not just in the bedroom, but in other areas of your relationship, check out our previous episode, How to Save Your Marriage, featuring advice from the aforementioned John and Julie Gartmann. You can find it and all of our episodes in our feet. Do you have a sensitive question that you’re afraid to ask? We might be able to help. Send us a note at how to its slate dotcom or leave a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one how TOS executive producer is Derek John, Rachel Allen and Rosemarie Bellson produced the show. Our theme music is by Janice Brown, remixed by Merritt Jacob. Our technical director Charles Duhigg is host emeritus. I’m David Epstein. See you next time.