Pleasure and intimacy with a partner are beautiful, desirable, enjoyable and, arguably, even wildly important parts of life, yet so many of us have so much trouble acknowledging this, let alone sharing what gives us pleasure and then asking for it? So, what’s going on there, and what can we do about it?
Life gets in the way. Kids, jobs, stress, and trauma dim the flame of desire, connection and intimacy. The exhilarating butterflies you felt at the start of your relationship seem like a distant memory.
You yearn to reclaim that intimate, sexual vitality, but how? It often feels like an impossible task. And, by the way, if you’re feeling this, you’re so not alone. It’s a huge issue, but no one talks about it, for all sorts of issues from moral patterning to fear of being judged. But what if it didn’t have to be this way? What if, despite all the challenges, you could nurture lasting intimate bonds overflowing with passion and delight?
My guest today is Emily Nagoski, award-winning author of the New York Times bestseller Come As You Are. In her groundbreaking new book, Come Together: The Science (and Art!) of Creating Lasting Sexual Connections, Emily reveals fascinating insights from neuroscience and social psychology research on how we can sustain passionate, pleasurable intimacy over the long haul.
Emily understands this isn’t easy. Life changes, bodies change, trauma and stress hit the brakes on pleasure. But rekindling desire and connection is possible through open communication, sharing stories, and redefining sexuality to work for you.
In this inspiring and honest conversation, you’ll learn:
- Why pleasure, not desire, is the key to extraordinary long-term sexual relationships
- How the dual control model of sexual response works, and why stress impacts it
- Steps to start experiencing more pleasure and erotic connection as your body changes
- How to tap into “glimmers” of pleasure during dark times
- Ways to foster intimate communication with your partner about sex
The truth is, pleasure matters. And as Emily explains, we can take concrete steps to invite more of it into our lives, leading to deeper connections, confidence, and joy.
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photo credit: Paul Specht
Emily Nagoski: [00:00:00] One of the myths I want very much to eradicate from the face of the earth is the idea that if you have to talk about sex in your relationship, there must be something wrong. The couples who sustain a strong sexual connection over the long term talk about sex all the time. The people who self-identify as having extraordinary sex lives, having magnificent sex. They talk about sex with their sex partners all the time. Because anything that really matters to you, you talk about it with other people, you talk about it with the people you do it with. If you’re involved in theatre, you talk about the theatre. If you’re involved in sports, you talk about the sport. If you are a foodie, you talk about food. If sex matters to you in your relationship, you talk about it.
Jonathan Fields: [00:00:41] So pleasure and intimacy with a partner are beautiful and desirable and enjoyable and arguably even wildly important parts of life. Yet so many of us have so much trouble acknowledging this, let alone sharing what gives us pleasure and then asking for it. So what’s going on there, and what can we do about it? Life gets in the way. Kids, jobs, stress, trauma dim the flames of desire and connection and intimacy. The exhilarating butterflies you felt at the start of the relationship. They seem like a distant memory. You really yearn to reclaim that intimate sexual vitality, but how? It often feels like an impossible task. And by the way, if you’re feeling this, you are so not alone. It’s a huge issue, but nobody talks about it for all sorts of issues, from moral patterning to fear of being judged. But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if, despite all the challenges, you could nurture lasting, intimate bonds overflowing with passion and delight? So my guest today is Emily Nagoski, award-winning author of the New York Times best seller Come As You Are in her groundbreaking new book, Come Together The Science and Art of Creating Lasting Sexual Connections, Emily reveals fascinating insights from neuroscience and social psychology research on how we can sustain passionate, pleasurable intimacy over the long haul.
Jonathan Fields: [00:01:59] And Emily understands this isn’t easy. Life changes, bodies change. Trauma and stress hit the brakes on pleasure. She has experienced this personally and we go into that and how she dealt with it and continues to deal with it. And rekindling desire and connection is possible through open communication, sharing stories, redefining sexuality to work with you and for you. In this conversation, we dive into why pleasure, not desire, is the key to extraordinary long-term sexual relationships, how the dual control model of sexual response works, and why stress impacts it. We talk about steps to start experiencing more pleasure and erotic connection as your body changes over time, how to tap into glimmers of pleasure during dark times, and ways to foster intimate communication with your partner about sex. The truth is, pleasure matters. And as Emily explains, we can take concrete steps to invite more of it into our lives, leading to deeper connections and confidence and joy. So excited to share this conversation with you. I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life Project.
Jonathan Fields: [00:03:10] You know, I thought an interesting place to dive in. So you have spent a lot of time speaking and writing, educating about sex and burnout and stress. I’m curious, just sort of like out of the gate. Do you see a relationship between these three things?
Emily Nagoski: [00:03:27] Oh heck yes. So burnout is when stress goes wrong. And the reason why burnout is the book I wrote after Come as You Are, Come as You Are is a book about the science of women’s sexual well-being. Women’s interpreted loosely. When the book was published, I was traveling all over talking to anyone who would listen about the science of women’s sexual well-being and event after event. Women would come up to me afterward and be like, yeah, thanks for all that sex science. That’s great. But the chapter that really changed everything for me was that one about feelings and relationships and emotion processing. And I was surprised. So I told I have an identical twin sister, Amelia, who’s a professional musician, and I was like, people are really being helped by like the emotion stuff, the stress completing the stress response cycle. And she was like, no kidding. Cause remember when you taught me that stuff? Because I’m a health educator by training and profession and Amelia was not coping well with stress, so I taught her all this stuff. She said, do you remember? You taught me that stuff and it, you know, saved my life. She said twice, she said. And so that’s when I thought, well, we should write a book about that then. So the stress book followed up the sex book, because it’s probably hopefully not a surprise that the best predictor of a person’s sexual well-being is their overall well-being. So if a person is not well enough to be in a place to be thinking about their sexual well-being, go to burnout to become well enough to be able to think about sex.
Jonathan Fields: [00:04:59] Yeah, that makes so much sense. And in the world we live in today also, where I feel like chronic, elevated levels of stress and burnout are just they’ve been almost accepted as just a part of life on a level that I don’t think we’ve really just said, well, this is part of the human condition. Before that, it would bleed into every part of life and sexual relationships certainly doesn’t get a carve-out with that right.
Emily Nagoski: [00:05:24] 10 to 20% of people may find that their stress level actually increases their interest in sex, because their body is inclined to use all the feel goodness of sexuality to manage the stress response. But for everybody else, it may have no impact. But for a lot of us, since the mechanism that controls sex is a combination of an accelerator that responds to sex-related stimuli, and a brake that responds to all the good reasons not to be turned on right now. Stress is maybe the most universal thing that’s going to hit the brake, and the most universal means that, like less than 80% of people, that’s true for. So when people struggle with sexual desire, very often the things that are hitting their brakes have nothing to do with the things that are happening in their sex lives and everything to do with things that are happening everywhere else in their life.
Jonathan Fields: [00:06:15] Yeah, that makes so much sense. I actually want to dive deeper into the accelerator and the brake concept, because I think it’s so critical to the conversation, but I want to take a little bit of a step back, though, because and ask a really fundamental question that maybe is more complex than the question seems, which is why does sex actually matter in our relationships?
Emily Nagoski: [00:06:35] It doesn’t necessarily.
Jonathan Fields: [00:06:36] Okay, so take me there.
Emily Nagoski: [00:06:37] So my starting place in the new book, so the new book is about sexual relations like long-term sexual connections. And my first question that I have for people is what is it that you want when you want sex with this partner? Spoiler the answer’s not orgasm. Probably you can do that by yourself. And if you can’t, there’s whole books just about that. So what is it that you want when you want sex in a relationship? And everyone’s answer is a little different, and their answers are going to change over the course of their lifespan. And it’s a 100% legitimate answer to say, I don’t. Sex doesn’t matter for me right now. I don’t want sex. So the return question is, what is it that I don’t want when I don’t want sex? When you can skip over the conversation of like, why don’t you want to have sex with me? Why don’t we have sex more often? Or why you’re still asking me for sex? Why won’t you just leave me alone? You skip that conversation and go to. What is it that you want when you want sex? I have asked a few thousand people this question, and there’s four really common answers. One, of course, is connection. When you want sex with a partner, human sexuality only like just barely reproductive. Almost none of the sex we have. Even before reproductive technology, almost none of the sex we have is reproductive. It’s social. It’s about the relationship we have with the other person. So connection is number one. Number two is shared pleasure. There is something magical and special and desired about like we don’t. Just want to rub our skin against another person’s skin and feel how good it feels to rub our skin against them. We want the other person to enjoy the experience of our skin rubbing against theirs, and we want to enjoy their pleasure.
Emily Nagoski: [00:08:22] That shared pleasure is a particular thing that we want when we want sex. Thing number three is being desired or feeling desirable. A lot of us were raised to believe that there are certain parts of ourselves that are not just unappealing, but are dangerous or disgusting or dirty, and to be in a relationship with another person who finds those things not merely acceptable, but desirable and attractive, is incredibly powerful for us. And then the last thing people are looking, well, the last of the four, like the big four, as I call them. There are lots of other things people say too, but the last of the big four is freedom is being released from all the other stuff we have to worry about in our lives. All the childcare and jobs and the state of the world and the environment and traffic and all of it, and just close the door and focus on the pleasurable things that are happening right here in this moment, that release that freedom. Just to enjoy pleasure is one of the four most common things people say. There’s also stuff like having my identity affirmed, making sure I feel like I’m being a good partner to my partner. My partner’s pleasure is the most important thing to me. People say a lot of different things, and they also say there is nothing that I want. I used to feel like I was obliged to have sex, and now that I have let go of the idea that I’m obliged to have sex, I feel so much freer to focus on the things that matter to me in my relationship, instead of the things I was always taught are supposed to matter.
Jonathan Fields: [00:10:04] I mean, so interesting. Also, when you think about those four, every one of those, I mean, tell me if I’m wrong here, but it sounds like every one of those can be satisfied in a myriad of different ways, not necessarily through sex. So if somebody is actually out there saying, okay, like check, check, check, check outside of the domain of a sexual relationship, then so much of what they’re yearning for may already be taken care of, which may then reflect on how they feel about like the need to satisfy any of those things through sexual relationships. I mean, maybe it’s complimentary, it’s nice to have more or you have different modalities to satisfy.
Emily Nagoski: [00:10:38] Yeah, for some people, sex is sort of a peripheral way that they experience connection. For some people it is. So one of the people I talked to as an interview for the book, the highest desire person I have ever talked to, this is a person whose desire did not change despite having physical injury and illness, did not change during her pregnancy. Did not change during her partner’s pregnancy like nothing impacted like she could have sex. Like right now and minutes later, be ready. Like just as interested in having sex again right away. And for her, sex is like the primary and a really powerful way of experiencing connection. But there are other ways. When I asked her like, suppose sex is not available because your partner is sick, or for whatever reason, are there other ways that you can have your connection needs met? And she was very clear, like, yes, there are, but this is the most it’s like this like really intense, heavy dose of connection that comes with sexuality. So people do vary in how closely they associate getting connections, connection, experience through sexuality versus through other things.
Jonathan Fields: [00:11:43] When you did the survey of thousands of people and you sort of like you’re distilling down, you’re seeing, okay, these four keep coming up and maybe people phrase it differently, but it kind of distills down to the same four. And as you shared earlier, orgasm is separate from those four. I’m curious, when you have the conversations or did the survey, did you kind of carve out orgasm as saying, like, outside of this, what other needs are we talking about? Or was there an opportunity for, say, people to say, well, this is one of the things too. It’s funny.
Emily Nagoski: [00:12:10] When I first started asking this question, it was part of the workshops that I was leading in person. So I got to ask dozens or hundreds of people face to face, like brainstorming right now, in this moment, what are some of the things people want when they want sex and people’s like off the top answer, almost facetious answer of like, well, obviously what I want is an orgasm to which the inevitable response is, but you can if you can do that by yourself, why do you want to have sex with a partner? What is it about having a partner? If your answer truly is orgasm and it might be, what is it about having somebody else there and involved in the process that contributes to the experience of having an orgasm? Like still, what is it that you want when you want your orgasm to involve somebody else? So like when I started doing this, like an online survey where I asked my newsletter subscribers these questions I put in parentheses, it’s probably not orgasm. You can do that by yourself just to like pass through that like reflexive, The first response of what I want is an orgasm.
Jonathan Fields: [00:13:12] It’s so interesting because people probably don’t think about that. It’s sort of like society teaches us this is the purpose, recreation. And like this other thing, and rather than what else might be going on here, and I think the way you phrase it, well, like, if you can do this one thing by yourself, why would you want somebody else there? Yeah, it really makes you think differently about it. It’s like, um.
Emily Nagoski: [00:13:32] Particularly if you were raised to believe that there was kind of something a little bit wrong about wanting and having and liking sex, which a lot of us were raised to believe that there was something a little bit wrong, except under like a very specific context. And even under that context, it’s still a little bit shameful. But when you can access, like what’s actually true about you, underneath all the things you were taught are supposed to be true, man. It makes that conversation so much more powerful, so much more authentic. It feels so much more intimate to have a conversation like this. And let me just say that one of the myths I want very much to eradicate from the face of the earth is the idea that if you have to talk about sex in your relationship, there must be something wrong. The couples who sustain a strong sexual connection over the long term talk about sex all the time. The people who self-identify as having extraordinary sex lives, having magnificent sex. They talk about sex with their sex partners all the time. Because anything that really matters to you, like you talk about it with other people, you talk about it with the people you do it with. If you’re involved in theater, you talk about the theater. If you’re involved in sports, you talk about the sport. If you are a foodie, you talk about food. If sex matters to you in your relationship, you talk about it.
Jonathan Fields: [00:14:51] Yeah. I mean, that’s so interesting, right? Because what if it really matters to one person but not the other, and one person really is actually comfortable talking about and wants to talk about it? They just like it’s natural. It’s fine. It’s good. Let’s have a conversation. And the other person sort of like comes from background. It’s like, no, no, no, no. This is something where either there’s a shame layer on top of it or they just feel really uncomfortable with it or they feel like, you know, I wonder if one of the other mythologies is if you have to talk about it, then there’s something wrong, because you just should know, you know, you shouldn’t should it out. You should sense it, right. But you don’t. If you’re raising kids together, if you’re working on your finances like you talk about these things because they’re important in your life, you.
Emily Nagoski: [00:15:34] Know, money is a really good contrast. People have a lot of feelings about money. People come from really different cultures around like what the appropriate behavior is around money and having those conversations like if especially if it’s a long term partner and you’re sharing a financial life, having those conversations can be complicated and there are feelings involved, and you have to come to a decision about who you are as a partnership in whether and how you talk about money. And the same is true when it comes to sexuality. We were taught certain things about whether and when and how to talk about sexuality, and now we need to decide who we are as a partnership in the ways that we talk about sexuality. I have this slightly silly metaphor of each person’s sexuality as a garden. On the day you’re born, you’re granted this little plot of rich and fertile soil and your family of origin and your culture of origin start to plant ideas about sex itself bodies, gender, safety, love, attachment, eroticism, pleasure. And by the time you get to adulthood, you’ve got this garden full of ideas about all those things. And some of us get really lucky and have beautiful things that we just cultivate and harvest. And a lot of us get some very toxic shit planted in our gardens. And it sucks because we didn’t get to choose any of that. Not nobody waited until we were old enough to, like, give an informed yes or no and say, hey, would it be okay with you if I planted this idea about how your body is disgusting and inherently unlovable? Would that be all right with you? Nobody waited.
Emily Nagoski: [00:17:08] They just put that idea there and there. It is in our brains. And now it’s our task to go row by row and make choices about what we want to keep and what we want to pull and throw in the compost heap to rot. And then when you get into a long-term relationship at first, like early in a relationship, you go to visit each other’s gardens and that can be really fun. But at a certain point, there’s a transition that happens where you start cultivating a shared garden. You bring over your favorite things from your garden, and they bring over their favorite things from their garden. And you really hope that those things do not strangulate each other. And you have to have conversations about like, here’s what I’m bringing, here’s why I’m bringing it. And I have been in the same one relationship for about 13 years now, and we didn’t have this conversation at first. It took us years before we had done so much co-cultivating before we were like, hang on a minute, we should probably talk about this because we’re in the middle of this project and we had no plan.
Jonathan Fields: [00:18:07] So here’s my question. A lot of our listeners, we tend to have a community that skews more towards the middle of life. Many of them probably have been in relationships for a long time already. Many may be newer to relationships, may be solo and thinking about how to step into it. But let’s say you’ve been in a relationship for a long time. Whatever you consider a long time, like it’s a more mature, it’s a more seasoned, more established relationship.
Emily Nagoski: [00:18:28] That’s a really fascinating idea of what counts as a long-term relationship, actually.
Jonathan Fields: [00:18:32] Right. Because for some people, six months and for some people it’s probably 20 years. Right? But whatever it is, you feel like you’ve been in it for a while, right? And now you’re sort of getting exposed to your ideas and you’re like, you know, we’ve never actually had this conversation and never really even thought about this. We just kind of been keeping on keeping on. But I get it. Actually. It’s time. Like, I want to do this. I want to get practical with you. Like, how does that person then turn to the other person and start the conversation in a way that says, okay, like this is I’m not saying I’m not attacking you. I’m not saying there’s something wrong with what’s going on with us or like, we’re broken, but like, do it in a way that invites people into it.
Emily Nagoski: [00:19:09] That’s such an important question, and I want to acknowledge that, like talking about sex can be difficult, not because talking about sex is inherently difficult, but because we were raised without models of good conversations around sexuality. We were taught that there’s something like bad about talking about sexuality. So the first conversation you have is the conversation about the conversation. If we were going to have a conversation about sexuality, what are some of the things you would hope for? What are some of the things you’d be afraid might happen if we talked about sexuality? Are there things we can do to prevent some of those knots, or to help you feel trusting, like some of those not-so-good things might happen? A really common answer to that is, I have to say, it is pretty rare that someone asks me like everything’s going basically fine in our sexual relationship, but I just want to like, go deeper with it. It’s usually there’s some kind of problem that we need to solve, which is a difficult place to start. So two things. First of all, acknowledge that. How do I ask my partner about XYZ? You ask your partner about XYZ. You can say the words to me. You can say the words to your partner. The question is what is it that is stopping you? What are you afraid might happen? And so often it is. We are afraid either our partner will judge us, they will hear us say this thing, and they will be appalled and horrified, and they will be unable to tolerate living with us, knowing this deep, dark, secret thing about our internal state, or we’re afraid that our partner is going to receive what we say as deeply personal criticism that they have been failing us.
Emily Nagoski: [00:20:56] And they’re going to worry that, like for years we’ve been thinking negatively about them. So have the conversation about the conversation first. Like, given that the purpose of the conversation is to make the sexual connection well, one, we decide the sexual connection matters for us, which is a conversation by itself. Two, we decide that talking about it is a way for us to move toward making it everything we want. Three what are the things we’re worried might happen if we did? Go ahead and talk about it? And what can we do to create a. I’m going to use a term that makes me want to roll my eyes, but like an environment of holding, especially if something needs to heal, you know, when a leg breaks, you put it in a cast. You’ve created an environment of holding. That’s all that means. You build a cast around something that is sore, to give it support so that you don’t accidentally make it worse. Sometimes that environment of holding is going to mean getting a therapist, frankly. Does that make sense?
Jonathan Fields: [00:22:03] Yeah, no, it totally does. That’s the conversation before the conversation, let’s say you’re like, okay, good. Like we’re we kind of work this out. We’ve had the conversation and we want to have this and we kind of know like the fundamentals here. Now talk to me about like the first step into the conversation that follows that conversation.
Emily Nagoski: [00:22:19] Yeah. So I owe a hat tip to Hank Green for this, for pointing out an essay that the poet Donald Kenyon wrote about his marriage to fellow poet Jane Kenyon, who had recently died. He wrote this essay called The Third Thing. He and his wife lived in upstate middle of nowhere, Vermont, and his friends from New York City would come to visit middle of nowhere Vermont, and they’d be like, this is really beautiful, but what do you do all day? Because they’re from New York City. And his essay said, I will not quote it directly, but basically we do not spend our days gazing into each other’s eyes. We did that gazing during lovemaking or when someone was sick. Instead, we turn our gazes onto third things. So these are points of shared ecstasy and fascination. The topics that we are both just super excited about. For a lot of people, it’s their kids. You turn your joint attention toward a third thing. For some people, it’s going to be a sport. It’s going to be an art form. It’s going to be a particular artist or musician. It’s going to be like their favorite TV show that they put in their calendar to make sure they’re going to watch this show together. I know for sure and what the science tells us. John Gottman’s research is very clear on this is that when you locate your sexuality as a third thing between you, you can talk about it as a site of joint fascination, and that liberates you from any conversation that might make it like your fault or my fault or, oh, no, there’s something fundamentally wrong with our relationship.
Emily Nagoski: [00:24:00] It’s the third thing you share your joint attention onto this third thing. So you say, okay, this sexual thing here exists. How do you feel about it? What do you think about it when you think about what could be what would just like, make it a little bit extra special? It’s always great to start with like positive things rather than critical things. I know it’s like the standard feedback sandwich, but when it comes to sexuality, it is so important to start with the things that are going right, because we are all really just a little bit fragile. I heard a great definition of fragility that was perceiving yourself as not having access to adequate resources, either internal or external, to cope with a stressor. And a lot of us have been taught that we do not have access to adequate resources to cope with any sense of criticism around our sexualities. So starting with the good stuff helps to build up that sense of like I have some resources, both internal and in this relationship. Is that concrete and specific enough for you? Do you want to talk about the words people use?
Jonathan Fields: [00:25:03] Actually, I would love to because I think I think that’s like the a lot of people are like, okay, so so I get this. Yes, yes, yes. But what what needs to literally come out of my mouth to get this going.
Emily Nagoski: [00:25:14] Yeah. It can often help to practice together. If you’re like beginners at talking about sexuality, use sex-related anatomy words that feel good to you. You can make lists. I love making lists of like, here are the sex-related words that feel good to me. Yes, more of that. And here are the sex-related words that no, just and everyone varies. When I lead writing workshops like How to Write about Sex, I have people just like really fast two minutes write a list of words that like yes, yum and yuck, no, and always every word that’s on someone’s yes yum list is on somebody else’s yuck no list. So it’s not about like there are good words and bad words. There are the words that work for you and words that do not work for you. Some people love dick as a word. Some people just like have a huge ski response to the word dick. I will not use other, more inflammatory, highly divisive words, but everybody has a different feeling about all the boob. For me, the word cup like I just, I just that is a deeply unsexy word to me. And it will like I have to like process my feelings about the word cup. Why? I don’t know, it just doesn’t matter why. So talking about the actual words that you like to hear so that when your partner says those things, they know that they’re using words that are yes yum instead of no. Yuck. Great place to start.
Jonathan Fields: [00:26:42] I love that because it’s really sort of saying, let’s create a language that like we both feel good about before we even start, like the conversation.
Emily Nagoski: [00:26:49] And if you can’t do it with your partner, start by yourself. You can start by writing, not even just identifying words you like and words you don’t like, but just identifying the word, just writing lists of all the words you know that like resonate as sex-related for you. And then I remember a long time ago, I forget which Judy Blume book it is, but there was a Judy Blume book where the main character had to practice saying the word penis out loud penis, penis, penis. Just say it out loud over and over again and it loses its power. I recommend saying it in a lot of different ways. So suppose you’re saying the word vulva, which is the external. It’s a girl structure of genitalia. When you’re if you’re going to say the word vulva, say it in a totally neutral, like you’re saying hello to the checkout person at the grocery store vulva. And then you say it like you’re cheering it at your best friend’s sports game, and they just scored a point. And then say it like you’re at your best friend’s wedding, and this is the first thing you’re going to say to them after the ceremony. Vulva. Say it in a lot of different ways, and it’s just a sound. It’s just a noise, and it takes the emotional weight away from it. Because you practiced. What if I tried a different emotional weight on this word? There are lots of ways to get more comfortable with the vocabulary by yourself first, so that you can bring a higher level of confidence to the conversation with your partner.
Jonathan Fields: [00:28:14] It just it normalizes it, which I think is probably so much of what people need to get past to get into the actual content of the conversation. We could probably like literally just step by step through the entire conversation. But there are a bunch of other things I want to chat with you about, and one of them is what you referenced pretty early in our conversation, which is this notion of the accelerator versus the brakes. So take me deeper into this because it’s such a core and important concept. Yeah.
Emily Nagoski: [00:28:42] So this is the actual neuroscience of how the sexual response mechanism in our brain is structured. And the wild idea this comes from the Kinsey Institute. Eric Johnson and John Bancroft in the late 90s were daring to mess with the idea that the way sex works in our brains is the way basically everything else works in our brains, which is a coupling of an excitatory system and an inhibitory system, which is to say, an accelerator and some brakes. So and it turns out over the last 30 years of research, we have learned that this is actually how human sexuality works in our brains. There’s a sexual accelerator which is notices all the sex-related information in the environment. Doesn’t matter how you feel about it, just whether or not it counts as sex-related. In this context, everything from your exteroceptive senses. That’s everything that you see, hear, smell, touch, taste, everything that you think, believe or imagine and all the sensations in your body. Anything sex-related that goes up to your brain and your brain sends the turn-on signal that many of us are familiar with. It’s functioning at a low level all the time, subconsciously, including right now. The fact that we are talking about sex, even in these general terms, is this tiny little bit sex-related. So is there a tiny little bit of turn-on signal happening in everybody’s brain? Fortunately, at the same time, your brakes are noticing all the good reasons not to be turned on right now. Again, it’s everything from your exteroceptive senses. Everything you see, hear, smell, touch, taste, everything that you think, believe, or imagine and all of your internal sensations that your brain codes as a potential threat.
Emily Nagoski: [00:30:23] And the brakes send the turn-off signal. So the process of becoming aroused is the dual process of turning on the ons. Yes, but also turning off the offs. And when people are struggling, even though we’re used to sex advice, that’s all about like increased stimulation to the accelerator like tribe handcuffs. Try roleplay, try lingerie, try porn, try fantasy. Those are great. If you like them, go for it. And it turns out when people are struggling, it’s rarely because there’s not enough stimulation to the accelerator. It’s usually because there’s too much stimulation to those brakes. And stress, like I said, is a really common one. Trauma is, alas, a very common one. Body image stuff is another common one, and I would say a fourth common one is the sexual scripts that all of us have been taught from literally the day of our birth about who we’re supposed to be as sexual people. Like we’re trying really hard to be the sexual person we were taught that we are that we’re supposed to be, instead of trying to be the sexual people we were born to be. And until we let go of that fantasy false image and turn toward who we truly are and are like, actually, the sexual person I truly am is really somebody worth being. Then that fantasy self, our judgment of our self against that fantasy, that lie is going to hit the brakes.
Jonathan Fields: [00:31:44] I want to deepen into that last part, because what you’re describing is a gap in who we feel we truly are and how we are showing up in our world and our relationships.
Emily Nagoski: [00:31:56] Which doesn’t show up in any other domain of our life.
Jonathan Fields: [00:31:58] Of course.
Emily Nagoski: [00:32:01] For those listening, I was being deeply facetious. It shows up in literally every other domain of our life. If you didn’t.
Jonathan Fields: [00:32:06] See the video that, um, what’s the effect of that being a fairly wide gap and that actually sustaining for a long period of time?
Emily Nagoski: [00:32:17] There’s a researcher named Peggy Kleinplatz. She’s a researcher and a therapist up in Ottawa, and she studies optimal sexual experiences. She’s identified dozens of people who self-identify as having extraordinary sex. And we can talk about what extraordinary sex means. But one of the bits of information she gives in her workshops is, what do you suppose is the typical age at which her research participants had their first experience of optimal sex? Age of first experience? Can, I guess.
Jonathan Fields: [00:32:51] First experience of optimal sex? Um, on average, among.
Emily Nagoski: [00:32:56] These research participants who volunteered to participate because they self-identify as having extraordinary, magnificent sex?
Jonathan Fields: [00:33:04] 40’s?
Emily Nagoski: [00:33:07] 55.
Jonathan Fields: [00:33:07] Mm.
Emily Nagoski: [00:33:07] So the people who self-identify as having extraordinary sex often have to go through extensive and long-term unlearning. Unlearning is actually one of the key processes that they go through in order of like just. Shedding all these ideas about who they’re supposed to be as the person of their gender identity. They’re supposed to do this or the person of their racial identity. They’re supposed to do this, or the person of their socioeconomic status. They’re supposed to be the person of their religion, is supposed to be this kind of sexual person, like taking that plant that got planted in your garden and making a choice. Do I want to keep this? Is this true about me now, or do I want to pull this out to create space for something that’s actually true about the sexual person I am? And that does require opening yourself up to the possibility that the person you truly are is not just as good as the person you were taught you should be, but actually so much more worth being than the person you were taught you should be. None of us were born to be the ideal, well-behaved woman or well-behaved man.
Emily Nagoski: [00:34:19] We were born to be who we are. Like. That is the gift that we bring to the universe from whatever source you think that comes from. And all of us were taught to be somebody else. And so all of us, and it can be really powerful in a relationship to acknowledge together. Like I was taught to be this I was taught to be this. I was taught that you were supposed to be this. Oh, I was taught that you were supposed to be this. And we’ve been imposing those expectations on ourselves and on each other, and it has only obstructed our access to being who we truly are with each other, which means being with each other as we each truly are, which is a really different experience. When people talk about optimal sexual experiences, they talk about authenticity and vulnerability. These are people who keep the lights on and their eyes open, who feel comfortable inside their own skins. They don’t talk much about orgasm, and they talk even less about desire. What they talk about is pleasure.
Jonathan Fields: [00:35:23] What kind of blows my mind also is you’re talking about a group of people who have already self-selected as, quote, being there, you know, like I’ve something’s happened. I figured this out. I’ve done the work, I’ve had the inciting incident, and now I’m at a point where like, yes, I’m having like a fantastic sexual experiences, however that is described and like the average age is 55. So even the people that have self-selected and saying like this is actually finally happening in my life, they’re saying 55. It’s literally I have taken it’s a little bit heartbreaking that probably the better part of a person’s life was.
Emily Nagoski: [00:35:59] To dig yourself out from under somebody else’s opinion about who you’re supposed to be. Right.
Jonathan Fields: [00:36:05] And then what about all of the people who actually didn’t opt into this categorization, which I’m sure like you have the data as this is, is the vast majority of human beings that actually maybe never get to this place. Is this a like a part of why you do what you do?
Emily Nagoski: [00:36:23] So I started training as a sex educator before I ever had sex with a partner, which I consider to be an enormous privilege because I come from a pretty dysfunctional family of origin. My idea of how relationships work was pretty warped when I started having relationships, but fortunately I was being trained in what counts as a healthy relationship and healthy sexuality and protecting my boundaries at the same time that I was beginning my sexual relationships and I was learning so much that contradicted everything I thought was supposed to be true. I mean, when I say everything that our culture teaches people about sex is not just factually incorrect, but wrong-headed and potentially deliberately misleading. I mean, everything I mean, like from the very basics of sperm and egg, we get taught this story of like all the sperm competing with each other in the race to get to the egg. And who’s going to get there first, like the egg is the princess in the castle. And the reality is that that castle and that princess has a whole fleet of guards and a drawbridge and is making an active selection about which sperm it wants to be involved in the process. Why do we get taught Princess in the castle, and not the process that the egg is going through to participate in the selection? Why is because we want a narrative that matches the masculine standard onto these biological components. It’s patriarchy. I’ll just say it right there. It’s an unpleasant word. It’s an unpleasant concept. It’s an unpleasant impact it has on our sexuality. But we got lied to about literally everything from sperm and egg meeting all the way up through what orgasm is. Uh, because we’ve all been trained to believe that if we do not behave ourselves according to our gender role, then some. Thing tragic will happen and nothing tragic will happen unless somebody who really believes something tragic is supposed to happen makes something tragic happen to you.
Jonathan Fields: [00:38:31] Mmm. You use the word pleasure also. And I know this is a big focus.
Emily Nagoski: [00:38:38] Yeah.
Jonathan Fields: [00:38:38] Is really centering this.
Emily Nagoski: [00:38:41] It’s literally the title of chapter two is Center Pleasure.
Jonathan Fields: [00:38:44] And there’s like there are these two storylines going on saying, this is a conversation about sexual relationships and how to like, really, like really bring this part of your life alive. And this is also a conversation about every part of your life. Because if we talk about pleasure, sure, let’s have the conversation in context of sexual relationships. But what about like, the general aesthetic of pleasure in your life? Because if you annihilated it from the conversation or the experience of sex, like, what if you expanded the inquiry and said, have I also annihilated this from my experience of life? Like, how far out does this ripple go?
Emily Nagoski: [00:39:16] Yeah, all the way out. Two of my most profound influences over the last ten years have been Tricia Hersey, who is the Nap Bishop, the leader of the Nap Ministry, her book Rest Is Resistance, and her Instagram, her social media feeds. And there’s a deck that goes with the book. Also her anti-capitalist, anti-white supremacist work asking people to unravel from grind culture to rest their bodies because their body is not a commodity, to embrace ease, because the machine pace of our culture is not built for human beings, it’s built to grind people down and spit them out. That is not a place for people to go, to be whole and healthy. And following her work and incorporating her ideas has completely transformed how I think about pleasure. And in addition to her work, there’s Adrienne Maree Brown, whose book Pleasure Activism, I mean, amazing, you know, Adrienne Maree Brown, the miracle unicorn of putting pleasure at the center of a social justice movement. That pleasure and ease are our birthrights. And when you think about how many of us were taught that there’s like we use the phrase guilty pleasure more often than we use a phrase like just pleasure, that there’s something inherently sinful or bad or corrupt about enjoying something about letting pleasure happen in our body. So I take this sort of like social justice lens on what pleasure is and add on top of it the neuroscience lens.
Emily Nagoski: [00:41:06] Because I love the brain stuff. I can’t stop loving the brain stuff. And the deal is that pleasure is only accessible to our brains in a particular context. If we are stressed out, overwhelmed, exhausted, ill, irritated with our partner, depleted from work, touched out from our kids hands all over us, our brain is literally not in a state where it can perceive any sensation as pleasurable. But when we are well-rested enough, when we are safe enough, when we have ease enough, our brains can interpret almost any sensation as pleasurable. Um. Jon Kabat-Zinn has described our conscious experience, like mindfulness, is being aware of like a shy animal in the woods and pleasure is that shy animal. You have to approach it gently and peacefully or run away. Whereas pain the conscious experience of pain. I describe more like a rude customer who like even when you solve their problem, they’re still complaining. Because what matters is the fact that they are unhappy and dissatisfied. Like it’s difficult not to pay attention to pain. But you gotta try. Neurologically, pain is easy to pay attention to, and pleasure requires intentional, deliberate effort. And we live in a culture that has absolutely leveraged that reality of our brains in order to push us into lives that make us feel like we’re barely alive. That was a long answer, sorry.
Jonathan Fields: [00:42:35] No, I mean, I’m so fascinated by this also, you know, because if you think about the body of research that’s been done on pain versus a body of research that’s been done on pleasure, there is no comparison whatsoever. And then the question becomes why? And yes, some of the reasons you just described like earlier, part of it, and I would imagine there’s some justification that gets offered too, which says, well, there is a survival necessity to understanding pain like it’s there. It’s sustained through the human condition because it protects us from X, Y, and Z, which might end our lives or like do all sorts of bad things. But you can’t immediately identify a survival necessity of this thing called pleasure. So we’re going to kind of put it over here as a nice to have rather than treating it on par.
Emily Nagoski: [00:43:20] Pain is really expensive low back pain for. Our example is like one of the leading causes of disability. And like that cost businesses a lot of money when people are in pain.
Jonathan Fields: [00:43:30] Right. But then the question becomes like, what is the harm caused by a profound lack of pleasure? Should we actually have been investigating it equally as like, what is the harm caused by a life without pleasure?
Emily Nagoski: [00:43:45] In public health? We talk about things being upstream and downstream. Things that are downstream are like a problem has happened and we have to intervene right here in this moment because something bad has happened. Pain is downstream.
Jonathan Fields: [00:43:58] Right, right, right.
Emily Nagoski: [00:43:59] Upstream is our brain’s access to pleasure. If we train our brains from really early on in life, like if the adults around us train us to be aware of the pleasurable things happening in our bodies and the enjoyable things happening in the environment around us. If they teach us to attune to that state in our brain, it actually builds up those pathways like walking in the woods. The path you walk is the path that gets cleared. If we walk those pathways in our brain a lot, they get heavily reinforced. And it means that when we have an experience of pain, yeah, that gets reinforced because pain is painful and then we can come back to our pleasure pathways because they were so strongly reinforced that they didn’t sort of like get crowded in by the overgrowth in the time that we were experiencing the pain. Does that make sense?
Jonathan Fields: [00:44:52] Yeah, it does. And it kind of goes back to what you were describing also as like when you’re in a state that is dominated by whatever the experience of pain is in your life, that it actually makes it really difficult to access pleasure simultaneously. So we focus more on the former and think maybe at some point we get rid of this immediate negative stimulus or experience or emotion, whatever it may be, and then we’ll get to that place where we get to like explore the other P. But so often in our lives, like all of our energy goes to just constantly trying to like, you know, it’s like a whack-a-mole game of pain and then it never ends. So like that thing, like, I’ll finally whack, like, do the last one, and then I get to experience this other thing. Yeah, but it’s an infinite game of negative outcomes, because.
Emily Nagoski: [00:45:43] The deal is when you have trained your brain to be aware of pain signals, you have not trained your brain to be aware of pleasure signals. So you can’t just like, eliminate the pain and then you’ve created space for the pleasure. You have to start tilling the ground for pleasure, even while your brain is still telling you there’s a lot of pain. Part of the struggle that we have with this is that we have a cultural misunderstanding of pain. Pain is not a function of like a peripheral body part. Like when you get a cut on your leg, it’s going to hurt. But what’s actually happening is that a signal of nociception, a signal of danger is being sent up to your brain, and your brain receives that stimulation. And depending on what else is going on in your brain, which is to say, what else is going on in your environment in that moment, it may notice that nociception signal and be like, oh, you need lots of pain because you are very unsafe right now. Or it may say you’re mostly very safe right now. So I’m just going to give you a tiny little bit of pain because like you’re just a little bit unsafe. And it depends on the context. And when people experience chronic pain, their physical injury has healed like there is no peripheral damage left. But their nervous system, literally the nerves of their spinal cord and their brain have had the pain pathways so heavily reinforced that their brain is sending them. You’re not safe. You’re not safe messages even when the tissue is healed.
Emily Nagoski: [00:47:14] My favorite example of this I had a tooth situation. I needed a, um, root canal, and it was like four months before I could get the root canal. So I was in a lot of pain for a long time before I could finally get to the lady who would take my tooth out. And the thing is, when you do that, they kill the nerve. When I get really stressed now that tooth hurts. There is no nerve there. It’s when people experience, um, it’s phantom limb syndrome, too, like the limb isn’t there, but you still feel the sensations because it’s in your brain. So all pain is real. It physically exists in your central nervous system, and when your nervous system has been trained through long experience to be very good at pain, which like that system from my brain to that area in my jaw, like it’s any time I feel unsafe, my brain is like, your tooth hurts. No brain. That’s not what’s happening. What’s happening is I feel stressed out, which is like, it’s so delightful that my brain’s trying to keep me safe in that way, and trying to protect me in the way that it knows best. And my job is to interpret that sensation as what it is is like. My brain is telling me that I don’t feel safe and calm right now. And so how do I help my brain? By creating a context where it knows that it is safe, and that there’s no need to be worried right now?
Jonathan Fields: [00:48:40] Yeah, the brain is so weird when it comes. I’ve seen some of the research around phantom limb syndrome and phantom pain, and it’s just it’s kind of mind-boggling what our brain can sometimes fabricate in the name of trying to keep us safe, but yeah, really doing the opposite. I want to explore also because you mentioned okay, so we need to start to do the work to actually train our brains to recognize and experience, um, pleasure, even in the context of like doing if we’re experiencing the opposite, because we need to actually teach it how to feel the other end of the spectrum, what are some of the opening moves that we might think about in doing that opening move?
Emily Nagoski: [00:49:21] Number one, I don’t know how much you’ve talked about Polyvagal theory in your life. Yeah, I’m a giant Stephen Porges.
Jonathan Fields: [00:49:27] We had Stephen Porges on the podcast not too long ago.
Emily Nagoski: [00:49:30] Yeah, the new book, uh, our Polyvagal World.
Jonathan Fields: [00:49:33] Yeah.
Emily Nagoski: [00:49:34] Mmm,
Jonathan Fields: [00:49:34] So good,
Emily Nagoski: [00:49:35] So good. Uh, Deb, Dana is a clinician who has done a lot of work translating Polyvagal theory into activities that clients can actually use. And number one is glimmers don’t go for big pleasure. Don’t, you know, lie down for half an hour of masturbation and ecstasy? Look for tiny glimmers, little pockets, moments, blips when your brain goes, oh, that’s that’s good. That’s better than painful for me. I have seasonal depression. I have I have double depression, actually. And in the winter it’s triple depression. So that’s fun. And there are times when I lose access to any sense of like, why get out of bed? And when I’m in that place? One of the most powerful things my therapist taught me was like, look for glimmers. What are like tiny, tiny moments of pleasure? A lot of them start with my dogs, my pets, uh, a lot of them start with, like, my husband’s smile, these tiny little glimmers when I am, like, buried in, like, a huge blob of blueberry pie filling. I’m just, like, floating in the dark and ooze glimmers is my first step on the way out, and I practice fanning those glimmers into glows. Like I let that tiny, the tiny, just like the expression of my dog’s face when she comes up to lick me. When I’m lying in bed, I allow my brain to stay tuned in to that pleasure, which it doesn’t want to do because depression. But I just let my brain notice it and connect it to memories that I have of my dog being sweet and her face, and the way that she plays with the cat, and the way that my husband cares for the dogs. I let that glimmer expand into a glow by remembering all the points of pleasure that I associate with this one little glimmer. That’s a start for people who are in a dark place. That is something you have access to, even in the darkest place.
Jonathan Fields: [00:51:30] Um, no, I love that. And it lowers the bar.
Emily Nagoski: [00:51:33] Oh yeah, I’m all about like, just like zero entry.
Jonathan Fields: [00:51:36] right. Because then we can we can not only experience the glimmer, but we can also experience the feeling of succeeding at the aspiration. Yes. You know, rather than, oh, I failed again, like, even more shame to pile on to like that mountain. Right?
Emily Nagoski: [00:51:50] You know how a lot of people are like physical activity and physical, darn it all. To heck, physical activities like it’s just really good for you in so many ways. Yoga, it’s good for you. But, you know, there are times when you don’t have access to that. I love, uh, Deb Dana’s exercise of imagined physical activity and micro-movements. This is for people who are, like, beginning. And they’re like, I am not gonna go for a run. I’m not even going to go for a walk. I’m not going to touch my toes. I’m going to lie here in bed. You know what you can do while you’re lying in bed? You can imagine what it would feel like just to like you can imagine what it would feel like to tense your shoulders a little bit and then drop them down and soften them. You can imagine that you don’t have to do it. You can just imagine it. And our imaginations are so powerful that there’s very little difference between imagining something really vividly and actually doing it. Like basketball players who imagine shooting hoops, and basketball players who practice shooting hoops get equally better.
Jonathan Fields: [00:52:51] Mm, okay, so let me loop this back then and ask you the question, can you imagine pleasure and have that let you experience actual pleasure?
Emily Nagoski: [00:53:01] Yeah, it can be a gateway to experiencing pleasure. To what if what would it be like if. Yeah, I were eating a food and it tasted delicious. Just hypothetically, food can be really loaded for a lot of people. It might not be the place to start. What if you’re standing in the shower? And what if the warm water, this delightful luxury of modern life, of hot water that just like, pours out of a tap onto your body? What if you just noticed that? I mean, all you’re doing is lying in bed listening to this lady talking about. I don’t even know what she’s talking about. But you can imagine what if the sensation of hot water on your skin felt good? Absolutely. And then the next time you actually take a shower, which showers are not for everybody? John Green again described them as water bullets. And I am a bather myself. Like, I much prefer just immersing myself shoulder-deep in hot water. That’s all I want in life. So whether you take a bath or take a shower, if you think, what would it be like if it felt good the next time you do it, your brain’s going to be like, wait, does this? Does this feel good? And the answer might be, yeah.
Jonathan Fields: [00:54:11] Yeah. Interesting. I want to switch gears a little bit, although not because part of what we’re talking about also is like really accommodating who we are at any given moment in our lives and a lot of different ways. And one of the accommodations that tends to happen is like our bodies change over time. Sometimes they change in a moment. Maybe there’s an illness or an injury or something. Sometimes just, you know, like we get older and the conversation around, how do we keep a sexual connection or create an entirely new one as our bodies change and all the myriad ways that it will change? I imagine that this and this is something that you write about like, um, but I imagine this has also been a source of conversation with you and with various people over the years. So take me into this conversation a bit.
Emily Nagoski: [00:54:55] So I can actually use myself as an example. I wrote a book about sustaining a sexual connection in a long-term relationship based on my own experience writing, Come as You Are, which I was thinking about sex and writing about sex and talking about sex all the time. And I was so stressed out by it that I had no interest in actually having any sex at all. Writing a book is not as bad for my mental health, but also like really good for my mental health, but like bad for my sex life for sure. So when I got done writing Come As You Are, I was like, oh, I’m interested in fixing this. I missed my erotic self. I missed the erotic part of my relationship with my husband. And so I did what anyone would do. I went to Google Scholar and I looked up the peer-reviewed research on how couples sustain a strong sexual connection over the long term. And what I saw there was the opposite of what basically every book about sex and long-term relationships say, because they all say desire and desire is not the answer. Pleasure is the answer. That’s a whole other thing then. So I wrote a book about it and wouldn’t you know it, writing a book about sustaining sexual connection in a long-term relationship totally destroyed any interest I might have. And actually having any sex for, I mean, for months I had nothing available for my long-suffering.
Emily Nagoski: [00:56:12] Wonderful. I have a chef’s kiss, confident hair flip, amazing relationship with a genuinely superior human being. And like I had nothing. So when I finally finished writing this book, I was exhausted from the process. But I also I had this manual of like how to sustain a strong sexual connection. And I had long Covid with like, I couldn’t walk to the end of my driveway to get my mail without debilitating pain and fatigue. It was bad, and I had written a whole section on sex and disability or inter-abled couples. And here I was now in an inter-abled relationship where like I walk with a cane. Now my body is totally different, my energy level is not reliable, and I have been applying all of the ideas in the book to my newly inter-abled relationship and like things are better than they ever have been because I have. The disabling experience of long Covid has been such a force, demanding that I reassess what my body means to me in our relationship. And the whole book is about how center pleasure center, pleasure center pleasure. It’s not desire that matters, it’s sharing pleasure that matters. I have had to put that to work in my relationship in the face of barriers I wouldn’t have anticipated experiencing for another 2030 years. And it it works.
Jonathan Fields: [00:57:41] I don’t know if you saw it a couple of weeks ago in the New York Times, there was this huge sort of like visual interactive piece on created by a friend of mine, Giorgia Lupi, about her nearly four-year journey with long Covid and getting Covid three times in the middle of that, and how just profoundly, at times like physically and emotionally disabling and cognitively disabling it was for her. And I know the response to that was so massive. And I feel like so many people are struggling with and maybe it’s not long Covid, but you kind of feel like, okay, so maybe it’s an illness, maybe it’s an injury, maybe it’s your a point of life where you just you don’t have the same physical ability.
Emily Nagoski: [00:58:21] Tiny humans in your house.
Jonathan Fields: [00:58:22] Right! But at the same time, okay. So I get it. Like, like I’m listening to Emily. I’m doing the reading, like. And I want this thing like, I get pleasure really matters. I get sexual relationships, to me at least. And to my partner, they matter to us. Yeah, I want that. I don’t want to just see it, like, go to the wayside. How do I step back into it? How do I sustain it? How do I reclaim it? And I love the fact that, you know, like you really say, okay, so like, let’s acknowledge the fact that it’s not going to be easy.
Emily Nagoski: [00:58:48] And it is not going to look like what the thing you’ve been taught is supposed to look like.
Jonathan Fields: [00:58:52] Right. Right.
Emily Nagoski: [00:58:53] It’s not going to look like that.
Jonathan Fields: [00:58:54] Right. And it’s going to be completely unique. Into you? In many ways.
Emily Nagoski: [00:58:58] yes!
Jonathan Fields: [00:58:58] Because your moment, your situation, your relationship is like no others. So let’s start by acknowledging that.
Emily Nagoski: [00:59:04] Yeah, that’s so hard for. So there are some people who, like, I’m a person whose internal experience will not shut up. Like my internal experience just keeps talking to me. And so like, I’m pretty good at like introspective figuring out what works for me. But there are some people their learning style is very much about, like, tell me a story about somebody else’s experience, and I will recognize myself in that story.
Jonathan Fields: [00:59:29] right. It’s like, let me model that. Yeah.
Emily Nagoski: [00:59:31] So one of the stories I tell is a woman who told me that she and her husband and their kids would go on vacation at this very ancient house in the Mediterranean. And they had she and her husband had great vacation sex in this ancient house in the Mediterranean one year. The house they always rented was not available. No problem, they rent another house. For some reason, this different house, the vacation sex was just like man. And the beautiful thing is that instead of thinking, oh, there’s something wrong with me, there’s something wrong with you, there’s something wrong with us. They sat down together and were like, what was different? And they had this realization that in an ancient Mediterranean house, I mean, the houses were so old that the beds were literally built into the wall. So there was no squeaking, no distracting noise, no worrying about waking up the kids and getting rid of that one extra stimulus to the breaks was enough to make the sex, like, super, just extra good. So when they built their own home, they built the bed into the wall. So one reader saw this story and was like, yes, my bed squeaks. And I’m always worried about the kids hearing and interrupting.
Emily Nagoski: [01:00:40] And I never even realized that I was worried about that until I heard someone else’s story. And she said, what else? Tell me every story everyone has ever told you about the things that hit their brakes so that this person could recognize, oh yes, that’s me too. Like, I can’t like, I can’t tell you, like, every story that there is, but there are, there’s like, oh, like everything. Any broccoli in the frozen food aisle can be a thing that hits the brakes. And I really recommend that we all talk to each other about our sex lives, so that we can share these stories and recognize ourselves in each other’s stories. Like with the pandemic, I think we need to recognize that literally everybody has been traumatized. We have all been profoundly unsafe in many different ways, in a shared way, and all of our brains have less access to pleasure than they used to. And it would be really easy for us as a culture to go down a dark spiral of not trying to regain access to the pleasure we used to have, and not as a culture centering pleasure as an important way for all of us to stay kind to each other and generous and loving and supportive of each other.
Emily Nagoski: [01:01:56] So talking about our sex lives and sharing these stories of, oh, it turned out it was the squeaky bed. You know what? When I got long Covid and my breath was really short, it turned out that having my partner on top crushed my lungs and I literally would have an asthma attack when I had an orgasm. So we accommodated that. Somebody else can hear that story and be like, oh, maybe it’s not your lungs, maybe it’s the peripheral blood flow that you your feet get really cold because you’ve got these micro clots that are preventing blood from flowing effectively to your feet, and your feet are cold and it’s distracting. You put on socks, my friend. Whatever your story is, there’s a solution. And it like the you know, the only place the solution never lies is in judging yourself as being broken and believing that you shouldn’t be having the experience that you’re having. The experience that you’re having is is the experience that you’re having. And it’s fine. And there’s probably something we can do to create a context that makes it easier for your brain to access pleasure.
Jonathan Fields: [01:03:01] Yeah. And also comes back to the beginning of a conversation. Really sucks. Just a lot of touchpoints along the way. Is that like getting to a point where you actually are able to say to yourself, not only is pleasure good in my life, but pleasure matters to me. Yes, like I actually want to invest in understanding what this is, how it shows up in my life, and what I can do to make more of it show up in my life. Because it’s not just about a momentary satisfaction, which is fine also, but also it’s like it’s a cascade of things that affect every part of me and both in the moment and then over time. And this matters and I want more of it in my life. So what do we do? Yeah. And so much of what you’re writing and talking about and teaching about is, oh, here are things that you can do, like a lot of things you can think about, but here are things you can do also, which I love because you’re making it practical and actionable rather than just leaving it. There’s definitely. Some individual figuring out to do.
Emily Nagoski: [01:03:57] Sure.
Jonathan Fields: [01:03:58] But like, there’s a lot of great starting points and ideas and also.
Emily Nagoski: [01:04:01] Skills.
Jonathan Fields: [01:04:02] Right. And also normalizing and letting you know, like if you’re feeling X, you’re not alone. And it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re broken either. It’s like a gazillion other people have their version of it.
Emily Nagoski: [01:04:15] It absolutely does not mean you’re broken. You absolutely are not broken. You’re not broken.
Jonathan Fields: [01:04:18] Right.
Emily Nagoski: [01:04:19] 100%. I know you’re worried about it. The question I get asked more than any others, this is normal? Or am I broken? You Totally. You’re not broken. You’re not broken. You’re okay.
Jonathan Fields: [01:04:28] Yeah, I love that.
Emily Nagoski: [01:04:29] The fastest way to take a healthy sex life and break it is to judge. It is to decide that there is something wrong with you. My definition of normal sex is, uh, sex, where everybody involved is glad to be there and free to leave with no unwanted consequences. And no one wanted pain. And that’s it. Everything else. Gravy. My definition of perfect sex is normal sex. Everyone’s glad to be there, free to leave with no unwanted consequences. And I do mean no unwanted emotional consequences. Also no. Oh come on. Or. But you said you would. Or. But I thought you loved me. And I’m just now listing things that people have said to me like this is a very common situation. So normal sex is no one wanted consequences. No one wanted pain. Perfect sex is that. Plus everyone turns toward what’s happening right now with kindness, compassion and confidence and joy. So like if somebody wants an erection and an erection isn’t happening, you turn toward the absence of erection with kindness and compassion and confidence and joy. There are lots of great things you can do with a penis that’s not errect that you can’t do with an erection. What an opportunity. Or you could just do a whole bunch of anything that doesn’t go anywhere near where an erection might be. Like there’s what you don’t do is worry that there’s something tragically wrong with either any of the people involved or with the relationship. Just because the hydraulics of a human organ are not functioning the way you expect them to turn toward it with kindness and compassion.
Jonathan Fields: [01:06:00] I love that, and it feels like a good place for us to come full circle in our conversation as well. So in this container of Good Life Project., I was literally about to like, say, this container of holding.
Emily Nagoski: [01:06:10] Right.
Jonathan Fields: [01:06:11] Just so I could see a final eye roll there.
Emily Nagoski: [01:06:14] The Container of holding. No, but really a container of holding.
Jonathan Fields: [01:06:19] But in in this container. Good Life Project. If I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?
Emily Nagoski: [01:06:25] Oh. Pleasure. It’s the very first thing that comes up, because I know that our brains only have access to it when we are in a good enough, safe enough state, and I long for everyone to advocate enough for their own well-being to fight against, to reject the white supremacist, rabidly exploitative, late capitalist, cis hetero patriarchal system that wants to rob them of their humanity and their access to pleasure, decide that they are going to live according to the rules of living in this organic body. That is the only thing we have with us on the day we’re born, and the only thing we will have with us on the day we die. Living within the rules of this body to maximize the experience of this. For me, that’s the good life.
Jonathan Fields: [01:07:18] Hmm. Thank you. Hey, before you leave, if you love this episode Safe bet, you’ll also love the conversation we had with Vanessa Marin about how to talk about sex. You’ll find a link to Vanessa’s episode in the show. Notes. This episode of Good Life Project. was produced by executive producers Lindsey Fox and Me, Jonathan Fields. Editing help By Alejandro Ramirez. Kristoffer Carter crafted our theme music and special thanks to Shelley Adelle for her research on this episode. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life Project. in your favorite listening app. And if you found this conversation interesting or inspiring or valuable, and chances are you did. Since you’re still listening here, would you do me a personal favor, a seven-second favor, and share it? Maybe on social or by text or by email? Even just with one person? Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know, those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy. Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered. Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action, that’s how we all come alive together. Until next time, I’m Jonathan Fields, signing off for Good Life Project.