Amanda and Sarah interview Emily Nagoski, who is the New York Times Bestselling Author of Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life, and is currently the Director of Wellness Education at Smith College. She’s a sex educator and also a new romance author whose first book will be out in June.
In the interview, they discuss wellness education for undergraduates, sex education, arousal nonconcordance, what romance gets right – and wrong – about sex, and about the power and rebellion inherent in representing women’s sexuality the way it is. This will be a good amount of NSFW at times, so headphones would be
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This podcast is sponsored by Jessica Khoury, author of The Forbidden Wish, published by Penguin Young Readers and available in print and e-book. A lush, romantic retelling of Aladdin like you’ve never imagined. An all powerful girl Jinni, a handsome boy from the streets and one forbidden wish…love.
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But when the King of the Jinn offers Zahra a chance to be free of her lamp forever, she seizes the opportunity—only to discover she is falling in love with Aladdin. When saving herself means betraying him, Zahra must decide once and for all: is winning her freedom worth losing her heart?
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Dear Bitches, Smart Author Podcast, March 25, 2016
Sarah Wendell: Hello, and welcome to episode number 186 of the DBSA podcast. I’m Sarah Wendell from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, and with me today are Amanda from Smart Bitches and Emily Nagoski. Emily is the New York Times bestselling author of Come as You Are, a nonfiction about female sexuality, and she is currently the Director of Wellness Education at Smith College. She is a sex educator and also a debut romance author; her first book comes out in June. In this interview, we’re going to talk about wellness education for undergraduates; sex education; arousal non-concordance, which that one section alone might blow your mind, ‘cause it totally did mine; what romance gets right and wrong about female sexuality; and how much power and rebellion is inherent in the idea of representing women’s sexuality accurately. Probably goes without saying that if you’re in an office, you might want to use headphones for this one. If you work in a room by yourself, you can turn it up as loud as you like.
This podcast is sponsored by Jessica Khoury, author of The Forbidden Wish, published by Penguin Young Readers and available in print and eBook. A lush, romantic retelling of Aladdin like you’ve never imagined. An all-powerful girl Jinni, a handsome boy from the streets, and one forbidden wish: love. Perfect for fans of The Wrath & the Dawn and Dorothy Must Die, available now.
And we have some cool things going on at Smart Bitches right now. First, we are hosting an excerpt, an exclusive excerpt, of a short story by Renee Ahdieh called The Moth & the Flame, which is part of her duology that began with The Wrath & the Dawn, which you might remember from mentions on previous podcasts. And there’s more: The Wrath & the Dawn is $2.99 this week until March 29th, so if you’re listening to this on the day this episode drops, you have until tomorrow to go buy it for $2.99. Go, go, go! If you’re curious, that’s a great price, especially ‘cause the sequel – and it’s a duology, so you know you get the whole thing in two books – that comes out in May. You can see the excerpt and learn more at Smart Bitches, or if you really want to go right there, you can go to bit.ly/mothandflame.
The music you’re listening to was provided by Sassy Outwater, and I will have information at the end of this podcast as to who this is and where you can buy it for your very own.
And one last thing: I’ve had several messages from listeners who have been asking about ways that they can support the podcast, whether through a tip jar or PayPal or a pledge drive, and after a lot of research, I have decided I’m going to set up a Patreon for the podcast. This means that if you wish, you can do a monthly recurring sponsorship of a dollar, three dollars, five dollars, ten dollars, however much you want, or nothing at all. The podcast will remain the same. The Patreon will let me set up transcripts for the episodes that don’t have them yet going all the way back to the beginning and will enable me to get some better editing software and do some other cool things that I’ve had in mind for a while. So, keep in the back of your mind that that’s going to happen, and if you’d like more information, email me at [email protected]
And now, without any further delay, on with the podcast!
Sarah: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us. I hope you’re not terribly jet-lagged.
Emily Nagoski, Ph.D.: No, I have been back since Thursday or Friday?
Sarah: Oh, plenty of time to recover!
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah, plenty of time to recover, and this is the easy direction.
Sarah: Oh, yeah, it’s the other way that’s hard.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah. Maybe even easier because daylight savings happened here but not there?
Sarah: Oh! That’s right!
Dr. Nagoski: So it was only four hours on the way back, yeah.
Sarah: We do it early, like a bunch of buttheads.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah. Well, we, we do it, which is in and of itself a pretty butthead thing to do, it turns out.
Sarah: Yeah. And then we moved it.
Dr. Nagoski: I was, I was sort of, in principle, in favor of the whole daylight savings thing? And then I looked at the actual research, which is the, the thing I tend to do, like, can I empirically support my opinion? And it turns out no, there is just no argument in favor of changing the clocks. None.
Sarah: So you look at situations you don’t know about, and you use research –
Dr. Nagoski: [Laughs] I do.
Sarah: – and science.
Dr. Nagoski: Empirical evidence, yes.
Sarah: I, okay, so you know that you’re not allowed to go on the internet, right?
Dr. Nagoski: [Laughs]
Sarah: We can’t have that kind of rational, logical, and intelligent behavior.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah.
Sarah: That’s just, that, that’s – no, we can’t have that.
Dr. Nagoski: It does actually cause me some problems when I do that.
Sarah: Yeah, when you, when you rely on science and proven facts –
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah.
Sarah: – and things like that.
Dr. Nagoski: Evidence!
Sarah: [Sighs] Evidence. Amanda, are you there?
Amanda: Yes, I’m here.
Sarah: You’re there!
Sarah: I saw your icon, but I didn’t hear you, and I was like, oh, no!
Amanda: I did not want to interrupt the griping about daylight savings time.
Sarah: I hate it so much, and the older I get the more I feel it?
Amanda: I’m just angry right now that there was snow on the ground today, so.
Dr. Nagoski: There was. It’s gone now, though. Is it gone – ?
Amanda: It’s gone, yeah. I poked my head out. It’s all, now, just water, but – [laughs] – it was awful this morning.
Sarah: All right. So would you please, ma’am, introduce yourself? [Laughs]
Dr. Nagoski: Sure, I’m, I’m, I’m Emily Nagoski. Do you want, like, a, like, a bio? You want a – ?
Sarah: Well, I know that you are a New York Times bestselling author. Yay!
Dr. Nagoski: Yay!
Sarah: Of Come as Your Are, which arguably has the greatest zipper cover of any book ever.
Dr. Nagoski: I, I do really like the cover. The UK cover is potentially even better.
Sarah: [Gasps] All right, going to have to go look it up, make sure we have it.
Amanda: I feel like UK covers always get the better cover treatment than –
Sarah: Yeah, what’s up with that?
Dr. Nagoski: The one reason why I really just, like, I have a fondness for it is because the subtitle – so it’s a sort of paintbrush outline of a woman’s silhouette, and the subtitle is her bush.
Sarah: It’s amazing! It’s so great!
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah.
Sarah: Ohhh –
Dr. Nagoski: So, so, so I do have an affection –
Sarah: – wow.
Dr. Nagoski: – for the UK title. For the UK cover. Yeah.
Sarah: Have you gotten covers in other languages that have been even more awesome?
Dr. Nagoski: Hmm, well, so the, the British cover is the only one that’s really significantly different, other than the German cover, and the German cover is this sort of, like, Bauhausian, interwar, minimalist, weird, I don’t – and they changed the title a lot. It’s not Come as You Are, it’s Come as You Want To? Which is not the same.
Sarah: Oh, that is not the same.
Dr. Nagoski: The cover of the Polish edition is the same, with the, with the, with the purse on the cover, the sort of vulvar purse, but the title is not the same. The title in Polish is She Has the Power –
Sarah: Oh, hello!
Dr. Nagoski: – and I kind of love that. Yeah. That’s pretty great.
Sarah: So you’re also the Director of Wellness Education at Smith, is that correct?
Dr. Nagoski: Yes.
Sarah: That’s a cool job.
Dr. Nagoski: It really is, yeah. There’s a lot of amazing things about it.
Sarah: You’re just sitting around in a women’s college campus teaching people about all of their women parts.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah! So, one of the cool things about my job is that I do all of the wellness education, so sex is obviously a big part of what I do, but also sleep and stress and substance use, and it has made me a better sex educator, because it forces me to think about the way – oh, by the way, you’re just going to hear the sounds of my dog, my dogs.
Sarah: That’s okay. We welcome pets on the podcast. It’s always okay.
Dr. Nagoski: [Laughs] Yes, I’ve heard before, like, pretty much every podcast has at least one animal that you hear wandering through the room, so my two dogs will be the ones that you hear in this case.
Dr. Nagoski: It has made me a better sex educator to do all the health education, because it forces me to consider the way sex is integrated into the rest of our lives and not isolated. So one of the things that I think is most powerful about Come as You Are is that it takes into account the fact that sex happens within a context, that it’s not this sort of, like, vacuum, this sort of, like, you just have sex and then it’s separate from the whole rest of your life. The rest of your life comes with you into your bed, so.
Sarah: Whoa. That was, yeah. It, it, and when you were talking about it, it, it was sort of, my brain was sort of thinking, oh, we do tend to try to compartmentalize sex into this one thing that we do at a specific time, and it is completely unique from everything else that we do.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah. Sex books in particular tend to do this, and it was actually sort of a struggle as I was writing the book, making the case for the two chapters in the book that are pretty much entirely not about sex, because that’s such an odd, rare thing to have in a sex book. I had to make a pretty strong argument saying, no, no, really, it’s extremely important that we have this chapter on stress and this other chapter on shame, because those things are not separate from sex. Those are part of sex.
Sarah: No kidding.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah.
Sarah: I’m curious about the sleep education, because I –
Dr. Nagoski: Mm-hmm.
Sarah: – only started paying attention to my own sleep in the past couple of years, and it has made an enormous difference in how I feel and how my immune system is better able to handle anything.
Dr. Nagoski: Oh, yeah.
Sarah: ‘Cause I mean, without enough sleep, my immune system’s like, you, you want to come in? Come on!
Dr. Nagoski: [Laughs]
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
Sarah: Sure! Oh, lungs are totally ready for you; come on in, babe. Woo! It’s great. Like, sleep is a huge deal!
Dr. Nagoski: It really is.
Sarah: So you’re going to –
Dr. Nagoski: Sleep is essential for every single body part.
Sarah: And you’re going to sit and, and, and teach college students about sleep? You –
Dr. Nagoski: Ambitious, driven, high-achieving college students. There are very few health behaviors that are significantly correlated with GPA, but sleep is one of them.
Sarah: Yeah, no kidding!
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah. And they usually expect that the correlation’s going to go the opposite direction of how it usually does. You think, oh, well, less sleep, obviously, ‘cause you’re working so hard, and so therefore, higher grades. No, no, no, no, no.
Sarah: No, no, no.
Dr. Nagoski: More sleep, better grades.
Sarah: I am not surprised, but I also remember how little sleep I got in college. And grad school, but college especially.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah, I have always, I pulled one all-nighter in grad school, it was in my first year, and I learned my lesson.
Sarah: Plus there’s the fact, I mean, do you also look at high schools where, you know, you get two hours of homework from this teacher and two hours of homework from that teacher –
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah.
Sarah: – and then an hour over here, and then extracurriculars, and then everything else that’s happening, and then you don’t get any sleep at all.
Dr. Nagoski: Right, and the worst thing is that adolescents, so, people between the ages of about thirteen to twenty-five, are what’s known as phase-delayed, which means that their morning circadian peak that wakes them up and their evening circadian peak that keeps them awake happen later in the day than for older or younger people, so my high school started at 7:45 in the morning, and –
Sarah: Yeah, mine was 7:10.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah, physiologically, we’re not awake. Physiologically, hormonally, neurologically, we’re not awake until nine or ten in the morning, so our asses might be in the chairs –
Sarah: But we’re not there.
Dr. Nagoski: – but our bodies are asleep, yeah. It, it is not the best learning environment.
Sarah: This, this would explain why I don’t remember a lot of high school. I mean, (a) it was not fun, but (b) I, I don’t remember!
Dr. Nagoski: You were asleep for a significant portion of it.
Sarah: Obviously –
Dr. Nagoski: No, you really were, yeah.
Sarah: – I was sleeping! Okay, so let’s talk about sex, ‘cause you probably don’t ever get enough of that, right?
Dr. Nagoski: [Laughs] Actually, there’s no such thing as too much talking about sex for me.
Sarah: No, I completely agree.
Dr. Nagoski: I could talk about it forever.
Sarah: One of the things I love about the introduction of your book is that you, right up front, basically say to every person who’s reading the book, you’re normal. You’re totally normal.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah.
Sarah: Whatever it is, you’re normal. Do you still get a lot of questions of, okay, this is my experience; am I normal? Am I okay? Am I sick?
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Despite the fact that the entire introduction of the book is dedicated to saying, I know that you’ve been told that you’re not normal, and it’s normal to be worried about whether or not you’re normal, but you’re totally normal, and still I get email after email saying, I know you said everyone is normal, but this is my experience. Am I normal?
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah, absolutely. Three or four a day, every day, yep.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah.
Sarah: Well, it’s, it’s not like women get consistent, educated, scientifically based, logical –
Dr. Nagoski: Well, no.
Sarah: – rational messages about their sexuality or their sex drives at all.
Dr. Nagoski: On the contrary.
Sarah: No, no, we’re told we should be all number of, of impossible things all at once.
Dr. Nagoski: We should be –
Amanda: Well, I was –
Dr. Nagoski: Go ahead.
Amanda: – thinking about this the other day, but I realized that I did not receive any sort of sexual education in middle school and high school.
Amanda: I don’t, I think I was talking about with a friend, and I remember fourth grade we had, like, the basic birds and the bees, like, you’re going to get your period sort of talk, and then I moved from south Florida to a very rural north Florida sort of area, so I’m sure you can imagine what the education was like there –
Sarah: Oh, boy.
Amanda: – and I realized we never talked about sex in biology class. We didn’t, I mean, we didn’t cover evolution either, because my biologist, or my biology teacher thought that the dinosaurs were a test from Jesus.
Amanda: But, yeah, we, I realized that I –
Sarah: Was that kind of like a final exam?
Amanda: I had tenth grade biology, no, and I had no, like, sex education. I mean, it was one of those schools, I think, that practiced, like, abstinence-only sex education? So, like, the best –
Sarah: I can’t pound my head on the desk during a podcast.
Sarah: The audio would be bad.
Amanda: And, like, the friend I was talking to, she was like, what do you, what do you mean? You had no – I was like, I, we just kind of had to, like, figure it out, but the funny thing is, is that the county I lived in had the second highest teen pregnancy rate –
Dr. Nagoski: Yes.
Amanda: – in the state, so.
Sarah: The devil you say!
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah.
Sarah: It’s –
Amanda: So, like, well, that kind of makes sense.
Sarah: It’s almost like –
Dr. Nagoski: We’ve got thirty-four years of outcome evaluation research on sex education, and it is unambiguously true, we know for sure, that abstinence-only sex education doesn’t just prevent, it doesn’t just fail to prevent STIs and unwanted pregnancy, it actively increases rates of pregnancy, of unwanted pregnancy and STIs, which means it also actively increases rates of abortion, so if you are against abortion and want to reduce rates of abortion, you must be in favor of comprehensive sex education, because abstinence-based-only sex education causes abortion.
Sarah: So, yeah, again, you’re not going to be allowed on the internet.
Dr. Nagoski: Yep, not allowed on the internet.
Sarah: ‘Cause that’s not a consistent message I get either! One of the things that struck me –
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah.
Sarah: – while I was reading your book was that there’s this, I don’t want to call it a subtext, but there are often moments in the text where I can sort of perhaps empathize with your feeling like you are the only sane and rational person in the entire fucking universe –
Dr. Nagoski: [Laughs]
Sarah: – and everyone around you has lost their Goddamn minds, and how do we stop the world from going to hell in a handbasket about sex? Am, am I wrong that that’s sort of a feeling you encounter sometimes?
Dr. Nagoski: You are not wrong that that is a feeling I encounter. I never encounter it when I’m in, like, an in-, when I’m teaching either individually or in a group of people. All I feel when I’m actively teaching is, like, this is an amazing opportunity. I see people’s minds changing, I see them changing their relationship with their own bodies and their understanding of their partners, and I seem them forgiving their families for teaching them bullshit crazy things. It’s only when I’m, like, sitting down by myself, trying to answer a question that no one should have anymore, like, we should all know the answer already to this question, that I feel myself banging my head. Like the thing in the New York Times just this week about when did porn become sex education?
Sarah: Oh, God.
Dr. Nagoski: Porn has always been sex education! That is how we get our education. Porn and romance novels! I got my sex education from romance novels, absolutely. Actually, a combination of romance novels and the medical encyclopedia in my parents’ house.
Sarah: And it’s odd, because those are the things that are readily available and easily accessible.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah!
Sarah: Because actual sex education is not. I had to sign a permission form for my fifth-grader to have sex education in school, and it’s a pretty comprehensive outline. It was a, it was – I don’t know if you guys know the, the miracle that, that, that this is, but it was a double-sided Xerox. Usually I get a one-side.
Sarah: My schools love a good one-sided Xerox. Nobody knows how to do the duplication on both sides so you don’t waste paper, but the, the sex education outline for the spring semester for the fifth grade was a two-sided outline, and it was extremely comprehensive, and I was like, hell, yes, you’re taking this! How fast can I sign this paper? And then I realized there were going to be a lot of students who were being removed from the classroom during that period of time, and I was like, ah, man!
Dr. Nagoski: Was it opt-in or opt-out?
Sarah: It was opt – oh, God, now I can’t remember the language. I think it was opt-out.
Dr. Nagoski: Like the default – opt-out means the default is you get this, and you have to actively sign the piece of paper in order to opt out. And opt, and, and so opt-out is a, a fancy trick. I lived in Indiana for seven years, and I did a bunch of research under a faculty member in my department who worked with the State of Indiana –
Sarah: Oh, God.
Dr. Nagoski: – on their sex education, and one of the tricks he pulled, both in Michigan and in Indiana, was switching the parental forms from opt-in to opt-out –
Dr. Nagoski: – so the default was you’re going to get it.
Sarah: Oh, crafty! Now that I’m thinking about it –
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah, so he’s amazing; he’s a genius.
Sarah: – it was, it was both, if that makes sense. I had, I could either choose yes or no and then sign that I had seen the form, which is weird.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah, opt-out forms are where, like, the default is you get this, and only if we receive this back from you is there, are you, does the kid get something else. Yeah.
Sarah: That’s, that’s crafty.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah, it’s the same, I mean, they do the same sort of forms, like, in Australia when you get a driver’s license. The default is, yes, you are an organ donor, and you have to actively check this box if you don’t want to be an organ donor, which is the opposite of the way we do it, and they have vastly more organ donors than we do.
Sarah: Of course, ‘cause the default just means people get out of the DMV faster.
Dr. Nagoski: Right, you go ahead, it’s fine, it’s another decision I don’t have to make; that’s fine, yeah.
Sarah: All right, so Amanda, I know you have questions.
Amanda: Yeah, I, yes, I have lots of questions.
Sarah: Bring it on.
Amanda: [Laughs] So this is one of my favorite books that I read last year.
Amanda: And I have the copy next to me, and it’s dog-eared and written in, like –
Amanda: My, my roommate is now reading it, I’ve passed it to her –
Dr. Nagoski: Yay!
Amanda: – and she loves it, and I will tell you the one story that – I brought up the chapter on the hymen on a first Tinder date with a guy –
Amanda: – and we never went out again, so. [Laughs]
Dr. Nagoski: Oh, that’s sad!
Sarah: Nah, his loss.
Amanda: Well, he was, it was his problem.
Dr. Nagoski: Or maybe it’s a good screening.
Amanda: Yeah. It is a good screening, and I feel like this book has definitely made me more comfortable about my own sexual needs and talking about sex in general, so a big thank you. I loved it, it was great, and it should be –
Dr. Nagoski: Hooray!
Amanda: – required reading everywhere, so if you haven’t read it, you need to read it. So I have questions just about the book, and then I also know that you are writing romance, and I think you have a book coming out in the summer?
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah, two, because, so it’s a –
Dr. Nagoski: – it’s a, it’s a duology.
Dr. Nagoski: So the first one comes out in –
Dr. Nagoski: – in June, and the second one comes out in February.
Amanda: Yeah, so then I also have questions about kind of writing romance –
Dr. Nagoski: Sure.
Amanda: – but also having this science background.
Dr. Nagoski: Totes.
Amanda: So, for those who don’t read the book or haven’t read the book –
Dr. Nagoski: Mm-hmm.
Amanda: – or want, like –
Dr. Nagoski: Which is actually most people on earth.
Amanda: Yeah, well, that’s their fault, so.
Amanda: On, like, the crib notes, what is essentially, like, the one sort of takeaway, the Too Long; Didn’t Read message –
Dr. Nagoski: Right.
Amanda: – that you want from this book?
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah, so I would say that the title is the takeaway: Come as You Are. That you are already normal and healthy and have everything you need to have a sexually satisfying life. Unfortunately, you live in a culture that has lied to you about pretty much everything, and sometimes those lies have been really deliberately manipulative, like patriarchy trying to control your body, and part of it is just that the science was wrong for a long time, and it’s only in the last twenty or thirty years that we’ve really understood the ways that we have misunderstood, in particular the way cis-gender women’s bodies cope with the sexual world, and so I’m trying to, with this book, catch people up on what the science is. So if I’m going to have just one thing, especially in the context of romance novels, if there were just one thing I wanted people to remember, it would be the stuff in chapter six about arousal non-concordance. So arousal non-concordance, you may have seen stories in the news about how all women are bisexual! That kind of thing? Because when – okay, so let’s be scientists. Let’s bring in a cis-gender – okay, so almost all the research is done exclusively on cis-gender people, people whose –
Dr. Nagoski: – assigned gender matches what they, their identity grows up to be, so I’m just going to use these technical terms of men and women, and we know for sure that there are people who don’t fall under those categories, who are not cis-gender and identify in those categories. I apologize; the relationship between sex science and the trans community is very complicated and broken, and we’re just going to set that aside temporarily.
Dr. Nagoski: Don’t get me started. Okay, anyway, so, cis-gender dude, we bring him into the laboratory, we give him a RigiScan, which does what it sounds like: it measures the amount of blood flow to his penis.
Dr. Nagoski: We leave him alone in this sort of dimly lit room with a really comfortable La-Z-Boy chair. He puts the RigiScan on his penis, he pulls a tray over his lap, and the lap, the tray has two things: there’s a remote control, and there’s a little dial, and with the remote control he turns on all the porn, every kind of porn you can imagine, and with the dial, he rates how aroused he feels, and so we leave him alone with the porn, and we let him watch all the porn, and later on we get the data, and we look at how much blood was flowing to his penis, and we compare that to how turned on he feels on the little dial, right? And it turns out there’s a 50%, five-zero percent overlap between how much blood was flowing to this genitals and how turned on he feels. Okay, that’s not 100%, but in social science it’s super exciting to get a relationship that strong. Like, that relationship is so strong that the researchers who do the research are like, argh, I’m just not sure that can be right.
Dr. Nagoski: That’s just too much of a correlation. Everybody else is like, well, yeah! Duh! So, we do the exact same thing. We clean off the La-Z-Boy chair, and we bring in a cis-gender woman, and we give her a vaginal photoplethysmograph, which is sort of like a little baby flashlight about the size of a tampon. She puts it in her vagina, same tray, same remote control, same dial, same all the porn, and we look at the relationship between the amount of blood flowing to her genitals and how turned on she feels, and it turns out there is a ten, one-zero percent overlap between how turned on she feels and how much blood is flowing to her genitals, and this is usually because blood flows to a woman’s genitals under almost any circumstances, including – and this is the part where we get to – so, okay, women’s blood flows to their genitals in response to sort of anything, so if you identify as heterosexual you’ll experience blood flow to your genitals to straight porn and to lesbian porn and probably to gay porn and indeed to violent porn and to feminist porn and to all kinds of everything, including, including videos of bonobo chimpanzees copulating.
Dr. Nagoski: So the conclusion that terrible journalists – no, not terrible journalists, just people who aren’t quite thinking straight – come to is that women are all potentially these sort of, like, sexually omnivorous people, if only they hadn’t been culturally oppressed out of connection with what’s really happening with their bodies. But it that were true, then what that would mean is that women secretly, deep down, have been oppressed out of their actual real desire to have sex with those chimpanzees.
Dr. Nagoski: No!
Sarah and Dr. Nagoski: No.
Dr. Nagoski: No, but, so, then what’s going on? What’s going on is that women’s genitals respond to pretty much any sexually relevant stimulus, and there is only a partial overlap between what’s sexually relevant and what’s wanted and liked. It turns out, we don’t know exactly why, but for some reason, men’s genitals have more of an overlap between what counts as sexually relevant and what is sexually wanted and liked. We don’t know why there’s a difference, but it turns out that arousal non-concordance happens for dudes too, so this is not a gender-specific phenomenon, it’s just common in women than it is men. And of course, this is entirely, like, a patriarchy issue, because if it weren’t a patriarchy issue we’d all be sitting here going, so how come men have so much of a concordance between their blood flow and their sexual arousal? Isn’t that sort of like why, isn’t that sort of weird that men are, like, so concordant? But no, no. It’s only the women, and we’re like –
Sarah: We’re weird.
Dr. Nagoski: – how can, how, how weird it is, as though women, as though men are the default, and women are supposed to be like that, and the extent to which women fail to be like them is the extent to which they are broken and crazy and lying. So –
Sarah: Tell me how you really feel about that.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah.
Sarah: Yeah, ‘cause I have that frustration myself. So, just so I make sure I understand, arousal non-concordance is when you’re, if you are a cis female or cis woman –
Dr. Nagoski: Mm-hmm.
Sarah: – and you’re checking out things that emotionally and mentally are like, oh, this is totally a turn on, your body may not reflect your otherwise –
Dr. Nagoski: It may not!
Sarah: – state of arousal.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah, so –
Sarah: So there may no be, may not be any flash flood in the valley of eternal love –
Dr. Nagoski: Mm-hmm.
Sarah: – but you are ready to ride the rapids.
Dr. Nagoski: Exactly.
Sarah: Okay. Just checking. I’m really proud of that analogy, by the way.
Amanda: That’s a good one.
Sarah: I’m super proud of that!
Dr. Nagoski: It is a fabulous.
Sarah: Okay, enough about me. Back to you.
Dr. Nagoski: [Laughs] I, like, I got that phone call. A friend called me and asked, so I, like, I was so into it, I was so ready to go, and my partner was like, no, you’re dry. You’re just being nice to me. And she was like, no, I’m, I’m ready! Turned – and so she called me, she was like, what, is it hormonal? Is there something wrong? I was like, nope! It’s arousal non-concordance! You’re fine! Use some lube.
Dr. Nagoski: And I, she, she literally had to hand the phone to her partner and say, you need to tell him that.
Sarah: Oh, no.
Dr. Nagoski: So I was like, yeah. I mean, it’s like you tell your toddler: listen to her words.
Sarah: [Laughs] Oh, no!
Dr. Nagoski: You need to believe the person, right?
Sarah: We’ve got a general problem with listening, listening to women’s words in general, about everything.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah. And it’s not that women haven’t been oppressed out of connection with their own sexuality, but we need to understand what our bodies are saying, and when our genitals respond, what our bodies are saying is, there’s something sexually relevant happening, and when they don’t respond, it just means, not sexually relevant, certainly not enough to overcome all the stress, exhaustion, kids, relationship, whatever stuff that’s happening to counterbalance the sex.
Amanda: I remember, like, I would be in this weird, like, arousal loop, I guess is what I would call, and you, you feel ready, but then, like, nothing was happening down there, so then that would stress you out or make you feel awful, and so that just increases the stress –
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah.
Amanda: – and then that ruins the arousal, and it’s just a big old clusterfuck, and like, well, this was short-lived. Maybe next time everything will agree with one another.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah, so, that’s the thing is, though, there’s, so the mechanism in your brain that – this is chapter two, sorry – the, the mechanism in your brain that controls sexual response is called the dual control mechanism, which means there’re two mechanisms functioning simultaneously –
Amanda: Is that the, the chapter with the little test? I can’t remember.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah, yeah, yeah, the one with the little test where, like, you figure out what your, your –
Dr. Nagoski: – accelerator and your brakes are –
Amanda: Yes. I love that one.
Dr. Nagoski: – so the accelerator responds to the sexually relevant stimulus, right? And it sends the turn-on signal. But at the same time that’s happening, noticing all the sexy things that you see, hear, smell, touch, taste, or imagine, sends a turn-on signal, at the same time, there’s your sexual brake, which is noticing all the reasons not to be turned on right now, all the potential threats. Mostly this is going to be stress and exhaustion and relationship stuff and trust and fear of unwanted consequences, like STIs or unwanted pregnancy. It’s also big cultural stuff, like body image is a giant issue. Sexual shame is a giant issue. If you’ve got a trauma history, that’s probably in there somewhere. So your level of arousal at any given moment is a balance of turning on the ons and turning off the offs. Usually when people struggle it’s because there’s not, it’s not because there’s not enough stimulation happening to the gas pedal; it’s because there’s too much stimulation to the brake, so it’s really common for people to experience that kind of ambivalence where it’s both yes and no at the same time. Like, some things are working here, some other things aren’t, and when you get that sort of, like, oh, no, something’s not working, a very common thing that happens, and of course the worst thing you can possibly do, is you freak out about it. And does that freaking out about the thing not happening the way you expected it, does that, does that hit the accelerator? No, it hits the brake, yes.
Dr. Nagoski: The more you worry about the sex your having while you’re having it, the more you hit the brakes.
Sarah: I think in the, in the British version of Coupling they call that the Melty Man.
Sarah: The minute you think about the Melty Man, well, he’s there, and he, once he’s there, he doesn’t leave your head, and then all things deflate.
Dr. Nagoski: Right, yes. The one way to guarantee that a, a person cannot get an erection is to, like, shine a spotlight on a penis and say, get an erection, go! Go! Erection, go! What’s the matter with you? Where’s your erection? Get an erection! Go! Doesn’t work. Sorry. [Laughs]
Amanda: No, it’s fine.
Sarah: No, it’s okay. Please bring all of this.
Amanda: When it comes to sex in romance novels, I was also wondering, ‘cause we’re all romance readers here –
Dr. Nagoski: Yes.
Amanda: – how do you feel they kind of help and hinder the, like, autonomy in female sexuality, like, having your own sexual agency, ‘cause sometimes, you know, romance novels can do great things for women finding their voice –
Dr. Nagoski: Mm-hmm.
Amanda: – in the bedroom –
Dr. Nagoski: Absolutely.
Amanda: – but sometimes they’re still a little stuck and can kind of hinder that aspect as well. Like the obsession with virginity and virgins in romance novels is something that –
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah.
Amanda: – I’m not for. But –
Sarah: And pseudo-virginity.
Sarah: ‘Cause if it’s not the actual virginity it’s whether or not she’s a werewolf or whether or not she’s had anal or –
Sarah: – you know, whether or not they’ve done it in a hotel bathroom. There’s always some –
Dr. Nagoski: In what – wait, wait, wait! – in what way is being a werewolf like being a virgin?
Sarah: No, not being a werewolf is like –
Dr. Nagoski: Oh!
Sarah: – is like being a virgin. If she’s not a werewolf, then he’s going to bite her, and she’s going to turn into one. Also –
Dr. Nagoski: Oh, I see, I see!
Sarah: Yes, because it’s all about some kind of penetration to turn her into a freak in the bedroom or elsewhere.
Dr. Nagoski: Right!
Dr. Nagoski: All right! I, I don’t read a lot of paranormal; paranormal not so much for me. It’s just not my thing. Yeah, so I think –
Sarah: I love this question, by the way. I love it so much!
Dr. Nagoski: – narratives, I feel like, have gotten better over the last twenty years in particular. They haven’t gotten great all the time, and there’s a whole lot of variability. This is the thing I calculated once: a romance novel with an ISBN number is published every hour in the United States. Right? When there are that many stories being published, some of them are going to be amazing, and some of them are going to be appalling, and some are just going to be, like, not for me. So I think the structure of the stories has gotten more positive, has certainly gotten much more pleasure-centered, like, about the autonomy and the pleasure of the heroines, I think? And, and, at the same time that that’s happening, just because romance authors don’t know the stuff about, like, arousal non-concordance or about the dual control model or this other thing, responsive desire, that I talk about in the book, they just end up reinforcing the same patriarchal myths assuming that women work the way men do, and they just don’t! So even though they’re getting better, they’re still not – ‘cause I, I learned, I learned about sex from romance novels, and I thought the hymen was about halfway up the vagina when I was twelve.
Sarah: You mean it’s not?
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah, I didn’t know, yeah, like –
Sarah: No, it’s not nine miles –
Dr. Nagoski: No…
Sarah: – up the canal! I don’t – ugh! Ugh!
Dr. Nagoski: It’s right at the mouth of the vagina. It’s, I know that it, like, in terms of the story, it makes a really good story to be able to go a little bit in –
Dr. Nagoski: – and like, get really close and, like, you haven’t broken the hymen, and therefore she hasn’t lost her virginity until you, like, bust through halfway – like, that’s not how it works! The hymen doesn’t break with penetration; there’s no relationship between whether or not a vagina has been penetrated by anything and the size of the hymen. There is no relationship. Some people are born without hymens, some people have septate hymens or microperforate hymens or imperforate hymens. Hymens just vary, and they don’t vary depending on whether or not a person has had their vagina penetrated. A vagina is not likely to bleed from having the hymen broken. The hymen very rarely breaks, and if it does, it heals. It may bruise, or it heals. The most common cause of bleeding with penetration is LACK OF LUBRICATION!
Dr. Nagoski: Oh, my God. Which, yes. So, I have some feeling about that. I think that the thing about virginity is not actually – I think it had more to do with story structure. Like, the stakes are higher when it is a first time, and there is a difference in the experience of a sensation that is novel compared to the experience of a sensation that is familiar. How nerdy should I be?
Amanda: Super nerdy.
Sarah: Oh, we need extreme, we need, like, extreme nerd levels.
Dr. Nagoski: Extreme nerdy. Okay.
Sarah: Bring it!
Dr. Nagoski: So, I’m going to talk about the rat nucleus accumbens –
Amanda: [Laughs] Okay.
Dr. Nagoski: – which is, like, one of my favorite –
Sarah: I just had an orgasm. Thank you!
Dr. Nagoski: See? That counts as sexually relevant stimulation for you, and frankly, for me.
Sarah: See, I already knew this about myself. The minute I start learning something, it’s like, from head to toe, my entire body’s like, oh, my God! This learning thing is so cool!
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah.
Sarah: I can’t believe we do this every day! So, yeah, you and me. [Laughs]
Dr. Nagoski: Okay. Yeah. So, so, here’s the deal with the rat nucleus accumbens: when you zap the front – so the nucleus accumbens is this little, tiny organ in the middle of the emotional brain, and when you zap the front of it, the rat engages in approach behaviors, which is like sniffing and moving forward. [Sniffs] Ooh, ooh, what’s that? it goes, goes the rat, so these are approach, moving toward, curious behaviors, and when you zap the back of the nucleus accumbens, the rat goes, gah! What the hell is that?! It kicks up dust in the face of the predator. It’s trying to avoid things, right? So hit the front, it’s move toward, hit the back, it’s move away. But when you move the rat into what I call the rat spa where it’s silent and dark, and it smells like the rat’s mother, like, you know, that spa feeling of, like, you’re just as relaxed and safe and peaceful as you can imagine feeling? When you zap the front of the nucleus accumbens, the rat does that approach, ooh, what’s that?, curious behavior, and when you zap the back of the nucleus accumbens, approach, curious, ooh, what’s that? When you are in that calm, peaceful state of mind, your brain interprets almost any sensation as something that can be approached with curiosity and pleasure. But wait! There’s more! ‘Cause if we move that same rat – okay, so this is the part where this research paper made me laugh out loud – they moved the rat into the third box, which, the lights are on really bright, which rats really hate, and the, there’s a lot of noise, and it’s differing volumes. They’re playing music; they specify in the paper that they are playing Iggy Pop.
Dr. Nagoski: I don’t know how they decided Iggy Pop was, like, the most stressful music they could play for the rats, but that’s the music they’re playing for the rats, at different volumes, so the rat is totally freaking out and unhappy, and when they zap the front of the nucleus accumbens, the rat engages in avoidance, what the hell is that?!, gah!, moving away behaviors. When you are in a stressed, unsafe state of mind, your brain will interpret almost any stimulation as something to be avoided as a potential threat, even stimulation that in a different context it might have moved toward, which of course is the thing that all of us ex-, have experienced with tickling.
Dr. Nagoski: When you’re in, like, a groovy, fun, positive state of mind and your someone special tickles you, that can feel playful – I know tickle, people, not everybody loves to be tickled, but it can feel playful and good, whereas if you’re pissed off with your partner and you, they tickle you, you want to punch ‘em in the face!
Dr. Nagoski: And the opposite is also true. If you’re pissed off at your partner and they playfully try to spank you on the ass?
Amanda: Like, stabbing will happen with violence, yes.
Dr. Nagoski: Whereas, if you’re, like, already turned off and you’ve got this, like, moment of, like, really big, deep trust and arousal, and they slap your ass? That’s not going to hurt; that’s going to feel pleasurable. Your brain will interpret it as erotic, because the context in which your brain is interpreting that sensation is ready to experience the world as an erotic place. Does that make sense?
Dr. Nagoski: So when we have a virgin, what we have is a person who is experiencing these sensations for the very first time, and we know that novelty actually increases the quantity of brain chemicals released in response to any sensation, so it genuinely is like a larger-scale experience, and their brain is trying to figure out, do I like this? Is this good? Is this pleasurable? And the better their partner is at creating a context that is intensely erotic and trusting and especially affectionate and low-stress, the more likely their brain is to be like, anything you want to do, I am ready to interpret as being hot as hell.
Dr. Nagoski: So I think there’s, there’s more, the virginity thing is not just patriarchy, though I think a big part of it is patriarchy. There’s also, like, an intensity of stimulation that comes with novelty.
Dr. Nagoski: Was that nerdy enough for you?
Sarah: No, that was –
Sarah: I need a cigarette, and I don’t smoke!
Sarah: Wow, that is really cool.
Amanda: Are there –
Sarah: Go ahead, Amanda.
Amanda: Yeah. No, I was going to ask if she’s, if there are any romances she would recommend, because I’m always looking for books where people get the science of sex right? Like, that would be nice. But I don’t know if you’ve read any recently that you would recommend to readers.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah. It’s hard because mostly they get it the most right when they go into the least detail.
Amanda: That’s fair!
Dr. Nagoski: And then the book – so my two favorite authors, sort of by a wide margin, are Laura Kinsale and Judy Cuevas – Judith Ivory, and it’s not that they both have gotten all the science-y stuff wrong – in fact, one of my very, very favorite books – oh, crap! I’m going to forget the title!
Sarah: Ah, that’s, that’s my brain too.
Dr. Nagoski: Not The Proposition. It’s the one in Yorkshire with the sheep. Somebody out there is like, I know exactly what you mean, and he’s a viscount. Crap. Anyway, the first scene, the consent is borderline, and Judith Ivory relies a lot on the physiological arousal of the heroine to explain to us that actually she really totally is into it –
Dr. Nagoski: – and that doesn’t cut it for me. Seeing about physiological arousal is not enough. I need words of pleasure. I need to know that it’s not just that her genitals are arousing, aroused, it’s that she likes what’s happening. So it, it, so even though that’s one of my favorite books of – I cannot believe I can’t remember the title. Holy crap, it’s going to make me crazy.
Amanda: It’s going to, like, pop into your brain towards the end of the podcast.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah, what I’m going to do is actually –
[Keyboard keys clicking]
Sarah: Or at three in the morning.
Dr. Nagoski: Untie My Heart. There it is. Untie My Heart. Thank you, Google autocomplete. Even though it’s one of my very, very, very favorite romance novels, that piece of it makes me a little but nutty. So it’s, like, spectacular and I love it, and it makes me nutty. I have a hard time reading Shadowheart, Laura Kinsale, because it starts with the hero raping the heroine –
Dr. Nagoski: – and I, like, I just, that’s not why I read romance novels. I read romance novels for the opposite of that. But it does a really awesome job of representing the process of rage and allowing the hero – he’s a submissive pain slut.
Dr. Nagoski: That’s amazing. How many submissive pain slut heroes are there in romance?
Amanda: Very few. [Laughs]
Dr. Nagoski: Not that many, so she does a really good job of representing what the sexuality of a submissive pain slut is like and what a person goes through in terms of being able to express their rage and punish, essentially, their rapist in this, like, amazingly erotic way. It’s a very complicated book, I have complicated feelings about it, but I think it’s really interesting, that book. And for people who are in a place where they can read that kind of story, totally recommend it.
Dr. Nagoski: And then again, like, yesterday I just reread Venus in Furs, which is a Sacher-Masoch, it’s sort of like the text that people turn to as the begin-, like, masochism is named after Sacher-Masoch. His primary fantasy was to be humiliated and whipped by a beautiful woman wearing a fur coat, so that’s what the Venus in furs is. And the, it was astonishing for me. I reread it for the first time in fifteen years and discovered that it comes to the same conclusion as Andrea Dworkin did in the 1980s, fully a hundred years after Venus in Furs was written, which is that a woman can only be a companion to a man when she is equal in her rights, education, and work opportunities, and without that she can only ever be either a slave or a dominant.
Dr. Nagoski: Which was, which was a wacky thing to realize that Sacher-Masoch and Andrea Dworkin of all people agree.
Dr. Nagoski: [Laughs]
Amanda: I was thinking this might be the first time we’ve had the phrase “submissive pain slut” on the podcast.
Sarah: Oh, no question. Yeah, we haven’t had that one around.
Dr. Nagoski: Algolagnia, yeah. If anybody wants to, like, look up the definition, it’s, algolagnia is the technical term.
Amanda: So you obviously did a lot of research for Come as You Are. How do you plan to use this research in your romance novels, which are –
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah.
Amanda: – obviously fiction, but I’m sure will have, like, one of the, both of the characters are scientists, if I remember correctly?
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah!
Amanda: [Laughs] Which I am definitely into. So how, how do those kind of overlap?
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah. So, the – oh – [sighs] – all right, I’m just going to be completely honest with you guys, if that’s okay.
Amanda: Yeah, totally.
Dr. Nagoski: I had to read Fifty Shades of Grey as research for Come as You Are. I couldn’t not read it, and it made me so angry I threw it against the wall several times and wrote five angry blog posts about it. It’s not just that the sex wasn’t very good. It’s that, so, I work with college women, right? And Anastasia is a college student at the start of the story, and if she came to my office as one of my students and told me about her relationship, there’s a federal mandate that says I have to report her relationship as a student experiencing violence, not ‘cause of the sex! Oh, no, the sex is generally, mostly consensual, but low quality, but the relationship, he’s her stalker.
Dr. Nagoski: Like, I’d be federally mandated to requi-, to, like, report her. Like, that’s –
Dr. Nagoski: – appalling to me. As a sexual health educator on a college campus, I was so mad that that was being sold as a romance, and because I was writing Come as You Are, I had to learn about story structure in order to write a good, compelling book that kept people reading, and so I saw story structure at work in the book. I saw what worked about it for people, and I was so mad, and I was like, there’s got to be a feminist, sex-positive, medically accurate way to tell a story about a college senior who experiences her sexual awakening at the hands of a more experienced man, and people were like, money where your mouth is, Emily. So I fucking wrote it –
Dr. Nagoski: – in three months, and I –
Sarah: Nice job!
Dr. Nagoski: – showed it to, to my editor, kind of as a joke, like, do you remember how mad I was about Fifty Shades of Grey? I wrote a romance novel! And she was like, I can sell this.
Dr. Nagoski: And she did in a two-book deal, which is good because, like Fifty Shades, it has a, a, a cliffhanger ending. Let’s be totally honest and fair: it has a cliffhanger ending, and when you get to the end of it, if I’ve done my job right you’ll be like, gah, what happens next?! So just not a happy ending on the first, on the first book, but there is ultimately a happy ending at the end of the second book, of course. So I made it. I improved the consent conversation, so they talk about their sexual histories in a very explicit way. They, he will not – okay, so one of the things that pissed me off about Fifty Shades was when Anastasia tells Christian that she’s a virgin? What does he say?
Amanda: I don’t remember.
Dr. Nagoski: Let’s take care of that. Let’s get that out of the way.
Amanda: Oh, my God.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah. So –
Sarah: I was just going to say, doesn’t he say something like, well, I can deal with that quickly.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah, it was just, let’s just eliminate that problem, that little barrier –
Dr. Nagoski: – whereas my hero says, you honor me.
Amanda: And then he’s like, I don’t do romance. Like, don’t expect it to be nice or –
Dr. Nagoski: Fuck or get –
Sarah: Yeah, I, I don’t, I, I, I don’t make love. Oh, you fucking tool.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah, so, so! I mean, some people really love Fifty Shades of Grey, and that’s fine. It’s just not for me, and I wanted to – so I wrote it so that my heroine is pre-med, undergrad. She’s just been accepted into the MIT/Harvard M.D.-Ph.D. program, so it’s like the most elite medical education she could possibly be receiving, and she has had a crush on the, her supervisor in the lab where she does psychophysiology research for the last two years, and she’s like, I can’t leave without at least trying to hook up with him, so she, that’s a yeah. He is, the hero is – of course, because it’s a romance novel I used every trope I could –
Dr. Nagoski: He’s British and a psychiatrist, and can I do –
Sarah: Good on you!
Dr. Nagoski: Does, do spoilers matter?
Sarah: No, I think it’s okay.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah, I mean, it’s months and months before it comes out. So he’s, he’s British, he’s a psychiatrist, he’s a rock climber, and he’s the son of a viscount.
Sarah: Of course he is!
Dr. Nagoski: Of course he is, ‘cause he’s a romance hero.
Dr. Nagoski: And he’s also, I made him a service top, which is a complicated thing, and he doesn’t identify that way, he’s not part of a BDSM community, but what a service top is, is a person who experiences power through giving pleasure. So his ultimate fantasy is to make a woman come so many times that she’s basically exhausted and can’t move and then fuck her then.
Amanda: So, where can I find one of these individuals for myself?
Amanda: Where, where can a girl get one of these? At a store? At, like –
Dr. Nagoski: With some difficulty. I mean, like, it’s actually very complicated from a physiological point of view because even though male-bodied people who ejaculate experience, they have a point of no return, a point of ejaculatory inevitability, and then a refractory period where, like, that brake gets pulled on, and the seat back goes back, and they are down for the count. Female-bodied people who don’t ejaculate do not experience that, so in principle, a female body can continue having orgasms long past the point of pleasure, where it’s just this sort of, like, reflexive accumulation of sexual tension and its spontaneous involuntary release over and over and over again, until you’re literally just too physically exhausted to be able to engage the physical tension necessary to get you there. So it’s, it’s quite a complex phenomenon to experience, and so I wrote, like, the turning point scene is this very long, she has lots of orgasms, and there’s this big emotional stuff that happens when you go through it, and yeah, she eventually – and there is always an element of choice, where you’re like, ah, I mean, you could keep stimulating me, and I’m just, I’m just not going to, I, I’ve got nothing else for you.
Dr. Nagoski: And that’s the point at which he’s like, I did it! Hooray! Yay! And he feels successful, and he has permission then to experience his own pleasure, when he has gotten her to the point where she’s literally, like, too exhausted to move. Which is, that, that’s a complicated sort of power dynamic, right?
Amanda: I could say so.
Sarah: Requires a lot of stamina.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah!
Dr. Nagoski: Really, genuinely, I mean, it takes hours. He also, when he ties her down, he makes her name all the kinds of sensation interpreted by the mechanoreceptors of the peripheral nervous system. There’s another scene where he pins her to the bed by her hair and won’t touch her clit unless she lists all the cranial nerves in order.
Sarah: Well, that’s just, that’s just the worst kind of pop quiz ever.
Amanda: But I know several readers who would eat this up with a spoon.
Dr. Nagoski: Oh, when I talk about this, I mentioned it really, I just gave a talk at MIT, and I mentioned really briefly this stuff, and as soon as I talked about the cranial nerves six hands went in the air, like, when can I buy this book?
Dr. Nagoski: Like, yeah, I mean, they’re both big giant nerds, and they talk in a big giant nerd way, but they’re both also really connected with their bodies and have this intense sexual connection. And her, she, because it’s her first sexual experience, she just sort of hands herself over to this guy she trusts a whole lot and does anything he wants, and it’s, like, perfect for him, because what he wants is to give her every orgasm she is physically capable of having.
Amanda: Seems like a pretty sweet deal to me.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah! And, and, and then she leaves.
Amanda: That’s the cliffhanger, I’m assuming.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah, that’s, like, the –
Amanda: She leaves for her program.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah. I mean, of course, because they, like, she totally falls in love with him 100% – how could you not? – and he, of course, has a, like, dysfunctional family of origin and an avoidant attachment mechanism, so one of the things I talk about in chapter four of Come as You Are is attachment and the way that influences how our sex and relationships interact with each other? And he’s got an avoidant attachment mechanism. I have him talk explicitly, I have him explain his attachment mechanism in terms of the original science on attachment by Harry Harlow in 1950s, ’60, and ‘70s. Like, his email to her where he apologizes is the DOI number of the research paper that he feels like best explains –
Dr. Nagoski: – his experience. So how did, how did the science inform the story? I made, I made my characters scientists who communicate with each other through the science.
Amanda: I mean, it seems like their, it’s their love language anyway, is science.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah.
Dr. Nagoski: Absolutely, yeah.
Amanda: I think I only have one last question: you talked about some of the research that you did for writing romance, i.e., reading Fifty Shades of Grey. What other research did you do? Did you find romance novel research more fun than researching for nonfiction? This is, I guess, from, like, a writing standpoint.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah. Well, the research that I did that allowed me to write romance novels is actually research I did for Come as You Are, so in Come as You Are, you follow the stories of these four women, and those women are composites, so each, in each of the nine chapters, there’s a story for each of the four women, and each of those individual stories is true, is based on the thing that really has happened to women I know, but they’re tied together across the book so that you follow an, a narrative, and I had to learn how to construct that sort of narrative arc. So I learned about the structure of storytelling for Come as You Are. I learned about how to make stories compelling for Come as You Are, and I used that in writing the romance novels. The rest of the research, so I just got back from London, and the second book has not yet been through its copyedit round, so while I was in London, there’re some scenes set there, so I went and visited the places that – so, for example, the hero’s brother has a house in London, and I based it on a place that actually exists, so I went and, like, looked at the house and its geography and how you would actually approach it. So, I mean, it started becoming really practical, and because – okay, so one of the things that happened as I was writing fiction is that I realized it wasn’t just about me fixing what I thought was wrong with this one particular story. It actually helped me to process emotionally this really intense work I do around responding to sexual violence and preventing sexual violence. I had one day where four students told me that they had been sexually assaulted. I was the first person they had ever told that to. Four students in one day is a lot. And my usual –
Sarah: Oh, my gosh.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah. It was, it was this, like, incredibly intense day, and my usual course of action would be either to go for a run or just to, like, drink box wine in the tub –
Dr. Nagoski: – so instead what I did was I sat in front of my computer, and I wrote the proposal scene, and I felt this thing happening in my body where I was transforming these four women’s stories – and I know that they are going to recover. I know that they’re going to move through a healing process and come to their own happy ending, but I don’t ever get to see that. What I get is the report – so I sat and I wrote the scene where the hero is on his knees, literally, asking to stand side by side with this amazing woman who I have created, giving her the ultimate happy ending and, like, building love for real, and I was like, oh, shit! I should be doing this forever! I clearly need this as a part of my life in order to be able to maintain the intense emotional labor of doing sexual violence prevention and response. So I have kept writing, and the new, the, the third book I’m working on now, the hero is half Georgian – Georgian as in the nation –
Dr. Nagoski: – and he’s an actor, so the, the, the sort of, like, one-sentence thing is during his Oscar acceptance speech, this actor blurts out the name of his long-lost love, and when the paparazzi find her, he discovers where she went to and how he can get her back. And so I’ve had to learn a whole bunch of stuff about Georgia and horses and comparative literature, because the heroine’s of course a professor of comparative literature and profoundly introverted, and I’ve made, I mean, I torture this heroine. I do terrible things to this heroine –
Dr. Nagoski: – because the only way you can make it, like, really satisfying at the end is if you do terrible things to people –
Amanda: Oh, yeah.
Dr. Nagoski: – along the way so that they can feel really good. So, and I, I love the learning about all these different peripheral things. And I, so, I’ve learned, so yeah. So I get to do all kinds of research and learn lots and lots of different things, and it turns out that it’s really good for me to be able to turn the emotional intensity of the work I do into something that’s satisfying and I think will – I mean, the reason I read romance is because I do all this really hard work, and I require happy endings. I require them in my life, and romance novels are a place where I know for sure that I can get them. So now it’s not just that I am consuming happy endings constructed by other people, it’s that I am creating them, and then they’re going to go out in the world, and other people get them too, and that feels really rewarding and fabulous.
Amanda: So you’re a service top is what you’re saying.
Sarah: Literary service top.
Dr. Nagoski: [Laughs] Yeah, it gives me pleasure to give other people pleasure, except that I also like to torture people. Actually, I hadn’t thought about it that way! Oh, my God!
Sarah: Oh, yes.
Dr. Nagoski: That I find it, like, I mean, like, that’s a thing I love about Laura Kinsale is that, like, she drags you through hell with most of her –
Sarah: Oh, it’s going to be a wrenching happy ending by the time you get to the end of a Kinsale book.
Dr. Nagoski: Almost all of my very favorite romance novels are the ones where, like, you just go through the bleakest, darkest, most horrible things.
Amanda: Yeah – but…
Dr. Nagoski: Dream a Little Dream? Oh, my God. Sorry, go ahead.
Amanda: I said, there’s that comfort that you know, like, even though they’re going through all this awful stuff –
Dr. Nagoski: That’s right!
Amanda: – God damn it, they’re going to get a happy ending.
Dr. Nagoski: With a fucking literary novel, they just torture people for the hell of torturing people? –
Amanda: And then they die.
Dr. Nagoski: – and then it ends, right? And you’re like, well that was awful –
Sarah: And there’s an ashtray in the rain, and that’s all you get.
Dr. Nagoski: Right, and like, and I – that’s life! I don’t need a book for that!
Amanda: [Laughs] I –
Dr. Nagoski: That’s every day!
Amanda: Well, I, so I started reading –
Dr. Nagoski: Right.
Amanda: – romance novels probably in my mid-teens, like fifteen, sixteen? And I remember being in my high, well, yeah, my high school library, and I’m like, oh, I’ll just read The Age of Innocence. It’s kind of like a, you know, like a historical romance –
Dr. Nagoski: Uh-huh.
Amanda: – and it did not have a happy ending, and it ruined my life, and – [laughs] – it was a good book, but I was very upset that –
Dr. Nagoski: Like, fuck you, Age of Innocence! Right?
Amanda: [Laughs] I was very upset with Edith Wharton. Very upset.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah! Yeah. I mean, I sort of, like, I went, I, I have read a lot of literary fiction, lots and lots and lots of literary fiction, and nowadays I only do it when I’m in, already in a great place and I know for sure – mostly what I read is romance, because happy endings.
Dr. Nagoski: Why would I, why would I spend my time investing emotionally in characters when I don’t know that they’re finally going to live happily ever after? Why would I do that to myself?
Sarah: We ask ourselves that same question whenever someone asks us, why do you read all that?
Sarah: And we go, well, why, why would we not? Duh!
Dr. Nagoski: And it’s, it’s not that there aren’t terrible romances. Of course there are. There’s terrible everything.
Dr. Nagoski: There’s terrible literary fiction! There’s terrible nonfiction! There’s terrible sci-fi, and none of those things guarantees you a happy ending, so even – I mean, it’s like pizza! Even the worst pizza is still pretty okay.
Dr. Nagoski: Some people use that analogy for sex.
Amanda: Well, sometimes, like –
Dr. Nagoski: Even when it’s not good –
Amanda: – two hours later, and you’re regretting that pizza, that’s bad.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah – [laughs] – that’s true. Do you think there’s such a thing as, like, a hate-eat of pizza?
Amanda: Sometimes – I feel like it, when you’re in, like, an emotional state, you’re like, I just need pizza in me. I don’t care –
Dr. Nagoski: I’m just going to eat this damn pizza.
Dr. Nagoski: I know I’m going to have a stomach ache. Screw you.
Amanda: Yeah. I’m, I know I’m borderline lactose intolerant –
Dr. Nagoski: [Laughs]
Amanda: – but I need the cheesiest pizza you can find me. I need to destroy my body on this pizza.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah.
Dr. Nagoski: But I do, I do have a sense that, as the person who makes the pizza now, I know this is not true for everyone who writes romance, but I do feel a responsibility to represent women’s sexuality as it actually is, or as it actually can be, because every woman is different from every other woman, and to say something positive and empowering about women’s sexuality, and when I write the sex, to have it be the way sex really can work. Not because, like, that’s the hottest kind of sex? But because when you say something true about women’s sexuality in any context, if you say it out loud and in public, something true about the way women experience the sexual world, that is an act of radical, political action that has the potential to change the world and scare the fuck out of people, and that’s really important that we do that. So I, it’s, even though I know it’s, like, for me, it’s really about the happy ending, when I write, what I really want to do is give a happy ending in the context of, like, this is what it’s really happening. This is what’s actually going on. And so I feel motivated to go just a little deeper than some stories necessarily go. I don’t – does that make sense?
Sarah: Totally. Absolutely makes sense.
Sarah: So what is your book called?
Dr. Nagoski: Oh, the first novel is called How Not to Fall.
Dr. Nagoski: See, ‘cause he teaches her to rock climb?
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah, and, and how not to fall is not to mind falling, and the way not to mind falling is to fall a lot.
Dr. Nagoski: It’s a metaphor. See?
Sarah: I was going to say, that’s quite a metaphor.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah.
Sarah: Are you writing these under your own name?
Dr. Nagoski: No, so my, my, my romance author name is Emily Foster.
Sarah: All right.
Dr. Nagoski: I, I, I took a page out of Jennifer Crusie’s book and made my author name my father’s middle name.
Dr. Nagoski: Yep. So, Emily Foster. The first one’s called How Not to Fall, and the second – and you, it’s available for pre-order!
Dr. Nagoski: And the second – [laughs] – the second one is called How Not to Let Go.
Sarah: Those are good titles.
Dr. Nagoski: It’s longer and slightly darker but has a super happy ending.
Dr. Nagoski: Yeah.
Sarah: And that is all for this week’s episode. I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Emily and Amanda, and I want to thank Emily for taking all the time to talk with us and educate us about seriously cool things. I don’t think I could more enthusiastically recommend Come as You Are. If you have an opportunity to buy it or borrow it or get it from the library, it will seriously blow your mind. Her book is truly incredible. And she offered a very cool thing. After we stopped recording I asked if she would be able to perhaps take questions from podcast listeners and answer them on a future episode. She said, yeah, sure! So if you’ve got questions, particularly before or after you read her book, email [email protected] and put Emily Nagoski in the subject line, and I will earmark your email for a future episode where I will connect with Emily and will ask all of your questions. I can absolutely protect your anonymity; just tell me what name or not-name you’d like me to use, and feel free to ask anything about sexuality and sex and human relations, ‘cause she kind of knows everything.
This podcast was brought to you by Jessica Khoury, author of The Forbidden Wish, published by Penguin Young Readers and available in print and eBook. A lush, romantic retelling of Aladdin like you’ve never imagined, with an all-powerful girl Jinni, a handsome boy from the streets, and one forbidden wish. Perfect for fans of The Wrath & the Dawn and Dorothy Must Die, available now.
And, as I mentioned during the intro – and this part’s called the outro, even though my husband doesn’t think that’s actually a word; it’s totally a word – I mentioned that we have some cool things going on on the site this week. First, we have an exclusive excerpt of Renee Ahdieh’s new short story, “The Moth & the Flame,” and The Wrath & the Dawn is on sale for $2.99 this week only, until tomorrow, March 29, 2016, so if you’re curious, that’s a really good price. You can go grab yourself a book that you might really enjoy. I am currently very into fantasy retellings, especially ones that feature heroines with lots of power. I like contemporaries with competent heroines, I like fantasy with competent heroines, I like historical with competent heroines – this is basically my catnip. But yes, The Wrath & the Dawn is $2.99. We have an exclusive short story excerpt on the site. You can find it at bit.ly/mothandflame or SBTB – SB-TB.com. SBTB.com, by the way, is for sale for something like $19,000.00. I don’t think I can do a Patreon for that one, or a Kickstarter or – that’s just ridiculous.
The music you’re listening to was provided by Sassy Outwater. You can find her on Twitter @SassyOutwater. This is my continued exploration of the band Sketch and their new album Shed Life. This is called “Eiggbound,” and you can find this and their album and more information about them on Amazon or iTunes or on their website.
I will have links to all of those things on the podcast show notes, as well as all of the books that we discuss during the episode and links to Emily’s current book, Come as You Are, and her upcoming romance written as Emily Foster, which I’m sure many of you are making grabby hands at the device on which you’re listening to podcasts.
But in the meantime, on behalf of Emily Nagoski and Amanda and myself and everyone here, we wish you the very best of reading. Have a great weekend.
This podcast transcript was handcrafted with meticulous skill by Garlic Knitter. Many thanks.
The Moth and the Flame by Renee Ahdieh is on sale now, a novella connected to her debut, The Wrath and the Dawn — which is also on sale for $2.99 until Sunday, March 27, 2016. We’re hosting an excerpt of the novella, which you can read at bit.ly/mothandflame.
It started as playful, if barbed, banter before rising to a fateful wager with a most notorious rake—the Captain of the Guard, Jalal al-Khoury—who may have finally met his match in a lovely, if haughty, handmaiden, Despina. But she, too, seems to have met her match in the handsome Jalal. What begins as a tempestuous battle of will and wit in short order becomes a passionate affair spurred on by tragedy of the worst kind.
Join us at SBTB to read the excerpt for a taste of this retelling of A Thousand and One Nights.