Sexuality superstar and bestselling author Emily Nagoski talks with Joanna Mathers about her body of work and the power of the female anatomy.
Labia, clitoris, vagina: let the words percolate, sense their power. Say them slowly, listen to how they sound. How do you feel? Excited, repulsed, ashamed? A mixture of all three?
Female genitalia are potent. They are objectified, ignored and abused, imbued with mystical powers ... even teeth (vagina dentata killed Māui). Intricate, confusing, mysterious, they entice and terrify in equal measure.
Emily Nagoski, sex educator, feminist, discovered their potency early. Picture her, 12 years old, visiting the library. A "science geek", she was investigating a medical encyclopaedia when she discovered a new word.
On the car ride home, she posed a question to her mother.
"I asked her, 'What does vagina mean?' I clearly remember a flash of emotion crossing her face, a mixture of disgust and shame. I knew it was a word I couldn't say to her again," Nagoski says. "I discovered the word 'vagina' from a book; and how I should feel about it from my mother's reaction."
You wonder what Nagoski's mother now thinks about vaginas; her daughter has made a career out of them. The author of New York Times bestseller Come as You Are has tasked herself with unboxing (note the pun) deeply held myths and misconceptions surrounding the female anatomy and female sexuality.
With its refreshing mixture of pragmatism, conversational language and science the book, released in 2015, was an immediate success. It uncovered the "hows" and "whys" of female sexuality, grounding it within scientific evidence. A revelation – and relief – for the thousands of women who read it, it catapulted Nagoski from university lecturer, to a TED-talk-giving, New York Times op-ed-writing sexuality superstar.
One of the unexpected outcomes of the book's success has been its incorporation by sex therapists as a therapeutic tool. This has, in turn, led to the creation of the Come as You Are Workbook, published last year. There are diagrams and worksheets with titles around your sexual experiences.
(Note: you don't want anyone else reading your answers. It's intimate stuff, the shame of accidental exposure would be considerable. Unless you're an exhibitionist. Hey, no judgement.)
It's emotions like shame that led Nagoski to write Come as You Are in the first place.
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She was a lecturer at the progressive female women's liberal art college, Smith's College, when the pivotal moment occurred. She'd been teaching a course on human sexuality, heavy on the science. The final question in the exam asked students: "What is one important thing you have learned from the course?"
She says, "I was expecting them to answer something about the science behind sexuality, but instead, over half the students answered: 'I am normal.' It made me realise that more people needed to hear what I was teaching."
The exam answer was the genesis of two years "translating science into something people would find interesting" and crafting it into a book. The fevered response to Come as You Are proved she got the balance right.
Nagoski's own development as a sexual educator, with teachings firmly grounded in science, occurred in a "haphazard way". A high-achieving "nerd" throughout her life, she sought a volunteer opportunity at grad school that would look good for her future career. She discovered work as a peer counsellor, which fitted her requirements, so she started training. Part of the training was around sexuality; she discovered that she was the sole straight face in a room of tittering teens.
"Everyone else would giggle when words for genitals were used. I realised that I wasn't embarrassed by them and that this could be useful."
Around the same time, she also began working as a sexual crisis respondent. Something clicked.
"I could see that it was making a difference in people's lives in both these roles. I had been planning to become a clinical neuropsychologist, working with people who'd had traumatic brain injury and strokes. But the work in sex education and violence prevention made me feel like the person I wanted to be."
Furthering her formal education, she studied counselling psychology at Indiana University, she completed an internship at the Kinsey Institute Sexual Health clinic (a la Kinsey Report/Masters of Sex).
She gained a PhD in Health Behaviour, with an emphasis on human sexuality, then taught classes on the subject at both an undergraduate and graduate level, before becoming Wellness Education Director and Lecturer at Smith College, Massachusetts. It was here she taught the class that provided the "aha" moment for Come as You Are.
The science of female sexuality has, until recently, been viewed as the second cousin of male sexuality. Female sexuality was considered as a slightly skew-whiff version of men's – a bit broken, maybe, but kinda similar.
"It's only been in the last decade or so that it's explored independently," says Nagoski.
While she is passionate about the science that underpins her work and tries to inject this enthusiasm into her books, she's under no misconceptions about why the book has been so popular.
"It's not the science that people engage with, although I try my hardest," she chortles. "It's the fact that it's completely pragmatic and non-judgemental. And it normalises the entire range of female sexual experience."
The Come as You Are Workbook ain't for the faint-hearted. It's all out there, forcing us to confront the "mysteries" of our bodies, to get down and familiar with our bits. If you've had a typical Kiwi "don't talk about it" upbringing, it'll make your toes curl. But given how prevalent misconceptions around our anatomy and experience of sex, it's an important read.
I remember having a conversation with a friend once, around which hole women pee from. She thought the vagina was connected to the bladder. I was astonished that an intelligent woman in her mid-30s would have so little understanding of her own anatomy. But, according to Nagoski, this type of misunderstanding is remarkably common.
"Vagina" has become the de facto term for everything that exists between our legs. The correct term for all our external genitalia, vulva doesn't appear in common parlance. What female genitals "should" look like is also exists in a universe of misconception. The "closed clam" vulva, denuded of pubic hair, is the porn industry ideal. But ladies and gentlemen, it's not "normal"; there isn't a norm for female genitalia. And there is no such thing as genital perfection.
"Genitals come in a vast range of shapes, sizes, colours, and configurations," Nagoski writes in the Come as You Are Workbook. "They are all made of the same parts as everyone else's."
The science of desire, arousal and pleasure provide the centrepiece for Come as You Are. One women's turn-off is another women's "yes please". And being "turned-on" is not a simple process. Nagoski explains that the mechanism in the brain that controls sexual response has two main parts. She uses the analogy of a car.
"One part is the sexual gas pedal or accelerator that notices all the sex-related stimuli – everything you see, hear, smell, touch, taste, think, feel or believe – and sends the 'turn on' signal. The other part is the sexual breaks, which notice all the good reasons not to be turned on right now."
Being turned on is a process of turning on the "ons" and turning off the "offs". Understanding your "off" and "on" switches is an important part of working out how you work as a sexual being. Women who have suffered sexual abuse have a far more complex (and troubling) relationship with sex.
Nagoski explains that the sensations, contexts and ideas that the brain could process as "sex-related" can be interpreted as threats – and the brakes are hit immediately. If the stress activity is high enough, a survivor of sexual trauma can find their brain blocking out sexual stimulus altogether.
With one in three young women under 16 suffering some form of sexual abuse and one in five adult women being subject to serious sexual assault, it's apparent that we still inhabit a culture of toxic masculinity.
Nagoski believes that harmful attitudes towards female sexuality are perpetuated by a patriarchal system under which women's bodies are viewed as the "property" of men. The United States, at the moment, is seeing this process in play as reproductive rights are rolled back under the backing of a "pussy-grabbing" president. It's of great concern to progressives in the country, especially considering how recently female body autonomy was won.
"In the United States, marital rape wasn't made illegal in some states until 1992. In some places, it is still a lesser offence. There was an attitude that when a woman said 'I do', she was basically handing over her body to the man that she had married."
The ubiquity of pornography has been blamed for a multitude of woes in 21st century society. Interestingly, Nagoski is ambivalent about it. She says because the United States has such terrible sex education (i.e. none), pornography is the place kids go to learn.
"But watching porn for sexual education is like watching a professional racing car driver and using this as for driver's education," she says.
The worst harm caused by pornography, she believes, is done to young women who haven't given consent to take part in it. She points to the ethical porn industry (which represents many different shapes and races and pays the actors) as a good alternative but it's usually not free. Therefore, it's not as widely viewed.
Nagsoki's own sexual education came courtesy of glamour magazines. By 15, she was a "fully trained sexual performer, educated by [these magazine] in ways to make men happy". Her twin sister was the opposite – viewing sex as something "smart girls" weren't interested in, an animal instinct that she needed to rise up against.
She understands the "terrible knots" women need to untangle to understand their own sexual selves. But although the science behind sex is complex, her message is simple: "Work out what feels good for you and if it doesn't feel good, don't do it."
One of Nagoski's side projects has been delving into erotic fiction. Her books How Not to Fall and How Not to Let Go (which have four and five-star ratings on Amazon) explore the "student falls for sexy lecturer" trope in a pro-feminist, sex-positive way.
The books were the result of frustration after she read 50 Shades of Grey ("It wasn't even medically accurate," she laughs) and desiring an alternative narrative.
"Yes, that was something I did," she laughs. "I wanted to write a sex-positive, medically accurate, feminist erotic novel that could provide an alternative to 50 Shades of Grey."
Nagoski may specialise in the female sexual experience but she's also well-versed in the science of male sexuality. She says men experience the same emotions as women around sex–shame, confusion – but bury it more deeply, tending to hide behind a facade of bravado.
When she wrote an op-ed entitled Nothing is Wrong with Your Sex Drive for the New York Times, her inbox was full of thankful emails from men who'd been concerned by their own experiences.
"They were grateful that I had opened a space for men in the conversation," she says.
Nagoski released two new books last year – Come as You Are Workbook and Burnout, a book she co-authored with her twin. She's going to writing an updated version of Come as You Are this year, with new science. There's a speaking schedule lined up and she's set to be campaigning hard against Trump and his attempt to gain a second-term presidency.
As Trump and his cronies continue to undermine the hard-won women's rights in the United States, Nagoski is indefatigable in her commitment to educating women about their bodies and their unique sexual make-up.
The Come as You Are Workbook continues where its predecessor left off; offering women the forum for frank analysis of their sexuality and allowing them to rejoice in their own, unique experiences of pleasure.
The Come As You Are Workbook - a practical guide to the science of sex by Emily Nagoski (Scribe, $30)