Busting Myths About Sex with One of Our Favorite Books: Come As You Are
By Annabelle Mebane, MA, AMFT
While our culture is filled with sexually explicit content, it is also full of mixed messages around sex and sexuality, and fails to adequately educate us about such a fundamental part of the human experience. Most of us are left to our own devices to navigate sex, lacking language or knowledge to adequately understand our experiences and more specifically, our challenging experiences. On top of this, many of us have internalized shame, guilt, and embarrassment around sex and our bodies, making it even more difficult to openly communicate with our partners about something so important and vulnerable.
We love Dr. Emily Nagoski’s book Come As You Are because it helps reduce shame around sex by normalizing the broad range of experiences. So much of the emotional pain around sexuality has to do with feeling like we are alone and believing that there is something wrong with us. Nagoski does an excellent job undoing that narrative, busting myths about how sex “should” be, and using science to empower us with the language to understand, talk about, and work with the complex mechanisms underlying our wide array of experiences.
The Dual Control Model
One important concept she unpacks is the dual control model, which helps explain individual differences in sexual arousal and response. The dual control model states that the sexual response system has both a gas pedal and a brake pedal. The gas is in charge of picking up on stimuli that turn you on, and the brake responsible for noticing cues that turn you off.
Context and sensitivity to context matter.
While everyone has both an accelerator and a brake, people vary regarding which cues activate each system. Maybe even more significantly, people also vary in terms of how sensitive each system is. Some people have really touchy gas pedals that rev up at the slightest touch, others have really sensitive brakes that hardly take any pressure to stop the car, so to speak. And the combination of how sensitive each pedal is for you impacts your overall experience of arousal and sexual response.
Nagoski states that “your sexual arousal at any given moment is the product of how much stimulation the accelerator is getting and how little stimulation the brakes are getting. But it’s also a product of how sensitive your brakes and accelerator are to that stimulation” (p. 51). So even if the contextual cues that hit your accelerator or your brake are similar to your partner’s, your pedals may be more or less sensitive, changing how much your experience of arousal is impacted by the presence of a turn on or turn off cue.
Major takeaways: context impacts arousal, and individuals differ regarding which contexts positively or negatively impact sexual arousal and regarding how easily they are turned on or off.
Styles of Desire
Another important concept Nagoski discusses is desire style. She explains that there are two styles, and while some people tend more strongly toward one or the other, for lots of us, our style is ultimately context dependent (p. 220). The styles are:
1. Spontaneous desire: sexual desire that arises seemingly out of the blue; desire arising from the anticipation of pleasure
2. Responsive desire: sexual desire that arises in response to something pleasurable that is already occurring; desire arising after beginning to experience pleasure
There is no right or wrong way to experience desire.
She explains that we are sold the myth that spontaneous desire is the “right” kind of desire, perhaps the only legitimate type of desire. We are taught that if we don’t crave sex regularly and spontaneously, that there is something wrong with us. But really it’s this very myth that is the problem; the myth itself is getting us stuck.
Spontaneous desire just seems spontaneous, but all desire is responsive.
If we break it down even further, as we learned in the dual control model, all desire is responsive to something hitting the gas pedal (and a lack of stimulation on the brakes). It’s just that with spontaneous desire, it’s not as obvious what that stimulus is and we probably didn’t plan for it to be there. Responsive desire asks us to be a bit more deliberate and intentional in creating a pleasurable context that will allow desire to emerge.
Thinking about desire in terms of “sex drive” is disempowering.
When we think of desire as fixed, and when we think of “sex drive” as a somewhat stable personality characteristic, we lose touch with our power to change our experience in positive ways. These desire styles give us language to understand differences in ourselves over time and differences between ourselves and our partners, and if we notice a discrepancy that is creating a problematic dynamic, we are then empowered to change the dynamic for the better.
Hot take: desire doesn’t really matter very much.
Ultimately, Nagoski teaches us that desire isn’t really the thing that matters in order to have great or even extraordinary sex. She says, “great sex is not about what you do with your partner, nor about which body parts go where or how often, or for how long, but about how you share sensation in the context of profound trust and connection” (p. 241). What matters is context – specifically understanding the context that works best to create pleasure for you and your partner to share in together, and deliberately and intentionally facilitating that context as a team.
Understanding and communication allows us to change our behavior.
In giving us the language to make sense of and describe our experiences, not only can we understand ourselves better, and communicate this information to our partner more effectively, but we can also change our behavior in ways that improve our experience. We are empowered with tools to work on an area of our lives that we are socialized to believe should come naturally and easily. And we are reminded, as Nagoski so compassionately puts it, “You’re not broken. You are whole. And there is hope” (p. 235).
For much more information, check out Come As You Are. And if you are feeling stuck with your relationship to sex or stuck with sex in your relationship, therapy can help.
If you or someone you love might benefit from therapy for codependency, relationship issues, anxiety, low-self esteem, trauma or depression, please contact Jodi Staszak, LMFT. Jodi offers Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP) for individuals, and Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples, in addition to Overcoming Codependency groups for individuals struggling with codependence. Jodi can be reached at 619-818-0375 or JodiS.MFT@gmail.com.
Nagoski, E. (2021). Come as you are: The surprising new science that will transform your sex life. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.