by Donna George Storey

I’m fascinated by sex.

I think about it a lot and enjoy it in the flesh as much as is possible given the constraints of real life. I write about it for fun and sometimes profit. And I read about it whenever a book on the topic catches my eye, although I will admit I’m more selective in that area now because experience has shown that a lot of these volumes, whether in the guise of scientific analyses or guides to great orgasms, are the same old sexual tease that ultimately leaves a reader unsatisfied.

Fortunately this month I’d like to talk about a book I do recommend, Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D. The book is not perfect, and I’ve noted a few reservations below. However, rather unusually, it did give me a fresh perspective on several key areas of my favorite topic. In other words, I’m glad I read it. This is by no means always the case.

Come As You Are has much to recommend it, but I’d like to focus on one topic that stands out as my personal take-away: the dual control model of sexual desire.

Nagoski makes an excellent point that “most of what our culture teaches us about women’s sexuality is Men’s Sexuality Lite—basically the same but not quite as good.” (p. 66) Thus, because Viagra provides men with a use-me-all-night woody which has revived the sex lives of millions of older men in particular, there should of course be a pill that will do the same for women (although I shudder to think of how a “horny pill for women” would be abused by frat boys among others). Nagoski argues that this pill is unlikely to be developed because sexual desire is not just about plumping up the genitals. Rather it operates under the aforementioned dual-control model. Humans have a sexual accelerator, or a Sexual Excitation System, that processes information and tells the genitals to “turn on.” But we also have a sexual brake, or Sexual Inhibition System, that notices all the potential threats in the environment (STI transmission, grandmother in the next room, doubts about potential partner) and sends signals to “turn off.” Each of us has a unique level of sensitivity in both our SES and SIS, and thus it is not surprising that due to cultural training as well as hormonal response, more men balance out with a stronger accelerator and more women have stronger brakes.

For me, the articulation of the dual model is less a new discovery than a confirmation of my own realization some decades ago that I need a transition period between real life and being ready for a hot time in bed. And now I understand that this period is when I ease up on my brake. Since I began writing erotica, I’ve found it much easier to make that transition because I have a go-to place in my head where I feel comfortable being erotic. In any case, being aware of this dynamic is important, and I believe it might help many couples who experience what the media characterizes as a desire gap, usually portrayed as the dynamic between an amorous, initiating man and a woman who is too tired from doing the double shift to be interested in anything but sleep.

Now I know this is a complex issue. Cases of women desiring sex more than their partners are doubtless under-reported, and there may be many reasons a partner of either gender might be less interested in sex–a relationship that is troubled out of bed as well, for example. But when we consider the dual control model, other ways to frame the situation are suddenly possible. First of all, turning off the brake is not as simple as whining, “Just relax!” which is a pathetically common prescription for any kind of sexual inhibition. Our brakes deserve attention and respect and Nagoski believes that desire issues are more likely to be solved by focusing on the SIS.

The accelerator-brake model also points out that the initiating partner has already stepped on the accelerator and turned off the brake, while the propositioned partner is starting at “ordinary life” settings. Thus it might be a tad unfair to label the latter as inferior in desire. Indeed in another sex book I read for historical reasons, What Really Happens in Bed: A Demystification of Sex by Steven Carter and Julia Sokol (1989) the authors found from their interviews that “men were no more thrilled by having women start tearing their pants off when they were trying to watch the evening news.”

Taking time to sympathetically ease up on that brake and create a comfortable context for sexual pleasure is well worth it. (Remember, “Just relax!” is not a sympathetic way to do this). Again this is where erotica—whether reading it alone or together or remembering favorite experiences or fantasies—can be helpful. Full confession: I mentioned Fifty Shades of Grey in my title because whenever I do, I get five times more reads than for other blog posts. But it is relevant because many husbands of the female readers of the book mentioned their wives were much more interested in sex with images of Christian and Ana in their heads. I’m sure all of us at ERWA hope our own books can be the portal to sexual bliss as well, but it is worth considering how erotica might work to ease us from the real world to Sex World.

The dual control model is but one of the thought-provoking points in Come As You Are including: the emotional context of sex, a sex-positive life in a sex-negative world, and the fact that lubrication and erections are not signs of desire but rather reflex reactions. However, I do have a couple of critiques of Nagoski’s book. Every time an intriguing issue is presented, it is briefly discussed, but then we are told we will hear more about this in chapter three and learn practical steps to deal with it in chapter ten (as an example). This happens over and over again. It might have been less frustrating to the reader to organize the book so that we can fully consider one issue in detail in one chapter. Or at the very least, give us the page numbers of the later discussion so we can create our own coherent consideration.

My other critique derives from a cultural convention that is certainly no fault of the author. Basically our society allows us to take on one of three personas when we talk about sex in published form.

First, we can be serious experts, either scientists who use jargon, statistics and studies or historians who’ve dispassionately combed through documents kept in the Private Case Erotica Collection in the British Library.

Or we can take on the surrogate lover persona, which is the role adopted by most eroticists and porn star experts, in that we speak of sex with the hope of, or at least no fear about, sexually arousing the reader.

Emily Nagoski consciously chooses the third option, which I’ll call “The Dr. Ruth” persona. That is, she has an accessible, accepting attitude toward sexuality expressed in a tone of relentlessly cheerful humor. Dr. Nagoski is the Director of Wellness Education at Smith College and thus it is her job to make young adults feel comfortable discussing their intimate sexual fears and concerns. In order to achieve this standing, however, the speaker must not be what our society considers “sexy.” Indeed her author’s photo shows a plump, bespectacled young woman whose smile promises caring friendship rather than seduction. Again this is less a criticism of Nagoski or Dr. Ruth and their upbeat, nonthreatening energy than an observation that in our society, sex is dangerous when it’s sexy and of course the intellect and sensuality must always be divided in a public presentation to keep us all safe. So, in spite of the “progress” that this book represents in its content, its formal conventions show that we still have a long way to go before our culture fully accepts that sexuality and sensuality exist in all of us.

That said, however, Come As You Are is a book on sexuality that is well worth reading, one of the few that does, for once, fulfill the promises on its cover.

Donna George Storey is the author
of Amorous Woman and a collection of short
stories, Mammoth
Presents the Best of Donna George Storey
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