This is a great read for unpicking just how much we are affected by the cultural narrative that tells us what normal and healthy sexuality looks like. A narrative that is not always helpful and can lead to a whole host of misunderstandings around sex, impacting us emotionally and psychologically. Our true needs and desires often become buried under a sky-high mountain of imaginary rules and erroneous ‘facts’. Relationships happen in twos. Emotions are not public behaviour. If you don’t want sex, you have a low drive. If you don’t enjoy sex you have a dysfunction.
These rules and ‘facts’ lead us to the quiet conclusion that sexual health equals being sexually active, with pleasurable physical response, and if that isn’t the case, we need a doctor or therapist to heal our mind and/or body so we can achieve that elusive state of ecstasy. Some therapists are worth their weight in gold – but the point is there isn’t necessarily something to heal. Often we just need to unlearn some of the nonsense we have been exposed to.
This book is well worth reading – very educational and fascinating. But, since most of us are busy people and not everyone has the time, here are a few of the interesting tl;dr points:
Myth 1: sex is a drive
Wrong. Hunger, thirst, and sleep are drives. Drives are essential for survival. Drive gets confused with incentive. Sex is actually an incentive motivation system; we want it because it feels good. But, we won’t die if we don’t get it. No really. Ok if all humans ceased to copulate we’d be in some trouble as a species, but we’re talking individual rather than mass behaviour.
Sex works more like curiosity; which means conditions, both physical and mental, must be right in order for us to want it. There is a great analogy about desire being like a flock of geese in flight. The geese represent feelings (both emotional and physical). All the geese have to fly in the same direction for the flock to get anywhere. If one, two, or a whole bunch of geese are flying in opposite directions, the flock gets confused and isn’t going to get too far. Here’s an example: there is a mysterious, exciting looking gift waiting for you on your birthday. You love opening presents, and you are dying to know what’s inside it. You birthday morning arrives and you can finally open the present. But the boiler broke down the night before and the house is freezing. So cold your fingers and toes are numb. You go ahead and unwrap your present, and you like what’s inside… but how excited are you able to feel in that moment when your body is so cold and uncomfortable? Cold trumps excitement.
So if we have emotions, thoughts, stresses, or physical needs etc pulling our mind in various directions that aren’t sexual, the flock is in a tailspin and reaching sexual excitement is about as likely as winning the lottery.
Myth 2: response to stress is fight or flight
Almost right. It’s actually fight, flight, or freeze. Most of us know about fight or flight. We perceive a threat, get an adrenaline rush, and either confront the stressor or run away. The important bit is that our brains perceive all stresses and threats as real danger. Our brain cannot tell the difference between actually being chased by a lion, or sitting on the sofa watching a horror movie. Our conscious mind understands the difference, but our physical brain does not, and therefore the stress hormones we release are the same. Fight: the brain decides yes I can beat this threat and survive. Flight: the brain decides hell no, that’s going to kill me, run away. But when the brain realises I cannot beat the threat, and I cannot outrun it either, it releases a flood of stress hormones and then freezes, like a spectacular computer crash. No more input please. But what happens to those stress hormones when the brain freezes? In the fight or flight scenario, we use them up in physical exertion by running or fighting. But when we freeze they continue to circulate in the body, locking us into a state of stress. The best thing we can do is allow the stress to complete its own cycle, whether this is crying, shouting, having a tantrum, running, or whatever.
Let’s say a child is scared of the dark, and cries – we soothe them saying ‘shh, don’t cry’. They perceive their crying makes us uncomfortable, so they try to stop. On the surface, they calm down, but the stress is locked inside them, packed away on the ‘I’ll save this for later’ shelf of the subconscious. The shelf where ‘issues’ are born, and stored up for a rainy day. But if we let the child cry until they are ready to stop, they use up the hormones and the stress resolves itself. No issues on the shelf.
This applies to sex. As per Myth 1, stress gets in the way of wanting sex. The more life stress we lock away for a rainy day, the more geese are pulling in opposite directions and the less likely we are to desire sex. The best thing we can do is allow our emotions and stresses to complete their cycles as they happen. Freedom to experience and express emotion = empty issues shelf = freedom to enjoy sex.
Another interesting point relating to this is trauma. Our bodies have a handy trick to minimise attack by a predator. If our brain perceives us to be under threat (remember all stress looks like a lion to our brains), it releases oxytocin, the bonding hormone. This hormone essentially makes us more attractive to our attacker. If our attacker feels bonded to us, it is likely the attack will be less severe and we have more chance of survival. The catch is, it’s a two-way street. Not only do we become more appealing to attacker, but they become more appealing to us. There are many instances where victims fall in love with their abuser; oxytocin is often to blame. So, it is possible that a relationship that causes us a lot of stress can also result in a very intense bond which is hard for either party to walk away from. Oxytocin can contribute to people staying in toxic relationships. The attraction and love are very strong, making it hard to break away.
Myth 3: sexual desire leads to initiating sex
Wrong. A common mistake is the assumption sexually healthy people will want to initiate sex. There are different types of desire sitting at opposite ends of a spectrum; spontaneous and responsive. People who experience spontaneous sexual desire often want to initiate sex. But if your desire is responsive, you need sexual context to respond to before you feel any desire. This is normal. The trick is, for those that have responsive desire, you first need to create a sexual context unique to the individual’s tastes and needs, which includes reducing stress as covered in Myth 2. A responsive desire type might rarely initiate sex. This is not because they have low desire or drive (or rather incentive motivation); it is because they respond to a partner’s desire and won’t feel desire without context.
And of course, there are people who do not want sex at all. This is no less healthy and is perfectly possible without some kind of dysfunction.
Myth 4: women get ‘wet’ when aroused
Wrong. Apologies for the course terminology, but let’s not tiptoe around the subject. Going right back to some of the earliest sexual studies, such as Masters and Johnson in the 50s, a link has been made between vaginal lubrication and female arousal. It is true women often experience lubrication when sexual activity occurs. But this is a mechanical response of the body to prepare for penetration. It is recognition, not arousal. The brain says ‘I associate this activity with sex’. It does not necessarily say ‘yes I want this’. The two are not mutually exclusive and it is entirely possible for the body to respond physically to a sexual stimulus without the mind being aroused. This is called non-concordance. So if she says ‘no’, listen to her. Her genitals may react in a sexual manner, but this does NOT mean she wants sex. It only means her brain recognizes the activity as sexual.
Myth 5: we create our own sexual wellbeing
Partly wrong. Nagoski uses the somewhat clichéd yet apt analogy of a ‘sexual garden’. When we are very young, we are not yet in control of planting our own garden. Our family, friends, and society tell us what is sexually acceptable and relevant. This includes body image and sexual preferences. It is not our fault if we are raised with a garden full of weeds that say we are not attractive, we should present ourselves in a certain way, or we should like certain things. As we get older, we have the power to replant our own garden – but first we have to recognize where the weeds are. While the ‘lady garden’ analogy might make some giggle, the underlying point is highly valuable.
After centuries of creating imaginary rules, society perpetuates three core messages that are a hindrance to sexual wellbeing (known as the three Ms): Medical, Moral, and Media. The Medical message says sex is a risk, there are health consequences, you might get a disease. The Moral message says sex is linked to ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’, and that there is a wrong amount of sex, a wrong type of sex, or sex with the wrong people. The Media message says there is a fashionable way to have sex, an acceptable type of relationship, a preferable body shape etc. This is not to say there isn’t actually some medical risk to sex, and practicing safe sex is usually a good idea. But what the book is getting at, is we are continually bombarded with subliminal messaging around sex, so it’s no wonder we have so many issues with sexual health and wellbeing. We might have a lot of work to do to clear our own garden of weeds that other people planted, but it can be done.
So, if you take anything from this post (other than read the book, it’s worth it), take this: there is no such thing as normal; what turns you on and how you perceive yourself is a highly complex product of messaging you are not responsible for; expressing emotion and letting stress run its course is vital to wellbeing; wet does not mean aroused; and desire comes in many forms. Pun intended.