Emily Nagoski
339,642 views • 0:00

(Exhales deeply) Today, right? Please join me in one big, deep breath before we dive into talking about sex. (Laughter) Just one big, slow, deep breath in. (Inhales) And a big, slow, deep breath out. (Exhales) OK, now let's talk about sex. So yes, my name is Emily. I am a sex educator. It's the best job in the world. In the fall of 2010, I taught a class called "Women's Sexuality" at Smith College. It was a 100-level, introductory-level class, but I shoehorned in all the science I could, all the psychophysiology and all the neuroscience and even - God forbid - all the sociology, and at the end of this really intense semester, I asked my students to write down just one really important thing that they had learned. This is what they said: "I'm normal." "I am normal." "Just because my sexuality is not the same as other women's, that does not make me abnormal." "Everything is normal. Bringing joy and confidence to sex." "I learned that everything is normal, making it possible for me to go through the rest of my life with confidence and joy." 187 students I had in that class, and more than half of them wrote something along the lines of ... "I'm normal." So I sat in my office, and I read those responses with tears in my eyes. There was something essential to my students about feeling normal, and somehow my class had unlocked the door to that feeling. Moments like that are why I'm a sex educator; it's why I'm here. I mean, it's why I'm here in Nevada, but it's why I'm here: to give everyone on Earth an experience like the one my students had, of unlocking the door to their own authentic sexual well-being. So that's what I'm going to do with you guys today. (Laughter) Because it turns out, we all really are ... normal. The science says so. I can prove it! Are you ready? Let's do it! OK! (Inhales deeply) The mechanism in your brain that controls sexual response is the "dual control model." The dual control model - that means there's how many parts? Two! Thank you! And if I tell you the first part is the sexual accelerator or the "gas pedal," that means the second part has to be the ... ? Brake! They don't let just anybody into these TED Talks. (Laughter) So, the sexual accelerator notices all the sexually-relevant information in the environment, everything you see, hear, smell, touch, taste or imagine, that your brain codes as sexually relevant, and it sends the signal that says "Turn on." And it is functioning at a low level all the time, including right now, just the fact that we're talking about sex is a little bit sexually relevant. At the same time that that's happening, in parallel, your brake is noticing all the very good reasons not to be turned on right now. This is everything you see, hear, smell, touch, taste or imagine that your brain codes as a potential threat. And it sends a signal that says "Turn off." So the process of becoming aroused is the dual process of turning on the ons and turning off the offs. Usually when people struggle with their sexual well-being, it's because - sometimes there's not enough stimulation to the gas pedal, but more often, it's because there's too much stimulation to the brake, and all kinds of things can hit the brake. Like: Are you worried about unwanted pregnancy? Are you worried about your kids walking in, in the middle? Are you really sure that your partner loves your sexy body? Are you really sure that you love your sexy body? Did you spend the first two decades of your life in a culture that taught you that sex is dangerous, disgusting and dirty? That's going to hit the brake, right? (Laughter) So the first thing science tells us to do when we're struggling with our sexual functioning, when we want to access our own authentic sexual well-being, is to start to think through: What are things that hit our accelerator? What are the things that hit our brake? And especially, what are some strategies that we can use in order to minimise the things that are hitting the brake? I'm going to talk about two such evidence-based strategies at the end of the talk. But before I do that, I need to come clean with you about something, which is that all that stuff I just said isn't anywhere near as simple as I made it sound. Sorry. To explain what I mean, I'll tell you about the only affective neuroscience that has ever made me laugh out loud. OK. So I need you to imagine that you're a lab rat. You're a very savvy, experienced lab rat and the researchers have inserted a probe into your nucleus accumbens, a little, sort of jellybean-shaped thing in the middle of your emotional brain. It's a painless procedure, the researchers are clear to say. Plink! So you're this sort of semi-remote-controlled bionic rat, and you're in a three-chambered box, here you are in box #1 - just the ordinary lab environment - there's a bit of noise, the lights are on, but it's fine, you're good at this. So when the researchers zap the front of your nucleus accumbens, here's what you do: Ooh, ooh! What's that? Ooh! So these are approach, moving toward, curious behaviors, right? Ooh! What's that? And then, in this ordinary lab environment - the first box - when they zap the back of your nucleus accumbens, you do this: aaah, what the hell is that!? You're kicking up dust in the face of the predator. These are stress, avoidance, dread responses, right? Moving away as opposed to moving towards. Hit the front? Ooh..! What's that? Hit the back? What the hell is that!? Got that? (Laughter) That's box #1. So we move into box #2. Now box #2 is silent, and it's dark, and it smells like your mother. (Laughter) It is ... I call it the "Rat Spa." It's the most peaceful, calm state of mind you can imagine being in, and when they zap the front of your nucleus accumbens, What do you do? Ooh, ooh! What's that? Ooh! And then, when they zap the back of your nucleus accumbens, What do they do? Ooh, ooh! What's that? When you're in a calm, relaxed, peaceful state of mind, your brain will interpret almost any sensation as something that should be approached with curiosity. Even stimulation that in a different context, it might interpret as a potential threat to be moved away from. But wait ... There's more! (Laughter) We move to box #3. So, here in box #3, the lights are on really bright, music's played at different volumes, you can't even get used to it, they specify in the research paper - this made me laugh out loud - they specify they're playing Iggy Pop. So ... (Laughter) Imagine "Lust for Life" is playing at lots of different volumes, you can't get used to it, you're an introverted bookworm in the worst nightclub in the world, and when they zap the front of your nucleus accumbens, What do you do? Aah..! What the hell is that!? Exactly! They don't let just anybody into these talks, that's amazing! So, when you are in a stressed-out, threatened state of mind, your brain will interpret almost any sensation as something to be avoided, as a potential threat - even stimulation that in a different context, it might've interpreted as something to be approached with curiosity. All of which is a really nerdy way of describing a thing all of us have experienced in the form of tickling. (Laughter) Because, you know, tickling is not everyone's favorite, that's fair, I understand, but at least hypothetically, you can imagine a world where you're in a sexy, fun, flirty state of mind already, and your certain special someone starts tickling on you, and it can feel fun and playful and potentially lead to further nooky, right? But if that exact same certain special someone tried to tickle when you were pissed off at them, (Laughter) how would that feel? As one of my students recently put it: "Violence would shortly ensue." (Laughter) But the weird thing is, it's exactly the same sensation, but because the context is different, your brain interprets it entirely the opposite way. So when I say, "Turn on the ons, and turn off the offs," it's nowhere near as simple as just "Touch me here - don't touch me that way." What it means is, create a context that allows your brain to interpret the world as a pleasurable, safe, sexy place. For most people - again, people vary - but for most people, that context is low stress, high affection and high trust. Those three things are hard enough to come by in the 21st century, but they are not actually the keys that unlock that door to your authentic sexual well-being. Sorry! But this is the big moment, right? This is when I - here they are. I've got this satin shiny pillow with tassels and two keys lying on it. Right here: the keys to your authentic sexual well-being. Don't you want to know what they are? I will explain. The first key says "confidence," and the second key says "joy." How do they work? What do you mean? Where do I get them? Confidence - Confidence comes from knowing what is true about your body, your sexuality, your internal experience. Knowing what's true. Knowing that you have a brake, for example, as well as an accelerator. Knowing that they're sensitive to context, knowing what's true even if it's not what you were taught to expect would be true, even if it's not what you were taught "should" be true. Confidence is knowing what is true. Joy ... is loving what's true. Loving your brake as much as your accelerator, loving that they're sensitive to context, loving what's true even if it's not what you were taught to expect would be true, even - especially - if it's not what you were taught "should" be true. And I guarantee you, you're going to walk out of here with both keys in your pocket. I'm going to tell you specifically how to get your hands on them. But first, I need to talk to you about a cartoon panda. (Laughter) Have you seen the movie "Kung-fu Panda"? It's about a cartoon panda named Po; he becomes a kung-fu master - "Kung Fu Panda" - by diligent effort, the support of his teacher and the wisdom of the Dragon Scroll. The Dragon Scroll contains the key to limitless power! And when Po first gets his hands on the Dragon Scroll he is ... disappointed because there's nothing written on it. It's blank. It just reflects his face. And then comes his epiphany: There is no secret ingredient. It's just ... you. And that is how you get your hands on the keys that unlock the door to your own authentic sexual well-being, by turning toward your own internal experience with calm curiosity. Ooh! What's that? Because it turns out the key to limitless power is you. And now I will tell you the two concrete, specific, evidence-based things that you can do in order to increase your grasp on these two keys of confidence and joy. Ready? Thing #1: What I want you to do is stand in front of a mirror as close to naked as you can tolerate. (Laughter) It gets worse! (Laughter) So what you're going to do is look at what you see there, and you're going to write down everything that you see that you like.

Of course, first your brain will flood with culturally-constructed messages about how your body falls short of the culturally-constructed ideal - that's fine, you have every other minute of the day to have those self-critical thoughts, just set them aside, temporarily. Right now, you will write down the things you see that you like. If it is your eyelashes, write that down. If it's your toenails, write that down. And then do it again tomorrow. And then do it again the next day, and the next day, and the more often you do it, the more obvious it will become to you what a frickin' frackin' miracle your body is, and the more immune you'll become to all the cultural, noisy crap that's hitting the brakes. Option #2: If you genuinely cannot imagine looking in a mirror and seeing anything there that you would like, here's what I want you to do instead. I want you to get into a calm, quiet state of mind, just for a couple of minutes each day, and I want you to visualize that door, that door that stands between you and your authentic sexual well-being. And what I want you to do when you can see it really clearly, is that I want you to shine a beacon of kindness and compassion on the door. Because here's the thing about the door: It's not innate, you weren't born with it. It was constructed in your brain by your life experience and by your culture, and you may hate the culture that built that door, you may work to change the culture that built that door, but never turn toward the door itself with hate, because the door is part of you too. And it is not random, it's there to do some work. If you've been shamed for what's on the other side of that door, if you have been shamed for your sexuality - and who hasn't? - that door is there trying to protect you from social isolation and judgement. If you have had what's behind that door - if you had your own sexuality used against you as a weapon, if you're a survivor of sexual violence, your door is there doing really important work. I'm talking here about one in four - you've heard these statistics already - one in four women in America, one in six men ... One in four women in this room, one in six men. And two thirds of transgender folks. If that's you, your door is doing the hard work of helping you to survive in a world where your own sexuality can be used against you as a weapon, and it is working! You know how I can tell? Here you are! Surviving. And I am so grateful to your door for doing that really important work, and I don't know if your door might be ready to open a little bit or if your door needs to stay closed a little while longer, but I know that the first step is always to turn toward the door with kindness and compassion. Confidence is knowing what's true about you, your sexuality, your internal experience. Joy is loving what's true even when it's not what you were taught "should" be true. I'm a sex educator. It's the best job in the world! (Laughter) I teach people to live with confidence and joy inside their bodies, but really all that means is I offer them the science that helps them find the way back to themselves. Because it turns out we all really are ... Oh, who am I kidding? We're not just normal! We, the human species, we're amazing! We - all of us - are beguiling, we are courageous, God knows we are delectable, we are all the way down the alphabet to "yopping" and "zesty." (Laughter) Your body - (Cheering) (Applause) It's you guys! Your body is perfect. Exactly the way it is. The science says so. And now you can prove it! Thank you very much. (Cheering) (Applause)