[This talk contains mature content Viewer discretion is advised]
My specialty, as a sex educator, is I bring the science. But my first and most important job is that I stay neutral when I talk about anything sex-related, no embarrassment, no titillation, no judgment, no shame, no matter where I am. No matter what question you ask me. At the end of a conference in a hotel lobby once, I'm literally on my way out the door and a colleague chases me down. "Emily, I just have a really quick question. A friend of mine —
wants to know if it's possible to get addicted to her vibrator." The answer is no, but it is possible to get spoiled. A different conference, this one in an outdoor tropical paradise, I'm at the breakfast buffet, and a couple approaches me. "Hi, Emily, we're sorry to interrupt you but we just wanted to ask a quick question about premature ejaculation." "Sure, let me tell you about the stop/start technique." That is my life.
I stay neutral when other people might "squick." Squick is an emotion that combines surprise with embarrassment plus some disgust and like, not knowing what to do with your hands. So, it's a product. The reason you experience it is because you spent the first two decades of your life learning that sex is a dangerous and disgusting source of everlasting shame and if you're not really good at it, no one will ever love you.
So you might squick, hearing me talk about sex while you're sitting in a room full of strangers — that is normal. I invite you to breathe. Feelings are tunnels. We make our way through the darkness to get to the light at the end. And I promise it's worth it. Because I want to share with you today a piece of science that has changed how I think about everything, from the behavior of neurotransmitters in our emotional brain, to the dynamics of our interpersonal relationships. To our judicial system. And it starts with our brain.
There's an area of your brain you've probably heard referred to as the "reward center." I think calling it the reward center is a little bit like calling your face your nose. That is one prominent feature, but it ignores some other parts and will leave you really confused if you're trying to understand how faces work. It's actually three intertwined but separable systems. The first system is liking. Which is like reward, so this is the opioid hotspots in your emotional brain. It assesses hedonic impact — "Does this stimulus feel good? How good? Does this stimulus feel bad? How bad?" If you drop sugar water on the tongue of a newborn infant, the opioid-liking system sets off fireworks.
And then there's the wanting system. Wanting is mediated by this vast dopaminergic network in and beyond the emotional brain. It motivates us to move toward or away from a stimulus. Wanting is more like your toddler, following you around, asking for another cookie. So wanting and liking are related. They are not identical.
And the third system is learning. Learning is Pavlov's dogs. You remember Pavlov? He makes dogs salivate in response to a bell. It's easy, you give a dog food, salivates automatically, and you ring a bell. Food, salivate, bell. Food, bell, salivate. Bell, salivate. Does that salivation mean that the dog wants to eat the bell? Does it mean that the dog finds the bell delicious? No. What Pavlov did was make the bell food-related. When we see this separateness of wanting, liking and learning, this is where we find an explanatory framework for understanding what researchers call arousal nonconcordance.
Nonconcordance, very simply, is when there is a lack of predictive relationship between your physiological response, like salivation, and your subjective experience of pleasure and desire. That happens in every emotional and motivational system that we have, including sex. Research over the last 30 years has found that genital blood flow can increase in response to sex-related stimuli even if those sex-related stimuli are not also associated with the subjective experience of wanting and liking. In fact, the predictive relationship between genital response and subjective experience is between 10 and 50 percent. Which is an enormous range. You just can't predict necessarily how a person feels about that sex-related stimulus just by looking at their genital blood flow. When I explained this to my husband, he gave me the best possible example. He was like, "So, that could explain this one time, when I was in high school, I ... I got an erection in response to the phrase 'doughnut hole.'"
Did he want to have sex with the doughnut? No. He was a teenage boy flooded with testosterone, which makes everything a little bit sex-related. And it can go in both directions. A person with a penis may struggle to get an erection one evening, and then wake up the very next morning with an erection, when it's nothing but a hassle.
I got a phone call from a 30-something friend, a woman, she said, "So, my partner and I were in the middle of doing some things and I was like, 'I want you right now.' And he said, 'No, you're still dry, you're just being nice.' And I was so ready. So what's the matter, is it hormonal, should I talk to a doctor, what's going on?" Answer? It's arousal nonconcordance. If you're experiencing unwanted pain, talk to a medical provider. Otherwise — arousal nonconcordance. Your genital behavior just doesn't necessarily predict your subjective experience of liking and wanting. Another friend, back in college, told me about her first experiences of power play in a sexual relationship. She told me that her partner tied her up with her arms over her head like this, she's standing up and he positions her so she's straddling a bar, presses up against her clitoris, like this. So there's my friend, standing there, and the guy leaves. It's a power play. Leaves her alone. So there's my friend, and she goes, "I'm bored."
And the guy comes back and she says, "I am bored." And he looks at her and he looks at the bar and he says, "Then why are you wet?" Why was she wet? Is it sex-related to have pressure directly against your clitoris? Yeah. Does that tell him whether she wants or likes what's happening? Nope. What does tell him whether she wants or likes what's happening? She does! She recognized and articulated what she wanted and liked. All he had to do was listen to her words. My friend on the phone — what's the solution? You tell your partner, "Listen to your words." Also, buy some lube.
Applause for lube, absolutely.
Everyone, everywhere. But I want to tell you a darker listen-to-her-words story. This one comes from a note that a student sent me after I gave a lecture about arousal nonconcordance. She was with a partner, a new partner, glad to be doing things, and they reached a point where that was as far as she was interested in going and so she said no. And the partner said, "No, you're wet, you're so ready, don't be shy." Shy? As if it hadn't taken all the courage and confidence she had to say no to someone she liked. Whose feelings she did not want to hurt. But she said it again. She said no. Did he listen to her words?
In the age of Me Too and Time's Up, people ask me, "How do I even know what my partner wants and likes? Is all consent to be verbal and contractual now?" There are times when consent is ambiguous and we need a large-scale cultural conversation about that. But can we make sure we're noticing how clear consent is if we eliminate this myth? In every example I've described so far, one partner recognized and articulated what they wanted and liked: "I want you right now." "No." And their partner told them they were wrong. It's gaslighting. Profound and degrading. You say you feel one way, but your body proves that you feel something else.
And we only do this around sexuality, because arousal nonconcordance happens with every emotional and motivational system we have. If my mouth waters when I bite into a wormy apple, does anybody say to me, "You said no, but your body said yes?"
And it's not only our partners who get it wrong. The National Judicial Education Program published a document called "Judges Tell: What I Wish I Had Known Before I Presided in a Case of an Adult Victim of Sexual Assault." Number 13: On occasion, the victim, female or male, may experience a physical response, but this is not a sexual response in the sense of desire or mutuality." This brings me one step closer into the darkness, and then I promise we will find our way into the light. I'm thinking of a recent court case involving multiple instances of non-consensual sexual contact. Imagine you're on the jury and you learn that the victim had orgasms. Does it change how your gut responds to the case? Let me remind you, orgasm is physiological; it is a spontaneous, involuntary release of tension, generated in response to sex-related stimuli. But the perpetrator’s lawyer made sure the jury knew about those orgasms because he thought the orgasms could be construed as consent. I will also add that this was a child being abused by an adult in the family.
I invite you to breathe. That kind of story can give a person all kind of feelings, from rage to shame to confused arousal because it is sex-related, even though it is appalling. But even though I know it's difficult to sit with those feelings in a room full of strangers, if we can find our way through all of the messy feelings, I believe we will find our way to the light of compassion for that child, whose relationship with her body was damaged by an adult whose job it was to protect it. And we'll find hope that there was a trustworthy adult who could say, "Genital response just means it was a sex-related stimulus; doesn't mean it was wanted or liked, certainly doesn't mean it was consented to.
That compassion and that hope are why I travel all over, talking about this to anyone who will listen. I can see it helping people, even as I say the words. I invite you to say the words. You don't have to say "clitoris" in front of 1000 strangers. But do have one brave conversation. Tell this to someone you know who has experienced sexual violence — you definitely know someone. In the US it's one in three women. One in six men. Almost half of transgender folks. Say "Genital response means it's a sex-related stimulus. It doesn't mean it was wanted or liked." Say it to a judge you know or a lawyer you know, or a cop or anyone who might sit on a jury in a sexual assault case. Say "Some people think that your body doesn't respond if you don't want or like what's happening, if only that were true. Instead, arousal nonconcordance. Say this to the confused teenager in your life who is just trying to figure out what, even, what? Say, if you bite this moldy fruit and your mouth waters, nobody would say to you, "Well, you just don't want to admit how much you like it." Same goes for down below, arousal nonconcordance. Say it to your partner. My genitals do not tell you what I want or like. I do.
The roots of this myth are deep and they are entangled with some very dark forces in our culture. But with every brave conversation we have, we make the world that little bit better, a little simpler for the confused teenager. A little easier for your friend on the phone, worried that she's broken. A little easier and safer for the survivors, one in three women. One in six men. Half of trans folks. Me too. So for every brave conversation you have, thank you.
Thank you. Thanks.
Helen Walters: Emily, come up here. Thank you so much. I know that you do this all the time, and yet, still, I'm so grateful to you for having the courage to come and talk about that on this stage. It really took a lot and we're very grateful to you. So thank you.
Emily Nagoski: I am grateful to be here.
HW: So in your regular day job, I imagine, as you put at the top of the talk, you get asked a lot of questions. But what's the one question that you get asked all the time that you can share with everyone here so you don't have to answer it 1000 times throughout the rest of the week?
EN: The question I get asked most often is actually the question underneath pretty much all the other questions, so, can you get addicted to your vibrator, please help me with my erectile dysfunction? Underneath every question is actually the question, "Am I normal?" To which my answer in my mind is, what even is normal and why is that what you want your sexuality to be? Why do we only want to be normal around sexuality? Don't we want to be extraordinary? Like, do you just want normal sex or do you want awesome sex in your life? I think, though, there's a lot of fear around being too different sexually. When people are asking me, "Is this thing I'm experiencing normal," what they're actually asking me is, "Do I belong?" Do I belong in this relationship, do I belong in this community of people, do I belong on earth as a sexual person? To which the answer is always a resounding yes. The only barrier there is, the only limit there is, there are two: one, if you're experiencing unwanted sexual pain, talk to a medical provider. And two: As along as everybody involved is free and glad to be there, and free to leave whenever they want to, you're allowed to do anything that you want to. There is no script, there is no box you have to fit into, you're allowed, as long as there is consent and no unwanted pain, you're totally free to do whatever you want.
HW: Amazing. Thank you so much.
EN: Thank you.
HW: Thank you, you're incredible.