Amazon recommended this book when I was browsing for Esther Perel titles. Emily Nagoski is a Ph.D. teaching at Smith College and this book offers the best science wrapped in very accessible language. The concepts of opening up the range of female experience and self-acceptance are wonderful and freeing. On page 332 she says, “I wrote this book because I am done living in a world where women are lied to about their bodies; where women are objects of sexual desire but not subjects of sexual pleasure; where sex is used as a weapon against women; and where women believe their bodies are broken, simply because those bodies are not male. And I am done living in a world where women are trained fro birth to treat their bodies as the enemy. I want to teach women to live with confidence and joy.”
Descriptions on pages 62-64 of the “lemony-freshness” and “little rat jacket” experiments with the first sexual experiences of healthy young male rats raised by competent mothers who licked them enough.
In a rat’s natural environment, outside the lab, he would never need a jacket in order of feel sexy, and the smell of lemons wouldn’t make him ejaculate. The rats learned these things because humans created an environment where those things sere salient features of their sexual environment. But even things you would assume are innate — fertile female rats — must be learned by experience.
Dealing with Unwanted Feelings
How to deal with unwanted feelings (page 119) and the importance of “going through the tunnel” touching neither the brake nor the accelerator.
My technical description of [the] out-of-control experience is “maladaptive behavior to manage negative affect” — which just means trying to cope with uncomfortable emotions (stress, depression, anxiety, loneliness, rage) by doing things that carry a high risk of unwanted consequences. Compulsive sexual behavior is one example. Other examples include:
- using alcohol or other drugs in a risky way
- dysfunctional relationships — for instance, trying to deal with your own feelings by dealing with someone else’s
- escaping into distractions, like movie binge-watching when you have other things you need to be doing
- disordered eating — restricting, binging, or purging
What is the single most effective strategy for completing the stress response cycle? Dr. Nagoski asks, “When you are being chased by a lion, what do you do? You run.” Physical activity recalibrates your central nervous system into a calm state. (p. 122)
She points out on page 118 that stressed people may become more eager for sex but enjoy it less because pleasure is a different component than sexual interest. “To reduct the impace of stresson your sexual pleasure and interest, to have more joyful, pleasurable sex, manage your stress. Yeah, easier said than done.”
Weeding Your Garden, Training Your Brain
Meditation is a sideways strategy for weeding trauma out of your garden. It’s a way of simply noticing a weed and then deciding if you want to water it or not, pull it or not, fertilize it or not. The weed of trauma will gradually disappear as long as at least half of the time you choose not to nurture it. And the more you choose to withdraw your protection from the trauma, the faster it will wither and die. If you change only one thing in your life as a result of reading this book, make it a daily two-minute practice of [following your breath and noticing that your mind has wandered and bringing it back, “mindful” of both your breath and your attention to your breath. You are teaching yourself to be in control of your brain, so that your brain is not in control of you]. This practice will cultivate deep respect for emotions, differentiating their causes from their effects and granting you choice over how you manage them. (p. 130-131)
The regular two-minute practice will will gradually result in peridoc moments throughout the day when you notice what you’re paying attention to and then decide if that’s what you want to pay attention to right now, or if you want to pay attention to something else. What you pay attention to matters less than how you pay attention.
Spontaneous Desire vs. Responsive Desire
“So, what do I do if my desire for sex is only spontaneous in bad relationships?” a student asked Dr. Nagoski. The pervasive standard in our culture is the typical male-default spontaneous desire. The student had been using sex as an attachment behavior in bad relationships (as described in chapter four) and was now perplexed that her desire was behaving differently in a stable, trusting relationship. (p. 297)
Responsive desire arises from the context of feeling safe and loved and lacks the insistent itch of attachment behavior. “Cultivate loving responsive desire. Figure out what contexts give you a fantastic relationship and hot sex. That shift will change your life and is the reason I am writing this book.”
Our meta-emotions — the cultural images described in chapter five — manage how we feel about our feelings. Our judgements about whether something is good or bad. Three questions to develop more positive meta-emotons:
- Is this the right goal for me?
- Am I putting in the right amount of the right kind of effort?
- Are my expectations of how much effort this particular goal requires realistic?
The Map Is Not The Terrain
On page 300 Dr. Nagoski explains that the map is developed through early sexual experiences like “lemony freshness” and “little rat jacket” as well as cultural indoctrination. “The technical term for this process of organizing your experience according to a preexisting template is ‘probabilistic generative model.’ It means that information from your senses goes first to your emotional brain, where prior learning, plus your present brain state (stress, desire) combine to shape the initial decisions your brain makes about whether to move forward or away from that sensory input. Sadly, most people’s sexual maps are unreliable.” Here are the steps to revise the map and create positive meta-emotions.
- Trust the terrain. Recognize the difference between the map-goal and what you’re actually experiencing. Two key points: (a) When the map doesn’t seem to fit the terrain, the map is wrong, (b) Evkeryone’s map and everyone’s terrain are different.
- Let go of the map. Welcoming your sexuality as it is, without judgment or shame, is the hard part for a lot of women. Non-judging is the key. Emotions are tunnels. You have to go all the way through the darkness to get to the light at the end.
There are three targets for retraining the meta-emotions: the goal, the amount or kind of effort you invest, and the criterion velocity — your assessment of how effortful it should be to achieve this goal. First, re-evaluate what it is going to take to reach the goal. Second strategy: change the kind of effort. She tells of funny poster in her office of a penguin waddling away from the camera with this caption: Until you spread your wings, you’ll have no idea of how far you can walk.
Strategy three: change the goal. Option A is no longer available, let’s rock Option B. “Let go of the goal of spontaneous desire and allow yourself to be responsive or context-sensitive opens up the opportunity of seeking out contexts that maximize your desire style.”
When you notice shame or frustration or grief, allow yourself to direct those feelings away from yourself and instead focus the emotions toward the culture that told you the wrong story. Rage not against yourself but against the culture that lied to you. Grieve not for your discrepancy from a fictitious “ideal” that is at best arbitrary and at worst an act of oppression and violence; grieve for the compassionate world you were born deserving… and did not get.
The purpose of allowing yourself to feel those Feels is not to change something out in the world. Feel your Feels so that they can discharge, release, and create space for something new inside you. When you allow that grief to move through you, you are letting go of the sexual person you were told you “should be,” a phantom self that has taken up space in your mind for too long. And letting go of that phantom creates spaces for the sexual person you are. And when we all practice this, the world does change, person by person.
Confidence and joy — that’s the path.