Vibrators and lube can only do so much to improve your most intimate relationships.

By Lauren Mazzo
March 06, 2020
Cavan Images/Getty

At one point in every rom-com, a gorgeous, exciting new couple has out-of-this-world sex (and the woman orgasms—multiple times). But real-life intimacy doesn't quite match up with what's shown on the big screen. In fact, more than 50 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with their sex lives, according to a 2018 national survey.

One possible reason? Our approach to sex has been all wrong, says Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., a sex educator, a speaker, and the author of the best-selling book Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life. Rather than introducing vibrators and other toys into the bedroom to improve your ~sexy time~, shifting your thinking might just be the secret key to unlocking more pleasure. Here, Nagoski explains the current state of women's sexuality and what it takes to make sex more enjoyable for everyone involved.

One of the main themes of Come As You Are is that we are all normal, despite messages that make us feel sexually inadequate. What convinced you that women need to hear this?

The book was an offshoot of a women’s sexuality class I was teaching at Smith College. My last question on the final exam was: Tell me one important thing you learned. I thought they were going to write about an aspect of neuroscience or attachment theory, but more than half my students wrote something like, “I’m normal. Just because I’m different from other women doesn’t mean I’m broken.” I was grading papers with tears in my eyes. Feeling normal was really powerful for them, and my class had taught them that. I wanted to do it again and on a larger scale.

What issue did you find that women really struggle with?

One of the most powerful is body image. I don’t know one woman who doesn’t have some ambivalence about her body. For decades, research has told us that women with more body self-criticism have more sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancies, and unwelcome sexual experiences. When you improve your relationship with your body, that improves your access to sexual pleasure.

You say that the key to a good sex life is improving things outside your sex life. What does that mean?

The mechanism in the brain that controls sexual response is called the dual-control mechanism. There’s the sexual accelerator, which notices all the sex-related information in the environment—what you see, hear, smell, touch, taste, and think. That sends the turn-on signals we’re all familiar with. Parallel to that is a brake, which notices all the reasons not to be turned on. Becoming aroused is a process of turning the ons on and turning the offs off. Most sex advice out there says that if you’re having problems with any aspect of arousal, try adding stimulation to the accelerator—lube, porn, lingerie. But the real issue is that there’s too much stimulation on the brake. Stress, body image, relationship factors, trauma history, and even dirty dishes in the sink can make your brain hit the brake pedal. When you eliminate that stuff, you free up the accelerator.

What else can we do to stop putting on the brakes?

Ask yourself, When I want sex, what is it that I want? Or when I don’t want sex, what is it that I don’t want? And then a related question: When I like sex, what is it that I like? And when I don’t like sex, what is it that I don’t like? Sometimes, what we’re really seeking [comfort, say] is not something that sex can provide. When you think deeply about these questions, you can start to recognize what you’re looking for and also what’s not working.

So how do we actually make sex more pleasurable?

Think of a few great sexual experiences you’ve had, then break it down into the basic categories: your well-being, partner characteristics, relationship characteristics, the setting, other circumstances [money, work, kid stress], and playfulness. Make a list. Then think about three meh sexual experiences you’ve had, and list those same factors. What prevented them from being spectacular? In the end, it’s not how much you crave sex. It’s not how often you do it, whom you do it with, or how many orgasms you have. It’s whether you like the sex you are having. If sex feels good, you’ll want to do it. Identify and focus on the things that make it that way. (Related: 5 Things Everyone Needs to Know About Sex and Dating, According to a Relationships Therapist)

Source: Shape Magazine, March 2020 issue
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