Everything you know about sex is wrong. This book corrects your misconceptions and teaches you a better way of doing it. (Surprise, surprise, it’s not about technique.) It’s mostly targeted at and written for women but men can benefit too.
Chapter 1: Anatomy
- Medieval anatomists called women’s external genitals the “pudendum”, a word derived from the Latin pudere, meaning “to make ashamed”. Our genitalia were thus named “from the shamefacedness that is women to have them seen.”
- Averaging just one-eighth the size of a penis yet loaded with nearly double the nerve endings, it can range in size from a barely visible pea to a fair-sized gherkin, or anywhere in between, and it’s all normal, all beautiful. Unlike the penis, the clitoris’s only job is sensation.
- The clitoral hood covers the head of the clitoris, as its homologue, the foreskin, covers the head of the penis. And the male frenulum—the “Y-spot” near the glans, where the foreskin attaches to the shaft—is the homologue of the female fourchette (the French word for “fork”), the curve of tissue on the lower edge of the vagina. This is a highly sensitive and undervalued piece of real estate on all bodies.
- Female inner labia (labia minor or “small lips”) may not be very “inner” at all, but extend out beyond the big lips—or they may tuck themselves away, hidden inside the vulva until you go looking for them. And the inner labia may be all one homogeneous colour, or they may show a gradient of colour, darkening toward the tips. All of that is normal and healthy and beautiful.
- The outer labia, too, vary from person to person. Some are densely hairy, with the hair extending out onto the thigh and around the anus, while others have very little hair. Some lips are quite puffy while others are relatively flush with the body. Some are the same color as the surrounding skin, and some are darker or lighter than the surrounding skin. All normal, all beautiful.
- The hymen doesn’t break and stay broken forever, like some kind of freshness seal. If a hymen tears or bruises, it heals. And the size of a hymen doesn’t vary depending on whether the vagina has been penetrated. Also, it usually doesn’t bleed. Any blood with first penetration is more likely due to general vaginal tearing from lack of lubrication than to damage to the hymen.
- The hymen is another example of the wide variability in female genitals. Some women are born without hymens. Others have imperforate hymens (a thin but solid membrane covering all of the vaginal opening) or microperforate hymens (many tiny holes in an otherwise solid membrane). Some have septate hymens, which feel like a strand of skin stretching across the vagina. Some hymens are durable, others are fragile. Some disappear early in adolescence, and some are still in evidence past menopause.
- Hymens vary because, as far as science has been able to discover, the hymen was not selected for by evolution. It has no reproductive or any other function. It’s a byproduct, a little bonus left behind by the juggernaut of evolutionary selection pressure, like male nipples.
Chapter Two: The Dual Control Model
- Your central nervous system (your brain and spinal cord) is made up of a series of partnerships of accelerator and brakes—like the pairing of your sympathetic nervous system (“accelerator”) and your parasympathetic nervous system (“brakes”).
- A core insight of the dual control model is that what’s true for other aspects of the nervous system must also be true for the brain system that coordinates sex: a sexual accelerator and sexual brakes.
- Sexual Excitation System (SE). The accelerator of your sexual response. It receives information about sex-related stimuli in the environment—things you see, hear, smell, touch, taste, or imagine—and sends signals from the brain to the genitals to tell them, “Turn on!” SE is constantly scanning your context (including your own thoughts and feelings) for things that are sex-related. It is always at work, far below the level of consciousness.
- Sexual Inhibition System (SI). Your sexual brakes. “Inhibition” here doesn’t mean “shyness” but rather neurological “off” signals. Research has found that there are actually two brakes, reflecting the different functions of an inhibitory system. One brake notices all the potential threats in the environment—everything you see, hear, smell, touch, taste, or imagine—and send signals saying, “Turn off!”
- The second brake is a chronic, low-level “No thank you” signal. It is associated with “fear of performance failure”, like worry about not having an orgasm.
- According to the dual control model, sexual arousal is really two processes: activating the accelerator and deactivating the brakes. So your level of sexual arousal at any given moment is the product of how much stimulation the accelerator is getting and how little stimulation the brakes are getting.
- But it’s also a product of how sensitive your brakes and accelerator are to that stimulation.
- Sensitive brakes, regardless of the accelerator, is the strongest predictor of sexual problems of all kinds.
Chapter Three: Context
- Context is made of two things: the circumstances of the present moment—whom you’re with, where you are, whether the situation is novel or familiar, risky or safe, etc.—and your brain state in the present moment—whether you’re relaxed or stressed, trusting or not, loving or not, right now, in this moment.
- The evidence is mounting that women’s sexual response is more sensitive than men’s to context, including mood and relationship factors, and women vary more from each other in how much such factors influence their sexual response.
- Context changes how your brain responds to sex” doesn’t just mean “Set the mood,” like with candles, corsets, and a locked bedroom door. It also means that when you’re in a great sex-positive context, almost everything can activate your curious “What’s this?” desirous approach to sex.
- And when you’re in a not-so-great context—either external circumstances or internal brain state—it doesn’t matter how sexy your partner is, how much you love them, or how fancy your underwear is, almost nothing will activate that curious, appreciative, desirous experience.
- Exactly what context a woman experiences as sex positive varies both from woman to woman and also across a woman’s life span, but generally it’s a context that’s low stress, high affection, and explicitly erotic.
- This may be the most important consequence of understanding the way context influences how your brain processes sex-related stimuli: When sex doesn’t feel great, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. Maybe there’s been a change in your external circumstances or your other motivational systems (like stress) that’s influencing your sexual response. Which means that you can create positive change without changing you.
Chapter Four: Emotional Context
- Our stressors are lower intensity and longer duration—“chronic stressors,” they’re called, in contrast to “acute stressors,” like straightforward predation. Acute stressors have a clear beginning, middle, and end; completing the cycle—running, surviving, celebrating—is inherently built in. Not so with chronic stressors.
- If our stress is chronic and we don’t take deliberate steps to complete the cycle, all that activated stress just hang out inside us, making us sick, tired, and unable to experience pleasure with sex (or with much of anything else).
- Physical activity is the most efficient strategy for completing the stress response cycle and recalibrating your central nervous system into a calm state.
- Here are some other things that science says can genuinely help us not only “feel better” but actually facilitate the completion of the stress response cycle: sleep; affection (more on that later in the chapter); any form of meditation, including mindfulness, yoga, tai chi, body scans, etc.; and allowing yourself a good old cry or primal scream.
- The key to managing stress so that it doesn’t interfere with sexual pleasure is learning to complete the cycle—unlock freeze, escape the predator, conquer the enemy.
Communication about sex
- Couples seem to struggle with discussing sexual difficulties in specific ways. We are all so tender around this topic, so afraid both of hurting our partner’s feelings and of not meeting our partner’s expectations, that we need a special set of skills to help us be as gentle and kind with each other as that tenderness requires.
- Think of your difficult feelings about sex as sleepy hedgehogs that you discover in inconvenient places around your home. If you find a sleepy hedgehog in the chair you were about to sit in, you should:
- Find Out the Hedgehog’s Name. “Right now I feel… jealous/angry/hurt/etc.” Simple, though there are usually multiple feelings involved at the same time. That’s normal.
- Sit Peacefully with It. Don’t run away from it, don’t judge it or shame it or get mad at it. Sit still with it, like it is a welcome guest.
- Listen to Its Needs. The question to ask is: What will help? If you feel fear or anger, how could the perceived threat be managed? If you feel sadness, hurt, or grief, how can you heal the loss? There won’t always be something you can actively do, apart from allowing the feeling to discharge and complete its cycle. And remember that it’s not your partner’s fault or obligation; their help is entirely voluntary and provides an opportunity for you to express gratitude for their support.
- Communicate the feeling and the need. Present the feeling to your partner. “I feel x,” you say, “and I think what would help is y.”
Chapter Five: Cultural Context
- The outdated ideas consist of three interwoven cultural messages of sexual socialization that women encounter in modern America.
- The Moral Message: “You are Damaged Goods.” If you want or like sex, you’re a slut. Your virginity is your most valuable asset. If you’ve had too many partners (“too many” = more than your male partner has had), you should be ashamed.
- The Medical Message: “You Are Diseased.” Sex causes disease and pregnancy, which makes it dangerous. But if you’re ready to take that risk, sexual functioning should happen in a particular way—desire, then arousal, then orgasm, preferably during intercourse, simultaneously with your partner—and when it doesn’t, there is a medical issue that you must address
- The Media Message: “You Are Inadequate.”
- A 2012 review of fifty-seven studies, spanning two decades of research, found important links between body image and just about every domain of sexual behavior you can imagine.
- All you ever need to do is begin to recognize where your learned disgust response is interfering with your own sexual pleasure, and decide whether it’s something you’d rather let go of.
Chapter Six: Arousal
- “Arousal nonconcordance”: There is no predictive relationship between how aroused she feels and how much her genitals respond.
- Genital response is specific to sex-related stimuli—regardless of whether those stimuli are sexually appealing.
- The genitals tell you, “That’s sex-related.” The person tells you, “That turns me on,” or “I like this,” or “I want more, please.”
- For women, there’s about a 10 percent overlap between “sex-related” and “sexually appealing.” For men, there’s about a 50 percent overlap.
- The way to be dangerously wrong about nonconcordance is to decide that it’s a symptom of something.
- Here are some alternative things your partner can pay attention to if your genitals are telling them only about learning, not about liking:
- Your breath. Your respiration rate and your pulse increase with arousal. You begin holding your breath, too, as you get to the highest level of arousal and your thoracic and pelvic diaphragms contract.
- Muscle tension, especially in your abdomen, buttocks, and thighs, but also in your wrists, calves, and feet. When the tension moves in waves through you, your body bows and arches. For some women, in some contexts, this happens in an obvious way. For other women, or in other contexts, it is subtle.
- Most importantly, your words. Only you can tell your partner what you want and how you feel. Not all women feel equally comfortable talking about their desire and arousal, but you can shortcut with “yes” or “more”.
- What is lube for? Reducing friction, which can increase pleasure, and it always decreases the risk of tearing and pain. And always use lube if you’re using protective barriers like condoms or dams. Lube increases their efficacy and makes them more pleasurable. Lube is your friend. Lube will make your sex life better.
Chapter Seven: Desire
- The standard narrative of sexual desire is that it just appears.
- Where spontaneous desire appears in anticipation of pleasure, responsive desire emerges in response to pleasure. And it’s normal. People with responsive desire don’t have “low” desire, they don’t suffer from any ailment, they don’t even long to initiate but feel like they’re not allowed to. Their bodies just need some more compelling reason than, “Sex is generally fun,” or “That’s an attractive person right there,” to crave sex.
- Desire is pleasure in context.
- What all of this means is that if you want to expand your access to spontaneous desire, all you have to do is look for the contexts that facilitate it.
- Problematic dynamics emerge when partners have different levels of desire and they believe that one person’s level of desire is “better” than the other person’s.
- People who have magnificent sex don’t just show up and put their bodies in the bed—e.g., good sex. They deliberately cultivate a context that’s “just safe enough” to dare the leaps of faith they take into the wild places in their souls.
- When people who have magnificent sex want sex, they don’t just want the sex we see performed in the mainstream media or porn. They want to know themselves and their partners more fully, and they want to be seen and known more fully, felt more deeply, held more closely. This is what I call “magnificent desire.”
Chapter Eight: Orgasm
- The main thing most women describe most of the time is a sense of “doneness,” a sense that you’ve crossed a threshold and something has completed. There’s often a peak of tension where your muscles tighten and your heart pounds. Orgasms are like art, I told her. You know it when you see it. It may not be what you expect, but it will be different from everything else.
- When you strip it down to the universal essentials, here’s what you get: Orgasm is the sudden, involuntary release of sexual tension.
- In other words, genital physiological markers of orgasm are not always predictive of a woman’s subjective experience of orgasm. Which makes perfect sense if you recognize that orgasm—like pleasure—isn’t about what happens in your genitals, it’s about what happens in your brain.
- All orgasms are the sudden release of sexual tension. How that release feels depends on context. Which is why some orgasms feel amazing and others don’t.
- Pleasure is the measure. Pleasure is the measure of your orgasm—not what kind of stimulation created it, not how long it takes to get there, not how long it lasts or how strongly your pelvic floor muscle contracts. The only measure of your orgasm is how much you enjoy it.
- Despite what you’ve learned from movies, romance novels, or porn, in reality less than a third of women are reliably orgasmic with vaginal penetration alone, while the remaining two-thirds or more are sometimes, rarely, or never orgasmic with penetration alone.
- Intercourse is not a very effective way to stimulate the clitoris, and clitoral stimulation is the most common way to make an orgasm happen. In fact, research has found that one reason why women vary in how reliably they orgasm with penetration is the distance between the clitoris and the urethra.
- The central approach to orgasm difficulties is to change the goal by making pleasure the goal, not orgasm.
Chapter Nine: Love What’s True
- Your best source of knowledge about your sexuality is your own internal experience. When you notice disagreement between your experience and your expectations about what you “should” be experiencing—and everyone does, at some point—always assume your experience is right.