My general rule of thumb for non-fiction is that if I learn one new thing that changes my view of the world, it’s worth the time it took to read it. I certainly learned some important things about women’s sexuality in this book. How could I not? As Nagoski says, women’s sexuality in this culture is usually depicted as “exactly like men’s, only not as good.” My feminism waves a big, red flag at that.
It’s no big secret that there’s a lot of baggage surrounding cultural expectations of women’s sexuality. We’re told practically from birth that we are sex objects, and that we should simultaneously live up to this and fight against this. We should enjoy sex enthusiastically and also never enjoy sex. We’re lied to again and again, sometimes in ridiculous ways.
One of the biggest eye-openers in this book was exposing the lie that a woman’s body-response or lack of response to a sexually charged situation reflects her mental state. That is, if a woman says she’s ready for sex but she’s not wet, it doesn’t mean she’s lying. If a woman is wet but says she’s not turned on, it also doesn’t mean she’s lying. Just because a woman got wet (or even orgasmed) during rape does not mean that she “secretly wanted it” any more than a boy having an erection watching a nature video means that he secretly craves hot monkey love or that a middle-aged man not being able to get it up while in the presence of a beautiful woman means that he’s suddenly become gay. We don’t claim those men are lying, but our culture has so many terrible ideas around women and sex that the default answer is usually “whatever she’s doing is wrong.” It’s kind of like parenting in that way. Doesn’t matter what you do, it’s wrong.
Nagoski offers a few tips for how to get past these blocks. She uses the metaphors of “accelerator” (things that make a person aroused) and “brake” (things/situations that stop arousal.) A pink Viagra hasn’t been invented because most of the time if a woman isn’t having the amount of sex she wants it’s not because of physiological issues. She gives a few pointers on how to get through the stress cycle so that stress won’t put the brakes on (animals fleeing danger rarely stop to get nookie. Stress frequently tamps down on non-essential activities, such as getting aroused.) She has a few pointers on how to combat that age-old problem of differing sex drives between couples.
She also fights against the notion of sex as a “drive.” It’s like curiosity. People are healthier if they can indulge in it, and generally are born with a desire for it, but not satisfying your desire for sex won’t cause any tissue damage, nor will it kill you any more than not finding out how that mystery novel ended will kill you. You might want it real bad, but it’s not a need like food or sleep. This is an insidious myth, especially when it plays into my pet peeve of the people who teach their boys and girls that a woman is put on earth to satisfy men’s “need” for sex.
Some of how the book is structured is useful. Some is less useful. It has sections on physiology, neurology, and psychology. It has notes sections to fill in your own experiences, which I generally dislike (and also dislike in this situation. It feels like pointless fill, a waste of paper.) Nagoski uses very modern , often overly cutsey language, such as tl;dr sections at the end for people who want a summary of the chapter. She also has the tendency to introduce characters as examples, then cut off before she answers their question with a “we’ll answer that in Chapter X.”
The most frustrating thing about this book were that not all of the metaphors worked for me. Some of them did, such as the brake and accelerator. Others just confused me. She talked about an internal “monitor” but I never was able to grasp that. I understood it a little better when she brought in the map/terrain discrepancy analogy, but I never liked the “monitor” metaphor. I also didn’t like the “emotion is like a tunnel, you have to get through it.” She brought up the “you have to get through your emotions” point more than once, emphasizing it as crucially important to a healthy life of any way, but it just plain did not make sense to me. Neither did “treat your sexuality gently and with kindness, like a sleepy hedgehog.” I just can’t make good use of that.
This book was valuable to me because I haven’t read many books about women’s sexuality so I got a lot of insightful ideas to think about. Her writing isn’t perfect, but her research was completely new to me, so it was worth a little bit of confusion.