Reading Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life by Emily Nagoski was difficult for two reasons. First, because while I take no issue with reading about sex in public, other people seem to find it weird (which got me some odd looks), and second, because I learned something new on every other page and wanted to tell everyone. I want to sing this book from the rooftops until the police have to be called because it’s four in the morning and I’m screeching about vulvas. It’s that good. It’s so good.
Come As You Are is set up to give advice to women about improving their sex lives based in both a scientific understanding of sex and a social understanding of what our culture says about sex. For every woman who has wondered why she’s broken for having a “low sex drive,” or why her body is “betraying” her by not being aroused when her partner wants, or who wonders if the kind of sex she’s having is healthy and normal, or wondering if there could be a “Pink Viagra” out there to make her want sex all the time, this is for you.
Emily Nagoski has some answers.
What Come As You Are is not is a lady magazine giving you all the best tips to satisfy your man. There are no 30 Positions You Must Try Tonight lists, no 10 Ways You’re Secretly Turning Him Off articles, no 5 Steps to an Easy, Mind-Blowing Orgasm. Nagoski does not recommend that you light candles, wear something sexy, eat a donut off of your partner’s penis, or practice your O-Face. This book isn’t about giving surface solutions to an unsatisfactory sex life, it’s about fixing the problem.
And what is the problem?
Hint: it’s not you.
Generally speaking, it’s how our culture teaches us to relate to our bodies. In Nagoski’s book she makes it clear that the way our bodies work is completely natural and normal. There’s a lot of variety of sexual experiences, whether you have a sensitive accelerator or a sensitive brake, what kinds of stimulus most affect you, and more, but it’s all natural. It’s all normal. It’s all okay. However, because our culture decides that one narrative is acceptable and normal (or, more frustratingly, when different aspects of our culture give us contradictory narratives that are ideal) we tend to view natural differences as dysfunctions. So, she talks about why this happens and then she talks about how to fix it.
Nagoski structures the book very appealingly, at least in my eyes. It’s pretty long at 338 pages (before the appendices and notes) but I breezed through it in a day and a half on my first reading. There are four parts (The Basics, Sex in Context, Sex in Action, and Ecstacy for Everybody) with two to three chapters a piece. Each of the chapters has a bullet-point summary at the end, the TL;DR section, which helps re-cap the chapter before we move on.
We work from the bottom up, from how our genitals develop in-utero to how we learn about sex and, finally, how to put all this information together to improve your sex life. There are also worksheets and surveys for you to fill out so that you can think about your own sex life and put the science to work for you.
So, yes, there’s a lot of science in it. There’s studies about people responding to videos of primates mating, there are rats with lemon fetishes and aversions to Iggy Pop, there are experiments in it cover to cover. But it’s not hard to read, and for every bit of science there’s a personal anecdote by one of four women (well, compound characters that represent real women) who are all learning to improve their sex lives or references to pop-culture to keep things light and easy to read. She can be downright funny sometimes and tender at others, Nagoski just has a fantastic voice.
There are a lot of metaphors in the book. Since a lot of what Nagoski says is contrary to our basic cultural understanding and she knows not all of her readers are science-minded folk, she compares the facts of sex to a number of different things. But, since sex is complicated, there are a lot of metaphors. We, and the aspects that make up our sexuality, are simultaneously gardens, tomato plants in a desert, showers, a panel of levers and switches, sleepy hedgehogs, and more. It can be a little confusing, but picking what metaphors work best for you makes reading it much easier.
You know a book is good when you go into it expecting not to be profoundly affected and then, whoops, your entire outlook on something is changed. I didn’t read this book from the perspective of someone who views themselves as sexually dysfunctional, so the worksheets remain untouched, but one of the metaphors Nagoski uses really stuck out at me: Sleepy hedgehogs. Instead of conceptualizing my emotions as unnameable, unspeakable Eldritch horrors (as I tend to do) I’ve started using her advice and thinking about them as sleepy hedgehogs. Sure, a hedgehog can hurt you if you mishandle it, but it doesn’t mean to. It’s not something to run away from, not something to fear. Something… normal. And it’s helped a lot.
So now when I emotionally-vomit at my partner I can apologize by saying “Oh, sorry, I just threw a hedgehog at you, didn’t I?” and take more responsibility for it. Hey, I’m human. It happens, but I can control it. And this book helped give me the perspective to do just that.
I have some questions that remain unanswered by the book. Why men and women have such different sexualities when we are the same parts, organized differently remains somewhat mysterious to me despite there being a short section on it. Is it biology? Is it socialization? There’s a short section on this at the beginning of the book but it raised more questions for me than it did answer them. My gut says it’s both, but my gut also says that we probably don’t have the answer yet.
A lot of information in this book is gender neutral which makes me hope that some day a corresponding book will come out for men. I can see why Nagoski chose to write this for women, who are more likely to report “sexual dysfunction” and are under more pressure about it, but I really don’t want anyone to go without really understanding arousal or without learning about developing a healthy relationship with your emotions. Although, I had a discussion with my brother about it who informs me that men just don’t buy books like this. I can only hope a more frank discussion about sex and gender in our culture will change that.
I only have one specific complaint about the book and that’s how Nagoski handles gender and sex at the very beginning. She makes the point that this book is made for cisgender women. That is fair. There hasn’t been a lot of research on the sexual development of transgender people that isn’t really gross (as in, that doesn’t attempt to use sex to dismiss the fact that they are transgender, or to diagnose them with a disorder.) But she way she handles this rubbed me the exact wrong way:
[T]here’s too little research on trans* and genderqueer sexual functioning for me to say with certainty whether what’s true about cisgender women’s sexual wellbeing is also true for trans* folks. I think it probably is, and as more research emerges over the coming decade we’ll find out, but in the meantime I want to acknowledge that this is basically a book about cisgender women.
And if you don’t know what any of that means, don’t worry about it.
Did that come across as… dismissive to you? And totally out of step with the rest of her engaging, friendly, enthusiastic voice? Because it certainly did for me. Enough for me to mar an otherwise sparkling review because I couldn’t let this one line on page 8 of a 300+ page book go. Why shouldn’t readers who don’t know what the words cisgender, genderqueer, or transgender worry about it? It seems to me that Nagoski is in a perfect situation to tell these people what those words mean. Gender makes up a significant portion of the rest of the book, after all. It wouldn’t have been out of place.
So, for the record: here’s the definition of cisgender from Time magazine, some Q&A about transgender people from the National Center for Transgender Equality, and an explanation of Genderqueer from the Nonbinary wiki.
So, what I’m saying here is, buy this book. Even if you don’t feel sexually dysfunctional. Even if you don’t think you’ll learn anything new. If you don’t get it for you, get it for a female friend who is struggling. I think we can all benefit from what Emily Nagoski has to say.