Sex Educator Emily Nagoski’s New Book ‘Come Together’ Is a Product of Experience

Sex Educator Emily Nagoski’s New Book ‘Come Together’ Is a Product of Experience

A decade ago, as the sex educator Emily Nagoski was researching and writing her first book, “Come as You Are” — a soon-to-be best seller exploring the science of women’s sexuality — she and her husband stopped having sex.

Nagoski began appearing everywhere, reassuring women that their sexuality was not a problem that needed to be solved or treated. She talked to the author Glennon Doyle and her wife, the soccer player Abby Wambach, about body image and shame on their podcast. She published a workbook to help women better understand their sexual temperament and sexual cues. Her TED Talks have been viewed millions of times.

But at home, she and her husband, Rich Stevens — a cartoonist whom she met on the dating site OkCupid in 2011 — were cycling in and out of monthslong sexual dry spells stemming from work stress and health problems. When I spoke to Nagoski at her cozy house in Easthampton, Mass., in the fall, and then again over the phone in January, she declined to offer specifics on just how long their droughts lasted. (She did not want people to compare themselves.) But she did not hold back about how they made her feel.

“Stressed. Depressed. Anxious. Lonely. Self-critical,” Nagoski, 46, said. “Like, how can I be an ‘expert’ — and I say that with heavy, heavy air quotes — and still be struggling in this way?”

After all, Nagoski had written the book on women and desire. She popularized the metaphor of the sexual response system as a car with an accelerator (that notices erotic stimuli) and brakes (that notice all of the reasons not to have sex. Like chores. Or a new baby. Or, just, patriarchy). When women struggle with arousal and pleasure, she explained in “Come as You Are,” it isn’t because the accelerator isn’t being stimulated; it’s usually because the brakes are being pushed too hard. Her talent was not for producing original research — this dual control model of sexual response, for instance, is not her idea — but she had a knack for sifting through the science to uncover what she believed to be most relevant to women’s day-to-day lives, and finding simple ways to describe it.

“She often reminds people that they are whole, they are not broken,” said Debby Herbenick, the director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at the Indiana University School of Public Health, who went to graduate school with Nagoski.

However, Nagoski’s own fractured sex life left her full of self-doubt.

“I did my best to do what I tell other people to do, which is to turn toward what was happening with kindness and compassion,” she said, recognizing how cloying that advice can sound. “I tried to give myself permission to allow these things to be true. To recognize they would not always be true. And that I would move through this spell with more ease if I did not beat myself up.”

Like a true self-proclaimed “sex nerd,” Nagoski also dug into the science of what great sex looks like in a long-term relationship and how to cope when problems arise, which became the backbone of her new book, “Come Together: The Science (and Art!) of Creating Lasting Sexual Connections,” out later this month. At nearly 300 pages, with two appendices and 22 pages of notes and scientific references, it’s the product of an academic who loves data. But Nagoski, who earned a doctorate in health behavior and a master’s degree in counseling from Indiana University, is happy to give up what she thinks are the three secrets of partners with happy sex lives in the book’s introduction: 1. They are friends. 2. They prioritize sex. 3. They ignore outside opinions about what sex should look like and do what works for them.

“When I got done,” she said, “I had this whole book’s worth of advice we used to fight our way back to each other.”

Nagoski believes that most people are hung up on the wrong metrics when it comes to sex. It isn’t about novelty or orgasms, nor is it about frequency. “People always want to know: How often does a typical couple have sex?” she said, sitting on her living room couch next to Stevens, 47, while one of their two rescue dogs, Thunder, napped between them. “Which is not a question that I answer, because it’s impossible to hear a number and not compare yourself to it.” (Also, she added, people seldom talk about the quality of said sex.)

Most of us are too fixated on libido — or on wanting to want to have sex — she said, which has caused a lot of unnecessary stress and insecurity. “Desire is the No. 1 reason people of all gender combinations seek sex therapy,” she said. “Even I need to be reminded that it’s not about desire. It’s about pleasure.”

It’s a somewhat surprising take from someone who has spent a lot of the past decade helping women better understand how desire actually works, banging the drum about the difference between spontaneous desire (the feeling of wanting sex out of the blue) and responsive desire (which arises in response to erotic stimuli). In other words, there’s nothing unsexy about planning or scheduling sex.

Nagoski has been a sex educator since the mid-90s. She worked for eight years as the director of wellness education at Smith College, before making the switch to writing and speaking full time in 2016. She has also built a brand that now includes a podcast, a newsletter with more than 30,000 subscribers and a growing social media presence, where she sometimes posts with a look-alike puppet named Nagoggles.

Much of what Nagoski preaches, she said, is a transformation of how most of us have been taught sex is supposed to work — that it is always pleasurable and easy.

“Pleasure only happens under really specific circumstances, and the 21st-century, postindustrial world doesn’t naturally create those circumstances very often,” she said. “We are all overwhelmed, exhausted, stressed. Like, of course you have to put effort into transitioning out of your everyday state of mind into a sexy state of mind.”

But in “Come Together,” Nagoski is arguing that desire is almost beside the point. “Center pleasure, because great sex over the long term is not about how much you want sex,” she writes, “it’s about how much you like the sex you’re having.”

Put more succinctly: “Pleasure is the measure.”

This concept may seem obvious to some, and Nagoski isn’t saying anything sex researchers don’t know. But Rosalyn Dischiavo, president of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists, who described Nagoski as both “delightfully geeky” and a “rock star” in the field, called it a “radical truth.”

“As sex educators, one of the most beautiful parts of our job — and one of the most frustrating parts of our job — is to ring that bell over and over and over again to wake people up and say, ‘Pleasure is good,’” she said. “‘Pleasure is healing.’”

Nagoski knows that telling couples to “just access pleasure together” is easier said than done. For most people, herself included, a long list of things can hit their sexual brakes. In the past several years, she has dealt with perimenopause, a back injury, and then long Covid, which has caused severe vascular problems. For months, Nagoski could barely walk to her mailbox. And she is still healing.

In 2021, Nagoski was diagnosed with autism, after her therapist noted she was unusually relieved not to have to see or talk to others during the height of the pandemic. Around that time, she watched the Pixar short “Loop,” in which two teens, one of whom has autism and is nonverbal, learn to communicate on a canoe ride. “It’s just this six-minute, animated thing,” she said, as she teared up. Watching it, she realized, “I’m autistic.”

The diagnosis, Nagoski said, was an “enormous relief.” People on the autism spectrum are sometimes blunt and unfiltered, and the diagnosis helped to explain why she might be so good at what she does. “I think one of the reasons talking about sex is so easy for me is that I have not absorbed the same ‘shoulds’ in the same way,” she said.

“Come Together” is the first time Nagoski has publicly opened up about her sex life, a decision she initially felt ambivalent about. “Before I wrote the book, I wondered if revealing, like, ‘I, too, have struggled with desire in a long-term relationship’ would undercut my expertise.”

When asked what she and her partner did to move through their dry spells, Nagoski distilled it to this: First, she spent a lot of time talking to her therapist (whom she has seen for years) about how to speak to her husband about their issues in a way that felt loving and not accusatory. Next, before they tried initiating anything physical, the couple spent a lot of time talking about sex. Nagoski realized it was important to let Stevens be silly about their situation, she said. (Their inside jokes about his genitals can’t be repeated here.) It brought some levity to their conversations and helped them to realize how important playfulness is to their dynamic in the bedroom.

Last, she asked her husband to be more affectionate with her outside of sexual situations. Their sex life is hardly perfect now, though if she were not recovering from long Covid, Nagoski said, she would describe it as better than it has ever been.

They made small changes, too. The couple began closing the bedroom door so their dogs — who “want to be up on the bed with us,” Nagoski said — couldn’t interrupt sex. They also moved any intimate supplies they needed closer to the bed. The two were trying to eliminate every possible barrier and inconvenience.

But there are risks, Nagoski acknowledged, when couples start having conversations about what is not working in their sex lives. “None of us want to hurt our partner’s feelings,” she said. If a couple cannot navigate those talks on their own, or even bring themselves to start them, then, “yeah, therapy,” she said.

“It’s hard work,” she said of keeping sex going in a long-term relationship. “And you have to care. It isn’t necessary for survival. It’s not even necessary to have a spectacular life. I don’t require anyone on Earth to make any kind of change to their sex life if they don’t want to.”

But Nagoski said for her, “it’s a priority.” The couple now sees sex as a “project” they work on together, making time for it in their calendar.

“We talk about it more than we talk about what we’re going to have for dinner. I alter my schedule so that I don’t have anything that’s going to wipe me out so much that on our calendar day, I’m not going to have any energy left,” Nagoski said. She tries to give herself grace when it does not happen, like when she recently canceled a scheduled sex date because of a migraine.

“What matters,” she said, “is that you’re cocreating a context that makes it easy to access pleasure.”

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