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How Sex Works In Our Brain | Dr Emily Nagoski #606

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On the Regular and Xtended Version …

Today we are joined by Dr Emily Nagoski as we discuss how sex works in the brain.

During the pandemic she rewrote her best selling book, Come As You Are.

What lead to this decision? What exactly did she update?

What has changed in the science over the years since she first published the book?

To listen to the other episode with Dr Nagoski you can find it here – Responsive Desire #606

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Corey Allan: Coming up next on the Passionately Married Podcast.

Emily Nagoski: And a lot of people worry that if they don't have the hot and heavy spontaneous desire, that there's something wrong, that that change away from hot and heavy horny is a worsening, that there's something worse about the responsive desire where you're like, "Whoo, oh right, this was a really good idea. I'm glad we are here now."

Corey Allan: Right.

Emily Nagoski: That's actually... The couples who sustain a strong sexual connection over decades, responsive desire is how they experience desire most of the time.

Corey Allan: Welcome to the show. I'm Dr. Corey Allan and alongside my wife, who's dancing alongside me.

Pam Allan: I love this music.

Corey Allan: We explore the wisdom and skills of the world's smartest relationship minds and we want to have in-depth conversations that explore topics everyone is going to face. And we want to offer conversation starters and actions that you can take to propel your life in marriage forward. If you're new to the show, an easy way to check us out is check out our episode starter packs. This is a way you can introduce people or find the information you're looking for. You're going to go to passionatelymarried.net/starter and that gets you jumpstarted into everything we've done thus far. If you got some feedback or something we've missed, let us know. 2147029565 or feedback@passionatelymarried.net. So as we get started today, this is the second week under Passionately Married Podcast and we've got some housekeeping things we need to take care of.
And one of them, right off the bat is, since we switched to a new URL, from smrnation.com to passionatelymarried.net, I picked up the URL passionatelymarried.net just a couple months ago. And so it's a new, it's been dormant for a while. Someone might have had it years ago, but it's been dormant. And so anytime you start a new domain, I've been sending a lot of emails and communications from that. If you've wondered if it's been quiet, check your spam folders because a lot of the email servers and aggregators don't let some of those through until it starts learning.

Pam Allan: Got you. Sending it to spam.

Corey Allan: Because if it's new, that's a common way spam people operate, is new URLs all the time just constantly trying to stay ahead of us. So check your spam folders or your junk folders and there's messages coming from us because they've been coming out almost every day this past week with different things that we've got going on inaudible we've been on about.

Pam Allan: Yeah, especially if you're part of the academy and learning some of the new stuffs coming out.

Corey Allan: Absolutely. And on that note, with the academy levels, we have several different levels here with the nation that goes on at my.passionatelymarried.net. You can join it for free and there's a lot of information that's going on and new challenges that are coming. One starts this week as this is airing. It's the January Healthier You Equals a Sexier You Challenge that we're hosting there, but there's also deeper levels. And one is the academy, which gets you the extended content, but we also have a new level and that's the masterclass level.

Pam Allan: Okay. Do tell.

Corey Allan: If you join the masterclass level, you get all the levels ahead of you, which is the extended content, the monthly Q&A calls, the deeper dialogues on the platform, but this also gets you access. As long as your subscription is active, you get access to all of our video courses.

Pam Allan: Oh nice.

Corey Allan: And so if you want to join that and then you can cancel or downgrade or upgrade at any time.

Pam Allan: Even the new ones you just put out last year?

Corey Allan: Absolutely. They're all available and you get access to them as long as your account is active at that level.

Pam Allan: Okay. Very good.

Corey Allan: So passionatelymarried.net/academy is where you're going to learn more. And then what else has been going on, is I just posted my favorite reads from 2022 this past week. It's a list of 41 books that I made it through last year.

Pam Allan: So you made through all of them and they're all listed as your favorite reads, or they're just listed as here's what I made it through in '22?

Corey Allan: Good clarification. This is what I made it through and then I put asterisks by the ones that really stood out to me because I've got a whole bunch of fictions that I read. None of those were my favorites. Those are just good fun reads, but on the non-fiction list, there's a lot of really good ones that stood out to me this year. And sometimes that's good information because we got a lot of readers in the nation. And so check those out. You can find them on the platform, passionatelymarried.net. Also emailed it out, too. And then the last thing I just mentioned to you on the January Healthier You Challenge, this week, we're asking you to post a picture of your workout equipment or environment.

Pam Allan: Not yourself.

Corey Allan: Nope.

Pam Allan: Just your environment.

Corey Allan: Just what are you doing, where... Because this is about-

Pam Allan: What's your set up?

Corey Allan: ... how are you trying to start the year off well? And so go to my.passionatelymarried.net, join the conversation. You'll look under the challenges and it's all there for you. Well, coming up on today's regular free version of the Passionately Married Podcast is a conversation I got to have with Emily Nagoski.

Pam Allan: Nice. She's been on before.

Corey Allan: And she has. And actually, the conversation went so well, everybody gets the whole show today.

Pam Allan: Oh my goodness.

Corey Allan: So extended and regular.

Pam Allan: Merry Christmas.

Corey Allan: We're all together. Happy New Year to you, but this is a conversation about where does sex happen in the brain? What's going on in your brain?

Pam Allan: Okay.

Corey Allan: And the desire, responsive spontaneous desire that she's got the accelerators and breaks because what she did during Covid and the pandemic lockdown was she rewrote Come As You Are and updated it because the science has changed. And so she updated, got more current-

Pam Allan: The science has changed, our bodies are still the same.

Corey Allan: But she's got more current science associated with it.

Pam Allan: Okay. And is it a wording more to, is it like when we're before, Pam wouldn't have understood it, being me, because it was more academic and now, it's-

Corey Allan: There's moments of it, yes, that are probably were... She even talks about this in the show of that yeah, that doesn't really land. That phrase always doesn't really land with a broad group of people because it is a little more academic or science-y, right? And clinical.

Pam Allan: Which would not be me.

Corey Allan: So she's gone through and changed the verbiage to make it more applicable to a wider audience and updated some things. And it was a fantastic and fun conversation.

Pam Allan: Very good. Looking forward to it.

Corey Allan: So all that's coming up on today's show. It's always fun to have a old guest back on the show, which today is one of those days, with Emily Nagoski, doctor Emily Nagoski. Let's make it official and because it's true, I mean, I walk in the same shoes in the sense of we've earned it. Right?

Emily Nagoski: Right.

Corey Allan: There's a lot of time and energy and money put into getting to those levels. But Emily's back, you were back in 2020, one of the episodes way, way back on when we were talking about Come As You Are, which is your main work that you were known for, came on the scene. And the reason we reached out to you, Emily, is because you've been doing some updating and I wanted to get you back on the show so we can talk about that. So welcome back to-

Emily Nagoski: It is so delightful to be back. I rarely get the opportunity to do something a second time.

Corey Allan: Well, that's just rather unfortunate because there are some things that we want to do multiple times.

Emily Nagoski: As I was saying it, I was like-

Corey Allan: I know. See, I know-

Emily Nagoski: ... "Oh, that doesn't sound great."

Corey Allan: Well, I'll go there. That's where mine is and I... So we'll get along just fine again, Emily. So there is with Come As You Are, it came out, I mean, it's been out, it was out for a while and then-

Emily Nagoski: 2015 it was originally published. Yeah.

Corey Allan: Right. And then you just re-released it or updated it if like mid 2021, am I-

Emily Nagoski: Yes. What I did with my pandemic is I rewrote Come As You Are.

Corey Allan: Okay, well, a great way to spend the time.

Emily Nagoski: Yeah.

Corey Allan: So I'm curious, what was the motivation and the impetus behind the rewrite?

Emily Nagoski: There were a couple of reasons. One, of course, is that the science is changing, the science is always changing. It's never going to be fully up to date just because there's science being done right now that I wish I could integrate into the book. And also, once the book was published, I started traveling all over the country, into different countries also. And hearing what people's questions still were and hearing their stories about what had been helpful for them and what had not been helpful for them. And I learned a lot about how to communicate these big, important, potentially life-changing, potentially marriage-saving ideas in a way that is more effective.

Corey Allan: Okay.

Emily Nagoski: Like you said, PhD, right? So I learned how to write science. It turns out writing science is not a good way to write a book that you want human beings to read and enjoy.

Corey Allan: It's fine in the academia world for the most part, but not beyond, I mean, that's the role. That's the role a lot of ways my wife plays on the show in the sense of, "Dude, get out of the theory, get out of the academia. You got-"

Emily Nagoski: Talk about people's lives.

Corey Allan: Talk to me. Talk to me like I am at a fourth grade level. Yeah.

Emily Nagoski: Yes. So I rewrote parts of it that were too deep in the science and not enough applicable to people's daily lives.

Corey Allan: Right, okay. And so is there some things that you've seen in the seven years of science that have really like, "Wait, this needs to be noted now because it is an important shift, an important discovery, an important aspect of what's going on and what we now know" because again, we're always learning new things and so about humans and interactions and psyche and everything. So are there some that just really stand out well?

Emily Nagoski: So for the dual control model, should I do a review? If it inaudible-

Corey Allan: Yeah, listen. Yeah, because there will be a lot of people that are listening to this that they didn't hear the first one. And I would say, "Go back in the archives, listen to it. I'll put a link-"

Emily Nagoski: Hello to you.

Corey Allan: ... "I'll put a link into it." But Emily, we'll get you caught up here, too.

Emily Nagoski: Very quickly, the dual control model is a theory about the mechanism of how sex works in our brains, which is, here's the wacky thing, what if sex works in our brains just like everything else? What a wacky idea.

Corey Allan: Totally.

Emily Nagoski: Which is that it's a pairing, a cup, it's a dual control model. So there's two parts. There's an excitatory system and an inhibitory system or an accelerator and brakes, right?

Corey Allan: Mm-hmm.

Emily Nagoski: So the sexual accelerator notices all the sex-related information that's coming in. So this is everything that you see, hear, smell, touch, taste, and crucially everything you think, believe or imagine that your brain codes as being sex-related. And it sends the turn on signal that a lot of us are familiar with. It's working all the time, including right now, we're talking about sex, it's a little bit sex-related, so there's a little bit of turn on signal being sent right now. But fortunately, at the same time, your brakes are there, noticing all the good reasons not to be turned on. Everything that you see, hear, smell, touch, taste, and crucially, thankfully or imagine that your brain codes as a potential threat, and it sends the turn off signal. So the process of becoming aroused is a dual process of turning on the ons, yes, but also turning off the off.

Corey Allan: Okay.

Emily Nagoski: One of the things that we know about the dual control model in the world is that people vary in their sensitivity of their brakes and in the sensitivity of their accelerator. So some people have really sensitive accelerators and very not sensitive brakes.

Corey Allan: Right.

Emily Nagoski: And if you're driving a car that's got a really sensitive accelerator and very not sensitive brakes-

Corey Allan: Yeah, not a good plan.

Emily Nagoski: ... that it could be a lot of fun under really safe circumstances. And also yeah, those are folks who are most likely to experience using sex as a maladaptive coping strategy. So if they feel stressed, depressed, anxious, lonely or repressed rage, they're likely to want to use sex, which is so immediately available to their brain as a way to down-regulate from those uncomfortable states. I feel like that was much too technical.

Corey Allan: No, I mean, I would say in large part, the nation is going to be able to keep up with a lot... Because there's a lot of vernacular-

Emily Nagoski: Don't put the word down-regulate.

Corey Allan: ... we use on the sense of we use different things for different reasons and some of them aren't always good, some of them can be. Some of them we need to purify and make them a little more genuine. Some of them, we just need to be more honest. And the thing I love about the dual control model, Emily, is the idea that they're working in tandem, like a synergy in a sense, that they feed off each other, they help each other, they enhance and inhibit each other. There's some elegance in this whole thing. And if you're looking at it in this idea of, "Okay, wait, if I'm way too sensitive on the accelerators", meaning the slightest little thing will steer it because my belief has been we have sexualized a lot of things in our lives as humans nowadays that aren't sexual.
We've just made them so, and some because it's fun and some because it's a quick release or it's easy anxiety regulation or validation or all of the different psychological terms we could put in here. And so it's recognizing, okay, that's a component of the makeup of people and then that's going to wreak havoc on the people they live life with, particularly their spouses, because if they're living in a monogamous relationship and they're honoring that commitment, then that puts a lot of pressure on the spouse.

Emily Nagoski: Yeah, and I really love that If people can recognize individual differences, like my partner has a different sensitivity of brake or accelerator than I do, it helps to normalize the differences in experiences of desire and arousal and orgasm, how readily it happens or whether or not it happens. It turns out folks with really sensitive brakes are the folks who are most likely to struggle with sexual difficulties, whether it's arousal, desire, pleasure, orgasm.

Corey Allan: Right.

Emily Nagoski: So it's really helpful to know how people vary, but in the first version of Come As You Are, I have this whole big, long thing about gender differences in the ways people learn what counts as sex-related. And in the last five or so years, it's increasingly becoming clear that it's not gender identity, it's not biological sex assigned at birth, it is not sexual orientation, it's really just sensitivity of the accelerator in particular that makes people, for example, potentially more prone to kinkiness or paraphilias, as we might technically call them. So I took out all the gender stuff because it's turning out that it's the dual control model above anything else that's a good predictor.

Corey Allan: Okay. And I think that's incredibly important because it starts to make it recognizable on, "Wait, how do we often stereotype or pigeonhole things that aren't necessary?" And that then creates another issue and dynamic we have to face and deal with. And so the more we can simplify or clean it and get it to where, "Okay, this is what we're really facing", if nothing else, it can empower people to look at it as, "Okay, wait, this is just me, this is humans, this is the quintessential human."

Emily Nagoski: Yeah. And there's nothing wrong with having a really sensitive accelerator or a really sensitive brake or a really not sensitive accelerator or a really not sensitive brake. And most of us are heaped up in the middle being average, and that's great too. It's all normal. It's just recognizing that when people vary from each other, that can be important to recognize if you have one sex partner that you've decided to have sex with for the rest of your life, even in other relationship structures. But I think especially when you picked a person and this is now your person, you want to understand them as thoroughly as you can in order to be able to work with whatever you have available to you. Yeah.

Corey Allan: Right. No, I love it because that's a different way of framing the idea of being a student of my system, myself and my partner.

Emily Nagoski: Yes.

Corey Allan: Of recognizing-

Emily Nagoski: And a student of your partner.

Corey Allan: Right, recognizing the way they work, what speaks to them, what doesn't speak to them, what accelerates them, what slows them down? Those are all good data pieces to understand.

Emily Nagoski: And also, I find one of the really wonderful things about the dual control model, it helps people not take things personally.

Corey Allan: Right.

Emily Nagoski: Like when you are in the mood and your partner's not in the mood, you don't have to think, "Well, there must be something about me that's the problem" or "Must be something about our relationship", or "There must be something wrong with my partner." No, it could just be stress is just slamming on this person's breaks and it doesn't matter how much they love you and are attracted to you, the fact is their brake is on the floor and what they need is not to love you more, be more attracted to you, they need their stress to be relieved.

Corey Allan: Right. And that's yeah, because this is... The one that keeps jumping up personally in my wife and I's relationship is I love reading. So at the end of the day, I'll pull out a fiction book and read, but all of my library is electronic, so I read on my phone, right? And so I don't use actual paper books very rarely anymore, and my 17-year-old took the Kindle and I don't know where it is now. So it's all in the Kindle app on my phone. And there will be times where there could be something that could be sexual heading towards in that evening, but if she comes in and I've got my phone and I'm just reading, it's a brake for her. And because it's-

Emily Nagoski: That is so important.

Corey Allan: Because it's a disconnect. It's like, "Oh, you'd rather be doing that?" "Oh..." It's however she interprets it, whether it's this whole, "I'm just passing the time until you came in here, which I'm not intending it as it brake. So now I've got to recognize, 'All right, I got a dilemma'."

Emily Nagoski: But her brain sees that phone and is like, "That's a wall."

Corey Allan: Yep. I've got a dilemma, she's got a dilemma. How do we navigate this better? It's what we're facing.

Emily Nagoski: And neither of you is wrong.

Corey Allan: Exactly. That's just the circumstance and dynamic.

Emily Nagoski: Yeah.

Corey Allan: Okay.

Emily Nagoski: That's a perfect example.

Corey Allan: Yeah, and that's what I was hoping to get clarified, is just because I think this helps people get a tangible, here we go, this is what we're facing.

Emily Nagoski: Right, exactly. Also, insert here, the first year after bringing a child into your relationship.

Corey Allan: Well, you could even add more than the first year. You could go beyond, but case in point, that fits too. Yes.

Emily Nagoski: Yeah. That hits the brakes. Another thing that changed in the book, the Desire chapter I would say is the chapter that changed more than any other chapter, partly because it's so very important and partly because I learned that what people need is different from how I wrote it.

Corey Allan: Okay.

Emily Nagoski: So here's how I talk about it now. The Desire chapter is really about responsive desire. So most of us were raised with the idea that desire is spontaneous, that it just appears under the blue. All of a sudden, you're like, "Hey baby, want to?"

Corey Allan: Right.

Emily Nagoski: And that absolutely is a normal and healthy way to experience sexual desire. But also, there's another way that's normal and healthy. It's called responsive desire where instead of just spontaneously out of the blue, you have to have a setup. So maybe it's date night and you prepare yourself, you do the sexy grooming and you listen to something sexy in the bathtub well, and then you trim your ear hair or shave your legs or do whatever it is that is the thing that makes you feel like your body is ready and you turn off the lights and you have sexy conversation. And that all is giving your brain time to transition out of your daily life into a state of mind where your brakes can let go of the world and your accelerator is free to do its job. That's responsive desire. It emerges in response to pleasure, whereas spontaneous desire emerges in anticipation of pleasure.

Corey Allan: Good distinction.

Emily Nagoski: So that's not how I wrote it in the first version of Come As You Are because what the science says is that spontaneous desire emerges in response to low levels of arousal, and response of desire emerges in response to much higher levels of arousal.

Corey Allan: Okay.

Emily Nagoski: So when I hear the word arousal, I'm hearing what scientists mean, which is increased heart rate, activation of particular brain systems prioritized over other brain systems. It turns out, that is not what most people hear when they hear the word arousal. What they hear is genital response.

Corey Allan: Right.

Emily Nagoski: For them, that's what arousal is. And that was an important lesson. I was talking to a couple, they both had PhDs, they both read every word of Come As You Are and understood what I wrote. So it's the pandemic, wife puts the kid to bed, comes down, they're just going to watch TV together for a while. Husband puts his hand right down her pants and she goes, "No, I am not in the mood." And he says, "But you will be" because what he heard when I said arousal first then desire is if I just stimulate the genitals, I'm making a hand gesture that I feel really grateful people can't see, if I just stimulate the genitals, that'll get her aroused and then she'll experience desire.

Corey Allan: Right.

Emily Nagoski: And it doesn't matter that the previous six chapters had explained that it's not genital response that matters, it's a pleasure that matters and pleasure depends on context. You have to create a context to allow a sensation to be pleasurable. And I was like, "Okay, no. No, that is not... That's the opposite of what I intended-"

Corey Allan: Must clarify.

Emily Nagoski: "... for people to use." And so I changed the language from what the science says, which is arousal first then desire and changed it to pleasure first, then desire.

Corey Allan: That's good.

Emily Nagoski: So that people would know that you can't just stuff your hand... Well, I mean, for some people, that works great, just like stuff your hand down your partner's pants and they'll be like, "Oh right, okay. Good idea", but for a lot of people, they need to preheat the oven.

Corey Allan: Yes. And-

Emily Nagoski: Even genitals will not necessarily feel pleasurable when they're stimulated. If it's out of the blue, if you're in the middle of a million other things, if you're just decompressing from the day, your genitals are not ready. And that sensation will not feel pleasurable until you create a context that lets your brain interpret that sensation as pleasurable.

Corey Allan: Right. And you even talk about this, and this is what we talked about I believe in the very first time we spoke a couple years back on the non-concordance or the incongruent component that you were discovering too, that the body could respond but the brain's not into it, or the brain could try to be into it, but the body's not responding. And so there can be a disconnect. And some of this applies here in that, well yeah, there might be something, let's go stereotypical for a second. As a wife, you put your hand down your husband's pants, the penis might get erect, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's all like, "Oh yeah, let's go." It could just be-

Emily Nagoski: Yeah, it doesn't mean desire. It doesn't even mean pleasure.

Corey Allan: You're right. It's just like, it's a response in some regards but it may not connect to everything.

Emily Nagoski: Yeah, like I could also never do this, but you could also put a vacuum cleaner right over a penis and suck all the blood up and get an erection. That doesn't mean you've got pleasure or desire for that.

Corey Allan: And just to clarify, never do this.

Emily Nagoski: Never do that.

Corey Allan: Yes. Okay. Let's just say.

Emily Nagoski: The idea though, I mean, penis enlargement tools are often just like vacuum suction pumps.

Corey Allan: Right.

Emily Nagoski: Again, another gesture that I'm glad people can't see.

Corey Allan: Well, exactly. But I think everybody's picturing it. They know exactly what we're talking about here, Emily, so don't even sweat it.

Emily Nagoski: So you can get blood flow to go. It's really not about the blood flow.

Corey Allan: Correct.

Emily Nagoski: Pretty much ever.

Corey Allan: Right.

Emily Nagoski: It's about what's going on between the person's ears.

Corey Allan: Right. And that is-

Emily Nagoski: Is the accelerator being stimulated and are the brakes maybe more than the accelerator? Are the brakes decompressing?

Corey Allan: All right. So that's a fantastic update to this because I think that's a great distinction to help people because it is so interesting of how often do we as humans also hear what we want to hear in a lot of ways or hear it just out of context even because again, you even make the comment in the original writing and then in our conversations we've had in the past too, of context is king here, right?

Emily Nagoski: It really is.

Corey Allan: It's we're making it all in the situational component of it. And the moment is to recognize, okay, this is how things work. And now empowering people with a better language I think helps in tremendous ways.

Emily Nagoski: Right, and let's think about all the other choices that husband had in that moment. They're decompressing from the day, they're going to maybe Netflix and chill, but his job is not to increase blood flow to anyone's genitals. His job, if he wants sexy times to happen, is to create a context that makes it easy for the accelerator to be stimulated and for the brakes to go away.

Corey Allan: Right.

Emily Nagoski: And the best way to know how to do that for your partner is to ask them.

Corey Allan: Shocking.

Emily Nagoski: I know. And I like, talking about sex is different from talking about other sensitive topics, like talking about raising your kids is difficult. Talking about money is difficult. Talking about how you spend your time with other people, that those are all big, difficult conversations. But man, one of the things I integrated more into the new Come As You Are is honoring how difficult these conversations truly can be because everybody was raised with some kind of script about who they're supposed to be as a sexual person. And almost all of it is incompatible with a happy, healthy, long-term sexual connection, unfortunately. So if we take the masculinity script, which I call it human winner syndrome, where if on the day you're born, people look at your genitals and go, "It's a boy", then they raise you according to this set of rules about which emotions you're allowed to express and how you're allowed to express them.
So you can have angry, "It's a boy", you're allowed to have angry. You can have winning and you have horny, but you're not really allowed to have lonely for example, or hurt or sad. And so recognizing that I need to be able to talk to my partner about how lonely I feel when they say no, when I try to initiate sex and they say no, it's not just that they're saying no to sex, it really feels like they're saying no to my whole personhood because it's an incredibly vulnerable thing to do.

Corey Allan: Right.

Emily Nagoski: So talking about sex requires betraying all the rules you were ever taught about who you're supposed to be as a person. When I say the best thing to do is talk about it, I want to honor the fact that it actually does require relearning how to be a person in connection with another person. And for the, "It's a girl" type people, you're taught that you have a moral obligation to be pretty, to happy and calm and generous and attentive to the needs of others. And if your partner asks you for sex and you're like, "I really don't feel like it right now. I'm no, not the...", you have all this pain from saying no. And if your partner keeps asking and keeps asking, eventually, you will just say yes because saying yes hurts less than trying to protect your no. These are not great dynamics for a long-term sexual connection.

Corey Allan: Right, because they become oppressive, they become, I mean, majorly almost shameful in how we can internalize and interpret it and attach the meaning to it, right?

Emily Nagoski: Yes. The shame women feel around their bodies and the shame men feel, I mean, you're more of an expert in the guy part than I am, but in my experience, the shame that men feel around really vulnerable emotions like loneliness and grief, sadness, isolation. I was a guest speaker at a big conference thing full of people, it was a relationship, weekend-long relationship thing in a beautiful resort. And I was doing a Q&A with a bunch of heterosexual monogamous couples and we got into a conversation about porn and I said the thing I say, which is that porn itself is not the difficult part. It is your relationship with it because if you're turning to porn instead to avoid a conversation with your partner or because you don't feel like you're allowed to have a conversation with your partner, that the dangerous part there is you are feeling like you can't have the conversation with your partner.
Porn is just filling in the gap that's created by your inability to connect with your partner. And they had a really hard time. They had a really hard time when I said that a bunch of guys stood up and talked about how they had recovered from their porn addiction by having conversations with their partner, which is how you solve the difficulties because I mean, in any long-term relationship, I'm talking about long-term relationships a lot right now because the book I'm currently writing is about sustaining a sexual connection over multiple decades. And so I'm thinking about sex and long-term relationships a lot.
And it's just normal in a long-term relationship that some gunk is going to accumulate, the frustrations about daily chores and the tiny little movement of a person's eye that you experience as like, oh, there's something going on there and they're not talking about it and I feel like I can't talk about it, but now it's this thing that's in me and it calcifies and grows and turns into this thing that blocks your connection together. And my very first clinical supervisor when I was getting my master's degree in counseling, call it cleaning out the pipes, sometimes you have to have the kind of fight where you just get it all out. You flush the system so that you can come back to each other without all that stuff blocking it. That's normal. That's not a sign that anything is going wrong in the relationship. And all that stuff that's blocking up your connection, is that likely to be the kind of thing that activates the accelerator? Right? No.

Corey Allan: Right.

Emily Nagoski: You're like little, the cumulative resentments over, "Why am I always the one who has to let the dog out?" "Why am I always the one who has to let the dog out?" "Why won't my partner ever..." So every time it happens and it happens every day, it builds up and that frustration is not going to activate the accelerator.

Corey Allan: Right. Those are all things, I mean, that's where I landed on this idea that when you're talking about long-term committed relationships, I fully believe marriage is designed to help us grow up. It's a mechanism to challenge us to clean out things and deal with it and be more, evolved is the word that comes to mind, but it's refined actually, I think is a better way to think about it of-

Emily Nagoski: I like to think about it because I feel that way about my marriage certainly, that the role of my marriage in my life, no, my role in my marriage is to be as good of me as I'm capable of being on any given day, and it makes me better. I become more myself and more who I am. And the more I do that, the fewer obstacles I let live between me and my partner, the more I help him to be the best version of himself. And for me, I find that experience to be sexy, like holy crap, he has grown so much as a person in the last, we've been together for 11 years now, which I know is not long, but a lot of people's life. But if you would ask me when I was 25, if I would ever be in a relationship for 11 years in a row, I'd have been like, "I don't know".

Corey Allan: Girl, 11's no joke. The shine has worn off for certain by 11. So you're into it.

Emily Nagoski: And here's the weird thing is he's shinier to me now than ever because I can see the ways he has... I fell in love with him real fast, but because I have seen the way he has grown as a person, some of which I know I've facilitated, I made it easier for him to grow that way, like talk about things that activate the accelerator. He has grown and is so impressive.

Corey Allan: Yeah, and that's the stuff that we don't look at real cleanly a lot of times, right?

Emily Nagoski: Right.

Corey Allan: That's that stuff that when you're talking about the buildup that can happen, I hold that against them rather than recognizing at the same time I've got the data to be able to look at who they were versus who they are.

Emily Nagoski: Right.

Corey Allan: I think of it, I mean, because my wife, Pam and I are coming up on 30 years next year in 2023.

Emily Nagoski: Wow. Congratulations.

Corey Allan: Yeah, I mean, 30 years, holy crap. That's a ton of time to think about, but it also is when man, that's a lot of mileage together and so that can be one of those things that it's like I see who we are now, I see who I am, I see who she is, that I can lose sight of the fact that that's really impressive. And how we have evolved and challenged each other in a lot of ways. And when I can read-

Emily Nagoski: Right, because you have also irritated each other.

Corey Allan: That comes, that's part of the process.

Emily Nagoski: Absolutely. That's the grit that makes the pearl.

Corey Allan: Absolutely. So when you can look at it though, it's just as a reminder of oh yeah, that's right, because I think of if something ever happened by tragedy or choice even that the idea of starting over, uh-uh, that does not sound appealing because it's like, we've put in so much work.

Emily Nagoski: Yeah. So when a relationship is difficult, when it's a source of stress, when the relationship itself hits the brakes, that's going to interfere with your sexual connection with that person. And so out in the world, if you meet something, meet a person with whom you have not yet had enough time to develop a bunch of stuff that hits the brakes, it's going to feel like that relationship really activates the accelerator so much more than this relationship does when in reality, it's just that that relationship does not yet hit your brakes.

Corey Allan: Right. There's not enough data in there to really activate, that that's the turn off, that's the frustration, that's the resentment-creating components.

Emily Nagoski: Given enough time, that person definitely will.

Corey Allan: Yeah because I guarantee you, they won't let the dog out or whatever the metaphor actually fits.

Emily Nagoski: Or whatever the thing is, yeah.

Corey Allan: Yep. They won't do something that you want them to be doing that becomes infuriating.

Emily Nagoski: Yes. Why do you leave a recycling in the kitchen sink? Why?

Corey Allan: Now you're speaking everybody's language here, Emily, because I think everybody relates to really, it's like a two-foot move from the kitchen counter to the dishwasher. How is that the longest two feet in the world?

Emily Nagoski: Why is that a barrier?

Corey Allan: I don't get it. It's not that difficult.

Emily Nagoski: And if you have kids and you have that same critique of your kids and then your partner's in the same category as your kids, that is not a sex-related stimulus.

Corey Allan: No, there's a huge break right there.

Emily Nagoski: Yeah.

Corey Allan: Yeah. All right.

Emily Nagoski: But these conversations are difficult.

Corey Allan: Absolutely, but they're also so needed because when you're talking about a long-term relationship, we either have one of two things I think that are choices. One is we just get to a level of depth that we're never going to go beyond because it's just the roommate syndrome, it's playing the roles, it's playing house, it's coexisting, it's whatever label you want to put, or we face these conversations to really go deeper and move through them.

Emily Nagoski: Yes.

Corey Allan: So I mean, it's really we don't have very many choices so it's just which one do you choose?

Emily Nagoski: Yeah. And it's so scary to pick up a tool and start digging to go deeper. And we worry about how our partner will respond if we're like, "I would like to dig deeper into this". So one of the things that I also include in the new Come As You Are is the ways that we respond to our partner's initiation, not just of sex but of conversations around sexuality, is really important because we are afraid just as much as our partners are afraid of being judged, of being shamed, of having a part. If we talk about a fantasy we have that we'd like to try out in a relationship, it's a huge vulnerable risk to be like, "I have this fantasy and I'd like to try it with you". And it's a possibility that your partner might hear it and go, "Oh" and just be horrified. And that's not going to, that's not-

Corey Allan: Right.

Emily Nagoski: That is another wall that gets set up, it's going to hit the brakes. So you set up the conversation to be like, "I want to talk to you about this sexual thing because I love our erotic connection and I want to take it to an extra level. I think that we could really experience something very pleasurable for both of us if we try this. And I'm still worried that when I say it, you are going to be really surprised or maybe even shocked. So what I'd like to ask is, can we, I'm going to say the thing and then we just take 10, 20 seconds to breathe and keep our faces neutral and allow the moment to happen so that neither of us says anything that isn't really how we feel, but it's just a gut reaction."

Corey Allan: Right.

Emily Nagoski: And you can receive this information from your partner, you can receive their stuff, recognizing that you would not want them to go, "Oh" if you said something. So you are going to, even though we have all been trained from very early on to have a sense of, this is good, this is bad, this is normal, this is wrong.

Corey Allan: Right.

Emily Nagoski: And all of those are just made up barriers. My definition of normal sex is it's any sex that all the people involved are glad to be there and free to leave with no unwanted consequences. Plus, no one's experiencing unwanted pain. So whatever your partner says, as long as it includes, everybody's glad to be there, free to leave and only wanted pain, if there's pain involved, then there's no need to be worried.

Corey Allan: Right. And I mean, at least to have the conversations about it too, the invitations towards it, the working towards it that absolutely. Yep.

Emily Nagoski: Yeah. And you may still be a no for whatever it is, but you can be a no without judging your partner or making your partner feel judged.

Corey Allan: Right. Yeah, you can be a no without shots fired as you walk out the room.

Emily Nagoski: Yeah. It can just be like a neutral, non-judgmental, "That's not for me. Thanks".

Corey Allan: Yeah, but that's also just a great example of the fear that comes with growing because those kinds of things are unilateral, those moves are. You can't put that genie back in the bottle when you say whatever it is. They won't ever unhear that. And so now, it's layered against away now.

Emily Nagoski: It's part of the relationship once you say it out loud.

Corey Allan: Yeah. So that's the courage move, right? That's the courageous, if I want to lead towards that, it takes some courage to do that because I'm going to disrupt things for both of us.

Emily Nagoski: And I think laying a foundation for how to have that conversation makes it so much easier.

Corey Allan: Yeah.

Emily Nagoski: Don't start with the really difficult stuff. Talk about, if you can start by talking explicitly about the things you already like in your erotic connection, that's going to build a foundation of, we can talk about this stuff and it doesn't feel scary or difficult. It feels like we can share a positive understanding of what our erotic connection is because people don't even have those conversations of what are the things you like about our sexual connection? Let me tell you all the things I really enjoy about your genitals, right? How often do we have that conversation? I think we should have that conversation at least twice a year with our partner.

Corey Allan: Yeah, and it's one of those that when you're listening to this, I can already see people going, "Well one, I've never had that conversation" or, "That makes such sense of we're trying to solve some puzzle without knowing the pieces, without getting that data, without even taking the first step of emptying them out and sorting through".

Emily Nagoski: Yeah. And just picking your favorites, like, "Let me just take you to my bookshelf and talk about my favorite books". That's a conversation we know how to have. When I think back on our erotic connection, let me tell you about my very favorite things. That's not even including things that are second tier favorite that I completely adore but are not the peak moments. And it's a complicated experience. Some people, they hear the idea of let my partner spend five minutes telling me all the things I like about my genitals. I'd be like, "Yes. Yeah, that'd be great." And other people would have really ambivalent feelings about it because they have ambivalent feelings about their own body. But if there's one efficient way to transform your relationship with your own body, it's to see it through the eyes of someone who loves your body.

Corey Allan: It's a great statement.

Emily Nagoski: Can you hear my cat meowing at me?

Corey Allan: They agree.

Emily Nagoski: Yes.

Corey Allan: Yep.

Emily Nagoski: She's like, "Sing it, Emily."

Corey Allan: If you're talking about a creature that is just full on confident in themselves, that would be cats.

Emily Nagoski: Yes. And she's 17 and has never loved herself more.

Corey Allan: What a great depiction of what we should aspire to be.

Emily Nagoski: Yeah, because the point of a long-term relationship is you're going to be there for a lot of change, which includes the way their body will change, the way their life will change, the way-

Corey Allan: Everything.

Emily Nagoski: ... their internal world changes.

Corey Allan: Yep.

Emily Nagoski: And when you sign up for that, you are not signing up for your partner to be the person they were on the day you moved in together or got married, you're signing up for the changes, you're signing up for the gray hair, you're signing up for the loss of hair, you're signing up for the changes in body shape and size. That all is extra stuff to love. That's like, "Oh, I can't believe it's been 10 years. You have so much less hair. You were so hot."

Corey Allan: Right. No, that's one of those that's recognizing that I'm signing up for this struggle, but there's a benefit and a value that's going to come with it.

Emily Nagoski: Yeah. And I'm just on a gender tear today. I spent the morning writing about it. I think some people perceive their partner as communicating to the world something about themselves, like my partner walking around in the world has a particular status or a particular appearance or a particular number of Twitter followers or whatever. And it says something about me that that's true about them. And if that changes, if they leave Twitter and lose all their followers, does that say something about me now? And so we judge the experiences and changes our partners undergo as being about us, which are they about us?

Corey Allan: No.

Emily Nagoski: No.

Corey Allan: But we sure like to think they are.

Emily Nagoski: Yes. It is so intuitive to decide, to infer, to react to a change as if it's about us rather than sustaining a sense of wonder about our partner that whatever changes they experience, we are still just as fricking lucky today as we were 20, 30, 40 years ago.

Corey Allan: Mm-hmm. And if we can look at it even luckier because there is an element of our improving and refining as you were describing earlier of, because whatever it is that's appealing that I'm seeing, man, who they have become, they're doing the same.

Emily Nagoski: Yeah.

Corey Allan: Right? And I think that's what makes relationships on a long-term basis so good and so beneficial.

Emily Nagoski: Yeah. And we are not talking about spontaneous hot and horny kind of desire right now.

Corey Allan: No.

Emily Nagoski: We are talking about a kind of desire that comes from a very deep and emotional sense of connection with a human being. So you may turn up for, if you decide to schedule sex or if it's just the right time, you may not have an erection walking in the door, you might not be turned on as you get there, but you go through that transition process of the trimming your ear hair or whatever the thing is that you do, listening to audio something or changing into particular clothes that make you feel sexy. And you put your body in the bed, you let your skin touch your partner's skin and gradually, your brain's going to go, "Oh right, this person, this magical, delightful, wonderful person." And a lot of people worry that if they don't have the hot and heavy spontaneous desire, that there's something wrong, that that change away from hot and heavy horny is a worsening, that there's something worse about the responsive desire where you're like, "Oh, right, this was a really good idea. I'm glad we are here now."

Corey Allan: Right.

Emily Nagoski: The couples who sustained a strong sexual connection over decades, responsive desire is how they experience desire most of the time. They don't report high rates of spontaneous desire, they're not super horny for each other, can't wait to put their tongues in each other's mouths. They appreciate their partner and they decide that it matters for their relationship, that they stop all the other things they could be doing. Right?

Corey Allan: Right.

Emily Nagoski: We have other things. We have jobs, we have kids, we have pets, we are busy. So why would we stop doing all those things, close the door and just spend time doing this, frankly, very silly thing that humans do? Why would we do that? Because people have decided that it matters for their connection, that they take time away from the rest of their lives, turn toward each other. And that only happens when it matters, if it matters to you, which it doesn't matter for everyone. Some people decide that it does not matter for them. And groovy, do you?

Corey Allan: Yep.

Emily Nagoski: But the couples who sustain a strong sexual connection are the ones for whom they figure out what it contributes to their overall relationship and thus to their overall lives together.

Corey Allan: And that's the challenge and journey we're on. And that's the challenge and journey that I'm loving how you've gone through and updated things to help articulate that even more. And I'm also excited you're teasing out a new book here that you're talking about, so I'm excited about that. So Emily, tell people how they can find you if they want to hear more and know whenever this new work comes out.

Emily Nagoski: Yeah. So the book, you can get Come As You Are anywhere, books are sold in any format. There is a new podcast coming out, that Come As You Are Podcast on the Pushkin Network. And of course, I have a newsletter. So if you're like, "I want to find out when the new book about long-term relationships is coming out", go to my website, emilynagoski.com, sign up for newsletter and you'll get all the updates.

Corey Allan: Perfect. Well Emily, thank you so much for your work, for joining me here today, and I'm glad we got to spend the whole time together rather than segmenting this out, let's just do the whole thing like we did. So this has been so fantastic. Thank you so much.

Emily Nagoski: It's my favorite thing to talk about. Thank you.

Corey Allan: Okay, so now that as you set it up at the beginning of the episode, Pam, listening to our conversation, was this too science-y?

Pam Allan: No, I thought the conversation was good. I mean, you guys are two academics chatting with each other, but so maybe there were some pieces that's like, "mm" but then you bring it in, you wrap it up in a bow. And when you get down to the simple things like it's not about blood flow, it's about what's going on between the ears.

Corey Allan: Right.

Pam Allan: Right? That's what... I get that.

Corey Allan: Right.

Pam Allan: And that makes total sense. And if we can, both as a couple, as a team, get down to that-

Corey Allan: Yeah. And-

Pam Allan: That makes sense for me.

Corey Allan: ... what stands out to me and the brilliance of all of her work that she's been becoming known for is simplifying the dual decision process, the mechanism in your brain, the accelerators and the brakes that those are working concurrently, that you can have these things that activate something, but then there's also another thing that will slow it down. And so it's just normalizing that kind of speech.

Pam Allan: And understanding what I do that might be a brake or an accelerator for my spouse as well, right? What affects me, but what affects my spouse too?

Corey Allan: Based on what I mentioned in the show, I will not be having a phone up when you come to bed tonight.

Pam Allan: Okay. All right.

Corey Allan: Hint, hint. Well, if you like the show, you can also let us know by reviewing our podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify or however you listen. Your comments help spread the word about the show and they help others frame their conversations about what goes on in their world and the issues they face. Transcripts are available on each of the show notes of each of the episodes page. All our advertisers deals and discounts are also available on each of the episode's pages at passionatelymarried.net. Please consider supporting those who support the show. Now, the greatest confidence you can give us is to live your life boldly and passionately and share it with those you care about along the way. Well, this has been Passionately Married Podcast. Thanks for taking some time out to spend it with us, and we'll see you next time.