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A sex educator on the one question she is asked the most: 'Am I normal?'

Sex educator Emily Nagoski, author of the new book <em>Come Together: The Science (and Art!) of Creating Lasting Sexual Connections</em>, discusses what it means to be sex positive.
Kelvin Murray/Getty Images
Sex educator Emily Nagoski, author of the new book Come Together: The Science (and Art!) of Creating Lasting Sexual Connections, discusses what it means to be sex positive.

There's a tired storyline when it comes to relationships that goes something like this: Sex is great in the beginning, but then life happens and it moves way down the to-do list or may not even be there at all.

Emily Nagoski is a sex educator who knows the biology and sociology of intimacy. In fact, she had such a big hit with her book Come as You Are that her work got in the way of her own relationship. And she discovered the fastest way to destroy your sex life is to worry about it.

Armed with research and good humor, Nagoski has released a new book: Come Together: The Science (and Art!) of Creating Lasting Sexual Connections.

She spoke to All Things Considered host Juana Summers about her own struggles, what it means to be sex positive and the one question she is asked the most: "Am I normal?"

And a heads-up: This conversation is going to focus on sex and intimacy, and it might not be appropriate for everyone.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

Juana Summers: I want to start this conversation by asking you about something really powerful that you tell the reader in your book. You write that a person's sexuality is not a problem that needs to be solved and that it's not a disorder that needs to be treated — that we aren't broken.

And I have to say that when I read those words in your book, it immediately resonated with me, thinking about the years of internalized messages that we all receive about sex and sexuality throughout our lives — from our partners, from the church, our parents, grandparents, pop culture, social media. It's really profound. Can you say a little more about that?

Emily Nagoski
Paul Specht / Ballantine Books
Ballantine Books
Emily Nagoski

Emily Nagoski: The question "Am I normal?" is the question I am asked more often than anything else.

And in fact, when I was teaching a college-level class, the last question on the final exam was, "Just tell me one important thing you learned. It can be anything from the class. You can get the 2 points if you just take the question seriously."

And I thought they were going to identify particular bits of science, but instead, out of 187 students, more than half of them just wrote some version of, "I learned that I'm normal. I learned I'm not broken. Just because I'm different from other women doesn't mean there's anything wrong with me. I can trust my body because I know that I am normal."

That was the moment that I decided to write a book about sex, because it turned out the science can be so powerful in helping people to let go of all those messages you're talking about, from religion, and family, and culture and even the medical industry.

Summers: What led you to write this book [Come Together]? I know many people may be familiar with your work from your first book.

Nagoski: Writing Come as You Are was so stressful that even though I was thinking and talking and reading and writing about sex all the time, I was so stressed by the process that I had no interest in actually having any sex with my husband.

And I tried to follow the advice that I give in Come as You Are, which is to use responsive desire, to put your body in the bed. You let your skin touch your partner's skin, and your body will usually go, "Oh, this is a great idea. I really like this. I really like this person."

But I would try that, and I would just cry and fall asleep. And I thought, "I need more help than I have given in my own book." I did what anyone would do: I turned to the peer-reviewed research on couples who sustain strong sexual connections.

And what I learned there was a total contradiction of everything that I was hearing in the mainstream cultural dialogue about how sex and long-term relationships worked.

Summers: OK, I just want to unpack this for a second here, because I think for many people, they might be surprised that this is something that you struggled with, given the fact that you yourself are a sex educator. I mean, can you just take us back there? How did that make you feel?

Nagoski: Oh, I absolutely felt really critical of myself. Like, "I know so much about this. Surely I, of all people, should be able to fix this."

And it turns out, no, these things are just that complicated. And as a sex educator, part of my training is around thinking about self-disclosure. When is it appropriate to talk about yourself? And usually the answer is, don't. So it was a big risk for me to write an entire book about what I learned about sustaining a strong sexual connection over the long term.

But it has turned out to be so empowering for so many people to know that even I, a person who writes literally hundreds of thousands of words about sex, still struggle. Just because I know it in my brain box doesn't necessarily mean that the rest of my body understands what to do.

The cover of Nagoski's newest book, <em>Come Together</em>.
/ Ballantine Books
Ballantine Books
The cover of Nagoski's newest book, Come Together.

Summers: Another thing that I found very interesting in this book is the way in which you define what it means to be sex positive — that it's not about all sex being positive or even everyone needing to like sex. It's more about autonomy. Why does that autonomy matter so much?

Nagoski: That is the nature of living in a mammalian body. When we are in a stressed state — fight or flight, especially when we feel trapped or isolated — our brains physically are not able to interpret any sensation as pleasurable. But when we feel safe and connected and like we have plenty of choice in what happens, our brains can be in a state that allows them to interpret almost any sensation as pleasurable and something to approach with curiosity and a sense of play. It seems like a political definition, the idea of autonomy, but it is honestly the biology of living in a human body.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.