Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life has been on my to-read list for a while (I blame Hannah Witton), but I finally bought it as a birthday present for a friend who shares my interest in these subjects. Emily Nagoski’s book is a comprehensive guide to how people with vulvas can become more comfortable and fulfilled in their sex lives. It’s a little bit science text, a little bit self-help, and a lot of interesting discussion of the ways in which our mental states affect our physical wellbeing.
Much of the book builds on research done by Erick Janssen and John Bancroft into a framework for sexual response involving two systems: the Sexual Excitement System, SES, your accelerator; and the Sexual Inhibition System, SIS, or your brake. This alone, as well as Nagoski’s related explication of the homologous nature of male and female sex organs, would make the book worth reading. The accelerator/brake framework offers a useful way of describing how external stimuli can work to turn one on or turn one off—these are not always direct inverses. Nagoski uses her experience as an academic and a sex therapist to translate the work of Janssen and Bancroft, as well as others, into understandable contexts for the rest of us. I really appreciate that, while the tone of this book is definitely one of therapy/self-help, it is relentlessly grounded in a scientific mindset and draws on the latest available information at the time. Nagoski refuses to fall back on reductive, binary stereotypes about how “men are like this” and “women are like that” when it comes to sex. She makes generalizations, of course—one must—while pointing out that the variation within a group is still greater than the variation between groups; i.e., we are all more the same than we are different.
Along the same lines, Nagoski’s overall thesis—that whatever your experience, whatever your body’s responses, whatever you crave or desire to get yourself off, it’s normal—is also laudable. Come As You Are is prescriptive only in the sense that it wants you to find what works best for you. This is not a book full of “quick and easy tips” as promised on the cover of Cosmopolitan. Indeed, Nagoski regularly reminds the reader that gains in this area are almost always the result of dedicated effort and time. She doesn’t guarantee mind-blowing orgasms—but she does guarantee you’ll come away from this book with a better understanding of how our sexual response works.
Now, this book doesn’t apply to me from a practical point of view for two reasons—I lack the right genitalia, and I’m asexual. But I don’t think that would disqualify someone as a potential reader. Really, people with vulvas should read this because it gives insight into their sex lives; people who might be into having sex with people with vulvas should read this to understand how to be more responsible, caring partners. Those of us who probably aren’t having sex with anyone can read this (if it’s not going to repulse you) to better understand this activity that everyone else seems fairly obsessed with.
I don’t like how Nagoski frames asexuality. She defines it in a endnote, and through later implicit comparisons, as a lack of sexual desire. That’s not true—asexual people may or may not desire sex and might masturbate or even have sex with a partner if they so choose. Indeed, an asexual person with a vulva would probably find this book quite instructive even if all they’re interested in is self-pleasure. Asexuality is the lack of sexual attraction, an entire subject that Nagoski doesn’t really explore at all in this book. So, while the book overall tries to be agnostic about the partners of the subject, it doesn’t quite get the lived experience of asexuality right. Sigh.
That gripe aside, it’s difficult to fault Come As You Are for its organization, depth of content, or goals. This is definitely more of a “sipping” book than it is something you swallow all at once—I pushed myself to read it all at once, because I needed to send it to my friend, and it still took me more than a week. The density of information here just makes it difficult (at least in my opinion) to fly through the book while still absorbing. If anything, you’d probably want to keep this book as reference material, returning to a chapter each time you need to refresh yourself about a particular point Nagoski makes.
Overall, Come As You Are is a very thorough and compassionate look at a subject that is still not discussed seriously enough. (Even when we talk about female sexuality in most media, we often do it superficially or with an emphasis on pleasure rather than comfort and fulfillment. Female sexuality remains inextricably wrapped up in our patriarchal, heteronormative narratives about the roles different genders play in relationships and in sex.) This is the kind of book you want to grab to undo years of useless or non-existent sex education and to give you the permission to explore, if you want, what’s “normal” for you.