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TED2018

Emily Nagoski: The truth about unwanted arousal

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Sex educator Emily Nagoski breaks down one of the most dangerous myths about sex and introduces us to the science behind arousal nonconcordance: when there's a disconnect between physical response and the experience of pleasure and desire. Talking about such intimate, private moments can feel awkward or difficult, yet in this straightforward talk Nagoski urges all of us to share this crucial information with someone -- judges, lawyers, partners, kids. "With every brave conversation we have, we make the world that little bit better," says Nagoski. (This talk contains mature content.)

- Sex educator
Emily Nagoski teaches women to live with confidence and joy inside their bodies. Full bio

[This talk contains mature content
Viewer discretion is advised]
00:12
My specialty, as a sex educator,
is I bring the science.
00:16
But my first and most important job
is that I stay neutral
00:22
when I talk about anything sex-related,
00:26
no embarrassment, no titillation,
no judgment, no shame,
00:28
no matter where I am.
00:32
No matter what question you ask me.
00:34
At the end of a conference
in a hotel lobby once,
00:38
I'm literally on my way out the door
and a colleague chases me down.
00:40
"Emily, I just have
a really quick question.
00:43
A friend of mine --
00:47
(Laughter)
00:48
wants to know if it's possible
to get addicted to her vibrator."
00:49
The answer is no,
but it is possible to get spoiled.
00:54
A different conference,
this one in an outdoor tropical paradise,
00:58
I'm at the breakfast buffet,
and a couple approaches me.
01:01
"Hi, Emily, we're sorry to interrupt you
01:05
but we just wanted to ask a quick question
about premature ejaculation."
01:07
"Sure, let me tell you
about the stop/start technique."
01:13
That is my life.
01:17
I stay neutral when
other people might "squick."
01:18
Squick is an emotion
that combines surprise
01:22
with embarrassment plus some disgust
01:26
and like, not knowing
what to do with your hands.
01:29
So, it's a product.
01:33
The reason you experience it
01:35
is because you spent
the first two decades of your life
01:36
learning that sex is a dangerous
and disgusting source of everlasting shame
01:39
and if you're not really good at it,
no one will ever love you.
01:43
(Laughter)
01:46
So you might squick,
hearing me talk about sex
01:48
while you're sitting in a room
full of strangers -- that is normal.
01:51
I invite you to breathe.
01:54
Feelings are tunnels.
01:56
We make our way through the darkness
to get to the light at the end.
01:57
And I promise it's worth it.
02:00
Because I want to share with you
today a piece of science
02:02
that has changed
how I think about everything,
02:04
from the behavior of neurotransmitters
in our emotional brain,
02:07
to the dynamics of our
interpersonal relationships.
02:11
To our judicial system.
02:14
And it starts with our brain.
02:17
There's an area of your brain
you've probably heard referred to
02:19
as the "reward center."
02:22
I think calling it the reward center
02:23
is a little bit like calling
your face your nose.
02:25
That is one prominent feature,
02:27
but it ignores some other parts
and will leave you really confused
02:30
if you're trying to understand
how faces work.
02:34
It's actually three intertwined
but separable systems.
02:37
The first system is liking.
02:40
Which is like reward,
02:42
so this is the opioid hotspots
in your emotional brain.
02:43
It assesses hedonic impact --
02:46
"Does this stimulus feel good?
02:48
How good?
02:50
Does this stimulus feel bad?
02:51
How bad?"
02:53
If you drop sugar water
on the tongue of a newborn infant,
02:54
the opioid-liking system
sets off fireworks.
02:57
And then there's the wanting system.
03:00
Wanting is mediated
by this vast dopaminergic network
03:02
in and beyond the emotional brain.
03:06
It motivates us to move toward
or away from a stimulus.
03:08
Wanting is more like your toddler,
following you around,
03:13
asking for another cookie.
03:15
So wanting and liking are related.
03:17
They are not identical.
03:20
And the third system is learning.
03:21
Learning is Pavlov's dogs.
03:24
You remember Pavlov?
03:25
He makes dogs salivate
in response to a bell.
03:27
It's easy, you give a dog food,
salivates automatically,
03:29
and you ring a bell.
03:31
Food, salivate, bell.
03:33
Food, bell, salivate.
03:34
Bell, salivate.
03:35
Does that salivation mean
that the dog wants to eat the bell?
03:38
Does it mean that the dog
finds the bell delicious?
03:44
No.
03:48
What Pavlov did
was make the bell food-related.
03:49
When we see this separateness
of wanting, liking and learning,
03:54
this is where we find
an explanatory framework
03:58
for understanding what researchers call
arousal nonconcordance.
04:00
Nonconcordance, very simply,
04:04
is when there is a lack
of predictive relationship
04:06
between your physiological
response, like salivation,
04:08
and your subjective experience
of pleasure and desire.
04:11
That happens in every emotional
and motivational system that we have,
04:16
including sex.
04:20
Research over the last 30 years
04:22
has found that genital
blood flow can increase
04:23
in response to sex-related stimuli
04:26
even if those sex-related stimuli
are not also associated
04:29
with the subjective experience
of wanting and liking.
04:32
In fact, the predictive relationship
04:35
between genital response
and subjective experience
04:37
is between 10 and 50 percent.
04:40
Which is an enormous range.
04:43
You just can't predict necessarily
04:46
how a person feels
about that sex-related stimulus
04:50
just by looking
at their genital blood flow.
04:53
When I explained this to my husband,
he gave me the best possible example.
04:55
He was like,
04:59
"So, that could explain this one time,
when I was in high school, I ...
05:00
I got an erection in response
to the phrase 'doughnut hole.'"
05:04
(Laughter)
05:07
Did he want to have sex with the doughnut?
05:09
No.
05:11
He was a teenage boy
flooded with testosterone,
05:12
which makes everything
a little bit sex-related.
05:15
And it can go in both directions.
05:18
A person with a penis may struggle
to get an erection one evening,
05:20
and then wake up the very next
morning with an erection,
05:24
when it's nothing but a hassle.
05:26
I got a phone call from
a 30-something friend, a woman,
05:29
she said, "So, my partner and I
were in the middle of doing some things
05:31
and I was like, 'I want you right now.'
05:35
And he said, 'No, you're still dry,
you're just being nice.'
05:37
And I was so ready.
05:42
So what's the matter, is it hormonal,
should I talk to a doctor,
05:43
what's going on?"
05:46
Answer?
05:47
It's arousal nonconcordance.
05:49
If you're experiencing unwanted pain,
talk to a medical provider.
05:50
Otherwise -- arousal nonconcordance.
05:54
Your genital behavior
just doesn't necessarily predict
05:56
your subjective experience
of liking and wanting.
05:59
Another friend, back in college,
06:02
told me about her first experiences
of power play in a sexual relationship.
06:04
She told me that her partner tied her up
06:07
with her arms over her head like this,
she's standing up and he positions her
06:09
so she's straddling a bar, presses up
against her clitoris, like this.
06:13
So there's my friend, standing there,
and the guy leaves.
06:16
It's a power play.
06:19
Leaves her alone.
06:20
So there's my friend, and she goes,
06:21
"I'm bored."
06:24
(Laughter)
06:25
And the guy comes back
and she says, "I am bored."
06:26
And he looks at her
and he looks at the bar
06:30
and he says, "Then why are you wet?"
06:32
Why was she wet?
06:36
Is it sex-related to have pressure
directly against your clitoris?
06:38
Yeah.
06:42
Does that tell him whether
she wants or likes what's happening?
06:43
Nope.
06:47
What does tell him whether
she wants or likes what's happening?
06:49
She does!
06:54
She recognized and articulated
what she wanted and liked.
06:55
All he had to do was listen to her words.
06:59
My friend on the phone --
what's the solution?
07:02
You tell your partner,
"Listen to your words."
07:05
Also, buy some lube.
07:09
(Laughter)
07:11
(Applause)
07:13
Applause for lube, absolutely.
07:14
(Applause)
07:16
Everyone, everywhere.
07:18
But I want to tell you a darker
listen-to-her-words story.
07:20
This one comes from a note
that a student sent me
07:23
after I gave a lecture
about arousal nonconcordance.
07:26
She was with a partner,
a new partner, glad to be doing things,
07:28
and they reached a point
07:32
where that was as far
as she was interested in going
07:33
and so she said no.
07:36
And the partner said, "No, you're wet,
you're so ready, don't be shy."
07:37
Shy?
07:42
As if it hadn't taken all the courage
and confidence she had
07:43
to say no to someone she liked.
07:47
Whose feelings she did not want to hurt.
07:49
But she said it again.
07:52
She said no.
07:55
Did he listen to her words?
07:57
In the age of Me Too
and Time's Up, people ask me,
08:01
"How do I even know
what my partner wants and likes?
08:05
Is all consent to be verbal
and contractual now?"
08:08
There are times when consent is ambiguous
08:10
and we need a large-scale
cultural conversation about that.
08:12
But can we make sure we're noticing
how clear consent is
08:17
if we eliminate this myth?
08:21
In every example I've described so far,
08:23
one partner recognized and articulated
what they wanted and liked:
08:25
"I want you right now."
08:29
"No."
08:31
And their partner told them
they were wrong.
08:32
It's gaslighting.
08:35
Profound and degrading.
08:37
You say you feel one way,
08:39
but your body proves
that you feel something else.
08:40
And we only do this around sexuality,
08:43
because arousal nonconcordance
08:46
happens with every emotional
and motivational system we have.
08:47
If my mouth waters
when I bite into a wormy apple,
08:50
does anybody say to me,
08:54
"You said no, but your body said yes?"
08:56
(Laughter)
08:59
And it's not only our partners
who get it wrong.
09:00
The National Judicial Education Program
published a document
09:03
called "Judges Tell: What I Wish
I Had Known Before I Presided
09:06
in a Case of an Adult Victim
of Sexual Assault."
09:11
Number 13:
09:14
On occasion, the victim, female or male,
may experience a physical response,
09:15
but this is not a sexual response
in the sense of desire or mutuality."
09:20
This brings me one step closer
into the darkness,
09:24
and then I promise
we will find our way into the light.
09:26
I'm thinking of a recent court case
involving multiple instances
09:29
of non-consensual sexual contact.
09:32
Imagine you're on the jury
09:34
and you learn that the victim had orgasms.
09:35
Does it change how your gut
responds to the case?
09:39
Let me remind you,
orgasm is physiological;
09:42
it is a spontaneous,
involuntary release of tension,
09:44
generated in response
to sex-related stimuli.
09:47
But the perpetrator’s lawyer made sure
the jury knew about those orgasms
09:51
because he thought the orgasms
could be construed as consent.
09:55
I will also add that this was a child
being abused by an adult in the family.
10:00
I invite you to breathe.
10:04
That kind of story can give a person
all kind of feelings,
10:06
from rage to shame to confused arousal
10:09
because it is sex-related,
10:13
even though it is appalling.
10:15
But even though I know it's difficult
10:19
to sit with those feelings
in a room full of strangers,
10:21
if we can find our way through
all of the messy feelings,
10:24
I believe we will find our way
to the light of compassion
10:27
for that child,
10:32
whose relationship
with her body was damaged
10:34
by an adult whose job it was
to protect it.
10:36
And we'll find hope
that there was a trustworthy adult
10:40
who could say, "Genital response
10:44
just means it was a sex-related stimulus;
doesn't mean it was wanted or liked,
10:46
certainly doesn't mean
it was consented to.
10:50
(Applause)
10:53
That compassion and that hope
are why I travel all over,
10:58
talking about this
to anyone who will listen.
11:03
I can see it helping people,
even as I say the words.
11:05
I invite you to say the words.
11:11
You don't have to say "clitoris"
in front of 1000 strangers.
11:15
But do have one brave conversation.
11:18
Tell this to someone you know
who has experienced sexual violence --
11:22
you definitely know someone.
11:25
In the US it's one in three women.
11:26
One in six men.
11:29
Almost half of transgender folks.
11:30
Say "Genital response means
it's a sex-related stimulus.
11:33
It doesn't mean it was wanted or liked."
11:37
Say it to a judge you know
or a lawyer you know,
11:39
or a cop or anyone who might sit
on a jury in a sexual assault case.
11:42
Say "Some people think
that your body doesn't respond
11:46
if you don't want
or like what's happening,
11:48
if only that were true.
11:51
Instead, arousal nonconcordance.
11:52
Say this to the confused
teenager in your life
11:55
who is just trying to figure out
what, even, what?
11:58
Say, if you bite this moldy fruit
and your mouth waters,
12:03
nobody would say to you,
12:08
"Well, you just don't want to admit
how much you like it."
12:10
Same goes for down below,
arousal nonconcordance.
12:13
Say it to your partner.
12:17
My genitals do not tell you
what I want or like.
12:19
I do.
12:22
(Applause)
12:24
The roots of this myth are deep
12:30
and they are entangled with some
very dark forces in our culture.
12:31
But with every brave conversation we have,
12:35
we make the world
that little bit better, a little simpler
12:38
for the confused teenager.
12:41
A little easier for your friend
on the phone, worried that she's broken.
12:43
A little easier and safer
12:48
for the survivors, one in three women.
12:51
One in six men.
12:53
Half of trans folks.
12:55
Me too.
12:58
So for every brave conversation you have,
13:00
thank you.
13:04
(Applause)
13:05
Thank you.
13:13
Thanks.
13:15
(Applause)
13:16
Helen Walters: Emily, come up here.
13:20
Thank you so much.
13:22
I know that you do this all the time,
13:23
and yet, still, I'm so grateful to you
for having the courage
13:25
to come and talk about that on this stage.
13:28
It really took a lot
and we're very grateful to you.
13:30
So thank you.
13:33
Emily Nagoski: I am grateful to be here.
13:34
HW: So in your regular day job,
13:36
I imagine, as you put
at the top of the talk,
13:38
you get asked a lot of questions.
13:40
But what's the one question
that you get asked all the time
13:41
that you can share with everyone here
so you don't have to answer it 1000 times
13:45
throughout the rest of the week?
13:50
EN: The question I get asked most often
13:51
is actually the question underneath
pretty much all the other questions,
13:53
so, can you get addicted to your vibrator,
13:57
please help me
with my erectile dysfunction?
13:59
Underneath every question is actually
the question, "Am I normal?"
14:01
To which my answer in my mind is,
14:04
what even is normal and why is that
what you want your sexuality to be?
14:07
Why do we only want to be normal
around sexuality?
14:11
Don't we want to be extraordinary?
14:14
Like, do you just want normal sex
or do you want awesome sex in your life?
14:16
I think, though, there's a lot of fear
14:20
around being too different sexually.
14:22
When people are asking me,
14:24
"Is this thing I'm experiencing normal,"
14:26
what they're actually
asking me is, "Do I belong?"
14:28
Do I belong in this relationship,
14:31
do I belong in this community of people,
14:33
do I belong on earth as a sexual person?
14:36
To which the answer is always
a resounding yes.
14:39
The only barrier there is,
the only limit there is, there are two:
14:43
one, if you're experiencing
unwanted sexual pain,
14:47
talk to a medical provider.
14:50
And two: As along as everybody involved
is free and glad to be there,
14:51
and free to leave whenever they want to,
14:56
you're allowed to do
anything that you want to.
14:58
There is no script,
there is no box you have to fit into,
15:00
you're allowed, as long as there is
consent and no unwanted pain,
15:03
you're totally free to do
whatever you want.
15:07
HW: Amazing. Thank you so much.
15:09
EN: Thank you.
15:11
HW: Thank you, you're incredible.
15:12
(Applause)
15:14

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About the speaker:

Emily Nagoski - Sex educator
Emily Nagoski teaches women to live with confidence and joy inside their bodies.

Why you should listen

Emily Nagoski is a sex educator and the author of the best-selling Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life. As she writes: "As an undergrad at the University of Delaware, I wanted some volunteer work for my resume, so I got trained as a peer sex educator, going into residence halls to talk about condoms, contraception and consent. Though I loved the brain science I was studying in my classes (BA in psychology, minors in cognitive science and philosophy), it was my work as a sex educator that made me like who I am as a person. So that's the path I chose. I went to Indiana University for an MS in counseling and PhD in health behavior, completing a clinical internship at the Kinsey Institute, then went on to work at Smith College, where I taught a class called Women’s Sexuality.

"That first semester at Smith, I asked my students, as the last question on the final exam, 'What's one important thing you learned?' Half the students answered simply, 'I'm normal.' I decided that day to write Come As You Are, to share the science and sex positivity that helped my students know they're normal."

More profile about the speaker
Emily Nagoski | Speaker | TED.com