crowd of people

Recently I watched Emily Nagoski’s Ted Talk “Unlocking the Door to Your Authentic Sexual Wellbeing.” Whether or not you believe you have such a metaphorical door to “unlock,” I highly recommend Emily’s talk — she’s funny, engaging, and supports her claims about sex with science.

At the start of her talk, Emily shares feedback she received from students in a 1000-level sexuality course she taught at Smith College. More than half of the 187 students in the class said her class taught them that they are sexually normal. One student wrote, “I learned that everything is normal, making it possible for me to go through the rest of my life with confidence and joy.”

Many people struggle with their sexual well being, Emily explains, because there is too much stimulation to the part of the brain that shuts down arousal (the “off” part of the dual control model). Shame, fear, anxiety, worry — these all tell the brain, This is not the time to be aroused! For many people, unfortunately, near-constant states of anxiety prevent arousal from happening at all.

The thing we need to do, she explains, is to “create a context that allows your brain to interpret the world as a pleasurable, safe, sexy place”. For most people, this is a scenario that is low stress, high in affection, and high in trust. (For lab rats, it was a warm, dark box that smelled like their mother.)

The same day I watched Emily’s video, I came across another on the same topic. In “The Myth of Normal,” Dr. Gabor Maté encourages us to view “normal” as a continuum of traits we all have. How narrow a slice of the continuum a given culture accepts is directly linked to how many people in that culture are marginalized for being “crazy.” Western culture, he says, accepts a particularly narrow slice as normal; as a result, many people feel marginalized and suffer as a result of their isolation.

As Wendy has written, “It does no good to wonder about whether you are normal sexually” because — as the students in Emily’s class learned — there really is no such thing as a sexually “normal” person. There are just people, each one different from all the others, with his or her own skills and hangups. Research has confirmed that we are having all kinds of sex, so it makes sense to see “normal” as encompassing a wide range of behaviors.

I know for myself that the more I broaden my ideas about what’s “normal” for me, the happier I am. About a month ago, I shaved half my head. I like how it looks alright, but what I appreciate most about having half a head of shoulder-length hair and half a head of very very short hair is that I feel more intimate with myself. (I also feel much freer to use the men’s bathroom when there’s a line for the women’s.) When I see my weird hair in the mirror, I recognize that my notion of my “self” is really very flexible and encompassing, and being able to hold multiple, disparate ideas of who and what I am makes me more complex and interesting to myself.

p.s. Check out this wonderful, nsfw reading from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. It’s part of Clayton Cubitt’s “Hysterical Literature” series of videos in which readers’ genitals are stimulated as they read from their favorite texts.