24 Feb 2024

Emily Nagoski: how couples create a lasting sexual connection

From Saturday Morning, 9:05 am on 24 February 2024

Couples who sustained a strong sexual bond over time don't usually speak about a 'spark' that has been somehow kept alive, says sexual wellness educator Dr Emily Nagoski.

"They talk about pleasure and whether or not they like the sex they're having and the steps that they took together to make sure that they were creating a connection that both of them really enjoyed”.

Sexual wellness educator, Dr Emily Nagoski's new book 'Come Together' shows us that most of what we've been taught about enjoying sex is wrong.

Sexual wellness educator, Dr Emily Nagoski's new book 'Come Together' shows us that most of what we've been taught about enjoying sex is wrong. Photo: Emily Nagoski

In her new book Come Together, Dr Nagoski writes about the science and art of creating a sexual connection that lasts.

What these – not necessarily monogamous – sexually connected couples have in common, Dr Nagoski says, is they're "really good friends who admire and trust each other".

Although we think a "sparky out-of-the-blue desire for sex" is what defines a great sexual connection, the couples who have that talk more about enjoying the sex itself, she says.

Pleasure, in Dr Nagoski's definition "a deep enjoyment of what is happening in this moment", should be at the centre of our definition of sexual well-being.

'Perfect sex', in her view, requires everyone involved to turn toward whatever is happening in the moment with "compassion, confidence, joy, and a sense of playfulness".

Not worrying about the normal changes to human bodies and body responses that come with ageing is also part of it, she says.

"You don't worry about it, you don't tie it to anyone's identity or to anyone's worth, certainly, even though that's where so many of our brains have been trained to go. You just say 'Oh, what's happening right now is this. And there are a lot of fun things we could do with that or we could transition our attention to somewhere else entirely."

Our sexuality is something like a private garden we get to cultivate, Dr Nagoski says.

"Imagine that on the day you're born, you are given this little plot of rich and fertile soil and this is the garden that will become your sexuality. Your family of origin and your culture of origin begin to plant ideas about your body, sexuality, gender intimacy closeness and love and safety ... By the time you get to adulthood, you have this garden full of ideas about who you're supposed to be as a sexual person. Some of us get really lucky and only beautiful things are planted and all we have to do is cultivate and harvest. Others of us, like me, have some really toxic stuff planted in our gardens."

We each have the power to "go row by row through the garden", she says, and throw some of its contents on the compost heap.

"When you get into a long-term relationship, early on you're probably going to visit each other's gardens, seeing if you like what you see there. Gradually, though, you transition into cultivating a shared garden, you bring over your favourite things from your garden and they bring over their favorite things from their garden, and you really hope that they don't strangle each other. And you really hope that you're not accidentally bringing over some weeds of body self-criticism and the sexual shame that so many of us were raised with. And if that stuff takes root there, then it's another opportunity to throw that stuff on the compost heap to rot."

Dr Nagoski traces her own sexual shame back to the reaction her mother gave when, as a child, she asked what a vagina was while they were driving together.

"When I got home, I looked it up in a medical encyclopaedia, so the medical encyclopedia told me what it was. But what I remember is she had this flush of embarrassment and confusion and shame. The encyclopedia told me what it was, and my mother's reaction told me how to feel about it. I know for sure she did not intend to communicate that I ought to feel ashamed of my body ... but I learned in that moment to associate that flash of emotion with those parts of my body.

"If I hadn't had all these years of training and experience and made an explicit choice not to follow the rules that were set for me by a culture that does not care about my well-being and satisfaction I might be conveying those same signals to other people. It takes people making a choice to confront the shame that they were taught deeply and silently."

At a recent lunch, Dr Nagoski compared notes with a group of fellow sex therapists about the growing number of men seeking help with difficult feelings about their genitals.

"Just like women, they have been fed a lot of garbage messages about their bodies and have to let go of a lot of really bogus messaging, particularly because masculinity is so tied to the blood flow, the poor performance of that one body part. And that's a message that is difficult to process and let go of."

Men long for connection just as much as women do, she says, and have been "cut off from access to connection" even more.

"When you're raised to be a boy you're given a handbook of rules and regulations saying 'here's how you're supposed to be a sexual person, here's how you're supposed to live in this body, here's how you're supposed to love other people. 

"You are not given permission, as a boy, and then as a man to feel sad or lonely. If, culturally, you have not been granted permission to have and express those feelings then how do you reach out to your partner to say 'When this is missing from our relationship it feels like we are disconnected and I miss you'.

"I know it's not easy, basically dismantling the patriarchy from our brains, but the reward is having access to the kind of pleasure that turns the universe into rainbows. It's worth it."

Talking about sex can be very difficult, she says, because many people worry that if they share what they really want, their partner will never see them in the same way again or be hurt.

Given that it can feel risky, Dr Nagoski recommends "moving really gently" with these conversations.

"[You could say] I would like us to have a conversation about intimacy. And I'm a little worried that you might have this response or that I might feel this way. What sort of ground rules could we set up? Or is there a way that we can talk about this where we would avoid potentially some of those more difficult things - have a conversation about the conversation?"