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Emily Nagoski wrote a guide on finding lasting intimacy — and helped her own marriage

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

There is a tired-out storyline when it comes to relationships, and it goes something like this. Sex is great in the beginning, but then life happens, and, well, sex moves way down on the to-do list and 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 sex life.

EMILY NAGOSKI: 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.

SUMMERS: Nagoski discovered that the fastest way to destroy your sex life is to worry about it.

NAGOSKI: So if you're starting place can be wherever I am right now is normal, and I'm OK, even if it's not where I would choose to be, let me get to know what's true right now so that I can explore with curiosity what some strategies might be to move in a direction that feels more comfortable.

SUMMERS: So that is exactly what she did. And the result is a new book. It's called "Come Together: The Science (And Art) Of Creating Lasting Sexual Connections." And before we dig into it all, a heads up. This conversation is going to focus on sex and intimacy, and it might not be appropriate for all listeners. When we spoke, I asked Emily Nagoski where she started.

NAGOSKI: So the first thing was, I tried to follow my own advice of, like, scheduling sex. If I can get to the point of starting, we're all good. And the difficulty was we couldn't get there. So I tried scheduling it. I tried just putting my body in the bed and seeing what would happen. But I was stuck in some space in my brain that felt a million miles away. So my next step, honestly, was to talk to my individual therapist about it, because I wanted to make sure that when I talked to my partner about it, which was the step that came after, I would have a clear enough insight into my own experience that I could talk about it in a way that would lead us towards solutions.

SUMMERS: What is your advice for someone who wants to start having some of these conversations with their partner or partners about improving their sex lives? I mean, many of us don't even have these conversations with ourselves, let alone the people...

NAGOSKI: Yup.

SUMMERS: ...Who we're in romantic relationships with. Like, it's easy to talk to a partner about the fact that they forgot to pay the water bill, but this feels harder than that.

NAGOSKI: Yeah. It's easier, in fact, to have sex with someone than it is to talk about that sex with that same person. And I think there's two primary barriers people face. The first is that they're afraid they're going to self disclose something about their sexuality, and their partner will be appalled and never be able to look at them the same way again. And the second barrier is one that I in particular was experiencing. I didn't want to hurt my partner's feelings. It is so easy for us to take these things personally and feel bad about ourselves if we feel like we haven't been meeting our partner's needs.

So I really recommend having a conversation about the conversation where you say, I would love for our sex life to be everything that we can imagine it being, and I'm worried that if we talk about it, I might accidentally hurt your feelings or I'm worried that if I tell you some of the things I think about, you're going to be judgmental. So what can we do to prepare the ground so that we can build space for that to be true and not hurt each other's feelings in the process?

SUMMERS: I mean, it seems to me, at least from the outside, that you are a person who is very comfortable talking about sex in a way that not a lot of us are. Why do you think it is that these conversations come more easily to you?

NAGOSKI: Part of it is my training. I started at 18 years old, my very first semester in college. I do think that I have an added assist in being autistic. The way I absorb cultural messages just is not the same as the way an allistic person absorbs messages. So it was really easier for me to let go of the previous shame that I absorbed from my early life and drift into this other way of approaching sex conversations that made so much more sense. It's so much more rational and logical for talking about sex to be really the same as talking about any other health issue.

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, 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.

SUMMERS: You provide some very specific, clear-eyed practices and tools in long-term conversation with a partner or partners for making sure that sex and your relationship, that that connection is meaningful and good. But I do have to raise the question of this is a lot of work, and I think some people might hear this and say, why is all of this work, all of these hard conversations, why is it worth it?

NAGOSKI: Yeah, that's an excellent question. And the answer for some people is it is not. When life gets too complicated and stressful, it is easy for sex to drop off the list of priorities. But the couples who sustain a strong sexual connection over the long term have three characteristics. One is that they're really good friends. They trust and admire each other. Two, they prioritize sex. They decide that it matters. They stop doing all the other things they could be doing, and goodness knows we have so many things we could be doing. We close the door on our other responsibilities and identities and just play in this very specific and entertaining, sometimes very important, usually just very silly way that humans connect.

I recommend that people have conversations like, what is it that you want when you want sex? And just as importantly, what is it that you don't want when you don't want sex - and just get to, what is it that sex does in our relationship that makes it worth not doing all the other things that we could be doing? It's a lot less effortful to just watch TV for half an hour than it is to connect sexually with a partner. So why would you? Partners who have an answer to that question are the couples who find their way back to each other.

SUMMERS: Emily, I want to end this conversation back with a topic that we talked about earlier, and that's about your own relationship. Are things in a different place for you now?

NAGOSKI: Short answer, yes. I'm perimenopausal now, and I have long Covid. So I have a lot of obstacles. But at the end of writing this book, I had a hundred thousand words of guidance to teach me and my husband how to find our way back to each other even in the midst of these other challenges. And the thing I am proudest of, if nobody else reads this book, it has already helped us make things better than they have been in the 12 years that we've been together.

SUMMERS: What does he think of the book?

NAGOSKI: He's very proud of me, and he really likes that our sex life is better (laughter).

SUMMERS: That is Emily Nagoski. Her latest book, "Come Together: The Science (And Art) Of Creating Lasting Sexual Connections," is out now. Emily, thank you so much.

NAGOSKI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elena Burnett
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.
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.

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