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The Science Of Sex (And What We Get Wrong)

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Experts weigh in on the evolving science of sex.

Many people learn the basics in sex education classes — how men and women procreate and how to avoid contracting sexually transmitted infections. However, the science of sex goes well beyond basic textbook diagrams. In recent decades, researchers have developed a deeper understanding of the interplay between our brains and our bodies and about the mechanics of sexual desire.

Emily Nagoski's book 'Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life' explores female sexuality and the scientific effort to understand it.
Credit Courtesy of Emily Nagoski
Emily Nagoski is a sex educator specializing in women's sexual wellbeing.

Emily Nagoski is a sex educator, the author of the New York Times bestseller, “Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life” (Simon & Schuster/2015) and the co-author of “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle”(Ballantine Books/2019). She joins guest host Anita Rao to examine common misconceptions around sexuality and to explore the latest studies into sex and desire. The conversation is part the series “Embodied: Sex, Relationships and Your Health.”

Biologist and science communicator Carin Bondar takes a step back and talks about how humans fit into the bigger picture of animal mating. Bondar is the author of “Wild Sex: The Science Behind Mating In The Animal Kingdom” (Pegasus Books/2016). She shares stories about the weird and wonderful ways animals have sex to mate, and even to foster social bonds.

Plus, Rao speaks with two sex therapists who hear stories every day about the breakdown in the understanding of what is considered normal when it comes to sexuality and bodies. Laurie Watson and Tia Evans talk about how porn and technology affect our relationships.

They also share their expertise on how to develop healthy ideas around sex and to find compromise in sexual relationships. Watson is a Raleigh and Greensboro-based licensed marriage family therapist, certified sex therapist, and the co-host of the podcast "Foreplay – Radio Sex Therapy." Evans is a Hickory-based certified sex therapist and licensed clinical social worker.

Interview Highlights

Carin Bodar on the many roles sex can play for animals:

In a lot of animals, sex can [serve as] social glue, [be used for] establishing dominance hierarchies and it certainly doesn't have to have to have anything to do with procreation, necessarily. But does it have to do with pleasure? Well, that's another story. But a lot of the times, we can certainly infer that it does.

Emily Nagoski on the main takeaway students got from her class:

The last question on my final exam was just: tell me one important thing you learned out of all of this science … I thought they were going to say stuff like evolutionary biology or attachment theory or arousal concordance — some specific piece of science. Instead, of 187 students, all women, more than half of them just wrote: I'm normal.

Nagoski on pleasure:

Pleasure is the measure of sexual response, sexual experiences. It's not how much you crave it, how often you do it, where you do it, who you do it with, what positions — it's whether or not you like the sex that you have.

Sex therapist Tia Evans on how African American women are depicted in pornography:

With African American women, it's more aggressive, kinkier porn. So with this, it often gets internalized that our bodies are made for consumption in any way necessary. And I think that breaks down to how somebody might see themselves when they're trying to build normal, natural relationships with others.

Sex therapist Laurie Watson on the building blocks for good sex:

Secure attachment actually leaves a lot of room for individuality and separateness. We have breathing room when we feel secure, right? I know I'm attached to us. So now I can go off and fulfill my purpose in life and bring that interest back. And within that kind of relationship, sex flourishes.

Note: This program originally aired July 25, 2019.


Laura Pellicer is a digital reporter with WUNC’s small but intrepid digital news team.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist, host, creator, and executive editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health.
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