Bringing The World Home To You

© 2021 WUNC North Carolina Public Radio
120 Friday Center Dr
Chapel Hill, NC 27517
919.445.9150 | 800.962.9862
91.5 Chapel Hill 88.9 Manteo 90.9 Rocky Mount 91.1 Welcome 91.9 Fayetteville 90.5 Buxton
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Health

Embodied: Season 1, Episode 1 Transcript

Anita Rao  00:06

I was in third grade the first time I ever saw people "do it" on screen. Their names were Jack and Rose, and I saw them alongside my best friend and her mom who  chaperoned us on a trip to "Titanic." I definitely knew what was going on. I knew that sex was happening, but I never debriefed that scene with anyone.  I grew up without ever getting "The Sex Talk." I think that's pretty common for third culture kids who grew up in a different country from their parents, with different norms around sex and sexuality. It wasn't until college that I ever really thought about pleasure. I remember a women's studies class talking about research methods. My professor handed out this diagram of the clitoris. It was from 1998. And it was the first time someone had proven that modern medical science didn't understand the clitoris.  It's not just a button but this much bigger organ with an internal and an external structure. And I had literally never seen anything like this before. I had no idea so little attention had ever been paid to clitoral pleasure. This was a huge wake up call for me. Why had I spent so much time talking to people about sex, but so little time talking to people about pleasure? This is Embodied. I'm Anita Rao. A sexual awakening is usually not a singular event. We discover and rediscover and re-rediscover what gives us intimate pleasure throughout our lives. If it still feels like you're doing the work, I am too. But a big moment for me in the past few years was reading Emily Nagasaki's book "Come As You Are." It gave me such a beautiful new framework for thinking about pleasure. And if I had been in Emily's popular Sexuality Studies class at Smith College, I would have felt so much less alone on my path to understanding pleasure.

Emily Nagoski  02:13

I had 187 students in this class. It was really large, and it was a very rigorous class, lots of science. And at the end of it, the last question on my final exam was: Just tell me one important thing you learned out of all of this science. And I thought they were going to say stuff like: the evolutionary biology, or attachment theory, or arousal non-concordance — some specific piece of science. And instead, out of 187 students, all women, more than half of them just wrote: I'm normal. I'm normal. Just because I'm different from other women doesn't mean I'm broken. I don't know how much time you've spent grading final exams, but it's not usually like this. I was sitting in my office, with tears in my eyes feeling like something really important  had happened, that feeling normal was essential for my students, and something about this science had granted them access to it.

Anita Rao  03:03

So a lot of what we know is shaped by our culture and our contemporary cultural understandings. Take us back to the history of some of the first documented messaging around women's sexuality in particular...

Emily Nagoski  03:15

Yeah, the oldest English language sex manual I can find is ... It's called "Aristotle's Masterpiece". It is neither by Aristotle, nor a masterpiece, and it dates from I believe, the 1500s. And I was astonished when I read it to find some of the same myths that I write about in "Come As You Are," in particular, the idea of arousal non-concordance. People used to believe that women's orgasm was how she got pregnant. That is definitely not true. They also believed that an orgasm was inherently pleasurable, that if a person experiences pleasure, then they must have wanted what happened, and therefore if you get pregnant, then you must have given consent. Somehow pregnancy is consent, and just a few years ago, we saw the conversation of women's bodies have a way to "shut that whole thing down" — this continuing myth that what a woman's body does somehow says more about what she wants and likes than she, the woman, does.

Anita Rao  04:19

Break down that arousal non-concordance for us. So you're saying that having an erect penis doesn't necessarily mean a man is turned on, or a woman who has lubrication doesn't necessarily mean that she's turned on?

Emily Nagoski  04:32

Yes, there is some correlation between what's going on with our genital bloodflow and how we feel. But pleasure, desire and sexual learning (arousal). They are three separable systems in our emotional brains. So, you can have your body respond to something that's a sex-related stimulus — say yes, something sex related is going on, so let me send the blood flow down to the genitals. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the sex- related thing that's going on is wanted or liked. They are linked but separable systems. So just because a person with a penis may get an erection, or struggle to get an erection one night with a partner, then wake up the very next morning with an erection when it's nothing but an inconvenience. The same goes for people with vulvas and vaginas. Just because they're lubricating doesn't mean they want or like what's happening.

Anita Rao  05:29

So you mentioned Aristotle and looking at these pieces of medieval literature. And it's interesting because there are things that we—at least when I was reading your book, I thought of as very basic knowledge that no one could disagree with such as the story of the hymen. Tell me about the hymen and what you've unlearned about it.

Emily Nagoski  05:49

The hymen for me is a metaphor for everything in "Come As You Are," because the biological truth about the hymen is that it has no reproductive function. It's a biological side effect extra of the cascade of organization that happens to our genitals. in utero as we develop the shape of our genitals. It doesn't do anything. And yet, culturally, it has this whole story behind it. Patriarchal society saw a fold of tissue over the mouth of the vagina, and as my husband jokingly calls it, they saw a "freshness seal" that indicated whether or not this vagina was clean enough to be purchased when women's bodies were literal property traded from father to husband. When it turns out, there's actually zero correlation between the size and shape of a hymen and whether or not that vagina has been penetrated. None. Women who have given birth have intact hymens.

Anita Rao  06:52

So there's actually a bigger correlation between the people who are in power and how we understand our biology it seems...

Emily Nagoski  07:00

Absolutely. The main way that sex research was done for a long time was to look at how men work and assume that the way men work is the way people are all supposed to work. So that the ways women work — we turn out to be, you know, kind of like men, only a little broken all the time.

Anita Rao  07:19

Well, that brings us to kind of new models that you are using to think differently about some of these pervasive myths. So let's talk about language. You use the language, men and women, and part of that is because there's not a lot of research into trans and genderqueer sexual functions. Is that right?

Emily Nagoski  07:38

Yeah, the relationship between the trans and non-binary community and the scientific community is... I'm going to use the word complicated. I very much believe that that's going to get better over the next   decade, both as technology advances, and as more trans and non-binary people become sex researchers. That's what happened around the '70s and '80s when more women became sex researchers. The way women are represented in sex research was revolutionized by their participation in the research as investigators. And I believe that that relationship is going to change. But in the meantime, when we're talking about sex research, we're almost exclusively talking about cisgender women and men.

Anita Rao  08:19

Tell me about your concern with the term "sex drive," and why you think it's not actually the most apt way to describe what's happening.  Yes, oh, I love talking about this. The most basic reason why I don't like it is because it is not factually correct. A drive is a biological mechanism that's like an alert, an alarm system, flashing red lights "a-wooga, a wooga." There's something wrong. There's a problem that pushes an organism out into the world to go solve that problem. Hunger can be a drive. Even sleep is a drive. Thirst, thermal regulation, if and if you don't meet these needs, what happens? You literally die. Sex is not one of those. What it is, is an incentive-motivation system. Now, I do not believe that we're going to transition from saying sex drive  to sexual incentive-motivation system. Yeah, that's not gonna work.

Emily Nagoski  09:12

But what it means is that sex is not analogous to hunger. It's analogous to curiosity. So instead of being an uncomfortable thing that happens inside your body to push you out into the world, it's a pleasurable sensation that happens that pulls you towards something out in the environment that feels desirable and interesting that you want to explore. Now, if someone steals bread because they're starving, we can kind of understand that. But if someone steals bread because they're really curious about somebody else's bread, we're less willing to just be like: Well, you know what, he was really curious. Let's forgive him this time.

Anita Rao  09:52

Well, so we're not going to die if we don't have sex. But there's such a variation in how much sex people want to have ... What people's, you know, interest in sex is. How do you explain all that difference?

Emily Nagoski  10:08

Oh, so one of my favorite pieces of science in the book is a thing called the dual control model. This is the mechanism in our brain that governs sexual response. Dual control mode has got two parts, there's the sexual accelerator or gas pedal that notices all the sex related information in the environment, and it sends the turn on signal. And then there's the brakes that notice all the good reasons not to be turned on right now. And it sends the turn off signals. So the process of arousal, interest, desire is the dual process of turning on the ons and turning off all the offs. So our level of desire at any given moment is the balance of these two things. When people experience more sexual desire, it's because there's more stuff hitting the accelerator and less stuff hitting the brakes. And occasionally, it's because a person has a very sensitive accelerator or insensitive accelerator, or a very sensitive break, or a very insensitive break. So a lot of the variability in people's experience of desire can be explained by understanding that it's a dual mechanism that controls sexual response.

Anita Rao  11:14

Are there some things that are across the board ons and across the board offs? Or is this all learned with each individual?

Emily Nagoski  11:23

It looks like it's highly variable. There's, well, so how do you do the sex research that finds out if there are any innate, in place when we are born, sexually-related information that sends a turn on signal? I don't know how you do that study ethically. So, we're sort of guessing. But it looks like we're not so much born with knowing what's going to be sex related as it is that we learn to link together what we notice in the environment, what sort of internal sensations we have, and what's going on with our physiological response. And that process teaches us how to feel about the sexual world and our sexual bodies.

Anita Rao  12:02

So there's kind of this common myth that desire is spontaneous, and there are certain things that are going to automatically arouse all of us and that is the kind of first step in a sexual encounter. But you say  that's not true, and especially for women, this idea of spontaneous desire is really not actually very common.

Emily Nagoski  12:24

Exactly. Spontaneous desire is one healthy normal way to experience sexual desire. Erica Moen, the cartoonist who illustrated "Come As You Are," draws spontaneous desire as a lightning bolt to the genitals: Kaboom! You just want it out of the blue. And that's one normal way to experience desire. But what's more common, if spontaneous desire emerges in anticipation of pleasure, responsive desire emerges in response to pleasure. So what this looks like very often, say in a couple in a long term relationship with some kids, you've arranged childcare, you put the last of the dishes in the dishwasher, you tromp up the stairs. It's Saturday at three o'clock, you me and the underwear, like we said. You put your body in the bed. You let your skin touch your partner's skin. And your body goes: Oh, right! I like this. I like this person. And just because you weren't thrilled and like craving the sex before you got there, doesn't mean it isn't a delightful, totally healthy, normal sexual experience. The way I boil this down is to say that 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 with, what positions. It's whether or not you like the sex that you have.

Anita Rao  13:51

Emily Nagoski is an expert on women's sexual well-being and the author of "Come As You are." My conversation with her made me crave talking to more people about sex in the context of pleasure, including my parents. It gets awkward. So, I'd love to know, for you all. So you've heard of this idea of the sex talk, which is basically when parents tell their kids about sex. You all never had a sex talk with us. Why?

Sheila Rao (Anita's mom)  14:24

That's a great [question]. I'll let dad start on that one.

Anita Rao  14:27

Go for it, dad.

Satish Rao (Anita's dad)  14:29

Sure. I think it is very much a cultural thing. If I had to learn about sex, or porn, when I was growing up, it was almost impossible. There was no books that I had access to, even the libraries, we would not get access to that. None of my parents, none of my family, we would talk about everything else. But the few issues that are generally taboo, at least in the culture that I was raised, is talking about sex and talking  about money. So we carried that same culture over to a large extent, because you know, we don't change very quickly. We don't adapt very quickly, unless the change is kind of forced upon us by some unusual circumstances. So, we really imparted the same kind of culture and background to you guys. But in our lifetime, we have witnessed a sea change. And so, yes, in reflecting back, should we have had this conversation? We should have. We should have really made an effort to really have had this conversation, and we hope that we will talk to our children, at least our grandchildren, and make sure that they are much more savvy about this issue.

Anita Rao  15:41

Mom...?

Sheila Rao (Anita's mom)  15:43

Yes. My parents also didn't tell me anything. No sex talk, period. Nothing. Actually, we were married, and my grandmother. [Laughs] My grandmother said to me: Do you know about family protection? I said: What do you mean? She said: Well, you know, they're is ... I don't think you should be having —like my grandmother had 13 children. So she knew enough to say: Do you know about family protection? My parents didn't tell me anything at all. I'm sorry to say. And I would like to say, I reiterate what dad said. I think we didn't do ... If it's one area where we were lacking, we were totally lacking in that area. Because we, you know, we did not have the example ... It was something we didn't talk about.

Anita Rao  16:27

If you could have the sex talk today, how would you start the conversation?

Satish Rao (Anita's dad)  16:32

I think you would really talk first by explaining how a human is actually conceived in the first instance. And then you also need to talk about how physiologically the body craves these acts as we grow up, and that is all hormone related. It is a natural process in the body. It is instinctively driven. So we have to really respect that instinct. But at the same time, potential room for abuse is there. Potential room for psychological impact and damage is there. Relationships are both good and bad. They can hurt. They  can be harmful — at the same time they can be loving, and they can be enjoyable. We have to temper these kind of issues, and we have to have an honest discussion.

Anita Rao  17:29

I don't have a time machine, although it would be nice. So there's no way for me to really know if  anything would be different today if my parents had approached a conversation about sex. I do still feel like we're a ways off from being able to get personal about that element that's missing from so many sex talks: pleasure. Maybe by the time those theoretical grandkids become a reality...? We humans have accepted our so-called animal desires. We've done everything from romanticize to monetize depictions of sexual pleasure. But how does that go for real animals? The ones with fur and wings and paws and claws? I got a chance to talk to biologist Carin Bondar about sex in the animal kingdom and asked her whether animals get it on strictly for procreation, or if pleasure enters the picture, too.

Carin Bondar  18:49

So pleasure is one of those things where we have to make some assumptions. We can't necessarily speak to animals in their own language, but we can take cues from their body language. We can observe things, especially in some of our closest relatives, like bonobos, for example, we can look at their facial expressions. We can look at some of the patterns of brainwaves and things that happen. And we can, you know, look at these, these muscle contractions as we might expect to happen at an orgasm or something to that effect. And we can absolutely infer that pleasure is happening. Now sex can happen for just: Oh, yep, it feels good. Especially in bonobos hat's the case. In a lot of animals, sex can happen for reasons as far as social glue, establishing dominance hierarchies. It certainly doesn't 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.

Anita Rao  19:47

Is there a correlation between which kind of animals get sex for pleasure and which don't and the amount of time that they spend gestating, or the amount of kids that they have? Babies that they have?

Carin Bondar  20:00

Gosh. So as far as pleasure versus time of gestation ... I think those two things are potentially separate. But what we do see is when we have animals that, for example, are pregnant for a long time, something like an elephant, that that's nearly pregnant for two years, it has this massive gestation time. Sex for something like an elephant is actually pretty awkward. [Laughs] You know, it's not the easiest thing to happen. So, you know, in an animal like that, and I'm also thinking of giraffes, where it's, you know, it's a big deal for these large, you know, animals to basically just make it happen logistically. So we're going to see less sex in these kinds of animals, especially of course, once a female is gestating. But for example, in something like a dolphin, which is known to be hypersexual, and these animals you know, depending on the species will have sex many many times per hour, 24 hours a day. So we see sex lot for these cases for social glue. Male dolphins — and this is often, you know, with dolphins, it's often male-male sex that's happening — and these are very tight social groups of males that guard females or that work together as a cohort. And sex is a really important part of that. So, because of their machinery, because these are mammals, they have this same reactive tissue in the penis and the vagina, we can assume that every female has something akin to a clitoris if it's a mammal. And so we can infer there, therefore, that this must be pleasurable, at least in some cases.

Anita Rao  21:36

You mentioned giraffes briefly, and I know that something close to 90% of observed sexual activity in giraffes is between two males ... talk about the homosexual or queer sexual relationships in the wild, and is that common?

Carin Bondar  21:50

Yeah, it's incredibly common. I'm really glad that you brought that up, because as somebody who's literally written the book on sex across the animal kingdom, I have yet to come across a species that does not engage in some form of homosexual sex. And it occurs for all kinds of reasons. We can think of first and foremost: practice. You know, juvenile animals will often practice getting used to doing these kinds of things. And of course, it's, I suppose, whoever is around, whether that's somebody of your same sex or not in your juvenile play cohort. As I mentioned before, social dominance is a big one. And so often, alpha males will have sex with all the females, of course, but all the males too, in some cases as a way to say: Look what I have the power to do, and you don't. In other cases, as I mentioned, with the male dolphins, it's much more of a social glue. So it's less of a dominance thing. I'm dominant over you. It's more of a: Hey, we're all on the same page together. Let's make sure we solidify our social bonds. And so yeah, there's lots of biologically-relevant reasons for it that have nothing to do with procreation but have everything to do with the long-term effects and procreation indirectly, if you will.

Anita Rao  23:10

Carin Bondar is a biologist and author of "Wild Sex: The Science Behind Mating in the Animal Kingdom." My fellow animals, it has been a pleasure exploring all of this with you today. Laura Pellicer and Charlie Shelton-Ormond produced this episode. Thanks also to sound engineer Jenny Lawson and WUNC Director of Content Lindsey Foster-Thomas. Our theme music is by Quilla. Thanks to Weaver Street Market, a worker and consumer-owned cooperative selling organic and local food at four Triangle locations. Now featuring online shopping with next day pickup: weaverstreetmarket.coop. Embodied is a production of North Carolina Public Radio WUNC.

More Stories