Rules of Attraction

A local professor of women’s sexuality explores what drives female desire.


Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski

Published by Simon & Schuster, 416 pages, $16

Sex should be playful, and Emily Nagoski —a professor who teaches women’s sexuality at Smith College—writes about it partly in that spirit. But she, science and many women know from experience that it can be otherwise. The Big O can be a “no-gasm,” anxiety can intervene, and being in the same bed with a partner may not mean being on the same page, emotionally or sexually.

It turns out it’s less the body than the brain that brings the buzz of desire and connection. Nagoski outlines three key mechanisms underlying pleasure, which she calls “enjoying,” “expecting” and “eagerness.” She notes how women’s internal experience of “brakes” and “accelerators” strongly influence the direction of pleasure; so, we need to learn to “turn off the offs”—stress, fatigue, self-critical thoughts, worry that the kids could walk in—and “turn on the ons,” like a favorite fantasy, for instance. And she stresses the importance of learning to manage our monitor, that often-impatient internal observer of our thoughts and feelings, which can help or hinder desire.

Nagoski also recommends taking a visual voyage to the vulva, and she continually affirms the normalcy of everyone’s anatomy. She’s reassuring about the subtlety of sexual response as well; orgasm itself isn’t standardized, but experienced in a wide range of styles. Throughout the text, worksheets and charmingly casual conversations with women bring forth hopefulness and, yes, sexiness.

From page 226: We’ll start with where desire comes from: Desire is arousal in context. And then we’ll talk about what desire is not—it’s not a drive, not a “hunger”—and why that matters so much. Which will bring us to the surprising truth about what desire is: It’s curiosity.

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