Following is the full transcript of wellness educator Emily Nagoski’s talk titled “Confidence and Joy Are The Keys to a Great Sex Life” at TEDxUniversityofNevada conference. In this talk, Dr. Emily presents the research behind two keys to sexual wellbeing: confidence and joy. She is the author of the NY Times bestselling book, ‘Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life.’
Emily Nagoski – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT
Today, right? Please join me in one big, deep breath before we dive into talking about sex. Just one big, slow, deep breath in. (Inhales)
And a big, slow, deep breath out. (Exhales)
OK, now let’s talk about sex.
So yes, my name is Emily. I am a sex educator. It’s the best job in the world.
In the fall of 2010, I taught a class called “Women’s Sexuality” at Smith College. It was a 100-level, introductory-level class, but I shoehorned in all the science I could, all the psychophysiology and all the neuroscience and even – God forbid – all the sociology.
And at the end of this really intense semester, I asked my students to write down just one really important thing that they had learned. This is what they said:
“I am normal.”
“Just because my sexuality is not the same as other women’s, that does not make me abnormal.”
“Everything is normal. Bringing joy and confidence to sex.”
“I learned that everything is normal, making it possible for me to go through the rest of my life with confidence and joy.”
187 students I had in that class, and more than half of them wrote something along the lines of: “I’m normal.”
So I sat in my office, and I read those responses with tears in my eyes. There was something essential to my students about feeling normal, and somehow my class had unlocked the door to that feeling. Moments like that are why I’m a sex educator; it’s why I’m here.
I mean, it’s why I’m here in Nevada, but it’s why I’m here: to give everyone on Earth an experience like the one my students had, of unlocking the door to their own authentic sexual well-being. So that’s what I’m going to do with you guys today.
Because it turns out, we all really are normal. The science says so. I can prove it. Are you ready? Let’s do it. OK! (Inhales deeply)
The mechanism in your brain that controls sexual response is the “dual control model.” The dual control model — that means there’s how many parts? Two. Thank you.
And if I tell you the first part is the sexual accelerator or the “gas pedal,” that means the second part has to be the…? Brake! They don’t let just anybody into these TED Talks.
So, the sexual accelerator notices all the sexually-relevant information in the environment, everything you see, hear, smell, touch, taste or imagine, that your brain codes as sexually relevant, and it sends the signal that says “Turn on.” And it is functioning at a low level all the time, including right now, just the fact that we’re talking about sex is a little bit sexually relevant.
At the same time that that’s happening, in parallel, your brake is noticing all the very good reasons not to be turned on right now. This is everything you see, hear, smell, touch, taste or imagine that your brain codes as a potential threat. And it sends a signal that says “Turn off.”
So the process of becoming aroused is the dual process of turning on the ons and turning off the offs. Usually when people struggle with their sexual well-being, it’s because — sometimes there’s not enough stimulation to the gas pedal, but more often, it’s because there’s too much stimulation to the brake, and all kinds of things can hit the brake.
Like: Are you worried about unwanted pregnancy? Are you worried about your kids walking in, in the middle? Are you really sure that your partner loves your sexy body? Are you really sure that you love your sexy body? Did you spend the first two decades of your life in a culture that taught you that sex is dangerous, disgusting and dirty? That’s going to hit the brake, right?
So the first thing science tells us to do when we’re struggling with our sexual functioning, when we want to access our own authentic sexual well-being, is to start to think through: What are things that hit our accelerator? What are the things that hit our brake?
And especially, what are some strategies that we can use in order to minimize the things that are hitting the brake? I’m going to talk about two such evidence-based strategies at the end of the talk.
But before I do that, I need to come clean with you about something, which is that all that stuff I just said isn’t anywhere near as simple as I made it sound. Sorry.
To explain what I mean, I’ll tell you about the only affective neuroscience that has ever made me laugh out loud. OK. So I need you to imagine that you’re a lab rat. You’re a very savvy, experienced lab rat and the researchers have inserted a probe into your nucleus accumbens, a little, sort of jellybean-shaped thing in the middle of your emotional brain. It’s a painless procedure, the researchers are clear to say. Plink!
So you’re this sort of semi-remote-controlled bionic rat, and you’re in a three-chambered box, here you are in box #1 — just the ordinary lab environment — there’s a bit of noise, the lights are on, but it’s fine, you’re good at this.
So when the researchers zap the front of your nucleus accumbens, here’s what you do: Ooh, ooh! What’s that? Ooh!
So these are approach, moving toward, curious behaviors, right? Ooh! What’s that?
And then, in this ordinary lab environment — the first box — when they zap the back of your nucleus accumbens, you do this: aaah, what the hell is that!? You’re kicking up dust in the face of the predator. These are stress, avoidance, dread responses, right? Moving away as opposed to moving towards.
Hit the front? Ooh..! What’s that? Hit the back? What the hell is that!? Got that? That’s box #1.
So we move into box #2. Now box #2 is silent, and it’s dark, and it smells like your mother. It is. I call it the “Rat Spa.” It’s the most peaceful, calm state of mind you can imagine being in, and when they zap the front of your nucleus accumbens, what do you do? Ooh, ooh! What’s that? Ooh!
And then, when they zap the back of your nucleus accumbens, what do they do? Ooh, ooh! What’s that?
When you’re in a calm, relaxed, peaceful state of mind, your brain will interpret almost any sensation as something that should be approached with curiosity. Even stimulation that in a different context, it might interpret as a potential threat to be moved away from. But wait… There’s more.
We move to box #3. So, here in box #3, the lights are on really bright, music’s played at different volumes, you can’t even get used to it, they specify in the research paper — this made me laugh out loud — they specify they’re playing Iggy Pop.
So imagine “Lust for Life” is playing at lots of different volumes, you can’t get used to it, you’re an introverted bookworm in the worst nightclub in the world, and when they zap the front of your nucleus accumbens, what do you do? Aah..! What the hell is that!? Exactly! They don’t let just anybody into these talks, that’s amazing.