Here is the full transcript of sex educator Emily Nagoski’s talk titled “How Couples Sustain a Strong Sexual Connection for a Lifetime” at TEDxFergusonLibrary conference.
[WARNING: This talk contains mature content]
Emily Nagoski – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT
I’m sitting in a bar with a couple of friends — literally, a couple, married couple. They’re the parents of two young children, seven academic degrees between them, big nerds, really nice people but very sleep-deprived.
And they ask me the question I get asked more than any other question. They go, “So, Emily, how do couples, you know, sustain a strong sexual connection over multiple decades?”
I’m a sex educator, which is why my friends ask me questions like this, and I am also a big nerd like my friends. I love science, which is why I can give them something like an answer. Research actually has pretty solid evidence that couples who sustain strong sexual connections over multiple decades have two things in common.
Before I can tell my friends what those two things are, I have to tell them a few things that they are not.
These are not couples who have sex very often. Almost none of us have sex very often. We are busy. They are also not couples who necessarily have wild, adventurous sex.
One recent study actually found that the couples who are most strongly predicted to have strong sexual and relationship satisfaction, the best predictor of that is not what kind of sex they have or how often or where they have it but whether they cuddle after sex.
And they are not necessarily couples who constantly can’t wait to keep their hands off each other. Some of them are. They experience what the researchers call “spontaneous desire,” that just sort of seems to appear out of the blue. Erika Moen, the cartoonist who illustrated my book, draws spontaneous desire as a lightning bolt to the genitals — kaboom! — you just want it out of the blue. That is absolutely one normal, healthy way to experience sexual desire.
But there’s another healthy way to experience sexual desire. It’s called “responsive desire.” Where spontaneous desire seems to emerge in anticipation of pleasure, responsive desire emerges in response to pleasure.
There’s a sex therapist in New Jersey named Christine Hyde, who taught me this great metaphor she uses with her clients. She says, imagine that your best friend invites you to a party. You say yes because it’s your best friend and a party.
But then, as the date approaches, you start thinking, “Aw, there’s going to be all this traffic. We have to find child care. Am I really going to want to put my party clothes on and get there at the end of the week?” But you put on your party clothes and you show up to the party, and what happens? You have a good time at the party. If you are having fun at the party, you are doing it right.
When it comes to a sexual connection, it’s the same thing. You put on your party clothes, you set up the child care, you put your body in the bed, you let your skin touch your partner’s skin and allow your body to wake up and remember, “Oh, right! I like this. I like this person!” That’s responsive desire.
And it is key to understanding the couples who sustain a strong sexual connection over the long term, because — and this is the part where I tell my friends the two characteristics of the couples who do sustain a strong sexual connection — one, they have a strong friendship at the foundation of their relationship. Specifically, they have strong trust.
Relationship researcher and therapist, developer of emotionally focused therapy, Sue Johnson, boils trust down to this question: Are you there for me? Especially, are you emotionally present and available for me? Friends are there for each other. One.
The second characteristic is that they prioritize sex. They decide that it matters for their relationship. They choose to set aside all the other things that they could be doing — the children they could be raising and the jobs they could be going to, the other family members to pay attention to, the other friends they might want to hang out with. God forbid they just want to watch some television or go to sleep.
Stop doing all that stuff and create a protected space where all you’re going to do is put your body in the bed and let your skin touch your partner’s skin. So that’s it: best friends, prioritize sex.
So I said this to my friends in the bar. I was like, best friends, prioritize sex, I told them about the party, I said you put your skin next to your partner’s skin. And one of the partners I was talking to goes, “Aaagh.”
And I was like, “OK, so, there’s your problem.”
The difficulty was not that they did not want to go to the party, necessarily. If the difficulty is just a lack of spontaneous desire for party, you know what to do: you put on your party clothes and you show up for the party. If you’re having fun at the party, you’re doing it right.
Their difficulty was that this was a party where she didn’t love what there was available to eat, the music was not her favorite music, and she wasn’t totally sure she felt great about her relationships with people who were at the party. And this happens all the time: nice people who love each other come to dread sex.