I didn’t know what to expect, at all, when I picked up this book. Anything to do with sex, gender differences or science can give me strong Feels, and this book is at the intersection of all three, so I was understandably apprehensive. In this review I explain whether my apprehension was justified or not. Because I want to end on a positive note, I start with the things I don’t like about the book before moving on to the many things I love.
What I hated
This book is not a book about sex. It’s a book about sex in relationships - committed, long-term relationships.
Although the book purports to be about improving your sex life, to me “sex life” means ALL kinds of sexual experience, not just the ones you share with a long-term partner - and while masturbation is touched on (pun not intended), it seems to be mainly as a tool to help you have a better “sex life” with your partner. This will of course be really helpful for many people, just not for everyone.
The “fantastic bonus” theory is that female orgasms have no evolutionary purpose and are simply a side effect of the reproductively-necessary male orgasm, in the same way that male nipples are an evolutionary side effect.
This is the accepted scientific stance, so I can’t really blame Nagoski for parroting it, but I’m sorry…no matter what you say, nothing will ever make me comfortable with this, even if it is true.
Maybe it’s because I just imagine some misogynist dude being like “HAH! I knew it! Women aren’t supposed to enjoy sex, it’s written right here in the Book of Evolution!”
I still haven’t forgotten the time I saw a tweet from some guy who was convinced only people with a penis are physically capable of orgasm.
Incidentally, for a fascinating discussion of the possible evolutionary advantages of sex as a non-reproductive bonding behavior and social lubricant, I highly recommend Angela Saini’s book “Inferior”.
Doesn’t normalise sexual outliers among women
I talk a bit more about this in the conclusion of my review, but the tl;dr is that this book is primarily about people who aren’t very interested in sex, or are easily turned off, or take a long time to warm up to sex, or don’t often experience genital response when they’re aroused, or don’t want sex unless they are already in a sexy context.
Come As You Are sets out to normalise these experiences, which is very important, because for a lot of women this is their experience and they think it means there’s something wrong with them. These women need the most help and reassurance, and Nagoski’s book does a very good job of providing that.
However! If you lie at the opposite end of the sexuality spectrum, and you’re a woman, you may actually feel a bit alienated by this book, like I did. Throughout the book are a number of story threads, composite case studies of women the author has helped. One of these women is more like me, but because she was the minority, I felt like a minority too - someone who has nothing in common with the vast majority of women when it comes to sex. Which is probably true.
I also felt like the science in the book didn’t always explain how MY body worked. Granted, I didn’t really need those explanations because I don’t have the problems the book talks about; I’m just a greedy science nerd. But it’s a pity because the book does such a great job of explaining the more typical woman’s experience of sexuality, and presents theories that seem like they should be broadly applicable to all audiences. Maybe they still are, and I just need to put in some more effort to understand. But I found many of the explanations too complex to apply to my own experiences.
I should add that in the section at the start of the book titled “a couple of caveats”, Nagoski acknowledges that “what you’ll find in these pages isn’t the whole story of women’s sexuality - I’m not sure the whole story would actually fit in one book”. And I tend to agree. I certainly don’t critise Nagoski for her choice of subject matter. She wrote the book that needed to be written.
That one bit that just doesn’t make sense…and has no references
In Chapter 2, pg. 64, under the heading “all the same parts, organized in different ways”, Nagoski discusses how we learn, through conditioning as grow up, what counts as “sexually relevant stimuli”. She claims that “[the] learning process is different depending on whether you’re a boy or a girl. There are several different theories about how this works”. She then proceeds to present her favorite theory about the difference in the ways boys learn about their sexuality compared to girls.
Now, I really, really wanted to understand this section. Even if I ended up disagreeing with it. But I’ve literally been thinking about and re-reading the theory over and over again, and I still can’t work out what the author is trying to say. In fact it makes so little sense that I’m not even sure I can accurately paraphrase it here. The overall gist of it is that if you have a penis, you learn what is sexually relevant from how you feel emotionally and physically, but if you have a vagina, you learn sexually relevancy from…some nebulous thing that has nothing to do with your own mind and body. I still haven’t worked it out.
Here’s a quote: “[a girl] links ‘sexually relevant’ not to her internal state or genital response but to the social context” (emphasis the author’s).
What does that even mean? I cannot for the life of me work out how sexual conditioning can take place without at least one of a) emotional state or b) genital response being involved.
Nagoski says that girls learn what is sexually relevant “by paying attention to their environment” INSTEAD of by what’s happening to their bodies. But SOMETHING has to be happening to their bodies for the “sexually relevant” learning pathway to kick off at all.
And, a few paragraphs back, Nagoski states that for a boy, “from the earliest moment, his brain is linking his environment with his erections” - how is that different from girls “paying attention to their environment”? The only difference is that the girls apparently aren’t experiencing any kind of emotional or physical changes in connection with their environment - which, as I said earlier, makes absolutely no sense and rules out the stimulus as a sexually relevant one in the first place.
Nagoski tries to explain the theory with the help of analogies (a common theme throughout the book), but in this case the analogies only muddy the waters more.
The first time I read this through, I looked to see if there were any references I could follow up that might help me understand better. But the only reference is to a paper on the effect of the menstrual cycle on sexual arousability…which has nothing to do with the parts of the theory I don’t understand. This lack of references bothers me, especially when the rest of the book is so comprehensively referenced and backed up by science.
I didn’t know I had a vagina until I was 7, so I’m perfectly willing to accept that sexual learning may work differently depending on your genitals (although I feel that other factors are probably way more important, tbh). But whatever explanation you come up with has to make logical sense, dammit!
What I loved
Great conversation starter for partners
This book is a great way to facilitate communication with a partner about sex. I highly recommend reading this with your partner/s if you’re in a relationship. It may lead to some very difficult conversations, but it will also almost certainly help you understand each other better and, ultimately, have a more rewarding sex life.
I would, however, caution readers against making ANY assumptions about the sexual experiences of any woman they know, based on this book. Even though one of Nagoski’s goals in writing this book was to refute the preconceptions we have as a society about womens’ sexuality, I think it would be very easy for a reader who is not a woman to interpret this book’s message as “women are too complicated”. Remember that every woman - hell, every HUMAN - is unique and their experience of sex is unique. Have conversations. Ask questions. Don’t assume anything.
With the notable exception of that sexual conditioning section, this book is well-referenced and has a gigantic collection of footnotes organised by chapter at the end. I love getting to the end of a book like this only to discover there’s even more content, and places I can follow up the most interesting topics.
As a total nerd I love questionaires, surveys, worksheets and any kind of spreadsheety thing that I can fill in. What’s even better than a spreadsheet? A spreadsheet about sex!
Come As You Are is full of worksheets to help you discover your sexuality and improve your sex life. They have to be seen to be believed, really, but suffice to say they are super detailed and irresistable to anyone with an obsessive streak. If you’re not as much of a spreadsheet nerd as me, you may find them a bit intimidating…but engaging the help of a willing partner or friend may make filling everything in less of a chore.
I mentioned earlier that this book is a little too focussed on sex in a relationship.
However…even if your sex life doesn’t revolve around one person you’ve been with for a decade, there is still a lot of value in this book because the skills you need to have great sex with a partner are also skills you need to have great relationships of any kind. That includes your relationship with yourself.
In the end, this book still has a lot of profound, general wisdom to impart. I’ve been able to apply concepts from this book to parts of my life that have nothing to do with sex, and they have really helped me. For example, if you want to understand what PTSD feels like, Chapter 4 is a must-read, regardless of whether the trauma in question is sexual or not. This chapter also has some really helpful ideas for understanding and coping with negative emotional experiences - “completing the cycle”, letting the darkness move through you - which I’ve found more useful than anything a therapist ever told me.
Nagoski replaces the traditional “turn ons” and “turns offs” idea with “accelerators” and “brakes”, which are slightly more nuanced concepts. There’s also a nice moving vehicle analogy there. Nagoski explains that some people have sensitive brakes - they are easily inhibited or turned off from sexual situations - while others have sensitive accelerators, meaning they have little sexual inhibition and respond easily to sexual stimuli. It’s a spectrum, and you can actually have both sensitive brakes AND a sensitive accelerator at the same time…or any combination. If you want to find out what yours is, Nagoski includes a cool little questionaire (I told you there were worksheets!) which you can answer to work out where you fall, from high to low, on the sensitivity spectrum of accelerators and brakes.
Male/female anatomy homology
For a long time I’ve wanted to write an essay on genital homology - how male and female genitals are actually made up of the same tissue, “organised differently” as Nagoski would put it.
So I was over the moon with excitement when I discovered that the very first chapter of Come As You Are is on this exact topic. I know it the science will be news to a lot of readers, so it makes me really happy that an approachable explanation is being published.
The peeing thing
Here’s another thing I got way too sex-nerd excited over: in Chapter 1, Nagoski has published the ONLY non-anecdotal acknowledgement I’ve ever seen that women, not just men, have trouble urinating when aroused. And she explains the science.
You have no idea how much this means to me. Seriously. I wanted to punch the air and shout “YES!” when I read this.
One of my favorite parts of this whole book was the point where the author mentions - only in passing, to my disappointment - that “foetuses have been known to masturbate in the womb”. I had never heard of this before, and it fascinates me. I look forward to following up the reference for this claim as soon as I have time. I’ve lost the chapter this was in, but I’ll update this post with it as soon as I find it again.
One of the concepts Nagoski discusses in Chapter 6 is “non-concordance” - which is when you experience mental arousal but without genital response, or genital response without mental arousal. I love Nagoski’s analogy to salivating when you see food, regardless of whether you’re hungry or the food is appetising (the reverse would be wanting food, but having a dry mouth, I guess).
I feel that while there’s a lot of awareness that men experience it, people probably don’t realise that women can also experience non-concordance. The irony of this is that womens’ arousal is non-concordant a whopping 90% of the time, while men only experience non-concordance half the time!
So it was refreshing to read Nagoski’s bullet-point list, in Chapter 8, of instances where women had orgasms that were unconnected to pleasure or arousal. While I haven’t experienced that myself - I’m probably the most concordant woman in the world! - I found it very interesting.
Sex as “basic survival need”: sexual entitlement is why men commit rape
Oof. This one hit me right in the Feels.
For a long time, I’ve struggled with a difficult-to-pin down fear of being sexually active with a cis man. It’s made me freeze up during sex, get so anxious I want to vomit, and feel uncomfortable in any kind of remotely sexual context with a man.
In spite of the very real challenges I faced from this anxiety, I continually doubted myself and whether the thing I was afraid of - which I couldn’t even put a name to - was valid and real. (I know now, thanks in part to Nagoski, that it is).
You might guess from these experiences that I have sexual trauma in my past, but no, I don’t. What I do have is a lifetime of absorbing toxic messages about masculinity from popular culture.
The first time I tried to explain this fear to myself (which in itself was incredibly confronting and challenging), I came up with this: men get erections very easily, and as a woman, it’s your fault and if you don’t do something about it, you will be raped and possibly murdered.
My anxiety was rooted in a subconscious fear that if I somehow failed to please a man - which in my mind meant giving him an orgasm - my physical safety would be at risk. Which is just about the biggest “brake”, to use Nagoski’s terminology, imaginable.
At the time, still doubting myself, I dismissed this idea as paranoia. I now know that it is 100% not paranoia, because at least 2 young women have been raped and murdered by young men in my home country. And I’m not even counting the massacres in the US, or any similar incidents that occur outside the Western world.
However, there was a missing link in my explanation, which Nagoski has now eloquently provided.
The only reason that denying a man sexual pleasure would cause him to rape or murder you, is if sexual pleasure is a “basic survival need” (analogy: if you were starving to death, you would probably be ok with breaking the law and hurting people to get food). And that is exactly how toxic masculinity teaches men to perceive sex. In other words: entitlement.
I can’t say it better than Nagoski says it, so please, please just buy the book and read pages 231-232. And the whole book, really. But especially those pages. And especially if you’re a man.
The overarching goal of this book is to reassure you that, whatever your experience of sexuality is, you are normal. So, when I finished reading Come As You Are and just felt miserable, rather than warm and fuzzy, it took me quite a while to work out why.
In Come As You Are, Nagoski explains how we all want to feel normal because we want to belong. Essentially, the goal of her book was to make the reader feel they belong. Yet, for me, it did the exact opposite.
I didn’t realise this until I logged into my instagram account for the first time in a while. Scrolling through my feed, seeing the posts of fellow sex bloggers and educators, I immediately felt a deep sense of peace, belonging and validation. Just being amongst likeminded people on the internet gave me the warm-and-fuzzies that Nagoski’s book couldn’t.
That’s because, no matter how Nagoski tried to validate everyone’s experiences, in the end Come As You Are is primarily about a type of sexuality that I can’t relate to, and what I took away from it is that, amongst women, I am a sexual outlier. I’m not average, and this book sets out to normalise the average cis womans’ experience of sexuality.
Which is for good reason. Other kinds of sexuality are what we think of as normal for cis men, and anything that is normal for cis men probably doesn’t need an entire book to scientifically explain and justify it.
So this is not a criticism, just a warning that this book may not be relevant or reassuring to everyone. I’m sure Nagoski knows this, but it bears reiterating.
Although this book targets women, everything in it can be applied to any gender and any body parts. If your style of sexuality is not the one the book focuses on, I still recommend reading it, because there is truly something in it for everyone - even if, as in my case, what you get out of it has nothing to do with sex!