Time to ‘Come As You Are’ with Emily Nagoski
“Is that what I think it is?”, my brother quipped looking at the rather suggestive cover of Emily Nagoski’s celebrated read on female sexuality, ‘Come As You Are’. When I asked him what he thinks, his response was straightforward, followed by a slight smirk, “An open zipper pouch that looks like a vagina. Sneaky, haha.” “That could be the vulva, you know”, I replied. And, that was the beginning of a 15-minute-ish conversation on how the vulva and vagina are different, and how the clitoris is far more complex than just a little hood. Trust me, I wouldn’t have been this comfortable talking to my brother about, well, my anatomy. But, thanks to books like ‘Come As You Are’, that communication gap may be bridged in time to come.
As detailed and comprehensive as it can be, ‘Come As You Are’ is hands-down one of the deepest dives I’ve taken into the literary world making sense of desire, arousal, intimacy, and pleasure from a feminist lens. Some see it as a sex handbook, others as a self-help guide and it’s even been referred to as “a master class in the science of sex”. To me, it was a technically nuanced read on the curriculum of a course I desperately want to get enrolled in. For a person who has two degrees in Psychology, and is eager to learn about pleasure and sexuality from a modern feminist perspective day in and out, I really admire the emphasis laid upon the psychology of sexual experiences (not just the physicalities of it) as being lived by women or people with vulvas.
While reading, I came across an activity wherein you had to describe and break down the good, better, not-so-great, and worse sexual experiences—right from personal characteristics to relationship dynamics and settings. As a self-proclaimed nerd, I asked my partner to attempt this one with regard to our experiences together. Of course, it was fun and downright juicy, but we were able to take a look at each other’s responses and understand how different or similar our mutual (and, individual) pleasure looks. It was also interesting to see how there were certain things I did that turned him on, that I was completely unaware of. He even took my page home to ‘work on the feedback’! The point is - even though you might sometimes feel lost in the vernaculars and the theories, the flow of the book is such that it grips your attention with relatable pop references, resulting in a fine balance. You can make this book your own, and that makes it a wholesome part of your bedroom library.
What REALLY works well…
Let’s start with the basics—or as Emily puts it, “the [not-so-basic] basics” section of the book where she takes the reader through a journey of embracing their bits down there - right from the lips to the clit and even the Skene’s Glands (the part responsible for female ejaculation, or squirting), Emily gave each part of the vulva (and genital anatomy that goes beyond that) the limelight that it needs. Fun fact: did you know that Skene’s Glands were named after a man? I didn’t and now that I do, I think I know why ‘Come As You Are’ has played a pivotal role in realigning and adding the much-needed (and, missing) context to female pleasure. I picked up on this lovely quote from a chapter based on intersex anatomy, “You’ve all got the same parts, just organized in your own unique way.” The power this line holds is great in a way that it normalizes genitals, yours and mine, while also holding space for both. The subtle and smart usage of the metaphor ‘garden’ to describe our sexual ‘hardware’ adds a psychosocial context to how we’re taught to perceive our anatomy.
“Turn on the ons, turn off the offs”— by using the terms ‘accelerator’ and ‘brake’ to describe how our brain interprets sexual response, Emily broke down the Dual Control Model of Arousal as introduced by Kinsey Institute. By this theory, women tend to work towards accelerating their sexual desire without completely understanding how to let up on the brakes when needed. Though the technical aspects may feel a bit overwhelming at times, Emily has described this book as ‘the science-based way of thinking about women’s sexual wellbeing.’ So, if you’re someone who’s eager to load up on female sexuality fact-checks, you’ve come to the right place.
I also want to take a moment to acknowledge how well this book deals with and discusses sexual trauma by hinting at the different ways trauma is processed or held physically by survivors, and how their past experience affects their ability to experience pleasure or react to their partner’s touch. Speaking of, a rather interesting and lesser-known phenomenon, arousal non-concordance has been covered in detail while discussing lubrication. Arousal non-concordance is a completely normal and valid experience when your genital/physical arousal doesn’t match or align with your subjective/sexual-emotional arousal. Think of it like this: we might not be having thoughts or desire to engage sexually yet experience wetness that is similar to when you’re aroused. Emily tries to normalize this fairly common experience amongst vulva owners and also maintains how important it is not to engage in self-blame or guilt. Rather, communicate with your partner what you might be feeling at that exact moment. She took a clever dig at the book Fifty Shades of Grey wherein amidst spanking Anastasia (the female protagonist), who is completely new to the concept, Christian (the male protagonist) assumes that she’s aroused and turned on by the act just by feeling her get wet. “Lubrication may mean it was sex-related, which tells us nothing about whether it was sexually appealing” - another imperative takeaway, courtesy of ‘Come As You Are’.
By equating the experience of an orgasm to tickling, and describing pleasure as a measure of your orgasm, Emily covers the vast world of female anatomy, pleasure, intimacy, and the autonomy to explore the same.
What COULD have been better…
The book does acknowledge in the beginning that it mostly has cis representations of sexuality and pleasure, wherein only ciswomen have been taken as a point of reference. I do feel the usage of more inclusive terms and examples could have helped this be a more holistic and well-rounded read. Even though this book is about female sexuality, I did feel on certain occasions that the discussion was focused on partnered sex (especially cishet sex) which sometimes chipped away my own interest as a reader.
Note for the Readers
This book isn’t just another read on sexuality - it requires you to commit to understanding the subtleties of all things desire, arousal, pleasure, anatomy, intimacy, and of course, sex. It’s like waking up every day and learning something new about yourself and your body as a vulva-haver and all the wonderful things you’re yet to experience or the distasteful memories that your mind and body hold onto. Pick up this book if you’re looking to expand your knowledge of how women feel pleasure - as a researcher, a journalist, or just another inquisitive mind. This is a great read for you and your partner in terms of exchanging stories and experiences that may come up while reading this book, reflecting upon it, and engaging in meaningful communication. Not sure if this book can transform your sex life, but it sure as hell can empower you to figure out what really can.
Juicy Reads by That Sassy Thing is an initiative where we will review books that align with our vision of making the world a safer, more pleasurable space.
We'll start with reviewing 2 books every month and as we grow, we'll have lots more coming your way!
About the Author
Anuja (she/her) is our Creator-in-Residence. After exploring all the different ways she could talk about who she identifies as, this is the closest she could get: “I’m your quintessential dog hoomum with a blue typewriter, living three blocks away, probably writing about you."