We humans

A sex educator shares her keys to a happy sex life

Jan 9, 2019 /

Confidence and joy in your own body are the keys to healthy intimacy, says educator and author Emily Nagoski.

Every weekday for the month of January, TED Ideas is publishing a new post in a series called “How to Be a Better Human,” containing a helpful piece of advice from a speaker in the TED community. To see all the posts in the series, click here.

In the fall of 2010, sex educator Emily Nagoski taught an introductory college class called “Women’s Sexuality.” As she recalls, “I shoehorned in all the science I could, all the psychophysiology and all the neuroscience and … 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.”

The response she saw over and over again was this: “I’m normal.”

When it comes to our sex lives, even the most outwardly confident may wonder whether we’re normal, worrying that our bodies, our responses and our desires are not only weird but weird in some uniquely, incredibly weird way.

This preoccupation can get in the way “of unlocking the door to [our] own authentic sexual well-being,” says Nagoski, author of the book Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life.

Nagoski (TED talk: The truth about unwanted arousal) adds that many other things may interfere with that well-being — worries about unwanted pregnancy, about the kids walking in on us, about what our partner really thinks about how we look. What we need, she explains, is to “create a context that allows your brain to interpret the world as a pleasurable, safe, sexy place.”

There are two keys to genuine sexual well-being, according to Nagoski: Confidence and joy. She explains:

“Confidence comes from knowing what is true, even if it’s not what you were taught should be true.”

“Joy comes from loving what is true, even if it’s not what you were taught to expect.”

Here are Nagoski’s two recommendations for cultivating confidence and joy.

Stand naked in front of a mirror. “Or as close to naked as you can tolerate,” she says. Look at yourself. “Of course, the first thing that will happen is your brain will flood with all the culturally constructive messages about the ways your body falls short of the culturally constructed ideal,” says Nagoski. “That’s fine. You have every other minute of the day in which to have those self-critical thoughts. Just set them aside temporarily.”

Then, write down everything that you like — even if it’s just your eyelashes, your toenails or that birthmark on your left hip. Repeat this the next day, and the next, and the next. Explains Nagoski, “The more often you do it, the more obvious it will become to you what a fricking-fracking miracle your body is.”

If the mirror exercise seems impossible for you to do, that’s OK. Instead, Nagoski asks that you visualize what stands between you and fully expressing your sexuality. She describes this as a door, which, she says, exists for a reason. None of us were born with this door; instead, it was built in our brains by our experiences and by our culture, and it serves to protect us.

“Have you been shamed for your sexuality — and who hasn’t? That door is there trying to protect you from social isolation and judgment,” she explains. “If you’ve had your own sexuality used against you as a weapon, or if you’re a survivor of sexual violence, your door is there doing really important work.”

Nagoski tells us to get into a calm state of mind and take two minutes a day to picture that door. Regard it with love for keeping us safe. “I don’t know if your door might be ready to open a little bit or if your door needs to stay closed a little while longer,” she adds. “But I know that the first step is always to turn toward the door with kindness and compassion.”

Accepting our bodies and our past experiences can help us build confidence and joy, and — perhaps — allow us to banish the fear we’re abnormal once and for all. “We’re not just normal,” declares Nagoski. “We’re amazing, we are beguiling, we are courageous …. we are all the way down the alphabet to yapping and zesty.”

Watch her TEDxUniversityofNevada talk here: