Challenging “normal” with Emily Nagoski, best-selling author of “Come As You Are,” at an East Side erotic boutique.
I opened the email and read: “Have you ever wondered if your sexual desires are normal?” Regardless of the message body that might follow this lead sentence, I’d decided right then that I was IN.
While sex isn’t a go-to subject, it’s a box I’ve always been comfortable opening in and out of polite company. As a student of humans, the underpinnings of desire fascinate me and I’m intrigued by the myriad of ways we are shaped by narratives around sex. I’ve long maintained a healthy information fetish on the subject. Documentaries on kink. Lectures on fantasy. Podcast interviews on shame. Books on the trends in sexuality research. Blogs. Social media. Erotica. And, of course, giggles inside ocean leagues of girls’ night whiskey and wine.
The email was a quick-turnaround invitation from the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on the East Side, to hear Emily Nagoski, a lecturer on Women’s Sexuality at Smith College and author of the New York Times best seller Come As You Are. Nagoski had spoken earlier in the week in Minneapolis at the national conference of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT). Laura Anne Haave, owner of the Tool Shed, had also been in attendance and facilitated Nagoski’s detour to Milwaukee.
The Tool Shed describes itself as a sex-positive, gender-positive, sex toy store. The shop is so bright and pleasant you almost forget where you are. Then, two steps in, you greet the five-foot carousel of dildos; erotic books and DVDs to the right; lingerie sheers and vibrators to the left; lube, games, clamps, condoms, candy, paddles, rope and feather boas neatly displayed in the back.
Oh, yeah. That’s where you are.
The cozy space was full. I counted twenty-five heads, more than half of which were grey. There were as many men as there were women in the audience. I was the only person of color and, seemingly, one of only a few flying solo. I opened my notebook, scribbling notes on the easy texture of the room’s mood, the open intrigue on our faces. Admittedly, my face likely had a trace of impish anticipation, ready to eavesdrop on strangers’ colorful exchanges about sexual feats and fantasies. Right away, Nagoski rooted the evening in science.
Quirky, dimpled and bespectacled, Nagoski wore a denim skirt and peacock blue hair. She jumped right in, establishing the five pillars of her presentation: dual control mechanism (how the entanglement of physiology and psychology governs sexual engagement); sexually relevant stimulus (that our response to sexual opportunities are entirely reliant on context); responsive desire distinguishes intentional intimacy from spontaneous experiences; arousal non-concordance confirms how it’s possible for the body to respond positively to undesirable stimuli; and orgasm – the physical holy grail of sex and mental dynamics that affect their intensity.
Nagoski tickled all of my nerdy girl compartments: research, humor, fun facts, new vocabulary, clever anecdotes, audience participation and creative metaphors. I was in note-taking heaven.
Throughout her talk, though, I wondered about the other attendees. I came as a curious observer but imagined that more than a few came to soothe a curious anxiety. What about the person who needed to hear a reason for their porn consumption, for instance? What about their libido? Their weeping? The rush of fluid? The halting panic? The distracting chill in the soles of their feet? What private diatribes led them to this public exploration on sex?
As Nagoski signed my copy of her book, I asked about those guests.
“This was an incredible amount of information,” I said, adding that, while interesting, I wanted to know if her audiences seemed to leave with the information they’d come for.
“You focused on the mechanics of our sexuality,” I said. “You kept with–”
“—the basics,” Nagoski finished with me, grinning. “Most people just want to know that they’re normal, that they’re not alone.”
She reassured me that her 345-page tome, described as “master class in the science of sex,” also ventures beyond biology to explore elements of the sexual psyche. The kernel of most of our intrusive self-assessments is whether or not our interests and impulses are okay. Benchmarking ourselves against “normal” is a distraction that proves to be a potent additive in our sexual identity. Enjoying a partner’s nuzzling one night but not the next because of a debacle at work, normal. Being aroused by violent images while also disturbed by the content, normal. Having an orgasm only three out of ten times, normal. Plummeting interest in sex while raising small children, normal. Having passion derailed by even a fleeting critical thought about our body, our relationship, our self, the dishes in our sink – all normal.
“I wrote this book to share the science, stories and sex-positive insights that prove to us that, despite our culture’s vested interest in making us feel broken, dysfunctional, unlovely and unloveable, we are in fact fully capable of confident, joyful sex,” Nagoski writes. “The science says so.”
Sex shop etiquette prevents me from sharing who left with what items in their bags, but I can account for a queue of relaxed brows and grinning “normal” faces.
“In the Margins” is Dasha Kelly’s column at milwaukeemag.com.