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Book Review: Come As You Are

Book cover with white background. Line drawing of a woman from waist to thighs, naked. On top is written the author's name in black "Emily Nayoski". Below it in red in cursive is written, "COME as you are".

You should venture to read Emily Nagoski’s book, Come As You Are in public. Not because you want to make your sex life public, but because the cover with the outline of a naked woman’s body makes a powerful statement. It says you don’t care much for patriarchal notions of shame. (And it will honestly make a good conversation starter.)

Proudly defying patriarchy in public will also be a tribute to the author, because that is exactly what she intends to do: bust the myths that prevent women from enjoying the bodies they have, and provide new ways of thinking about the body and its many quirks and differences. As the title suggests, the book is ultimately about sex, and what it does is chart a different path: one that’s away from sex-negativity and towards sexual pleasure.

I will begin this review with my favourite vignette from the book. In the second chapter of part one, Nagoski writes about the pharmaceutical industry’s efforts to formulate a “pink viagra”, a pill meant to give women orgasms and cure them in case they have no sex drive. Such a pill will be a “commercial bonanza”, as Nagoski writes, and has the power to reshape the history of sexual pleasure and our notions of how to achieve it. Nagoski herself, however, is not interested in such science. She immediately dismisses such medical paradigms. As she writes elsewhere in the book, “…for a long time in Western science and media, women’s sexuality was viewed as Men’s Sexuality Lite, basically the same but not quite as good.” Her book instead uses a different kind of science—one that is neither driven by big industry nor by patriarchal ideologies. This is a science written with women in mind, about women and for them.

And in spite of this extremely interesting and very defiant agenda of writing a new science, Nagoski, maintains a neutral, apolitical tone throughout her book. She takes the fight out in an attempt to make her position seem comforting and beautiful. Here is an example:

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 unlovable, we are in fact fully capable of confident, joyful sex.

I will be honest and tell you that I found myself having serious doubts about the book. Not wanting to read it while I laboured under this bias, I took it with me when I met a couple of my female friends at a local farmers’ market. I pulled the book out in public, and read aloud a few lines from it. And here is what one of my friends said: “Well, I don’t think she is writing against all culture; she is writing against a specific sex-negative culture in the United States.”

In a globalized world, such a sex-negative culture is not simply an American phenomenon. These notions spread across the world, and are transnational issues. One could even argue that there isn’t one global sex-negative culture: there are many, and these interact with each other to produce very specific and localized ways in which patriarchy tightens its control over women’s bodies.

This patriarchal culture has “vested interests” in controlling the way women conceive of their body. What Nagoski unwittingly does, however, is write for a new kind of culture, a feminist one that resists these patriarchal notions and these misogynist metaphors. She coins new metaphors—“the body is a garden”, for example—to sever the ties between the female body and patriarchal discourse, to give it new meaning and significance.

These new metaphors provide Nagoski new lenses with which to examine ideas of ‘normal’. She makes it clear from the get go that in her opinion, all bodies are normal, just very different from each other. In the first part of her book, she explores these ideas of ‘normal’ and ‘different’ by examining anatomies, turn-ons and turn-offs, and social contexts within which sexual encounters happen. Patriarchy might have us believe that only some bodies and some sexual encounters are normal. They pathologise our particular turn-ons and turn-offs, and they make it seem like many—most!—individuals are either abnormal or at fault. Nagoski inverses these claims: knowing anatomy is to accept difference; people are turned on and off differently and can enjoy sex as long as they know what arouses them. It is contexts that are at fault when we feel something is wrong with us, and not our bodies.

The second part of her book discusses the relationships between the body and the mind. One cannot help but remember that Cartesian dualisms between mind and the body unfortunately shape all science, even feminist science. The mind and the body are thought to be separate, and any encounter between them feels like a scientific marvel. One is also forced to think of anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ essay, The Mindful Body, where she discusses the problems with this duality. Nagoski’s book places the body in relation to emotion, but it still is trapped in this dualistic world: where the body and the mind ‘feel’, ‘desire’ and ‘act’ as two distinct (even if related) parts of one person. But if I do accept that paradigm for a while, then I should single out these significant messages that she derives from her exploration of mind and body: know that your body is beautiful; dismiss popular notions of ‘perfect bodies;’ ignore and resist every-day negative comments about the body. Additionally, her emphasis on the role of stress and any history of sexual trauma in acting as deterrents to sexual pleasure is bound to be useful for sex educators and psychologists. She deals with them optimistically, casting them only as temporary barriers, while still acknowledging the pain they cause.

The third section is packed with action: it is about the act of sex. In the introduction to the book, the author imagines where and how a person should read this book. Would one read this alone, or with one’s partner or with friends? I think this part of the book should be read with your sexual partner, not merely because it will make a fun read, but because it underlines the importance of listening to your partner during sex. While Nagoski’s emphasis is on the body’s experience of pleasure, she insists that these bodies are not mute.  Women talk during sex, they tell their partners how they feel, and the author underlines the need to listen to what women say, instead of performing sex like it were a mechanical act. What I loved about this section of her book was, however, her chapter on curiosity. “Sex is not a drive, like hunger,” she writes. “It’s an ‘intention motivation system’, like curiosity. So stay curious.” This draws sex into a playful space, making pleasure not only a fulfilling experience but a fun-filled journey of self-discovery. Along with this comes her emphasis on ecstasy, and her exposition on how ecstasy is produced by the body acting in tandem with the brain, making it powerful, immensely enjoyable and extremely gratifying.

A quick note on how to read this book: I suggest, of course, that you pick out useful chapters and read them fully, but if you are in a hurry, each chapter carries some very interesting summaries at the end. These are carefully drafted, and convey everything that the body of the text says (sans the engaging anecdotes, of course). These summaries will be helpful in workshops for young people and for sexuality education courses.

And now to two caveats. The author herself writes about the first: this is a book for cis-gendered women of any orientation. Though I understand her limitations, it saddens me that trans women’s bodies have to constantly search for a separate space because they are marginalised by the ‘mainstream’. The second caveat is the specific way in which the author uses the word culture, making it seem as if all culture is wrong. Despite what my friend said, I feel there is a need to state my own position on culture. It is true that patriarchy engenders culture paradigms, which centralise male bodies, marginalise and stigmatise female bodies. However, I strongly believe that science does not exist outside of culture; it does usually become a lens with which one can problematise certain aspects of culture, but in doing this, one usually creates other ways of thinking, and other cultures. As in this case, where the author herself draws you into the thick of a feminist culture, where women’s bodies are centralised and their desires, discomforts and thoughts are given their own space.

Cultural studies of the body will show that scientific ideas about the body constantly shape culture around us. So the body—or our notions of it—shape culture just as much as cultural notions might shape how we think about the body. Culture, therefore, does not exist outside the body. It is complexly interwoven with the body. Our notions of identity—gender, class, race, ethnicity—come from our understanding that the body is cultural and social. So separating the body from all culture is depriving it of layers of complex and meaningful identity. It depoliticizes the body and the contexts within which the body is placed during sexual encounters. This is exceedingly problematic from a feminist perspective, because stripped of all cultural identity, who is that body that is now able to enjoy sex? Is it even female?

So, if you pick up Nagoski, read her for the powerful statements she makes about extracting the body from a sex-negative patriarchal culture. But do remember that any empowerment you feel happens within a feminist culture.


Image courtesy: Speaking Tiger Books