Confidence & Joy: The 2 Keys to Enjoying Sex

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Come As You Are" by Emily Nagoski. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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If we’re wired for it, why is that so many of us struggle to enjoy sex? What do you think is the secret to pleasurable, problem-free sex life?

Despite all of the encouraging new information we may learn about our sex, that doesn’t automatically equate to problem-free, enjoyable sex life. Sex researcher Emily Nagoski argues that when it comes to enjoying sex, we must not only understand our own sexuality but also love it for what it is. In other words, we must find confidence and joy in ourselves.

Here is what Nagoski has to say about finding enjoyment in sex.

Confidence vs. Joy

Although confidence and joy are separate components of an enjoyable sex life, Nagoski believes you can’t have one without the other. Whereas she defines confidence as trusting in what we know about ourselves and our sexuality, she defines joy as deeply appreciating those things despite any doubts or disappointment we may have. In other words, we must first understand ourselves before we can fully accept and cherish who we are.

(Shortform note: While Nagoski’s definition of confidence aligns with other perspectives—such as psychologists’ view of confidence as the trust we have in our own capabilities—her definition of joy is unique in comparison to others. Merriam-Webster, for example, describes joy as a feeling of happiness brought on by success or prosperity. It’s also distinct from other authors’ definitions, such as the one provided by Brené Brown in her book The Gifts of Imperfection. For Brown, joy is the profound satisfaction one feels from practicing gratitude.)

Nagoski also acknowledges that these two components aren’t equal in weight—joy is much more difficult to cultivate than confidence. This is because although we may learn the truth about something, we may still doubt its validity or wish it wasn’t true. She elaborates by saying that when we’ve internalized so much negative misinformation for so long, it’s difficult to overcome, no matter how much our new knowledge may contradict it. For example, when people have always told you that you should experience spontaneous desire, learning about responsive desire won’t easily combat the pressure to fit the societal standard.

(Shortform note: While it’s true that the frequency of negative messaging makes it more difficult to reject, we also find it harder to dismiss because of our inherent tendency to notice and internalize negative information more than positive information, even when the amount of positive information is greater. This means that we’re at an automatic disadvantage when it comes to combating negative misinformation, as our brain is wired to prioritize that type of information.)

How to Cultivate Joy

Fortunately, despite how difficult it may be, Nagoski assures us that it’s possible to cultivate joy. She suggests two ways to do this:

Compare Expectations to Reality

Nagoski suggests that the first way we can cultivate joy is to perform some reality checks, comparing what we know is true to our culturally-ingrained expectations. We can think of our preconceived expectations as a template in our brain: Without conscious awareness, we establish a set of certain “truths” based on what we’ve learned from the society we live in.

As we encounter new information, Nagoski explains, we can challenge our brain’s template in the same way we learned to redirect our brain in the previous chapter: by adjusting our expectations to fit reality rather than the other way around. To continue our previous example, once you’ve learned about responsive desire, instead of continuing to force the expectation of spontaneous desire on yourself, you can focus on creating opportunities that embrace the kind of desire you do have (like warming up to sex with a sensual massage).

Identifying Your Expectations

To perform reality checks and adjust your expectations as Nagoski suggests, you first need to identify what your expectations are. While you may already be aware of some of your expectations due to persistent cultural messaging (like coming to expect that you should be able to orgasm from penile-vaginal penetration), in other cases they’re harder to identify.

Although Nagoski doesn’t provide any recommendations for how to identify your expectations, there are practical steps you can take to figure out what they are:

Set aside time to brainstorm what expectations you have—not only in terms of your sex life and relationship but also in other areas of your life. Dedicate a day to noticing your expectations. To do this, set a timer to go off at set intervals (for example, every two hours) and write down everything that you expected during that time.Take notice of every time you feel frustrated or disappointed, and try to identify the expectation behind that emotion.

In addition to these steps, keep an eye out for psychological issues that commonly accompany unrealistic expectations. For example, things like perfectionism, low self-esteem, and fear of intimacy, failure, and change can be signs that you need to pay more attention to your expectations and do some adjusting.

Practice Neutrality

The second way we can cultivate joy, according to Nagoski, is by learning to be neutral toward our inner selves. It’s not enough to simply be aware of how we feel, because that awareness is often accompanied by judgment (for example, thoughts like “I shouldn’t be feeling this way”). Instead, we must actively resist the urge to judge ourselves when feelings arise so that we can create an environment of acceptance rather than criticism

(Shortform note: Although Nagoski insists that it’s in our best interest to stop judging ourselves, she doesn’t provide any actionables for how to do this. Some strategies we can try are to practice mindfulness, stop overgeneralizing single failures, show appreciation for compliments, focus on our good qualities, and practice self-compassion.)

Nagoski says there are five situations in particular where neutrality is especially useful:

Accepting and Processing Feelings That Arise “From Nowhere”

Nagoski observes that there are often times when uncomfortable feelings like anxiety and sadness seem to happen for no reason. Being unable to identify the source of such feelings can be frustrating and lead us to judge ourselves (with thoughts like “you have no reason to be so anxious”).

Nagoski argues that by practicing neutrality toward these feelings—observing and accepting them rather than judging them—we can more easily complete the stress cycle, which reduces our sexual inhibition.

(Shortform note: Although Nagoski tells us that accepting our feelings can reduce stress, she doesn’t explain how this process works. What happens to our mindset when we choose acceptance over judgment or avoidance? There are several positive ways in which this strategy impacts us: First, by accepting our emotions, we spend less time worrying about how we feel, preserving energy to focus on our values and goals. In addition, acceptance gives us the opportunity to learn from our emotions, which makes them easier to manage in the future. Finally, when we accept our emotions, they lose their power over us—in other words, we become less easily affected by them.)

Letting Go of Expectations

Nagoski acknowledges that letting go of expectations about how things should be sexually can feel like we’re accepting failure and even losing a part of our identity. For example, the thought that we may never experience an orgasm from vaginal penetration may cause us to mourn the loss of a woman we’ll never be.

Nagoski says that by choosing to be neutral in letting go of expectations, we can avoid judgment that makes us feel especially negative toward ourselves. And when we eliminate that negativity, we create a context that’s more favorable for sexual enjoyment.

(Shortform note: The way Nagoski describes letting go of expectations is similar to the Buddhist concept of non-attachment. Buddhism describes non-attachment as learning to accept, rather than mourn, change and impermanence; because nothing in life ever stays the same, we must learn to resist attaching ourselves to a certain reality or outcome. This perspective aligns especially well with our sexual experience, which is in constant flux throughout our lifetime. By practicing non-attachment, we can avoid negative feelings that arise from changes to our body, arousal, desire, and experience of pleasure.)

Addressing Physical Pain

Nagoski notes that pain is another common target of our self-judgment. We don’t like the experience of pain, so we criticize ourselves for feeling it (with thoughts like “you’re weak”) and often refuse to acknowledge it altogether (for example, “you’re making something out of nothing”). And when that pain relates to sex, she adds, it can seriously interfere with our pleasure. By practicing neutral awareness of our pain, we can come to accept and address it rather than simply tolerate it.

Healing Our Emotional Suffering

Like physical pain, Nagoski identifies trauma as another unpleasant experience that prevents us from enjoying sex. What’s more, its long-lasting nature makes us especially resistant to acknowledging that it’s there. Unlike physical pain, however, trauma can’t heal if we numb ourselves to it. Nagoski says that it’s only by viewing our trauma from a neutral place that we can come to accept it—in other words, it’s only by learning to be comfortable with the presence of trauma that we can heal from it.

(Shortform note: An additional benefit of acknowledging our trauma without judgment is that it prevents us from trying to rationalize it. In our guide for The Body Keeps the Score, we discuss how attempting to understand our feelings surrounding trauma is actually detrimental to healing it. This is because while reasoning involves our logical brain, trauma involves our emotional brain. Trying to understand it not only fails to prevent us from feeling our emotions but also leads to self-judgment and frustration.)

Increasing Sexual Pleasure

Nagoski adds that practicing neutrality isn’t only useful in terms of addressing negative feelings, physical pain, and trauma. It can also increase our experience of sexual pleasure by resisting our tendency to judge our experience (for example, “Is it okay for me to feel this way?”). By freeing ourselves from judgment, we can be fully present in the moment and allow ourselves to experience pleasure.

(Shortform note: While refraining from judging our experience can help open us up to sexual pleasure, we can further enhance those sensations by practicing what scientists refer to as “savoring”. An extension of mindfulness, savoring is when we intentionally try to enhance positive feelings and sensations by focusing exclusively on the stimuli responsible for those feelings and sensations. For example, you can intensify the experience of orgasm by focusing your attention on all of the individual sensations it causes throughout your body.) 

Confidence & Joy: The 2 Keys to Enjoying Sex

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Emily Nagoski's "Come As You Are" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Come As You Are summary :

  • Why women should change the way they talk, think, and feel about their sexuality
  • A look at the misinformation and harmful cultural messaging surrounding sex
  • A discussion around the individual experiences of arousal, desire, and orgasm

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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