Normal Sexuality: Dispelling the Misconceptions

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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Is there such a thing as “normal sexuality”? How does modern culture misrepresent female sexuality?

According to sex researcher Emily Nagoski, our culture tells women that there’s a standard for female sexuality, and they aren’t living up to it. What our society considers sexually “normal,” in terms of everything from anatomical structure to a person’s level of desire for sex, is based on the experience of the average man. This is because until relatively recently, research has focused heavily on men and male-centric models of sexuality.

In this article, we’ll look at some of the misconceptions around female sexuality.

“Normal Sexuality”

There are two problems with using an average man as the societal standard of sexuality. First, it discounts the existence and experience of women, who make up about half of the world’s population. Because of this, women must view themselves through a scope that wasn’t made for them, which helps to perpetuate false ideas about what’s healthy and normal sexuality. Second, it disregards individual variation, whether among men or women. According to Nagoski, there are as many or even more differences within groups than between them.

(Shortform note: These false ideas about what’s normal with regards to women’s sexual experience stem from a long history of contempt toward female sexuality, even in the medical field. Research examining attitudes toward female sexuality demonstrates that, as recently as the 19th century, doctors were advocating for clitoridectomies to “cure” masturbation and nymphomania. Even within the last 50 years, doctors have regarded women’s low levels of desire and lack of sexual response—which Nagoski later identifies as normal and variable aspects of female sexuality—as disorders that require treatment.)

Misconceptions About Female Anatomy

Nagoski argues that the fact that men are the standard for society’s understanding of sexuality has created a knowledge gap with regards to women’s unique experiences and biology. This lack of awareness has allowed our society to perpetuate many misconceptions about female anatomy that directly impact the way women see themselves and their sexuality. 

What’s more, these misconceptions come from a variety of different places. Nagoski identifies two primary avenues through which society has developed a skewed perception of female anatomy: culturally driven metaphors and media representation.

Nagoski explains that our society tends to take biological facts regarding anatomy and transform them into inaccurate metaphors based on cultural values like purity and virginity. She mentions two specific examples of metaphors people have associated with the female genitalia:

Metaphor #1: Women’s Hidden Genitals as a Marker of Shame

According to Nagoski, during the medieval period, people called the female genitalia pudendum (from Latin pudere, “to make ashamed”). The reasoning for this was that women’s genitalia (in contrast to men’s) appear hidden inside the body, as if women are trying to conceal something they’re ashamed of.

(Shortform note: Although Nagoski points to the medieval period as the first time people named women’s genitals pudendum, the term itself actually dates back to first-century Roman writers. Originally, the word was used to refer to any person or animal’s genitalia, regardless of sex. It was only later that people narrowed the meaning of pudendum to just women’s genitals.)

In reality, the female genitalia aren’t “hidden” at all. Nagoski tells us that instead, the various parts have different sizes and locations from their male counterparts due to biological reasons (which we’ll discuss more in the next section). Assigning such a negative name to women’s genitalia not only points to a lack of biological understanding, but it also perpetuates the idea that there’s something fundamentally wrong with their genitalia. If there wasn’t, why else would women try to hide them?

Nagoski explains that although modern culture doesn’t suggest that women are hiding something disgraceful in a literal sense, the idea that women’s genitalia is somehow shameful remains prominent in the way both men and women feel and talk about female sexuality. For example, both sexes shame women when their clothing inadvertently (and often unavoidably) accentuates the shape of their vulva—what is commonly known as a “camel toe.”

Metaphor #2: The Hymen as a Marker of Virginity

Nagoski notes that society has come to view the hymen—a membrane found at the opening of the vaginal canal—as a marker of virginity. Because of its location and potential to change over the course of a woman’s life, there’s a common but incorrect belief that the hymen is a barrier that’s permanently “broken” the first time that a penis penetrates the vagina. 

(Shortform note: Nagoski observes that the hymen has evolved into a token of virginity, but she doesn’t speak to how this idea came into existence. The belief stems from an evolutionary theory claiming that, historically, men would have preferred to mate with a woman who could prove—through her “intact” hymen—that she had never had sex with another man. This would guarantee that any offspring produced would be his, so he could avoid wasting time and resources on other men’s children who didn’t carry his genes.)

Nagoski warns that this misconception is especially dangerous because of the powerful impact it can have on women’s lives. When an unmarried woman’s hymen is absent or torn, she’s seen as impure or marked as “damaged goods.” In some cultures, this has resulted in women feeling pressured to have surgical reconstruction of their hymen as if it were a medical necessity. Nagoski adds that in some extreme cases, women are even beaten or killed because people have seen anything but a fully intact hymen as proof that she has had sexual intercourse outside of marriage. 

On the other hand, Nagoski maintains that people have used the presence of a hymen as proof that a woman couldn’t have been raped, preventing her from seeking justice for the crime committed against her. The logic goes that if the hymen is a barrier and it’s still intact, there was no penetration and thus no rape.

Nagoski concludes that the basis of these real-world consequences is an idea that’s entirely false. In reality, the hymen serves no biological function (including being a barrier). Some women are born without them, and when they’re present, they simply stretch with penetration. If they do happen to tear, they heal.

(Shortform note: While Nagoski claims that the hymen is an evolutionary byproduct serving no real function, in reality, biologists don’t agree about why it exists. In addition to the virginity theory mentioned previously, other theories suggest that the hymen’s purpose is to make sex painful—therefore encouraging more caution amongst young women interested in sex—or that it evolved to prevent foreign objects from accidentally entering the vagina.)  

Media Representation of Female Genitalia 

In addition to cultural values driving inaccurate metaphors, Nagoski says there’s a lack of representation of female genitalia in the media. What’s more, when it is present it’s often a false portrayal of the real thing. For instance, the vulva is usually presented to fit the “Barbie doll” ideal: neat and hairless.

Nagoski explains that this poor representation contributes to womens’ negative views of their genitalia and sexuality because the only examples they have reinforce a false ideal that they were never meant to achieve in the first place.

(Shortform note: Although Nagoski doesn’t provide any specific examples demonstrating the impact of this lack of representation, there’s evidence showing that the cultural ideals presented by the media profoundly influence women, both psychologically and physically. For example, statistics point to a growing global trend of women undergoing genital cosmetic surgery to make their vulva fit the desired standard. In particular, these procedures have increased dramatically in the United States, Australia, and the UK.)

Normal Sexuality: Dispelling the Misconceptions

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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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