The Map is Not the Territory: A review of “Come As You Are”

Warning: I’m going to talk about vaginas, penises, arousal, and other sexual things.

If you’ve ever looked at your sex life and wondered, “Oh my god, what is wrong with me?” this book is for you. (Btw, the answer is: probably absolutely nothing. You just think there is, and that’s the real problem.)

Come as You Are by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D. is so much more than a sex book. In its 300-some pages of well constructed chapters, notes, and appendices, it manages to do away with a wide array of harmful myths about sex, encourage radical self acceptance, and teach mindfulness and stress-management techniques that help with basically everything. While the book is mainly written for cisgendered women in monogamous relationships, Nagoski shows how her studies have been helpful in the sex lives of hetero and homosexual couples in a range of ages, and the principles are heavily applicable to all humans. After all, as you learn in the early chapters, everyone has the same partsjust arranged differently.

The premise of the book rests heavily on the “dual control” model of sexuality and the brain, which is explained by the author pretty clearly in this comic (fair warning: if you click around on that site it can get pretty explicit). It gives a really useful framework of sexuality as a set of “on” and “off” switches, or as things that hit the “brakes” or the “accelerators.” She brings in several different women who have sensitive brakes with non-sensitive accelerators, or vice-versa, or any other combination. It becomes abundantly clear how important context is for sexual desire to healthily flourish (and despite this brake vs. accelerator metaphor, desire for sex is not a “drive”).

Why I think everyone should read this book is because of its effort to correct harmful myths we’ve all come to believe about what is “sexy” and how someone should be as a sexual person. Nagoski talks about how the myths come from pop culture, from the ways in which we grew up, and from our early experiences of love, affection, and sex. A phrase that keeps popping up in my life over and over is “the map is not the territory.” And synchronously, she talked about this very concept in one of the concluding chapters of the book:

But perhaps the biggest challenge is that when the map and the terrain don’t match, our brains try to make the map true, forcing our experience into the shape of the map. “No, no, this is the trail,” we say as we stumble through the thicket. “It says so on the map.”

We find this recurring problem in so many parts of our lives, and our sex lives are no exception. To that point, a major-major PSA that everyone should know is that non-concordance is a thing. That is to say: Genital arousal and sexual desire often don’t match up.

In fact, for people with vaginas, only about 10% of the time that a vagina self-lubricates does the person find the stimulus actually sexually appealing. It’s about 50% of the time for people with penises (which is still not actually that much if you look at the situation objectively rather than subjectively). Because we’ve come to think that these physical signs are really what matters, and because we can be so out of touch with what we actually want as people, we culturally buy into this myth that if a vagina is “wet” or a penis is “hard” then the person really wants to have sex. It should be clear how this lie plays into sexual assault and abuse. There’s really nothing that beats clear communication and a safe, healthy sexual context where people feel like they can express what’s happening in their brains instead of fumbling for misleading genital cues. And this is actual science, not just my opinion as a feminist and former sexual assault victim advocate.

For my part, I found Nagoski’s chapters about creating a proper context for healthy sexual desire to be really useful just for day-to-day happiness. Everyone talks about how stress should be “released” but rarely do we really look at what that means. Nagoski explains stress as something that is cyclical: it’s instigated, it builds, and if there is no completion of the stress cycle, it just continues to build until it damages us. In the modern world, we have a lot of chronic stressors that take us to that second part of the cycle, but unlike the “acute stress” of physical danger, there is often no escape from the predator or vanquishing of the enemy. Activities that “release stress” are simulating the relief you feel when you realize that you’ve run inside and locked the door before the rabid beast can catch you. Crying instead of repressing your feelings of sadness, roaring through a workout after a frustrating day at work, and jumping sky-high when Pennywise pops out of the storm drainthese are all ways to complete the stress cycle. And I’m finding that this really practical approach to stress management is making my life better in many ways (and a lot of those ways are not-NSFW).