Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Jessica Bennett (00:00):

The 90s was a decade book-ended by Anita Hill and Monica Lewinsky. It gave us MTV’s Boxers or Briefs moment, popularized the concept of the MILF, and spawned the first ever sex tape, one stolen from the home of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee. It was an era that inspired a decade of boob jobs, popularized restaurants like Hooters, and gave us Girls Gone wild. But what did all of those things really teach us about love and sex back then?


And now, we ask a sex expert.

Emily Nagoski (00:29):

In 2019, Gwyneth Paltrow did not know the word vulva. She did not know that her vulva was not her vagina, which as I say in Come As You Are, calling your vulva your vagina is like calling your face your throat.

Jessica Bennett (00:47):

I’m Jessica Bennett.

Susie Banikarim (00:48):

And I’m Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett (00:49):

And this is In Retrospect, where each week we revisit a cultural moment from the past that shaped us.

Susie Banikarim (00:55):

And that we just can’t stop thinking about.

Jessica Bennett (00:57):

Today, we’re joined by sex educator and bestselling author Emily Nagoski. Her new book, Come Together, is out this month.


So I’ve listened to your podcast and I know that on your podcast, which I think was a limited run, you talked about how you weren’t that into pop culture as a young teen, but in fact, I love that on one of my all time favorite shows, Sex Education, your book actually makes an appearance, which was huge, for me anyway.

Emily Nagoski (01:29):

I found out about that because everyone sent me the little clip of it happening, but we don’t have Netflix. That’s not a flex. We have lots and lots of everything. We just don’t happen to have Netflix.

Jessica Bennett (01:39):

You haven’t watched it?

Emily Nagoski (01:40):

I’ve never seen the show.

Jessica Bennett (01:41):

Never, ever? Not even your episode?

Emily Nagoski (01:44):


Jessica Bennett (01:44):


Emily Nagoski (01:45):

I’ve seen the five seconds of-

Jessica Bennett (01:48):

So funny.

Emily Nagoski (01:48):

… the person saying “You should read Come As You Are.”

Jessica Bennett (01:51):

I mean, I feel like they do an amazing job of breaking down some taboos and talking openly about sexuality. Though, when I was talking to my therapist about you yesterday in our session as happens, she was like, “Well, okay. But in the first season of Sex Education, they really confused the vagina and the vulva,” which I had totally missed.

Emily Nagoski (02:13):

What do they do well? What makes you just feel like, “Oh, this is better than it has been in the past.”

Jessica Bennett (02:18):

I guess I like that it doesn’t feel so heavy-handed. Sexuality is just a part… I mean, that’s the plot of the show, but they’re not making it like they’re forcing it down your throat or trying to teach you. I guess one of the things I remember from growing up in the 90s, which is what we’re here to talk about today, is that everyone was portrayed, or at least the teenagers I watched on television and movies, seemed to be portrayed as these sex-hungry maniacs where that was absolutely the only thing that they could think about.


I’m curious if you had that experience too. What were you consuming in the 90s?

Emily Nagoski (02:54):

I mean, what was I consuming in the 90s? I have never been anyone’s target audience. We literally didn’t even have cable television. I didn’t have cable television until I was in college.

Jessica Bennett (03:05):

I didn’t either, so.

Emily Nagoski (03:06):

I didn’t see any of the things that people saw.

Jessica Bennett (03:10):

What are the things you saw that other people didn’t see?

Emily Nagoski (03:13):

I mean, I watched a lot of PBS.

Jessica Bennett (03:14):


Emily Nagoski (03:16):

When we finally did get the beginnings of cable in 1993-ish, I watched a lot of Inside the Actors Studio, but I read a lot. My primary sex education came from a combination of women’s magazines, especially Glamour Magazine and romance novels.

Jessica Bennett (03:35):

What did those teach you?

Emily Nagoski (03:37):

I remember very distinctly reading an article in Glamour Magazine where I learned that men really like it when women appear to be enjoying themselves. And so you should make a lot of noise and you should touch yourself, like touch your own breasts and your own body, and you should say how much you like it because men really love it when women appear to be enjoying themselves. So by the time I got to sexual relationships, my assumption was that it was my job to perform pleasure without any reference to whether or not something actually felt pleasurable.

Jessica Bennett (04:13):

Right. Right. Right.

Emily Nagoski (04:14):

It took some time for me to recognize that I was doing the stuff that they do in romance novels. Basically, there’s a script. You start with the face stuff, boob stuff. You follow the bases, you get to the genitals, your genitals get hungry to have something inside them. Your knees fall apart. You want penetration, and penetration happens and you spiral upwards, enveloped in a cloud of ecstasy.

Jessica Bennett (04:44):

Exactly how it happens.

Emily Nagoski (04:46):

It turns out that’s not how it happens, I was shocked to discover. I was doing the things that the romance novels told me I was supposed to do in terms of behavior. I was acting like a person who enjoyed those things. And within about six months, I started getting really clear that there was a very big difference between the things I was doing that I was told were pleasurable and the things that actually were pleasurable.


I got to college in 1995, and one of the very first things I did was ride my bike to the library and go to the sex section and read The Hite Report. It took me three or four days, but I read as much of it was there. There were literally pages cut out with scissors.

Jessica Bennett (05:30):

Really? What school was this?

Emily Nagoski (05:31):

Yeah. University of Delaware. Born and raised in Delaware. My one true claim to fame is that Jill Biden was my 10th grade English teacher.

Jessica Bennett (05:40):

Oh, my gosh, really?

Emily Nagoski (05:41):

Yeah. Delaware is a very small state.

Jessica Bennett (05:43):


Emily Nagoski (05:44):

So there’s only one copy of The Hite Report. A big chunk of pages had been cut out. Notice that I went back to the library over and over to keep reading this very large book because I was too embarrassed to check it out.

Jessica Bennett (05:56):

How did you know about The Hite Report?

Emily Nagoski (05:58):

I didn’t. I just looked for the largest book in the sex section.

Jessica Bennett (06:02):

Okay. And turns out everyone else had done that too.

Emily Nagoski (06:06):

Somebody had taken a bunch of pages with them.

Jessica Bennett (06:10):

To back up for a moment, you are a sex educator, but you at this point, I don’t think knew that you wanted to be a sex educator.

Emily Nagoski (06:17):

Not at all. I was a big nerd. By the time I got to college, all I knew is that I wanted to go to grad school for something, and I thought, “Oh, you need volunteer work on your resume so that you look like a good candidate for graduate school.” A guy living on my floor in my residence hall was pre-med, and he said, “Oh, come be a Peer Health Educator with me. You’d go into residence halls and talk about all kinds of health that includes sexual health, which is mostly condoms, contraception, and consent.”


And I was like, “I like health. Why not?” So I applied and I got accepted, and I got trained to be a health educator for my fellow undergraduates. At the exact same time that I was being trained to be a sex educator my very first year in undergrad, 1995-96, I got into my first sexual relationship, which ended up being abusive. He became my stalker, and I had to call the police and it was very bad news.


At the same time that I was having my first experience in that kind of relationship, in any kind of sexual relationship with someone who isn’t me, I was also learning all this stuff about sexual communication and sexual health and how periods work and the whole enchilada. I feel like it was an incredible privilege to be learning what it’s supposed to be like while I am doing it. I mean, I made every mistake. I did everything wrong.

Jessica Bennett (07:41):

Like what?

Emily Nagoski (07:42):

Unlike the students I taught when I was teaching undergrad, I didn’t know as an undergrad that your early relationships are very likely to recapitulate the dynamic of your family of origin.

Jessica Bennett (07:52):

I didn’t know that.

Emily Nagoski (07:53):

As a child, your body learns what love looks and feels like. So if you think back to what your family was like when you’re approximately four years old, the relationships of the adults around you when you’re four, would you love your life if those were similar to the relationships you have as an adult?

Jessica Bennett (08:09):


Emily Nagoski (08:10):

If you answer yes to that question, then your earliest relationships are probably going to be kind of great.

Jessica Bennett (08:15):

Okay. Okay. Oh, interesting.

Emily Nagoski (08:16):

I did not. My early relationships were not kind of great.

Jessica Bennett (08:24):

Okay, so this is ’95. What was happening politically in sex education? Set the scene a little bit for me from your expert perch about what was happening in the culture then around sex.

Emily Nagoski (08:37):

We were just coming out of the AIDS crisis. Effective medication for controlling HIV we’re brand new, which means that everyone was really eager to forget as soon as they possibly could. I didn’t know the term GLBT. On my campus in 1995, it was GLBT.

Jessica Bennett (08:59):

Yeah. Yeah.

Emily Nagoski (09:00):

Which it would soon change to LGBT in honor of the role that the lesbian community played in caring for the gay community who were much more heavily impacted by the AIDS crisis. I heard lesbian and heard bisexual for the first time in 1995 because it was on college campuses that those conversations were happening. I had nothing of that in my high school or junior high sex education.


I did get enough sex education in Delaware, a comparatively progressive state. In the eighth grade, I learned that HIV could not be transmitted through a drinking straw or by sharing a can of soda, or by sitting on a toilet seat, which was great. I remember correcting my grandmother who wanted us to squat over public toilets so that we didn’t get AIDS. I could tell her because I had had some sex education-

Jessica Bennett (09:54):

You should learn it. Okay.

Emily Nagoski (09:55):

… that you can’t get HIV that way. She did not believe me.

Jessica Bennett (09:58):

Okay. Well.

Emily Nagoski (10:00):

But she was my grandmother. She was raised in the Depression and change is slow.

Jessica Bennett (10:06):

To what extent did you learn about your own body or about women’s sexuality, if at all, in your sex education courses?

Emily Nagoski (10:15):

I feel sure that I learned more than most people do, because I was really curious without knowing why I was curious. In the sixth grade, there was a book giveaway of “Here are all these textbooks we’re no longer using. If you want to take these textbooks, children, feel free.” And I took all of the reproductive health books.

Jessica Bennett (10:33):

You did?

Emily Nagoski (10:34):

Any I could get my hands on. I was very interested.

Jessica Bennett (10:37):

There were a lot of signs of your future profession, you just didn’t know them yet.

Emily Nagoski (10:42):

I had no idea why I was interested, but it was all biology. It was all the menstrual cycle and nocturnal emissions, as it always is. In the sixth grade, we got divided by group. I had already started having my period by the time we had that. So I was just like, none of this is describing what it’s actually like.

Jessica Bennett (11:02):

What was happening politically at the time? I just keep thinking about, okay, so the 90s was book-ended by the Clarence Thomas hearings, which are typically referred to as Anita Hill hearings, but he was the one that was being questioned. Then the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, which was in ’98. Which was, I think for me, a real sex education. I specifically remember reading The Star Report in high school, sort of sneaking behind the lockers and looking at different lines.

Emily Nagoski (11:32):

Okay, wow, that’s nerdy.

Jessica Bennett (11:37):

I mean, yeah, Seattle in the 90s, man. So yeah, we were reading The Star report. But the cigar, I mean, I learned that that cigar [inaudible 00:11:45].

Emily Nagoski (11:45):

Yeah, that was your Hite Report.

Jessica Bennett (11:46):

Yes, exactly.

Emily Nagoski (11:47):

Yeah, learning that a cigar could be inserted into a vagina and people might think that was a sexy thing to do.

Jessica Bennett (11:55):

I think that I only know this because I then later profiled Monica Lewinsky and have done a lot of research on it. Cigar sales went through the roof.

Emily Nagoski (12:02):

Yeah. Yeah. So you know how you were talking about how the sort of representation of teenagers in the movies was that teenagers were all super horny?

Jessica Bennett (12:09):


Emily Nagoski (12:10):

I think of the 90s as sort of the transition from second to third wave feminism, and there was this sort of cluging around sexuality, which never really got resolved in second wave feminism. There were the Sex Wars, and we never really figured out a position to have about sex as a good or a bad thing, porn as a good or a bad thing. I have many things to say, but I think what happened in the 90s is that popular culture took the idea that sex could be a good thing for women.


It took the sort of Sexual Revolution as far as it had gone so far and said, “Okay, so teenage girls are just as horny and wacky as teenage boys,” because in order for men and women to be equal, women had to be like men. And so the way teenage girls’ sexuality got represented in the media was as if it were the same as every teenage boy’s fantasy, which is to say just the same as theirs.


Easy, fast, vaginally-oriented. American Pie gets talked about a lot. Thank the good Lord for Eugene Levy. But so the flute scene…

Jessica Bennett (13:27):

Okay, please, because okay, this came out in 1999, so I was a junior in high school. We all obviously watched it. People were talking about it, the pie scene. He masturbates with the pie. Everyone now knows this. I feel like so many things came out of this movie, including the popularization of the term MILF, which was Stifler’s mom.

Emily Nagoski (13:48):

That, I did not realize.

Jessica Bennett (13:50):

I mean, I don’t think the term originated there, but that’s when I learned it. And it was played by Jennifer Coolidge. Anyway, that’s another thing that came out of that. I was in the orchestra. I played the violin. There is the scene in American Pie where we learn that the flute player has masturbated with her flute.

Emily Nagoski (14:10):

Did you masturbate with it? Because here’s what I remember her saying is that she put her flute in her vagina.

Jessica Bennett (14:16):

Interesting. Yeah, actually, fair point.

Emily Nagoski (14:19):

And as a sex educator, I hear that, and I do not hear masturbation. I hear experimentation with a phallus-shaped object when I know that only very roughly 10% of people with vaginas masturbate with vaginal penetration.

Jessica Bennett (14:35):

So interesting. See, that’s the kind of context-

Emily Nagoski (14:37):

I think she was just messing around.

Jessica Bennett (14:38):

… we need. Yeah, she was messing around. But of course, that then became the thing that… I could never go to orchestra again without all of the guys snickering every time one of the women would play the flute.

Emily Nagoski (14:49):

Yeah, of course, of course. Because the whole function of that story is not to talk about her sexual experience or her sexual pleasure, but to create a visual image for the boys to masturbate to. I mean, just like what I learned from Glamour Magazine in the 90s, women’s sexual self-expression exists for the pleasure of men.

Jessica Bennett (15:16):

I was just talking to one of my editors about Glamour. I was working on a piece about Britney Spears and hair, the politics of hair, because she talks in her new book about thrashing her hair, and when she shaved her head and how it made her ugly, and for the first time in her life, she was not sexualized.


We were talking about remembering some of those sex tips that we learned from magazines like Glamour, where they would tell you to use your hair during the sex act, like either twirl it or run it down a guy’s chest or something, which is just so hilarious to think about now. But back then, we didn’t have the knowledge or experience to know that that was anything but a weird thing that Glamour had made up. I mean, I guess if you’re into that, go for it.

Emily Nagoski (16:03):

The brushing of the hair, your partner’s body might respond well to the sensation of your hair brushing against them under the right circumstances. It’s not the same as play with your hair, perform your hair.

Jessica Bennett (16:14):

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Emily Nagoski (16:15):

For the other person to witness.

Jessica Bennett (16:17):



This is one of the things that I find so refreshing about your work is that you take these commonly-held assumptions or things that we have heard, and then you basically debunk them or unravel them to reveal what is actually going on.

Emily Nagoski (16:49):

It’s one of the reasons why even now when I have lots of different channels for viewing pop culture, kind of don’t watch a lot of it, because when it involves sex, the thing goes off in my head and I have to be like, “That’s not how that works.”

Jessica Bennett (17:07):

Yeah, it’s like we need the annotations from you while we are watching the thing.

Emily Nagoski (17:10):

Yeah. Like PS, this is fine. And also, just know that it’s actually really rare for a person to be able to go instantaneously from being very stressed out to feeling very turned on. For most people, that’s not how it works.

Jessica Bennett (17:23):

What are the things that you remember consuming in the 90s that made you think twice, or as an adult you realized that that’s actually not an accurate representation?

Emily Nagoski (17:34):

There’s Something About Mary. Oh, Jesus.

Jessica Bennett (17:36):

What bothered you about that one?

Emily Nagoski (17:38):

The thing from There’s Something About Mary is that Cameron Diaz uses ejaculate that is dangling off of… She’s like, “Oh, it’s hair gel,” and she puts it in her hair. Anyone who has actually-

Jessica Bennett (17:53):


Emily Nagoski (17:54):

… touched any ejaculate knows that it just does not bear any relationship to the texture of hair gel. It’s a silly idea, but as a nerd, I just find it totally unbelievable and it reflects negatively on the intelligence of Cameron Diaz’s character that she could possibly mistake the texture of ejaculate for the texture of hair gel. And also, can she not smell it? It doesn’t smell like hair gel. There’s no hair gel that is ejaculate-scented.

Jessica Bennett (18:32):

Fresh scent. Yeah. Wait, you mentioned Eugene Levy earlier.

Emily Nagoski (18:38):

Oh, yes.

Jessica Bennett (18:38):

Do you have some fun fact about Eugene Levy in American Pie?

Emily Nagoski (18:42):

Well, so from what I’ve heard, he was initially not very interested in playing the father, and he worked with them pretty intensively to shape the character into what a father might actually do. I love the way, as a dad, he does not play into, “Yeah, son, go get as much of that pussy as you can get,” but he also doesn’t dismiss his son’s sexuality.


He wants to protect him from the inevitable embarrassments of being a teenage boy, like “We’ll just have to tell your mother we ate the whole thing,” and brings him porn, which you know what, for the mid-90s, fairly progressive to be like “Here. Here it is. This is a normal part of life.”

American Pie Clip (19:29):

This is Hustler, and this is a much more exotic magazine.

Jessica Bennett (19:33):

Are there common sex myths that you still come across today? Are you teaching at the moment? I know that you are generally teaching, and so I’m sure that this comes up in class.

Emily Nagoski (19:45):

Yeah. Since the pandemic in particular, I have spent more time training professionals, training therapists, and it is sometimes distressing how many of the same misunderstandings and myths stay in their minds as I meet within college students. Several years ago, I talked to a woman who was recently out of college. She came to a talk and she said, “So this thing I learned in high school was that if you masturbate, if you teach yourself how to have an orgasm by yourself, you won’t be able to have an orgasm with a partner.”


And she’s a full-grown adult and is asking this question. I was like, “Yeah, that’s the opposite of true actually, if as a young person, you learn how orgasm works in your body, that means how orgasm works in your body so that when you’re with another person, which is a much more complex situation where part of your brain might be tuned into what’s happening in your body, but part of your brain is also tuned in to what’s going on for your partner.”


“And so with your attention split like that, it’s actually more difficult to focus on pleasure and let your body have an orgasm. So it’s great if you’ve already got the groundwork laid, so to speak, for knowing what the path is to get to orgasm in your body, then you can teach your partner how to follow that path.” I got asked almost exactly the same question by a therapist in a training five years later.

Jessica Bennett (21:16):

Was this a sex therapist?

Emily Nagoski (21:18):

No, no, no, no, no. This is a marriage and family therapist, couples therapist. It makes you feel slightly better, but you do worry.

Jessica Bennett (21:26):

Right. Are there other things that you remember consuming in the 90s? I think you mentioned the X-Files.

Emily Nagoski (21:38):

Oh, yeah. Probably one of the very best episodes of the X-Files is Small Potatoes, which is an episode about a shape-shifter.

X-Files Clip (21:47):

Sunday, on an all new X-Files, how do you find someone-


We’re looking for a man who can appear to be his own father, or anyone else.


… who can transform himself-


Is everything okay?


… into anyone?

Emily Nagoski (21:57):

Who these days would be called an incel, except that he was not celibate because he would shape-shift into the forms of more attractive men who had partners, and he would have sex with them, the women. He got found out because they were having babies with tails. Now, this is actually on reflection, a story of a serial rapist, and it is treated as comedy. I mean, it’s a farce.

Jessica Bennett (22:31):

Right. Right. Right.

Emily Nagoski (22:33):

In the 90s when I watched it, all I focused on was the comedy, because that is how they framed it. In retrospect, actually, violent sexual perpetrator. Yikes.

Jessica Bennett (22:48):

Right, right. I mean, there’s so many examples of that. If you look back, we just did an episode on Dawson’s Creek-

Emily Nagoski (22:55):

Which I have never seen. Is it terrible? What happened?

Jessica Bennett (22:58):

More power to you. It wasn’t great then. It’s not great on re-watch, so I know there are a lot of fans, and I did watch it. There’s this one storyline where Pacey, who is the off-lead character, he’s the best friend of Dawson who the show is named after, begins a relationship with and loses his virginity to his English teacher.

Emily Nagoski (23:20):

Oh, right. Yeah.

Jessica Bennett (23:21):

And she’s a grown woman, and it’s just portrayed as super hot. I remember as a teenager being like, “Oh, I want to see what happens with this relationship. That’s so hot.” And obviously in retrospect, that was a statutory rape.

Emily Nagoski (23:33):


Jessica Bennett (23:33):

So many portrayals like that. I was even thinking back to just basic things that I internalized in high school that it took me years to realize were not true. I just learned, I think in the last six months from Twitter, thanks Twitter, I guess, that blue balls are not real.

Emily Nagoski (23:56):

When did you just learn this?

Jessica Bennett (23:57):

Like five seconds ago.

Emily Nagoski (23:58):

Oh, boy. Okay, let’s

Jessica Bennett (24:02):

I’m married to a man and he was like, “Babe, yeah, of course. They’re not really…” I was like, “Wait, what?”

Emily Nagoski (24:09):

I would be interested if you could find out where you learned it, because I don’t remember where I learned of it either.

Jessica Bennett (24:14):

I mean, maybe just people talking about it or being in sexual contexts where you… I don’t even think a guy would’ve said it. I think it was like oh, we all knew that it was going to be so, so painful for a man if you somehow aroused them and then didn’t finish it.

Emily Nagoski (24:37):

Right. Yeah. So again, I had the good fortune of being trained as a sex educator even before I started being sexual myself. I explicitly remember being told that some guys will try to use this narrative of blue balls as justification for trying to persuade a partner no, they have to continue doing a thing or else harm will come to them. And so the deal is no. Can it be uncomfortable to be aroused for a very long time and not have an orgasm? Yeah.


There’s a reason why those Viagra commercials say, “If your erection lasts more than four hours, seek medical help,” because it can be really uncomfortable. Nothing bad happens to you. There’s nothing dangerous about it. It’s a little bit like getting a Charlie horse, so it’s not real comfortable. But the underlying narrative behind it is that boys have a sexual imperative, a need, and because it’s a biological need, they’re entitled to have that need met or else something bad could happen to them.


This is a narrative that has been in place for a very long time. If you go back and read sex manuals from the late-1800s, the 19th century, you’ll begin to see the split between the people who say men have a biological need for sexual release. And they use that as an argument in favor of legalizing prostitution, as a matter of fact, in order to spare all these men’s wives having to have all the sex that men need. Or else.


Then you have on the other side, right at the turn of the century, you begin to hear from sex educators who were like, it is not a biological need. Nothing bad happens to men if they don’t have any sort of sexual release. Men just need to learn how to control themselves, and they use it as an argument in favor of abstinence. Only until marriage.

Jessica Bennett (26:36):

Right, right, right.

Emily Nagoski (26:38):

You do kind of look back and wish that either side could have found something better to do with their time. Biologically, it’s not a need. I don’t think that that’s an argument in favor of abstinence only before marriage. If you’ve read Girls by Peggy Orenstein, her book, Girls and her book, Boys, are both jaw-dropping.

Jessica Bennett (27:00):

Girls and Sex.

Emily Nagoski (27:01):

Girls and Sex and Boys and Sex. Thank you very much. One story that I remember from Girls is from a teenager that she interviewed who said, “This guy came over to my house and we were making out, and that was sort of all I wanted to do, but he wanted to have sex. And so I gave him a blow job so that he would leave my house.” On the one hand, hooray for survival strategies. Hooray for finding a way out of that situation where she was not putting herself in the path of physical harm, which is a potential thing.

Jessica Bennett (27:36):

Did she feel in danger were she to leave or did she-

Emily Nagoski (27:39):

She felt like she had no other way to get him to leave the house. She wanted him to go. He kept saying, “No, I wasn’t going to go. He wanted to have sex. Oh, come on.” All that stuff. The only way to get him out of the house was to give him something. But on the other hand, that’s deeply not okay and none of us would want a daughter of our own to be in that situation.

Jessica Bennett (28:00):

I mean, that reminds me of another lesson that I think I learned and internalized as a teenager, which was no does not mean no. No means convince me. The number of times that played out… I think that that was very prominent in teen films at that time.


Even in Superbad, I think the guys there are talking about if you get her drunk enough, she’ll say yes. Another one of those lessons. I guess I’m curious how much of your work is almost about re-education, re-educating us on how things actually work after years and years and years of being misinformed?

Emily Nagoski (28:42):

98.9% of my work is simply like that thing you learned before. That’s not true. I understand why you believed it. It was the thing you were taught, and why wouldn’t you believe the thing that you were taught? Some of the things are about facts, like blue balls, that’s just like a biological reality is that no tissue damage occurs to a human in the absence of sexual release.


That’s just a fact. When it comes to things like no means no, and if you have sex with someone who’s drunk, that’s sexual assault. That’s like a cultural relearning where you’re shifting people’s norms, even people’s morals and their understanding of what it means to be a sexual person, how to be a good sexual partner. Ultimately, it’s deconstructing this gender binary, like rejecting the whole idea that men have one sexual script and women have another sexual script, and those are the only sexual scripts that exist.


And you have to follow the one that you’ve been given. There is a complexity here, because on the one hand, no means no. And having sex with a drug person is assault. Because the script for girls is that you’re not allowed to initiate, even though you’re supposed to really enjoy sex, and you’re supposed to have a great time when you have sex, and you’re supposed to be a sexual person who is good at the sex, you also are supposed to not want sex. You’re not supposed to initiate sex, and you are not supposed to say yes because wanting it and liking it are not very feminine.


We have both of these competing scripts simultaneously. For a long time, girls in real life who were exploring their sexuality, trying to find out what it is they want in life, didn’t feel cultural permission to go ahead and say yes to the things that they wanted and liked. Maybe they would say no and do things that they wanted to do, but they were saying the no they felt they were supposed to say. I think there has been a complexity and a grayness. There’s been controversy over the Christmas song, Baby, It’s Cold Outside.

Jessica Bennett (30:53):

Baby, It’s Cold Outside. Yeah.

Emily Nagoski (30:53):

Yeah. Where she’s saying no, but she’s saying no because she feels like she’s not allowed to say yes, and she actually really wants to say yes.

Jessica Bennett (31:03):

Yeah. Wait, what are the lyrics?

Emily Nagoski (31:05):

I really can’t stay. It’s cold outside. I got to go away. It’s cold outside. This evening has been so very nice and warm.

Baby, It’s Cold Outside (31:15):

(Singing) I ought to say no, no, no.


You mind if I move in close?


At least I’m going to say that I tried.

Emily Nagoski (31:21):

But it’s cold outside. She sings it too, but it’s cold outside.

Jessica Bennett (31:25):


Emily Nagoski (31:26):

So there’s ambiguity.

Jessica Bennett (31:27):

You are describing cultural scripts, which of course are an important part of this, but it’s almost as if the more factual things you’re discussing, the things that we learned in the wrong way, get talked about less.

Emily Nagoski (31:57):


Jessica Bennett (31:58):

In reading your book, Come As You Are, I was so struck by how many basic facts I was learning for the first time or relearning for the first time. While you think that those would be easy things to re-teach or correct, it’s almost as if we’re talking about the patriarchy and cultural scripts and what consent means much more often than we’re talking about these literal facts.

Emily Nagoski (32:21):

Yes. Literal, actual, just biological facts about the lack of correlation between how your genitals are behaving and how you personally feel.

Jessica Bennett (32:31):

Are there a few basic facts that I should have you debunk for us right here while we have you? What are the things we need to know?

Emily Nagoski (32:42):

Can we start with virginity since we were talking about American Pie?

Jessica Bennett (32:46):


Emily Nagoski (32:47):

Virginity is not not a biological thing, biological fact of any kind. It cannot be… What the heck? What the heck is virginity?

Jessica Bennett (32:57):

The idea of the cherry.

Emily Nagoski (32:59):

And in biological terms, the hymen, the hymen is a fold of tissue. It is like all of our tissues. If it gets damaged, it heals. A hymen can be stretched, but there are people who have given birth who have intact hymens. My husband laughingly calls it a freshness seal.


Just that whole thing, all of it derives from several hundred years ago, medieval biologists, medical practitioners, looking at a fold of skin, sort of over the mouth of the vagina and deciding because they live in a culture where a woman’s body is literally a man’s property, and her lack of having had a penis in her vagina yet matters insofar as a man wants his property to be in good condition.


He wants not to invest his resources in raising someone else’s offspring. You never can fully get control over a woman’s sexuality, but at least that fold of skin is some assurance that that vagina is fresh. It’s all biological nonsense because you can’t tell based on the presence of absence of a hymen whether or not anybody has ever had anything put into their vagina before.

Jessica Bennett (34:19):

Okay, so that’s virginity.

Emily Nagoski (34:20):


Jessica Bennett (34:21):

What’s another common one?

Emily Nagoski (34:22):

Blue balls, of course, would definitely go on the list of this is not a thing. Attached to it, the idea of sex is a biological drive. Hunger is a drive. If you don’t have adequate energy intake, you can literally die. Thirst, biological drive. If you have inadequate balance of water and sodium, you can literally die. Sleep is a drive. If you do not get adequate sleep, you can literally die.


Sex is not one of those. Sex is an incentive motivation system. And no, I’m not under a delusion that we’re all going to stop saying the simple and easy sex drive and start saying sexual incentive motivation system. But if we could all just get real clear that we do not mean that sex is a biological need without which anybody will die, that would be super good.

Jessica Bennett (35:07):

Is there one sex myth that if you could just do one thing and eradicate it?

Emily Nagoski (35:14):

Can I choose a cluster of myths-

Jessica Bennett (35:16):


Emily Nagoski (35:16):

… around what I’m going to colloquially call women’s orgasm?

Jessica Bennett (35:21):


Emily Nagoski (35:23):

The research, here’s my gender caveat, virtually all the research on women’s orgasms is done on cisgender women. I see no reason why all of this doesn’t apply to anyone who’s a woman, but know that the research is talking about cisgender women.

Jessica Bennett (35:39):

That’s the caveat.

Emily Nagoski (35:41):

First of all, as I said, only about 10%-ish of women who do so with any kind of vaginal penetration. That’s been shown in study after study, after study for the last 50 years. Only a quarter to maybe a third of women are reliably orgasmic from vaginal penetration alone, or as it’s called in the research unassisted intercourse. One of my favorite technical terms. The remaining two-thirds to three-quarters are sometimes, rarely or never orgasmic from vaginal stimulation alone.


The only reason why I still get asked like, “How do I have an orgasm during sex,” is the way people say it. They mean during penile-vaginal intercourse. “How come I’m not having them?” The reason you’re not having them is because approximately two-thirds to three-quarters of people with vaginas, that’s not a very good way for them to get the kind of stimulation they need to get to orgasm because the vagina’s pretty far away from the clitoris, which is for most people, not all, but for most people, the most efficient path to getting to orgasm.


The only reason people still care about this is because I think of frickin frackin Freud whose influence on psychotherapy will not die, saying that clitoral orgasms are immature and vaginal orgasms are mature. That is an extremely convenient line for the patriarchy and the misogyny and a world in which men would really benefit from women being orgasmic from the kind of behavior by which heterosexual men are very reliably orgasmic.

Jessica Bennett (37:22):

It’s so interesting though, because, okay, for people who haven’t studied Freud, these myths persist. Why do they, I mean, besides the patriarchy, why do they persist?

Emily Nagoski (37:33):

Sex is a big deal, and women’s bodies in the world of the gender binary have to be controlled because a whole lot of the genetic destiny of our species happens inside of uteruses. We have to control the uteruses, which means we have to control the women, which means not only making laws about it, but having cultural narratives about right and wrong, about beautiful and ugly, about disgusting and perfect that train us all to be good from very young, to be good at being the right kind of sexual person.

Jessica Bennett (38:17):

What about the role of pop culture to perpetuate or to teach us healthy sexual habits?

Emily Nagoski (38:25):

Yeah, because pop culture is so powerful, because these narratives form our framework for understanding how our own sexuality works. And I say that as someone who, even though I have all this education and all this experience, I still find myself falling into the same self-critical traps of comparing my sexuality to other people’s sexuality or to the cultural narrative of how sexuality works.


Like now, as a perimenopausal 40-something lady married to somebody, when my sexual desire isn’t like when the spark isn’t still alive in my marriage, I think, oh, no, there’s something terribly wrong. I wrote a whole book about how, oh no, nothing is terribly wrong. I know exactly how to fix it. And still, my first response is still to panic that I’m doing it wrong, that I’m broken, that I’m an inadequate wife.


I think it clearly is very powerful. It embeds narratives in our head of how sex is supposed to work, and only by having an enormously diverse range of stories, only by having a whole lot of different narratives about ways that you can be sexual and do sex right, do we get a liberating pop culture narrative is when there’s dozens of them. Does that make sense?

Jessica Bennett (39:46):

Yeah, absolutely.

Emily Nagoski (39:47):

I had a lot of feelings and then words happened, and I don’t know that any of them formed sentences.

Jessica Bennett (39:52):

No, that’s amazing.

Emily Nagoski (39:53):

But I really meant it.

Jessica Bennett (39:56):

Is there anything out there you think does it well?

Emily Nagoski (40:01):

Of mainstream pop culture? I would be really interested to hear from listeners, what have you seen that you feel like does a good job of representing sexuality in a way where it shows a world that you would want your kids to grow up in or that you wish you had grown up in?


One of the episodes in the podcast that I made with Pushkin was on Ted Lasso. They picked it because it’s one of the few shows that I watch, and I feel like that show did a pretty darn good job with sexuality. I feel like it was extremely silly in its relationships, but the sexual relationships such the little bit that they showed, were pretty great, actually. The communication was on point. The equality of different people to be able to initiate sex and say no to sex, it was really good, but there just wasn’t a lot of sex in it.

Jessica Bennett (40:53):

Yeah, yeah. Yeah. That’s actually a perfect place to end it, with a call-out to our listeners posed by you.

Emily Nagoski (41:01):

Yeah, so I can know when somebody asks me, but what can I watch that’s good, that I’ll be able to be like, “Here’s a list.”

Jessica Bennett (41:08):

Before I let you go, could you say a few words about the new book?

Emily Nagoski (41:13):

Oh, sure. It’s called Come Together. I was very proud when I thought of that title because it is about how couples sustain a sexual connection over the long term, couples of all combinations and all structures, whether they’re monogamous or not. It comes from the fact that writing and promoting Come As You Are, diminished my interest in sex to less than zero.


When I got done with that project, which you’d think writing and thinking and talking about sex all the time might make it easier, turns out, no, I had zero interest for months at a time. When that was over, I started looking at the research, of course, because that’s what I do on how couples do sustain a strong sexual connection over the longterm.


What I learned changed my own sex life, and I wrote a book about it to help other people in a similar situation.

Susie Banikarim (42:04):

This is In Retrospect. Thanks for listening. Is there a pop culture moment you can’t stop thinking about and want us to explore in a future episode? Email us at [email protected] or find us on Instagram @inretropod.

Jessica Bennett (42:18):

If you love this podcast, please rate and review us on Apple or Spotify or wherever you listen. If you hate it, you can post nasty comments on our Instagram, which we may or may not delete.

Susie Banikarim (42:28):

You can also find us on Instagram @jessicabennett and @susiebnyc. Also, check out Jessica’s books, Feminist Fight Club and This Is 18.

Jessica Bennett (42:37):

In Retrospect is a production of iHeart Podcasts and The Meteor. Lauren Hansen is our supervising producer. Derrick Clements is our engineer and sound designer. Emily Marinoff is our producer. Sharon Attia is our researcher and associate producer.

Susie Banikarim (42:51):

Our executive producer from The Meteor is Cindi Leive. Our executive producers from iHeart are Anna Stumpf and Katrina Norvell. Our artwork is from Pentagram. Additional editing help from Mary Dooe Sound correction and mastering by Amanda Rose Smith. We are your hosts, Susie Banikarim.

Jessica Bennett (43:08):

And Jessica Bennett. We’re also executive producers. For even more, check out inretropod.com. See you next week.