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  • [This talk contains mature content Viewer discretion is advised]

  • My specialty, as a sex educator, is I bring the science.

  • But my first and most important job is that I stay neutral

  • when I talk about anything sex-related,

  • no embarrassment, no titillation, no judgment, no shame,

  • no matter where I am.

  • No matter what question you ask me.

  • At the end of a conference in a hotel lobby once,

  • I'm literally on my way out the door and a colleague chases me down.

  • "Emily, I just have a really quick question.

  • A friend of mine --

  • (Laughter)

  • wants to know if it's possible to get addicted to her vibrator."

  • The answer is no, but it is possible to get spoiled.

  • A different conference, this one in an outdoor tropical paradise,

  • I'm at the breakfast buffet, and a couple approaches me.

  • "Hi, Emily, we're sorry to interrupt you

  • but we just wanted to ask a quick question about premature ejaculation."

  • "Sure, let me tell you about the stop/start technique."

  • That is my life.

  • I stay neutral when other people might "squick."

  • Squick is an emotion that combines surprise

  • with embarrassment plus some disgust

  • and like, not knowing what to do with your hands.

  • So, it's a product.

  • The reason you experience it

  • is because you spent the first two decades of your life

  • learning that sex is a dangerous and disgusting source of everlasting shame

  • and if you're not really good at it, no one will ever love you.

  • (Laughter)

  • So you might squick, hearing me talk about sex

  • while you're sitting in a room full of strangers -- that is normal.

  • I invite you to breathe.

  • Feelings are tunnels.

  • We make our way through the darkness to get to the light at the end.

  • And I promise it's worth it.

  • Because I want to share with you today a piece of science

  • that has changed how I think about everything,

  • from the behavior of neurotransmitters in our emotional brain,

  • to the dynamics of our interpersonal relationships.

  • To our judicial system.

  • And it starts with our brain.

  • There's an area of your brain you've probably heard referred to

  • as the "reward center."

  • I think calling it the reward center

  • is a little bit like calling your face your nose.

  • That is one prominent feature,

  • but it ignores some other parts and will leave you really confused

  • if you're trying to understand how faces work.

  • It's actually three intertwined but separable systems.

  • The first system is liking.

  • Which is like reward,

  • so this is the opioid hotspots in your emotional brain.

  • It assesses hedonic impact --

  • "Does this stimulus feel good?

  • How good?

  • Does this stimulus feel bad?

  • How bad?"

  • If you drop sugar water on the tongue of a newborn infant,

  • the opioid-liking system sets off fireworks.

  • And then there's the wanting system.

  • Wanting is mediated by this vast dopaminergic network

  • in and beyond the emotional brain.

  • It motivates us to move toward or away from a stimulus.

  • Wanting is more like your toddler, following you around,

  • asking for another cookie.

  • So wanting and liking are related.

  • They are not identical.

  • And the third system is learning.

  • Learning is Pavlov's dogs.

  • You remember Pavlov?

  • He makes dogs salivate in response to a bell.

  • It's easy, you give a dog food, salivates automatically,

  • and you ring a bell.

  • Food, salivate, bell.

  • Food, bell, salivate.

  • Bell, salivate.

  • Does that salivation mean that the dog wants to eat the bell?

  • Does it mean that the dog finds the bell delicious?

  • No.

  • What Pavlov did was make the bell food-related.

  • When we see this separateness of wanting, liking and learning,

  • this is where we find an explanatory framework

  • for understanding what researchers call arousal nonconcordance.

  • Nonconcordance, very simply,

  • is when there is a lack of predictive relationship

  • between your physiological response, like salivation,

  • and your subjective experience of pleasure and desire.

  • That happens in every emotional and motivational system that we have,

  • including sex.

  • Research over the last 30 years

  • has found that genital blood flow can increase

  • in response to sex-related stimuli

  • even if those sex-related stimuli are not also associated

  • with the subjective experience of wanting and liking.

  • In fact, the predictive relationship

  • between genital response and subjective experience

  • is between 10 and 50 percent.

  • Which is an enormous range.

  • You just can't predict necessarily

  • how a person feels about that sex-related stimulus

  • just by looking at their genital blood flow.

  • When I explained this to my husband, he gave me the best possible example.

  • He was like,

  • "So, that could explain this one time, when I was in high school, I ...

  • I got an erection in response to the phrase 'doughnut hole.'"

  • (Laughter)

  • Did he want to have sex with the doughnut?

  • No.

  • He was a teenage boy flooded with testosterone,

  • which makes everything a little bit sex-related.

  • And it can go in both directions.

  • A person with a penis may struggle to get an erection one evening,

  • and then wake up the very next morning with an erection,

  • when it's nothing but a hassle.

  • I got a phone call from a 30-something friend, a woman,

  • she said, "So, my partner and I were in the middle of doing some things

  • and I was like, 'I want you right now.'

  • And he said, 'No, you're still dry, you're just being nice.'

  • And I was so ready.

  • So what's the matter, is it hormonal, should I talk to a doctor,

  • what's going on?"

  • Answer?

  • It's arousal nonconcordance.

  • If you're experiencing unwanted pain, talk to a medical provider.

  • Otherwise -- arousal nonconcordance.

  • Your genital behavior just doesn't necessarily predict

  • your subjective experience of liking and wanting.

  • Another friend, back in college,

  • told me about her first experiences of power play in a sexual relationship.

  • She told me that her partner tied her up

  • with her arms over her head like this, she's standing up and he positions her

  • so she's straddling a bar, presses up against her clitoris, like this.

  • So there's my friend, standing there, and the guy leaves.

  • It's a power play.

  • Leaves her alone.

  • So there's my friend, and she goes,

  • "I'm bored."

  • (Laughter)

  • And the guy comes back and she says, "I am bored."

  • And he looks at her and he looks at the bar

  • and he says, "Then why are you wet?"

  • Why was she wet?

  • Is it sex-related to have pressure directly against your clitoris?

  • Yeah.

  • Does that tell him whether she wants or likes what's happening?

  • Nope.

  • What does tell him whether she wants or likes what's happening?

  • She does!

  • She recognized and articulated what she wanted and liked.

  • All he had to do was listen to her words.

  • My friend on the phone -- what's the solution?

  • You tell your partner, "Listen to your words."

  • Also, buy some lube.

  • (Laughter)

  • (Applause)

  • Applause for lube, absolutely.

  • (Applause)

  • Everyone, everywhere.

  • But I want to tell you a darker listen-to-her-words story.

  • This one comes from a note that a student sent me

  • after I gave a lecture about arousal nonconcordance.

  • She was with a partner, a new partner, glad to be doing things,

  • and they reached a point

  • where that was as far as she was interested in going

  • and so she said no.

  • And the partner said, "No, you're wet, you're so ready, don't be shy."

  • Shy?

  • As if it hadn't taken all the courage and confidence she had

  • to say no to someone she liked.

  • Whose feelings she did not want to hurt.

  • But she said it again.

  • She said no.

  • Did he listen to her words?

  • In the age of Me Too and Time's Up, people ask me,

  • "How do I even know what my partner wants and likes?

  • Is all consent to be verbal and contractual now?"

  • There are times when consent is ambiguous

  • and we need a large-scale cultural conversation about that.

  • But can we make sure we're noticing how clear consent is

  • if we eliminate this myth?

  • In every example I've described so far,

  • one partner recognized and articulated what they wanted and liked:

  • "I want you right now."

  • "No."

  • And their partner told them they were wrong.

  • It's gaslighting.

  • Profound and degrading.

  • You say you feel one way,

  • but your body proves that you feel something else.

  • And we only do this around sexuality,

  • because arousal nonconcordance

  • happens with every emotional and motivational system we have.

  • If my mouth waters when I bite into a wormy apple,

  • does anybody say to me,

  • "You said no, but your body said yes?"

  • (Laughter)

  • And it's not only our partners who get it wrong.

  • The National Judicial Education Program published a document

  • called "Judges Tell: What I Wish I Had Known Before I Presided

  • in a Case of an Adult Victim of Sexual Assault."

  • Number 13:

  • On occasion, the victim, female or male, may experience a physical response,

  • but this is not a sexual response in the sense of desire or mutuality."

  • This brings me one step closer into the darkness,

  • and then I promise we will find our way into the light.

  • I'm thinking of a recent court case involving multiple instances

  • of non-consensual sexual contact.

  • Imagine you're on the jury

  • and you learn that the victim had orgasms.

  • Does it change how your gut responds to the case?

  • Let me remind you, orgasm is physiological;

  • it is a spontaneous, involuntary release of tension,

  • generated in response to sex-related stimuli.

  • But the perpetrator's lawyer made sure the jury knew about those orgasms

  • because he thought the orgasms could be construed as consent.

  • I will also add that this was a child being abused by an adult in the family.

  • I invite you to breathe.

  • That kind of story can give a person all kind of feelings,

  • from rage to shame to confused arousal

  • because it is sex-related,

  • even though it is appalling.

  • But even though I know it's difficult

  • to sit with those feelings in a room full of strangers,

  • if we can find our way through all of the messy feelings,

  • I believe we will find our way to the light of compassion

  • for that child,

  • whose relationship with her body was damaged

  • by an adult whose job it was to protect it.

  • And we'll find hope that there was a trustworthy adult

  • who could say, "Genital response

  • just means it was a sex-related stimulus; doesn't mean it was wanted or liked,

  • certainly doesn't mean it was consented to.

  • (Applause)

  • That compassion and that hope are why I travel all over,

  • talking about this to anyone who will listen.

  • I can see it helping people, even as I say the words.

  • I invite you to say the words.

  • You don't have to say "clitoris" in front of 1000 strangers.

  • But do have one brave conversation.

  • Tell this to someone you know who has experienced sexual violence --

  • you definitely know someone.

  • In the US it's one in three women.

  • One in six men.

  • Almost half of transgender folks.

  • Say "Genital response means it's a sex-related stimulus.

  • It doesn't mean it was wanted or liked."

  • Say it to a judge you know or a lawyer you know,

  • or a cop or anyone who might sit on a jury in a sexual assault case.

  • Say "Some people think that your body doesn't respond

  • if you don't want or like what's happening,

  • if only that were true.

  • Instead, arousal nonconcordance.

  • Say this to the confused teenager in your life

  • who is just trying to figure out what, even, what?

  • Say, if you bite this moldy fruit and your mouth waters,

  • nobody would say to you,

  • "Well, you just don't want to admit how much you like it."

  • Same goes for down below, arousal nonconcordance.