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April 17, 2015 10:05 AM   Subscribe

"Come As You Are" an illustrated book review at The Nib and mirrored at Oh Joy Sex Toy [previously] by Erika Moen & Matthew Nolan.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (21 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite

This book seems to be making the round of my lady friends. I should see if my library has it as I am now intrigued. I struggle with arousal and sex "drive" as of late and it's driving me insane.
posted by Kitteh at 10:27 AM on April 17, 2015

"Oo, worksheets!"
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:32 AM on April 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

Moen is a treasure, though her Twitter steam is so NOT SFW some days. It's safe for her office, of course! :)
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 11:18 AM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

an illustrated book review advertisement
posted by RogerB at 11:18 AM on April 17, 2015 [4 favorites]

an illustrated book advertisement

A positive review is not the same as an advertisement
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:49 AM on April 17, 2015 [8 favorites]

It sounds fascinating. Moen's review, for completely understandable reasons, does not make it entirely clear that the book seems to be XX-chromosome focused. Which is fine! I just did not realize that right away.

Also, maybe I am wrong about that, too. Either way, certainly interested in reading.
posted by Sokka shot first at 11:50 AM on April 17, 2015

From reading her review, it seems that a lot is applicable to both sexes even if written from the female perspective. The sex off/on thing certainly applies to men and women.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 12:03 PM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

A positive review is not the same as an advertisement

It is when it's written by illustrator of the book being discussed. Which, to be fair, Erika Moen is 100% up-front about in the second panel of the linked comic, but still, there's no way you can call it a "book review".
posted by strangely stunted trees at 12:06 PM on April 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

[Given the lack of any murkiness on Moen's part in the linked comic, maybe we can leave the review vs. advertisement thing as noted and not needing extended litigation in here.]
posted by cortex at 12:31 PM on April 17, 2015 [6 favorites]

I burned through the book a few nights ago. As an XY I did feel like the book was very XX-oriented and mostly remedial (for me), but the accelerator/brakes and especially the responsive/spontaneous distinctions I think will be really helpful as empathy/relationshippy [sic] things to keep in mind in the future. Like, both of those things are sort of folk wisdom, but it's helpful to have them spelled out, emphasized and backed by research.

The incentive/not-a-drive distinction was really interesting because my lived experience is that sex is indeed a drive, even while she argues that it isn't. I think there may simply be some semantic stuff going on here, like, once all definitions were fully unpacked I wouldn't feel like disagreeing with her. And, in any case, I still think the discussion had super-helpful suggestions regarding how to relate to one's sexuality.

But it was fascinating--this was the first time for me that an awesome, smart, heart-in-the-right-place resource seems to directly contradict my lived experience, even in its acknowledging that this would seem to be the case for lots of people reading. I still suspect that the research she's drawing from is still missing something important about a chunk of the population.
posted by zeek321 at 3:43 PM on April 17, 2015

I've never heard of the drive/motivation system distinction before. Does the distinction only concern whether the object is necessary for survival or not? (If so, that makes it sound like the distinction is just a semantic one and not very deep or insightful.) Or do drives and motivation systems invoke entirely different mechanisms? I would have thought that drives like thirst just provide very powerful motivation.
posted by painquale at 4:11 PM on April 17, 2015

I've never heard of the drive/motivation system distinction before. Does the distinction only concern whether the object is necessary for survival or not?

I'd guess that it's a largely semantic distinction, painquale, with the disclaimer that I do not work on humans. The neural systems that are involved in sexual motivation are just as deep and evolutionarily preserved as systems involved in, say, feeding behavior. Actually, there are some neural mechanisms involved in both--for example, vasopressin signalling is enormously important in male brains with respect to triggering male-specific behavior like courtship or mate guarding or whatever is specific to what males do in that species. But vasopressin is also a hormone which is intimately involved in water balance and blood vessel constriction, and it plays a role in determining how much of the water in your body goes into your kidneys and gets peed out. But that's my impression as a biologist who works on sexual behavior in nonhuman mammals.

That said, that semantic distinction is pretty important in the field of how we talk about sexual desire as people, because it really is surprisingly important to point out that sexuality is a) a really important part of life for many people and worth safeguarding BUT b) it is not actually a human need, you will not die if you never get laid, and also c) people do in fact exist who have minimal motivation to have sex either on a spontaneous level or a responsive one, and they are not actually endangering themselves in the way a person with minimal desire to eat might do. (That's me talking as an asexual person thinking about cultural blind spots.) And it's worth noting that the body's response if you go a long time without sex is very different than if you go a long time without food, and that sex is a priority that drops under conditions of stress. Eating, sleeping, and drinking, not so much.
posted by sciatrix at 4:51 PM on April 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Some excerpts:

"A drive is a biological mechanism whose job is to keep the organism at a healthy baseline—not too warm, not too cold, not too hungry, not too full. A traditional metaphor for a drive system is a thermostat: [... ... ...] “For centuries, scientists thought sex was a “hunger.” It’s probably how you think about it, too. It’s how I thought about it for a long time. [... ... ...] It’s easy to prove that sex is not a drive: As animal behaviorist Frank Beach put it in 1956, “No one has ever suffered tissue damage for lack of sex.”

"Why It Matters That It’s Not a Drive [... ... ...] there’s the political side of the question: Do people need sex? [...]”

So yeah, it seems mostly semantic, and sort of shoe-horned and uninteresting, and that the distinction is being made to serve a (totally great!) agenda. I'm on board with "nobody owes you sex," and any discourse that overall helps people relate more constructively to their inner experience of sexuality.

But it seemed like an odd stake in the ground to start that sort of discussion. (I can only nitpick in the first place because the book is really good.)

"Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky illustrates how the assumption that boys require outlets to 'relieve their sexual frustrations' facilitates the sexual enslavement of impoverished girls."

Totes. But I would have liked more of a discussion of the neuroscience and biology giving rise to phenomenology, and interacting with sociology, that gives rise to the 'relieve their sexual frustrations' stuff in the first place.

"[...] the same brain mechanism that makes sexual desire feel like a drive."

Feels like a drive but isn't technically a drive? Semantics! The whole section is still packed with interesting, personally actionable stuff. But it still feels like a weird interpretation of the science and phenomenology to get there.
posted by zeek321 at 5:04 PM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

To be fair, irritating semantic nitpickery is also rife in my field (which is animal behavior). It's not... exactly surprising to me to see weird distinctions enforced for historical or semi-political reasons here, and I don't think it's an issue specific to this author. Of course your mileage might vary, but I've seen people get shirty about surprisingly minimal distinctions with a lot less riding on them.

I'm... probably going to go buy this on Kobo tonight and read through it, because it sounds pretty interesting. It's pretty rare these days for a book on sexuality to make me do that, especially one about humans, and the bit where it's only $12 is.... tempting.
posted by sciatrix at 5:08 PM on April 17, 2015

Please do post your thoughts if you read it, sciatrix!
posted by painquale at 5:14 PM on April 17, 2015

I don't even have an atrium.
posted by the uncomplicated soups of my childhood at 5:16 PM on April 17, 2015

just as deep and evolutionarily preserved [...] vasopressin

Fascinating; I wish more of that had been woven into her discussion.

Please do post your thoughts if you read it, sciatrix!

I would favorite the crap out of that too.
posted by zeek321 at 5:17 PM on April 17, 2015

Please do post your thoughts if you read it, sciatrix!

Yes, please.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:52 PM on April 17, 2015

So! Thoughts! Only through part one so far, but here's my feelings on that. I was right in assuming I wasn't going to learn a whole lot, but that's okay; like I said, I study how this works in animals, plus I've been thinking about human sexuality for a really long time and picking up bits and bobs when I have a chance. (That said, there absolutely was stuff that was still new to me--in particular the way she frames inhibitory and excitatory circuits isn't something that I'd run into before. Totally stealing/looking into the literature of that in more depth when I have more focus; it's really relevant to some of my work.)

It's still worth reading--this is an author with a real gift for simplifying complex concepts down to real ones, and (I think) a gift for being kind to marginalized groups even when she doesn't have the wherewithal to discuss them. I was very pleased by the few mentions of asexuality I saw--my perspective as an ace tends to be that anyone involved as a sex therapist or counselor tends to be pretty nasty about asexuality, and the author was good about bringing it up where relevant but also not telling anyone how they should identify either.

Love the anatomy section. I think starting with it as she does is a smart, smart move. And I think she's spot on in framing things as "we've all got the same parts, just differently organized" and in pointing out how variation within sexes is broader than variation between sexes, even if on average there's difference between sexes. It's a good way to reassure people that they're not doing their sex wrong or weird and abnormal. In general she's good about being careful to expect and provide room for a variety of reactions to her material. I'm very, very used to being a massive outlier on this kind of stuff, and I was pleasantly surprised to see my automatic kneejerk assumptions.... made room for, I guess.

More broadly--holy shit, the neuroscience stuff is very very very good. She hits on a lot of complicated things that people steeped in the processing sort of take for granted but which are almost never talked about anywhere where lay people can see. And she does an excellent job of simplifying these concepts down so that it's easy to grab the takeaways and apply them. There's stuff I would have been tempted to embellish on and go off on a delighted tangent about the science which would have stoked all the nerds like me out there, but maybe intimidated or bored someone who doesn't find motivation to be an interesting question. She's very good at making intimidating material engaging and relatively non-scary, which I expect is a skill you really have to hone when doing sex education. Especially for adults, where it looks like most of her expertise is. She's also good at adding little cultural comments on her scientific explanations, so that the most likely pitfalls women are likely to run into when applying her tactics are neatly fenced off and no one is set up for failure. For all its breezy, cheerful tone, this is a remarkably careful book.

Anyway, pretty much everything she's talking about when she makes distinctions between "expecting, eagerness, enjoyment" is totally consistent with what I know about how this works in animals, wrapped up in metaphors that are intuitive and make sense. So is all the perception stuff and the discussion of how mood impacts responses to different sensory stimuli. She makes explaining this stuff look easy; I promise, it is not as easy as she is making it look to come up with good ways to teach this. So far, I'd shove this at anyone who is interested in not only female sexuality but also in the way motivation and perception work in the mind. It's a perfectly good primer for a lot of those concepts, tucked neatly in the corner where you can grab it easily.
posted by sciatrix at 8:52 PM on April 17, 2015 [26 favorites]

Metafilter: once all definitions were fully unpacked I wouldn't feel like disagreeing
posted by sneebler at 6:53 AM on April 18, 2015 [5 favorites]

Okay, having gotten to the drive bit: yeah, she's talking about drives as desires that fit into homeostasis. Which is actually a totally legitimate distinction, mechanistically speaking, but didn't occur to me last night. The thing about homeostatic systems like energy balance (whether you need to eat) and water balance (whether you should drink) is that there are definitely consequences to having not enough, but there are also consequences to having too much of the thing.

Water, for example; there's a reason we urinate out excess water, and mammals having water-soluble metabolism byproducts is just part of that. Too much water in your body and the first thing that would happen is that your bladder would explode; but pretend that's not an issue and you've dispersed the excess water throughout your body instead of saving up the excess to jettison later. You put too much water in an organism and you can seriously mess up the osmotic balance in their bloodstream. Homeostatic mechanisms like hunger and thirst are therefore designed to keep you in a good range of blood sugar or water availability or body temperature. When you drop too low in your levels of the thing they're regulating, you suddenly want to go eat something or go get a drink or huddle somewhere warm. When you're above a certain maximum threshold, you feel kind of uncomfortably full or you shunt water to your bladder or you go sprawl out on some cool tiles. Those mechanisms regulate behaviors and bodily functions designed to keep you in the zones where you function best.

By contrast, there is no zone in which you function "best" with respect to sex. I mentioned that no sex won't kill you? Yeah, but too much sex won't either, as long as you remember to top up your other bodily functions. The idea, evolutionarily speaking, is to maximize the number of kids you have per time-point while also surviving as long as possible yourself. But there's a lot of strategies to choose from, and you might wind up with a body which goes "wellp, best way to have a lot of kids is to HAVE A LOT OF KIDS! Better have sex as frequently as possible!" or one that goes "okay, sex once a year and now I'm going to devote the rest of my energy to surviving/investing in my kids so they survive properly." Different species do different things to maximize their fitness. And what that all means is that there's absolutely no reason for a neural mechanism to have an easily identified set point, because whether it's a good time to have sex is going to depend on a whole lot of stuff. Up to and including "is there anyone else around who would like to have sex with me?"

This is especially true given that if the answer to that last question is "no", possibly because it's a bad year and everyone is just trying to survive for a while, you don't want to be investing a ton of energy into thinking about sex and paying attention to it. You want to be getting your head down and keeping yourself alive until maybe someone else decides they have enough resources and energy to make sex and reproduction worth it again. In that context, a minimum set point doesn't make sense.

So yeah, actually, this distinction isn't semantic at all! She could maybe have spent a little more time explaining how homeostasis-induced behaviors work, but she is definitely talking about a meaningful distinction here. I've never heard behaviors intended to return an individual to homeostasis called drive, but she's using a lot of terminology for concepts that are different from the way we talk about similar stuff in my field, so I'll give her that.
posted by sciatrix at 5:28 PM on April 18, 2015 [10 favorites]

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