Dr. Lori Brotto: Make Sex More Mindful – Transcript
Ben Schuman-Stoler: Welcome to Simplify! I’m Ben Schuman-Stoler.
Caitlin Schiller: And I’m Caitlin Schiller. Simplify is for anybody who’s taken a look at their habits, their happiness, their relationships or their health and thought, “There’s got to be a better way to do this.”
Ben: OK, so today. Here’s the thing – everybody talks about mindfulness: they talk about mindful eating, they talk about mindful walking, they talk about mindful dishwashing, even mindful running is a thing. There’s like a way to use mindfulness for pretty much everything.
Caitlin: That’s true.
Ben: But, so what’s today about?
Caitlin: Alright, today…
Ben: I mean, obviously mindfulness.
Caitlin: Today is obviously about mindfulness, and it turns out that one of its most important applications might be pleasure.
Caitlin: Sexual pleasure.
Ben: Right, sexual pleasure. Today’s episode is with Dr. Lori Brotto who is the mindfulness and sex lady. She’s a psychologist, a researcher, a big deal women’s health advocate in Canada, also a doctor –important to reiterate– and she’s got a new book out, brand new, it’s called Better Sex Through Mindfulness. And Caitlin, you got to talk to her about it.
Caitlin: Yeah. It was a really nice follow-up to the conversation from earlier this season with Emily Nagoski. So if Emily’s episode is all about the theory behind why sexual desire is sometimes really difficult to ignite and sustain, this talk with Dr. Lori Brotto has got the practice.
Ben: Like, what do you mean practice, like actual exercises?
Caitlin: Yeah, concrete practices you can use to really tune into sex and make it better, whether you’re a man or a woman actually. And they’re not like, like, Kegels. They’re things that you do with your brain and with how you notice and perceive the world, which is actually really interesting.
Ben: Nice. Well, we’re going to talk a little bit more about that in The Bookend after the interview, so definitely stay tuned for that. We will also recommend some books to go deeper into this topic, but let’s just hear the conversation. Here’s you, Caitlin Schiller, talking with Dr. Lori Brotto about mindfulness and better sex. Catch you guys soon!
Caitlin: See you later!
Caitlin Interviews Dr. Lori Brotto
Caitlin: Hi Lori! Thank you for coming on the show! Could you please introduce yourself?
Dr. Lori Brotto: Yes, thanks so much. So I’m Dr. Lori Brotto. I’m a professor at University of British Columbia, I’m a registered psychologist, and I’m the Executive Director of the Women’s Health Research Institute in Vancouver.
Caitlin: Very cool. And today we wanted to talk about some of the contents of your new book which is called Better Sex Through Mindfulness, and that’s out April 21st. I feel like the title is pretty self-explanatory, but could you talk a little bit about how this book came to be and why you decided to give this topic all of your attention?
Lori: Yeah, absolutely. So it was really on the heels of the approval of Viagra for men which happened in 1998 in the United States. And shortly after that there was a large, rather famous, study that was published, that looked at just how common sexual problems are in men and in women. And that study found that about 43% of women over the last year reported significant sexual problems.
And so, on the one hand, we have these very high rates of sexual difficulties experienced by women and, on the other hand, there was this newly approved, very effective, easy-to-use medication for men. And it got me really interested in looking at the treatments for women. That started me down a path through some self-discovery and personal growth and experience in working with individuals who engaged in a lot of parasuicidal behaviors, like cutting, etc. And I learned about mindfulness strategies. Mindfulness meditation has been around for quite a long time, but had never been used whatsoever with women with sexual concerns, with anyone with sexual concerns for that matter.
And so, in about 2002 when I was being introduced to mindfulness at the University of Washington, we began to experiment with using these techniques with cancer survivors. So women who reported that they no longer felt any sexual sensations in their genitals after their surgery.
And we’ve found it to be not only effective for improving women’s sexual desire and sexual response, but the effects seem to be lasting.
So the genesis of the book was really an opportunity to take the science, take all of the scientific research that we have done and written about, and translate in a way that would be very accessible to women.
Caitlin: Why is this topic so interesting now? What is it about this moment in our culture and society that makes it a good time for this book, if you think it is?
Lori: Yeah. Well, you know, I thought it was a good time for this book in 2015 and 2016, when I sought to write the book, because there had been so many advances in men’s sexuality. So after the approval of Viagra there was then a host of other medications. And, in fact, to this day we’ve got 26 approved medications to treat different sexual difficulties in men, and really nothing in women. There’s one medication that’s approved in the United States – I would argue, the science would argue, it’s marginally effective with lots of side effects. And yet, we had quite a number of studies showing not only that the rates of sexual problems in women were high, but they seem to be increasing.
Sexual response is a part of our health that really affects so many different parts of our well-being. It affects our mood, anxiety levels, our sense of self, our sense of femininity. And when it doesn’t go well, all of those different aspects of our being can take a toll.
So at the time when I wrote this, I felt very compelled to translate the science into something accessible. Last year, 2017 and ‘18, with women standing up and saying enough, enough of being subjected to violence and being dismissed and not being listened to, I think that the time is even more ripe. And so, I’m quite pleased that this book – which is really about empowering women and teaching women how to cultivate their own desire – that it is coming out in 2018.
Caitlin: So you said that when Viagra was approved, 43% of women were experiencing low sexual desire or difficulties around sexual desire. Has that number risen since then?
Lori: I think what’s happened is the science has gotten better. So since that landmark study in 1999, which found that when you assess a broad population of women and you ask them over the last year, “Have you had a period of at least a few months where you had a sexual concern?” And then the study lists all the possible sexual concerns, well, some of the possible sexual concerns that a woman can experience.
Since then, the science has become more sophisticated in that we’re now asking also, “And does this difficulty cause you significant distress?” So, does it interfere in your life? Does it get in the way? And that additional question is really important because we know that there might be many adaptive reasons why a woman might have a difficulty. So if she’s going through a particularly stressful time, if she’s just had a baby, if she’s experiencing a significant health issue, if she’s on a new medication. So those might be some of the explainable reasons why her sexual response has changed. And we would think that when that transient issue or stressor has passed, that her sexual response would go back to where it was before.
So, really what we’re looking at is among those women who have ongoing, so chronic and long-standing sexual difficulties that are not largely attributable to one of these other quite explainable reasons – that’s really a group of women who suffer quite a lot, because they tend to get dismissed. There tend not to be any readily accessible and evidence-based treatments for them, and that’s really the group that the book is is written for.
Caitlin: So, when you say “chronic difficulties”, and they’re not just situationally based – it’s not a new job, it’s not they’ve just had a child – what are some of the roots of these issues and concerns that women have?
Lori: Yeah, so here’s where the science has really tried to pinpoint: is there one underlying issue that explains, let’s say, low desire specifically? And I’m focusing on low desire because it is the most common sexual concern that women —and men, by the way — report. It is far more prevalent than erection concerns.
And what the science tells us is that on the whole, psychological factors, social, cultural factors tend to rise to the top, more so than, say, medical or hormonal factors. What the research tells us is that some of the psychological changes that happen are actually more likely to lead to low desire than those hormonal factors. So, changes in the woman’s mood, her anxiety levels, her sense of confidence, her body image – those factors tend to play a larger role in impacting her desire.
It doesn’t mean that we ignore the medical and biological factors, those are important to look at. But on the whole they’re less likely to impact a woman’s desire.
Caitlin: So then, it makes sense that the psychological concerns are the things in which sexual distress has its root, it makes sense that mindfulness therapy would be effective. Could you talk a little bit about what is mindfulness therapy for this subset of women?
Lori: Yeah, so mindfulness has been around for millennia. You know, we can trace it back at least 3 to 4 thousand years. Meditation is a fundamental component of Buddhism, widely practiced in the East. And in the early 1970s mindfulness meditation began to make its way into the Western world.
So largely through the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, who was a molecular biologist in Boston at the time, he had learned about meditation and mindfulness through a lecture that he went to. He began meditating that very same day, and he brought mindfulness practices to a clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital, and it was a chronic pain clinic. So this was a clinic that treated and managed patients who had quite debilitating pains. And these are patients who didn’t respond to the conventional treatments, and many of these patients had tried quite a long list of different medical and pharmaceutical treatments. And so, Jon Kabat-Zinn began to teach them that they’re going to have to learn to live with their pain. And maybe if they learned how to live with their pain that their overall suffering would start to go down.
And so then fast forward about 20 years, Dr. Kabat-Zinn had amassed quite an impressive body of science, showing that not only did mindfulness help these pain sufferers suffer less and improve their mood, but their actual experience of pain, the pain intensity, went down.
And so, since that time mindfulness has really branched out to many other areas of health, mood and anxiety, as well as a quite a range of different health conditions.
And so, it was, as I mentioned, in around the early 2000s as I began to immerse myself in the science, as well as the practice of mindfulness, that I thought, “Wow, you know, we have this group of women who report not being connected to their bodies, that report being heavily distracted or being plagued with judgments about their response, being worried about how sex is going to go, being concerned about a partner’s response to them.”
And it seemed like mindfulness to a certain extent was a bit of a no-brainer. That if we could teach women how to be right there, be right there in their sensations in the moment, that that might be one way to help them connect more, and help them let a lot of those distracting and intrusive thoughts just be. Just be in the background landscape, but not dominate it.
Caitlin: OK. So, say, a woman comes to a program that you’re running, and has low sexual desire, where do you start with them?
Lori: So we do this through a combination of ways. One is what we do in session with women, and over the years I’ve really come to favor doing this in a group format in the sessions we actually lead a meditation with the women, with them and for the women, that they then practice. And we do this over the course of about 8 weeks. So they have one session per week over 8 weeks, and each week we use a different mindfulness practice.
So we might start out in the first session with an eating meditation. So this is not anything original, Jon Kabat-Zinn has been doing this for decades. But essentially, we pass around a plate of raisins. And we don’t call them raisins though, we call them objects. And the purpose for that is to help women suspend any of their prior conceptions of raisins. So, you know, do they love raisins, and it makes them think of that warm raisin bread that they ate as a child? Do they hate raisins, and they’re now dreading putting this in their mouth?
So by calling it an object and encouraging women just to tune in, what do the sensations feel like as you interact with the object, as you look at it, as you smell it, as you put it in your mouth, as you let it rub against your teeth, etc. And it’s quite remarkable what happens after that first eating meditation together. Women will say, wow, I didn’t realize that raisins were so interesting, that they when the light shines off of their surface that it reflects back, and, you know all different patterns and different colors. Or, I didn’t realize when I bite into a single raisin in my mouth, that the taste feels like an explosion and there’s an immediate burst, and then it starts to subside, and the sensations change, etc.
Then actually something quite interesting happens when you put the raisin into your mouth without chewing – is the body salivates. The body as its anticipating chewing into it, it immediately triggers a salivation response. This also can be a really powerful example of the mind-body connection. So as you anticipate something, the body readies itself by salivating. So I love the raisin exercise as an introduction to mindfulness, and absolutely would encourage any listener to try it at home.
There are some recordings online. I also outline the instructions in my book, Better Sex Through Mindfulness, but YouTube certainly has existing audio guides.
So that’s some of the in-session practice that we do. And then we send women home with suggestions for at-home practice. And we send them along with some audio recordings, that they can listen to in the privacy of their own home. We do recommend that while women are in the eight-week program that they practice every day. And we liken it to building up a muscle, as if you were going to the gym. And the only way that that muscle is going to become developed and skillful is if it’s practiced.
For the at-home exercises, they begin very similar to what we do in session together, but then progressively over the weeks we start to move them into more sexual kinds of situations. So, one of our popular exercises that we do is we encourage women to perhaps use either a vibrator, or engage in a fantasy, or maybe watch some erotica for a few minutes, while the body becomes physically aroused. And then stop that, and then engage in a mindfulness of the body type of a practice. So the idea is that, you know, by first arousing the body, can she then tune into those sensations even more strongly, can she notice aspects of her physical response and arousal, and pleasure, that maybe she otherwise ignored or dismissed. So the exercises at home we gradually start to generalize them and import them into actual sexual situations.
Caitlin: So you said earlier that social and cultural factors rise to the top when we try to look at what exactly is going on, do you think that efficiency culture is at all to blame for difficulties that women are having now? We seem to be so stuck on the idea that everything we do has to have a purpose and an outcome, and there’s a right and the wrong way to do it. And it strikes me that that might be one of the most debilitating things.
Lori: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. And particularly in the area of sexuality and sexual response, there are so many stereotypes, myths, misconceptions that even despite really good scientific evidence to the contrary, our society still, you know, believes.
And so, falling into some of these stereotypes for a lot of people can be a direct cause of their low desire. So if you imagined for yourself that I should become immediately turned on every night or three nights a week because isn’t that how often women in their 40s have sex? And yet, because we don’t talk about it, these kinds of myths tend to get perpetuated until we start to talk about it and we realize, “Wow! There are a lot of people who might go through quite a period of time without having sex. Or who don’t have desire, yet are in a very happy and stable and loving relationship.”
So when it comes to sexual desire in particular – and this is really what the book attempts to do – is to describe sexual desire just like other emotions. So, you know, we feel sad when something makes us sad. We get angry when something provokes or elicits our anger. And sexual desire works in the same way. It’s not just an internal spontaneous feeling that is ever-present just below the surface, but rather the science tells us that sexual desire, like other emotions, has to be triggered. It needs to be elicited.
So when we accept that sexual desire, like other emotions, can be cultivated, can be elicited, then suddenly, you know, the world is your oyster – you start to explore, “Wow, are there things that I hadn’t considered before that actually can cultivate this?” And one of the things that mindfulness allows for is it’s a vehicle through which that person can start to become aware. So they can start to tune in and notice the triggers of their desire.
It can also be a vehicle for letting go of some of the things that get in the way. So, if negative judgments or fears of performance failure are blocking her desire, mindfulness and compassionate mindfulness allow that person to say, “All right, I recognize that that fear is there, but it’s just something that my brain produces, it’s a mental event. In the same way that my body produces physical sensations, my brain is also going to produce these worrisome, and judgmental, and negative thoughts. And I’m just going to let them, kind of, be in the background, not block my sexual response.”
So, mindfulness is really a way of being. It’s a vehicle that allows the person to discover how they can cultivate their desire and, ultimately, empower them that the desire is something that is under their control. They’re not at the whim of hormones or a biological reflex. It’s very much something that can be elicited.
Caitlin: That’s a very uplifting way to look at it.
Lori: Good. That’s the intention behind it.
Hey. It’s me, Caitlin. Interrupting… well. myself, for a change, because I really wanted to let you know that there is another episode of Simplify this season that has amazingly good chemistry with what Dr. Lori Brotto is saying right now. It’s episode 2 with Emily Nagoski. Nagoski, who’s a sex educator, offers the emotional context for everything that Brotto is talking about in this conversation:
Where people really get tied in knots is when they start to experience the brakes coming on around sexuality, and then they start judging the fact that their brakes have come on. And do you suppose judging your sexuality hits the accelerator or does that hit the brake?!
Caitlin: I think it might hit the brake.
Emily Nagoski: Totally, it’s a brake!
So a really important step, more even than porn, and lingerie, and lube, and toys ––and don’t get me wrong, I’m a lube evangelist–– but the most important thing to do is not to freak out when things don’t go the way you expected or wanted them to go. Have a curiosity and calmness about what’s going on and explore it and shift your attention a little to the left or right from like, the dead center of the thing that’s not particularly working out the way you expected it to. And that calmness and curiosity, self-compassion and patience is actually one of the most important ingredients for having a great sex life.
Caitlin: That was Emily Nagoski, Season 3, Episode 2. You can find this interview and two seasons’ worth of others on your favorite pod catcher. Now, let’s get back to the interview with me and Lori Brotto.
Caitlin: What would you recommend for a partner of a woman or a man who is having difficulty with their sexual desire? What what can they learn from mindfulness? If it’s not “their problem”, but something they can help their partner with, what can they do?
Lori: Yeah, great question.
So in the context of a couple relationship, I do recommend that, regardless of the partner’s level of sexual functioning or difficulty, that they also consider adopting some of the mindfulness exercises on their own. I also recommend –and it’s quite detailed in the book– some of the exercises that they can do together pertaining to mindfulness. So, can they take part in kind of mutual touching, where the touching doesn’t have the goal of getting aroused, you know, it’s not masturbatory kinds of touch, but rather it’s touching for the purpose of really tuning in: what it feels like to touch, to be touched, to be responsive to the other person’s touch, and really tune into that just for the sake of noticing sensations.
There’s also other couple-focused mindfulness exercises, such as sitting back to back, and feeling the points of contact, as you’re sitting against the other person. Another way is sitting face-to-face, cross-legged or in a chair, and gazing into one another’s eyes, and noticing what is happening in the body, just simply as you’re sitting in silence and and looking at your partner.
Caitlin: Well, what about… This sounds like something that needs a lot of lead time and discussion, and an agreement: we’re going to set aside time to do this, here’s how it’s going to happen, and here’s what our goal is as a couple…
What about say, in a sexual encounter, if you notice your partner is suffering, there’s something going on, are there any mindfulness techniques that you could use in the moment in order to help get things back on track?
Lori: Yeah, great question. And this is a question I often confront in my clinical practice. And I’ll give you just one very concrete example, although it’s certainly not the only time that it happens. But let’s say, the individual has experienced an instance or many instances of sexual assault in the past. So she’s now in a happy relationship, she’s having consensual sexual activity, she wants to be having sex.
And yet suddenly, what happens during the encounter is she has a flashback, where she’s brought back to that horrific event from her past. And suddenly she’s disconnected. So a partner in this instance, as they start to see the earliest signs of that woman disconnecting or dissociating, might say something like, “Open your eyes. You’re right here. Look into my eyes. Tell me what you see. Tell me what you feel in your body, as my fingertips are touching your back. Tell me the sensations in your heart, as you’re pressed up against me.” So the partner can actually use the language of mindfulness to help ground that person in the here and now, and keep them in the present and not living in the past, nor living in the future.
Caitlin: That’s really lovely. It strikes me that that takes a great degree of vulnerability and awareness. And I think that sometimes that’s the thing that even sadly in sexual relationships people have such a difficult time with. We’re encouraged to believe that we can fix everything ourselves, and that’s obviously, it’s impossible to fix that yourself really.
Lori: Yeah, yeah. And I think part of our cultural stereotype is this idea that a partner should be able to read my mind, right. They should know how I’m feeling, what I want, what I don’t want, etc. And yet, we know we’re not really good at that, especially when it comes to sexual response. And so, to be able to articulate out loud to a partner what you need, and especially when things are not going well, to be able to say to a partner, “I need you to keep me grounded. I need you to ask me questions to keep me in the here and now. I need to hear your voice, so that I’m focusing on that,” can not only help the woman herself, but can also help the partner who wants to help, who wants to be able to do what they can to make this a positive and pleasurable experience for their partner.
Caitlin: You know, if mindfulness exercises work for low sexual desire or sexual distress, is it tempting to conclude these problems are all in our heads? What does that phrase mean to you?
Lori: Yeah. I find that phrase “it’s all in your head” to be a little bit like a double-edged sword. Because I think the first, sort of, interpretation of that is it’s all made up. You know, you’re making a big fuss over nothing. Just get over it. And yet, on the other hand, much of the scientific evidence tells us that the brain indeed is the largest sex organ. Not the body, not the genitals. It’s the brain. And the just as the brain can cultivate response, it can also very quickly and immediately turn it off.
I see mindfulness as ultimately a brain strategy, right. So we’re using the power of attention building up that skill of awareness in the brain to then tune into and strengthen the body’s response.
Caitlin: I wanted to ask you what something that you found in your research and thinking about about sexual response, that’s actually a lot simpler than you initially believed it to be.
Lori: So I think originally when I started doing this research back in the late ‘90s I had a belief then that things would be very very complicated with hormone changes. That, for example, in women as they’re going through the perimenopause with the vast array of different hormonal changes that happen, that this would just complicate all of our conclusions about sexual response. So how could we test for the effects of things like relationship satisfaction and mood, when hormones were getting in the way and just complicating everything.
And actually what the research has shown, and some of our research has shown this as well, is that the hormones, yes while they impact things like vaginal dryness and physical response, that they don’t change the picture all too much. That sexual desire concerns are not more common in women as they’re going through the perimenopause and well into old age. So the hormone picture is far simpler than I originally thought it to be.
And so I think that’s a good news story, especially for women as they are encountering those, you know, the perimenopause, and as they’re aging, to abandon that idea, that this means that this is the end of my sex life. This means that, you know, my sexual prime is past me. That figure that I think still gets perpetuated, which is women have their sexual peak at age 30 or 32. The science that led to that figure was done by Alfred Kinsey, that was back in the 1940s and 1950s. And actually the question that Kinsey asked back then was, “How many orgasms per week are you having?” And he found that women in their early 30s were having the most orgasms per week.
Now there’s lots of different reasons why women were having the most orgasms per week in their 30s. But that doesn’t tell us anything about a woman’s level of sexual desire. So there is no ultimate peak time or peak age that women have their best level of sexual desire and sexual response. In fact we would argue, I would certainly advocate, that sex can continue to get better well into the golden years.
Caitlin: That is another piece of really inspiring good news you shared today! I feel excellent about that, I’m going to make some phone calls as soon as we’re done here.
OK so then, if you could tell people one thing about what you’ve learned and all of your time researching, and writing about, and interacting with with women in these 8-week courses, and your other work, if you could tell people one thing that you’ve learned that you think would help them improve their lives, what would it be?
Lori: I think for people who identify as sexual – and that’s recognizing that there are some people who have an orientation towards asexuality as well – so for people who identify sexually, that they all have that capacity for sexual response. And rather than viewing this as work to be done, can we look at it with curiosity, with excitement, can we treat it as an adventure, an opportunity to learn about ourself?
And one thing that I think has been quite important for me to recognize is that it doesn’t matter your age, that women well into their 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond – and we’ve had those women in our groups – they can discover something that’s been right there the whole time, but they didn’t know. And it’s a gift. It’s a gift to notice that that capacity, that ability to experience pleasure, is right there, if we just pay attention to it.
Caitlin: That is a lovely note to end on. But I am going to ask you one more thing. And it’s about books! I always like to hear what the people that I speak with are reading or things that have been instrumental to your thinking. So if you could make a couple of book recommendations that you’re loving right now or something you find really valuable, that would be great!
Lori: So I’m nearly finished a book that’s only peripherally related to my work, but the book is written by Dr. Willie J. Parker, and it’s called Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice. So essentially the book is about Dr. Parker as a strong and devout Christian who in his early 40s became an abortion provider. And the book is about how he’s, kind of, navigated that conflict of being a born-again Christian, a devout following Christian, and yet, carrying out abortions, which among the Christian individuals and religious individuals would be viewed as completely antithetical to being a true Christian.
Caitlin: That sounds like an amazing read!
Lori: Yes, it’s fascinating. Another book I just finished reading is actually by a good friend and colleague of mine, it is a sex book, it’s called Love Worth Making by my friend, Stephen Snyder, who’s a psychiatrist in Manhattan. And it’s essentially stories, so it’s cover-to-cover real stories from real couples navigating through the changes of sexuality that happened in the course of a long-term relationship. And so, it’s very, very practical. Anyone who is in a long-term relationship can pick up this book and feel like it reflects and mirrors their own experience. So a very easy, accessible read, and Stephen Snyder is a very charming and delightful writer, as well as individual.
Caitlin: Awesome! Alright well, I think that that is it. Thank you so much for the conversation, Lori!
Lori: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share some of this work.
Ben: Welcome to The Bookend, where we end… with books. OK. Yeah, so we heard you talked to Dr. Lori Brotto. We talked a little bit before about how nice it is to finally have a doctor, have a clinician on Simplify – a totally different perspective. But maybe before we get into that why did you want to have Dr. Brotto on Simplify?
Caitlin: Well, I heard Dr. Lori Brotto ––I always have to refer to her as Dr. Lori Brotto because she was introduced to me by the Savage Lovecast, and he always refers to her, Dan always says, “Dr. Lori Brotto”, so that’s why I’m saying, “Dr. Lori Brotto”, in fact, I’d heard Dr. Lori Brotto on the Savage Lovecast–– and I really liked how she spoke. She was very measured and calm, and she made so much sense.
So, when I heard that she had a new book, and that it was about mindfulness, and sex and mindfulness, I was pretty sure I’d like to hear her talk about that. And also mindfulness is one of the most wanted topics on Blinkist. People are always wanting more titles on it and are curious about it. And it’s the same for sex – it’s the #1 searched term in Blinkist. So all the boxes just sort of ticked, and the experience of talking to a clinician was different too.
Ben: And Emily Nagoski that we heard from already this season also, really loves her work, right? She wrote the intro or something?
Caitlin: She did! Emily Nagoski wrote the intro to Dr. Lori Brotto’s book. She’s like the sex educator’s sex researcher.
Ben: Right. OK, and then what’s the one thing then ––because you said you heard her talk about asexuality, we heard a lot about mindfulness, we heard some of the terminology that even Nagoski talked about–– but what’s the one thing then that people should remember from the Dr. Brotto interview?
Caitlin: So I think that the one thing that people should take away from this episode is that sexual desire is not a drive. We always hear about sex drive. It’s not a drive, it’s an emotion. A drive is like it would imply that it’s a biological imperative, over which outside stimuli have little control, like it’s a thing you’re going to want one way or another. Emotion is a thing that arises from outside stimuli, which is a really powerful thing actually. Because that means that it’s possible to train awareness of that emotion and learn how to observe it and cultivate it in a way that works for you. And mindfulness can help you do that more consistently.
Ben: OK. Then let’s get into the books. I have a book in mind, but maybe you have a couple to start?
Caitlin: Actually I kind of want you to start because you always have the third book. Why don’t you kick it off?
Ben: OK, I was thinking about The Sex Myth by Rachel Hills.
Caitlin: OK, I haven’t read that one actually.
Ben: It’s an interesting book. It combines a lot of anecdotes, it’s not, like, terribly scientific. But the sex myth that Hills refers to in the title is, basically, saying, like, there’s a myth that sex is somehow everything: the secret to our happiness, the secret to our relationships, even the secret to our self-worth – when it’s not. Like, sex is something that exists, that people do, and everyone does it sort of differently, and it means different things to everybody. But this myth that, like, it should be the be-all and end-all of our existence can actually be very dangerous.
And yeah, I think, it’s a like a nice sort of other perspective to keep our feet on the ground a little bit. Because we’ve talked a lot about sex, we’ve talked a lot about how important sex is to our happiness, and, you know, how tied up it is with a lot of other issues. Which is true, but I also think it’s important to remember that, like, it’s one of many things that is part of our life. It’s something that people can work on or think about and all sorts of new ways and there’s so much research that we’ve talked about on Simplify, so many new ways to think about it, but doesn’t have to be the cornerstone of existence.
Caitlin: No, and I actually think that that perspective is another way to come at what mindfulness is trying to do for people. It’s trying to remove the judgment and all the nervous emotion around it, in order for it to just be a thing that happens, rather than the thing that we need to be thinking about constantly.
Ben: Cool. So I went first this time.
Caitlin: Hurray! He comes first…
Ben: Okay, now you have two.
Caitlin: Alright, so my two recs are: the first one is not explicitly about sex at all. It’s called The Body Keeps the Score and it’s by Bessel van der Kolk. This is a book about how the body processes trauma ––not just like physical trauma, but also emotional trauma, psychological trauma–– how it lives in ourselves, and how to work it out. And spoilers: mindfulness and yoga are a big help to that.
So, it’s another way of looking at improving aspects of life by healing experiences of the mind through the body, and vice versa. I highly recommend it and this incredible interview that Krista Tippett did with him on On Being was where I first heard about him and his work. That episode is a really, really good place to start if you’re interested in the subject, and we will link to it in the show notes.
Ben: The On Being episode, which is the podcast of Krista Tippett?
Ben: Cool, so we have The Sex Myth by Rachel Hills, we have The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, and last one?
Caitlin: Number 3! We’ve got Mindset by Carol Dweck. So, this one’s a classic. It is one of the building blocks of positive psychology. Dweck was the first, I think, to explore the contrast between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. You know what these are, right, Ben? What’s a fixed mindset?
Ben: Fixed mindset is this is who am, I can’t change, this is how it is, I’m good at this, I’m bad at this.
Caitlin: Yeah, but it’s also people who believe in talent really heavily have fixed mindsets. They believe that someone’s a virtuoso, or they’re not – that’s it, you’re born with or you aren’t.
Whereas a growth mindset is the kind of mindset that somebody who believes they can improve have. You can exist on a spectrum from novice to better. And it turns out that the second mindset ––which is very much related to mindfulness and that it takes a lot of introspection and non-judgmentality in order to cultivate–– it’s a way more useful way of being because it makes us more resilient, and we can deal with setbacks better, and we’re more likely to succeed in bed and also everywhere else.
Ben: Because you’re like, “Oh, it wasn’t perfect right now, but I’m gonna work on it.”
Caitlin: How about next time!
Caitlin: Yep, exactly.
Ben: Cool. Three good books.
Caitlin: Three good books, yeah. And obviously also Emily Nagoski’s Come As You Are. That’s one you should definitely read too.
Ben: Or check out the interview from earlier this season, if you haven’t yet.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Simplify. It was produced by me Ben Schuman-Stoler, Caitlin Schiller, Nat Darozhkina and Ody Constantinou, who had to have a piece of his left trigger finger removed to stave off a flesh-eating bacteria he picked up while swimming in a Holiday Inn pool in Arizona.
Caitlin: I don’t think you can mindfulness that one away.
Caitlin: So if you heard something that stuck with you this episode, like a flesh-eating bacteria, please, please share this episode that would be really awesome. It means a lot to us, and it gets Simplify into the ears of somebody else who might like it or benefit from it.
Ben: Yeah, so thanks to everyone who’s subscribed to us on Overcast, Apple Podcast, Stitcher, Pocket Casts. There’s already new ones, like every week another one pops up. So if you’re listening somewhere else –
Caitlin: We’re also on Spotify.
Ben: Spotify. Give us a shout out wherever, we appreciate you listening!
Caitlin: Yeah. Rate us, follow us, all that stuff. So we’re also on Twitter. I’m @CaitlinSchiller and Ben you’re at–
Caitlin: Simplify is made by the same people who make Blinkist. Blinkist, if you do not know already, and you should, is a learning app that takes insights from the world’s bestselling non-fiction books and condenses them into 15-minute packs of really good, dense, crunchy, sticky, delicious information, that you want to spread all over your face and wipe off your hands when you’re done with it and benefit from it tremendously. So you can listen to it, or you can read it, and it takes like, 12 to 15 minutes.
Ben: Yeah, and if you want, try it out. We made a voucher code for this episode, so you can get 14 days free, if you go to blinkist.com/friends and type in the voucher code: raisin
Ben: Raisin – one word, lowercase, sun dried grape – raisin.
Caitlin: Delicious. Last thing: thank you for sending in all of your answers to the question “What have you learned was much easier than you initially thought it was?” If you haven’t done it already, if you’re new, if you’ve never done it, and you want to tell us something that was initially… And you want to answer the question “What have you learned was actually much easier than you initially thought it was?” Awesome! Record yourself telling us the answer that question on a Voice Memo, email it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, Ben and I will listen to it, probably really enjoy it and possibly put it in a coming episode of Simplify.
Ben: Yeah. We’d love to hear from you guys.
Caitlin: Yeah, that’s it.
Ben: Cool! So we will be back next week with another episode of Simplify In the meantime, be good. This is Ben –
Caitlin: And this is Caitlin.
Ben: Checking out.
Ben: See you guys later! Bye!
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