Laughter Is Like Orgasm
Emily Nagoski is the Director of Wellness Education at Smith College and the author of Come As You Are. Under the pseudonym Emily Foster she has written several romance novels, including How Not To Fall and How Not To Let Go.
[music: “Ixtepec” by Café Tacvba]
EMILY NAGOSKI: When you are helpless with true laughter, your body gets taken — it’s like orgasm. Your body’s taken over. If it didn’t feel so good, you’d think there was something wrong.
[music: “Ixtepec” by Café Tacvba]
LILY PERCY, HOST: I’m Lily Percy, and this is Creating Our Own Lives, COOL for short, the podcast where I ask people to think through how they shape their lives. And hopefully, by listening, we learn how to create our own.
This season on COOL, we’re talking about humor as a tool for survival. And when I started this series, I never expected to see humor as a way to understand and appreciate sex and our bodies or to learn that what happens in our bodies when we laugh — truly laugh — is the same as what happens in our bodies when we have an orgasm. But this is the surprising insight of sex educator, researcher, and activist Emily Nagoski.
MS. PERCY: Who was the person that made you laugh the most, growing up?
MS. NAGOSKI: Yeah, I kind of didn’t laugh when I was a kid, I mean just to go right for the terrible stuff.
MS. PERCY: [laughs] Let’s get right to it.
MS. NAGOSKI: I was born and raised in this profoundly dysfunctional family of origin, where I had to hide away from all the other people in order to stay safe. And that was the rule in our family — you just don’t talk to each other, and nothing is funny, because there’s a chance that you could offend somebody.
It took me a long time to get to a place where I could laugh really hard at something. And the first thing I remember laughing really hard at was, my first year in college, somebody had a bootlegged VHS tape of “Jesus vs. Santa Claus,” the original South Park little mini-thing that was funded by George Clooney. This was before South Park was a thing. And I just could not stop laughing. It was so funny to me. So that was the first time. It sort of unlocked something for me.
MS. PERCY: So I mean growing up in a family where humor wasn’t something that you communicated with, how did you develop that for yourself, cultivate it?
MS. NAGOSKI: I actually didn’t realize how I did it until I heard my brother talking about it. He collects — he’s a musical ethnographer and collects records from the very beginning and creation of records. And there’s one called The OKeh Laughing Record, which is people beginning to play this very maudlin, silly, popular song on a trumpet and then bursting out laughing, this hilarious, dark cackling that they cannot get control over. And people are sort of split down the middle of whether they love it or find it really disturbing.
And my brother thinks that’s because of the source of the humor, which is, it comes from this profoundly nihilistic, nothing actually means anything, I can’t believe we are wasting our time on this completely maudlin, ridiculous piece of music, how absurd is that. When he and I were talking about it — I have this quote here that I brought on purpose.
MS. PERCY: Well done.
MS. NAGOSKI: Yeah, I did my homework. That’s what I do. I do my homework.
MS. PERCY: I love it.
MS. NAGOSKI: So Fazil Iskander is — he was born in Georgia, early in the 20th century. And he said — he’s a novelist — he said, “In order to attain a genuine sense of humor, I believe one has to descend to the depths of pessimism. And only when one has peered into the murky abyss and convinced oneself that here too there is nothing, can one make one’s way haltingly back from the abyss. The traces of this return trip will be humor — genuine humor.”
So for our family, apparently, laughter comes from the ultimate “If we don’t reverse climate change, we will kill ourselves as a species and take some other species down with us. And then we’ll be gone and the earth will heal. And it will be fine without us. It does — nothing ultimately matters for anything at all, but here we are. We’ve got to do something about it.”
MS. PERCY: And then we laugh. [laughs]
MS. NAGOSKI: Yeah, and there’s something about that idea that I just find truly delightful. [laughing] When you’re having big feelings about political things or about a conflict in a relationship, there has to be a level at which you step back from the conflict and the feelings and laugh at the absurdity of how intense your feelings are about this thing that, in the grand scheme of things, is so close to nothing that it is not distinguishable from nothing. But you have this thunderstorm of feelings about nothing. That’s awesome.
So serotonin is the neurotransmitter associated with this distancing. So one of the reasons selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are thought to work is because they help people get a distance from their feelings, to take a step back, which, in a sense, is a way to regain a sense of humor about the dark stuff.
MS. PERCY: That’s really remarkable to me to hear you say, because one of the things I was noticing in your writing — whether it’s Come As You Are, whether it’s the romance novels that you’ve written — humor is something you use to make people feel comfortable enough to talk about our bodies and sex. And I didn’t really realize this until, about halfway through, I’m like, this is what she’s doing. When did you realize that with humor, you could help make other people feel comfortable about talking about sex?
MS. NAGOSKI: About two years into my teaching as a graduate student, I recognized that a lot of the stuff I was talking about — when you’re talking about sex, people have very intense, very personal, very moralistic, judgmental feelings.
MS. PERCY: Yeah, and physically, too, right? Not just in your mind, but you feel, physically…
MS. NAGOSKI: There’s a physical thing that happens inside your body. And there’s all kinds of different things. When you’re teaching a class of 200 undergraduates, they’re all having these big emotional reactions, and they’re all different from each other. So how do you open a door into creating a shared conversation about this topic that is so emotionally laden and so different for everyone in the room? And I found that humor is the door that people can walk into a neutral space and be able to create distance from the topic enough to be kind to the people who have different ideas and experiences from them.
MS. PERCY: And one of the things in reading Come As You Are that — there were ways that you would frame these biological things that I honestly had never heard read, framed that way, that were so lighthearted and that made me accept them in a way that I don’t think I would have otherwise. And I just think about how much clearer science really felt to me because of the way you framed them with this light, humorous touch.
MS. NAGOSKI: Oh, good. It was actually sort of difficult, because science itself is not particularly good at that. [laughs]
MS. PERCY: Tell me about it. All the years of high school, I was like, oh, god, never gonna do this again. [laughs]
MS. NAGOSKI: Yeah, and it’s actually amazing. I had this wonderful 10th grade high school teacher, named Mr. Twilly, who taught us with humor. And so I learned all these things. “Mitosis” — and he’d be kicking the wall. “Mitosis: when a cell divides. Mitosis” — he’s kicking the wall with his toes. “Mitosis: when the cell divides.”
MS. PERCY: This is like Singing in the Rain. [laughs]
MS. NAGOSKI: He had all of all us — he didn’t tell us what we were supposed to write. He said, “The title of your paper is ‘The Beauty, The Wonder: The Menstrual Cycle.'”
MS. PERCY: Wow.
MS. NAGOSKI: And we all just had to write a paper. So that was probably my gateway into humor, even before “Jesus vs. Santa Claus.”
MS. PERCY: [laughs] That’s amazing. You know, I’ve read a lot of erotic fiction, a lot of romance novels, and I have to say that none of them contained as much laughter during sex, and kind of as part of the romantic tension and buildup, as there are in your novels.
MS. NAGOSKI: Oh, that is exactly my goal. Oh, hurray.
MS. PERCY: Seriously. And there are so many examples in your novels about this, but one of my favorite examples is when Annabelle talks — first brings up the idea of having sex with Charles as “bread for sharing.”
MS. NAGOSKI: Right. [laughs]
MS. PERCY: [laughs] I was like, that’s just amazing: I get a visual image; I know exactly what she means. I kind of just wondered, how did you go about just really weaving humor all throughout these really, just, sexy scenes? I mean I guess there’s no better way to say it.
MS. NAGOSKI: So one of my favorite books is this novel Gaudy Nights, which is a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery with Harriet Vane, and it’s the one where they finally get engaged. And right close to the end, Lord Peter says to Harriet, “The worst and perhaps the only sin that passion can commit is to be joyless. It must lie down with laughter or make its bed in hell. There can be no middle path.” And the joylessness was something that I recognized from my own growing up, in the way I learned about sex and love. When I was reading romance novels as a child, and later when I looked at romance comics, which is this whole genre — there’s a lot of crying and a lot of despair and hopelessness and being rescued out of suffering but not a lot of celebration and pleasure of the joy of connecting with another human being, which is — it is the primary social function of laughter, is to bond us together with other people. But it requires that we feel profoundly safe.
When you are — so there’s this researcher named Sophie Scott, who I highly recommend. Everybody, watch all of her videos on YouTube, because she’s amazing. And she talks about how, when you are helpless with true laughter, your body gets taken — it’s like orgasm. Your body’s taken over. If it didn’t feel so good, you’d think there was something wrong. But because you’re in a place of real safety and trust, you can allow your body to be overcome with this huge physiological event, and the other person’s experiencing it too, and it’s contagious, and you share this intense physiological thing happening inside your bodies together that is also bonding you, because the thing you’re laughing about is a shared experience of being a human being.
So for me, laughter and intense sexual pleasure are really closely related to each other in ways that doesn’t get represented in romance fiction anywhere near enough.
MS. PERCY: No.
MS. NAGOSKI: Particularly because I wrote it because I was so mad about 50 Shades of Grey.
MS. PERCY: [laughs]
MS. NAGOSKI: And I was: “I’m going to do the opposite of everything 50 Shades is.” And so I made it explicitly funny and pleasurable and joyful and trusting, and yeah, the first time they have penile-vaginal intercourse, Charles has premature ejaculation. Right?
MS. PERCY: [laughs] No, exactly.
MS. NAGOSKI: When — she’s a virgin, of course, because it’s a romance novel — the first time he penetrates her, he says, “What does it feel like?” And she says, “It feels like you put your penis in my vagina.”
MS. PERCY: Oh, another brilliant line. [laughs]
MS. NAGOSKI: Right? Because the thing is, when you have a sensation for the first time, you have an expectation of what it’s going to be like. Then you have the sensation, and you’re faced with this juxtaposition. And, almost always, there’s a discord between your expectation and the actual sensation, and you have to decide how you feel about this new sensation.
And how you feel about it is determined by the situation. So if you really trust and enjoy and like the person you’re with, you can enjoy the sensation of having somebody else’s body inside your body, this thing we do as human beings. Holy cow. And if you don’t like and trust and feel that good about the person you’re with, that exact same sensation gets interpreted very differently by your brain and doesn’t give you the pleasure.
MS. PERCY: That’s why they’re so connected. Wow. I also want to just thank you for writing this sentence, which is, “He comes over to me and puts his hands on my neck. He kisses me — our glasses tap against each other.” I’ve never read a scene where both characters are wearing glasses in a romance novel.
MS. NAGOSKI: Really?
MS. PERCY: I really haven’t. And again, I mean, you need to give me a list of your recommendations, because clearly my romance novels have been really, I guess, kind of stereotypical, and the women—
MS. NAGOSKI: You know, come to think of it now, I can’t think of a dual-glasses—
MS. PERCY: It was a dual-glasses thing, because I could picture it, and I’m like, oh my god, they’re both wearing glasses, and they’re going to kiss?
MS. NAGOSKI: And so many of my own kisses have happened — I wear glasses; many people that I’ve kissed have also had glasses.
MS. PERCY: So do I. That’s why it stood out to me. And I thought, oh, my god. This is — again, you made it so real.
MS. NAGOSKI: It’s — the details that you choose are the ones that matter.
MS. PERCY: And that one was just unconscious.
MS. NAGOSKI: Yeah, that was just from — it’s automatic to me that two people wearing glasses, your glasses are going to hit. And there’s always the “Where are we going to put our glasses? Do they go on the side table? Do they go on the coffee table? At what point do we take our glasses off?” Because if you take your glasses off, you’ve committed to a certain intensity of make-out that wasn’t necessarily implied before, that — like if you’re Netflix and chill, once you take your glasses off, there is no longer Netflix.
MS. PERCY: [laughing] There’s just smooshing.
MS. NAGOSKI: Because you can’t see it. You can’t see the — like, “Screw the video. I’m here for you.”
MS. PERCY: So what you’re saying is, you have to be really into the person, otherwise you can’t watch television? [laughing]
MS. NAGOSKI: Right. Yeah. [laughs] That’s the tradeoff.
MS. PERCY: Well, I just wonder, you’ve talked a little bit about what you’ve discovered — through your own research, through your work, through your life — humor does in your body, physically. I just wonder what it’s done for you that you find nowhere else, that you’re grateful for.
MS. NAGOSKI: So I am currently writing a book, and it’s about burnout, specifically the ways that women, in particular, feel exhausted and overwhelmed by all they have to do and yet simultaneously like they are not doing enough. That paradox is sort of my target now. And one of the things I’ve learned in reading the research is that roughhouse play and belly laughs, helpless laughter, are two of the most evidence-based strategies for pulling yourself out of that stressed-out, exhausted, emotional place, and transitioning into a physiological state of joy and safety and comfort and connection with other human beings. So belly laughs and roughhousing play, like wrestling with your kids or with your dog or your romantic partner, totally shifts your physiology.
And I know that that is true in my life. And when I read the research, I was like, this explains so much of my life.
MS. PERCY: Yeah. Yeah. I love that you still find that to be true yourself, even doing the research, because reading you, I find that. [laughs]
MS. NAGOSKI: So all the major ideas in Come As You Are, I remember the day I first learned them. Because it was like this veil lifting, like: Oh, I see — oh! Ah. Oh! And so I tried to carry that same sense of revelation into the book. Once you know this, it feels like you always knew it. And it makes perfect sense. It puts all the pieces together. And finally, here you are. Oh, thank god.
[music: “Redbone” by Childish Gambino]
MS. PERCY: Emily Nagoski is the author of Come As You Are and under the pseudonym Emily Foster has written several romance novels, including How Not To Fall and How Not To Let Go, both of which I reread as soon as I finished them. Her mission is to teach women to live with confidence and joy inside their bodies, and I can personally confirm that she is succeeding.
Creating Our Own Lives is produced by Maia Tarrell, Chris Heagle, and Trent Gilliss and is an On Being Studios production. You can listen and subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download podcasts. And leave us a review on iTunes — it matters more than you think. I’m Lily Percy. Thanks for listening.
[music: “Redbone” by Childish Gambino]