For nearly 20 years, Emily Morse has been publicly
talking with people about sex. She has done it in
intimate, small-group conversations with friends;
she has done it on radio and TV and social media;
and the sex therapist has done it, most
prominently, on her popular “Sex With Emily”
A lot of what she has talked about over
the years hasn’t changed: People want to discuss
why they’re not having orgasms or their
insecurities about penis size or their changing
libido. But lately she has noticed something
different: There’s a growing desire for more
information about open sexual relationships.
Indeed, Morse was already late in submitting a
draft to her publisher of her new book, “Smart
Sex: How to Boost Your Sex IQ and Own Your
Pleasure,” when she decided that she needed to
add a section on nonmonogamy because she kept
being asked about it. “People are realizing,” says
Morse, who is 53, “that monogamy isn’t a
Why do you think so many people are curious about
nonmonogamy these days?
People are in therapy more,taking care of themselves
and thinking more deeply about their relationships.
Now that’s part of the conversation;
therapy is no longer stigmatized.
That has been a big switch, and when couples get
into their feelings and emotional intelligence,
they’re realizing: We can love each other and be
together, and we can create a relationship on our
own terms that works for us.
If you are in a long-term committed relationship,
it can be exciting to experience sex in a new way that
is equitable, consensual and pleasurable but doesn’t
take away from the union of marriage.
A term I hear a lot now is “ethical nonmonogamy.”
Broadly, it’s the practice of being romantically
or sexually involved with multiple people who are
all aware of and give consent to the arrangement.
My sense is that some couples experiment with that
because one-half of a relationship feels that
things have to open up or the relationship isn’t
going to last. But in a situation like that, how
ethical is the ethical nonmonogamy? That’s
coercion. That’s manipulation. If you say to your
partner, “We have to open up, or I’m leaving
you” — I don’t feel great about the future of
I can say that there usually is one
partner who starts the nonmonogamy conversation.
They might say, “I’ve been thinking about it,
and our friends are doing it, and what would you
think about being open?” They’ll talk about
what it might look like and how they would navigate
and negotiate it. But if one partner is like, “We
should open up,” and the other is like, “I’m
shut down to that; it doesn’t work for me,” and
then the partner brings it up again and again and
the answer is still “No,” then it won’t work.
For a majority of people, their first thought is, I
never want to hear about my partner having sex with
somebody else; that is my biggest nightmare.
That’s where most people are. So for nonmonogamy
to work, you need to be self-aware and have
self-knowledge about your sexual desires and do
some work. Maybe we’ll talk to our friends who we
know are into it. Maybe we’ll listen to a podcast
about it. Maybe we’ll go to therapy. Maybe
we’ll take baby steps and go to a play party.
A party where people are free to engage in public
sex or kinky behaviors.
But to do it to spice up your relationship is not
the reason to do it. Do it because you’re open
and curious and understand that your desire for
pleasure extends beyond your relationship.
In the book, you say nonmonogamy is not a way to
fix a relationship. Why not?
The people in successful ethical nonmonogamous
relationships have a very healthy relationship to
their own sex life, their own intimacy, their own desires.
People who are like, Yeah, let’s go find someone else to
have sex with, to spice it up — usually those
couples don’t have a deeper understanding of
their own sex life and what they want from a
partner. Another version of that is, “Let’s
have a baby!” These drastic things that people do
to make their relationship more interesting or to
distract themselves from problems usually don’t
work. Couples who are successful have rigorous
honesty and a deeper knowledge of their own sexual
wants and desires.
What about couples who stay together because their
sex life is great but the rest of their
relationship is bad?
People who have great sex but they can’t stand each
other? I think that’s rare. If they’re not connected
in other areas and the sex is what’s carrying them,
I would want to sit with that couple and find out more.
Maybe the relationship is better than they think. But
listen, people get to decide what works for them. To me,
the most satisfying pleasurable sex is when you
have trust and depth and openness and intimacy and
communication. If you loathe your partner outside
the bedroom? I don’t want to yuck anyone’s yum;
I’m sure that situation exists, but I don’t
hear about it often.
It’s funny to hear you say you don’t want to
yuck anyone’s yum, because in my life — If
that’s you, David, in your relationship, that’s
awesome! I’m so glad for you and your partner.
No, no. What I was going to say was that I use that
phrase with my kids. One will say to the other,
“Why are you eating that Jell-O?” or whatever,
and I’ll say, “Don’t yuck their yum.”
It’s a very different context! Well, that’s a
big sex thing, too: You never want to yuck your
partner’s yum. This is what comes up with
fantasies and arousal and desire. If your partner
tells you they want to use a sex toy, and you’re
like, “Ew,” it’s hard to recover from that.
So don’t yuck the yum if you don’t like Jell-O
and if you don’t like anal sex.
You said a second ago that the best sex is about
communication and depth and so on, which goes along
with ideas in your book about what you call the
five pillars of sex IQ,
Which are embodiment (meaning awareness of your
self in your own body), health, collaboration
(relating to and working with your sexual
partners), self-knowledge and self-acceptance.
which are basically all things that also go into
being a balanced, healthy person.
Obviously sex ties into one’s overall sense of self and
well-being, but is there any way in which making it
as central as you do also makes it more daunting?
Or sets people up for disappointment?
Because maybe sometimes sex is just OK, or sometimes
it’s disappointing, or sometimes it’s great. Does it
always have to be a referendum on one’s holistic
well-being? I want people to think deeply about
sex, to prioritize sex, to be intentional about sex
and to think about it differently than just, I’m
going to close my eyes in the dark and hope it
works out. The problem is that most people
compartmentalize sex. It’s shrouded in mystery.
Since it’s so mysterious, people don’t want to
talk about it, and they don’t have a lot of
information — there’s a lot of misinformation.
People are surprised every day to learn that maybe
they can’t get an erection because they haven’t
been working out or because of the food they’re
eating. We don’t want to talk about sex unless we
get a quick fix. For many years, I was like:
Here’s the vibrator! Here’s the sex position!
Here’s a quick-fix tip! Tips are great, but
because sex becomes such a problem in
relationships, I want to give people the tools to
say: “I wonder if it’s a problem because I
haven’t communicated with my partner lately.
Maybe that’s how I can have better sex
tonight.” So understanding all the elements to it
might help you have more satisfaction. Once people
realize this is foundational work that’s going to
help you for a lifetime, once it becomes more
integrated, it’ll help everybody have more
freeing, satisfying sex.
What are examples of misinformation about sex?
That the most pleasure comes from penetration; that men
want sex more than women; that men don’t fake
orgasms; that desire stays the same in long-term
relationships; if there isn’t desire, it means
your relationship should end; that if you don’t
have penetrative sex, you’re not really having
sex. There’s so many of them, and every day I get
hundreds of questions from people who you would
think would know better. I have friends who have
three children, educated, who are like, “Is the
g-spot thing real?”
Can I ask about the ring you’re wearing?
It was quite a large ring.
I realize it looks like a vulva.
It does. It’s a vintage ring. At the time I got
it, I literally didn’t realize what it looked
like until the next day. [Laughs.] But now it’s
my magic vulva ring!
What’s the most far-out thing that everyone
should be doing? And I don’t mean far-out as in
kinkiest. I mean what’s the thing that people are
prudish about but need to get over?
I think it’s important to masturbate. Solo sex is a great
way to understand your body, what feels good. Healthy
masturbation is good for people of all ages, in and
out of relationships — when you are intentional
about it and it makes you feel good, not bad. You
don’t want to have shame after. You want to be
accepting of your body, feel more in touch with
yourself, feel your sexual energy. You can start to
understand what turns you on. You know and accept
your genitals for how they are today, and you do it
On the subject of masturbation: In the book you
write about this technique of “Meditate,
masturbate” — remind me of the third one?
Right. So the idea is that I’m supposed to
meditate. Then once I’m in the right head space,
I can start masturbating. And at the moment of
climax, if I think about the thing I want to happen
in my life — “I hope I get that raise!” —
then it’s more likely to happen? Yeah. I mean,
manifestation is the science behind the law of
attraction and all the things you think about when
you are in a heightened state. So when you’re
meditating, which, I don’t know if you meditate.
I do two out of the three M’s. Two out of three!
You’re good! So you meditate for a few minutes,
you get in the zone, then you masturbate, and at
the height of orgasm, when your sexual energy is at
a peak level and you’re at a clear state to
transmute whatever you believe into the universe
— it’s very potent, clear energy at that moment
to think about and feel what it is that you want.
It could be about a raise. It could be about a
better day. I feel like this is so woo. I’m from
California! [Laughs.] But at that moment of your
orgasm, if in that moment you can feel what you
want, picture it, it has powerful resonance.
But that’s magic. Magic is not real. [Expletive.]
I know. I wish I could explain this better to you,
the science behind it, but a lot of people have had
a lot of success with this feeling. I just think
that meditate, masturbate, manifest is basically a
way of using your creative energy to fuel your
intentions in the moment of pleasure.
What are you working on in your sex life right now?
I’m always working on my sex. Research is
me-search, as I say. I’m working on staying
connected. I love to slow down sex and take time to
experience one-way touch.
Which in this context means when only one of the
partners is offering touch without the expectation
that the other will reciprocate.
So having a night where it’s more about giving
than receiving. Expanding connection and
understanding what feels good is something I’m
always working on.
Just to go back to the five pillars of sex IQ: It
seems self-evident that if you get healthier,
become more self-aware, collaborate more honestly
and openly, and if you’re more comfortable in
your own body and you accept yourself, you’re
more likely to have better sex. So what is your
unique insight there?
That’s a great question, because, yeah, those are the five
pillars for a better life. But if you have a better sex life,
you have a better life. So my thing is that you need to
take a more holistic approach to your sex life.
People don’t realize that all of those things matter.
I don’t think these are so groundbreaking.
It’s more applying them to sex on a daily basis.
What I’m hearing you say is, Don’t people know this?
You’re a doctor of human sexuality. I don’t
mean this in a glib way at all, but what is that?
So, 20 years ago when I was starting this career
— and I know the school isn’t there anymore.
It’s a whole thing. But I’m fully open about
this. I wanted to go back to school and get a
degree in human sexuality. In 2003 when I started
looking, there weren’t really many places to go,
and I wanted to learn more about sex and education.
One school was in San Francisco, called the
Institute for the Advanced Study of Human
The institute operated from the mid-1970s to 2018.
In 2017, California’s Bureau for Private
Postsecondary Education denied its renewal
application to continue operating educational
programs. In its decision, the bureau did note that
the institute’s faculty and graduates “have
produced a well-respected body of research and
A few people I admired highly recommended this
school to me. So I did that for three years: an
intensive program of learning everything about
human sexuality and writing papers and reading
everything about sex. That’s where everyone at
the time in this space was going to school. Now I
think there are other programs. There are some
places popping up that I think are a bit better,
but not a ton. It’s kind of a newer path.
My understanding is that the school didn’t meet
California’s standards for private higher
I know. This is my nightmare. But you
can write about this if you want. Here’s the
thing: It was run for like 40, 50 years, but it
didn’t meet the criteria to be accredited, which
is not fun. I haven’t really been following it.
But then I went and got other degrees — in
somatic sex therapy, and I’ve taken other things.
Do you think people assume that you’re a medical
I hope not. I always make it clear.
I don’t want people to think I’m a medical
doctor. Then people think I’m a Ph.D. — not at
all. I think after 20 years I’ve been doing this,
people know that I’m not a medical doctor. I know
putting “Dr. Emily” in the book might have been
misleading, but I do say that I’m a doctor of
human sexuality, which I understand might not be as
I was interested in your ideas in the book about
The term came to Morse from the sex educators
Celeste Hirschman and Danielle Harel. She defines
it as “the specific feeling you want to
experience during sex.” That could be feelings
like power or humiliation, not merely arousal.
and how they shape our sexuality. Do you mind if I
ask what your core desire is?
I think to be nurtured, to be seen — loved, cared for,
nourished and sometimes ravished. Twenty years ago,
I was nervous around sex, disassociated. I was much
more in my head and much more about my partner’s
pleasure, and if they got off, that meant it was a
success and a good time. I knew nothing about my
body, my clitoris. I’m a totally different
person. Growing up, maybe I wasn’t in an
environment — divorced parents and life was
hectic. I don’t think I felt as nurtured as I
needed to feel. People have really intense core
desires. I want to give permission to people to
find out what they need, release any shame around
it, express it to your partner and then see how
that goes. Hopefully it goes well.
What’s the wisest thing someone ever said to you
David, you with the good questions! I
don’t remember who said it to me, but: “Sex
isn’t just about sex.” It’s about so many
other things. Sex is about your entire life. Sex is
about energy, intimacy and connection. Oh, also:
“Go five times slower.” That is a great sex
This interview has been edited and condensed for
clarity from two conversations.
David Marchese is a staff writer for the magazine
and writes the Talk column. He recently interviewed
Emma Chamberlain about leaving YouTube, Walter
Mosley about a dumber America and Cal Newport about
a new way to work.