In Closer, journalist Sarah Barmak uses a blend of reportage, interview and first-person reflection to explore the cutting-edge science and grassroots cultural trends that are getting us closer to the truth of women’s sexuality. Closer reveals how women are reshaping their sexuality today in wild, irrepressible ways: nude meetings, how-to apps, trans-friendly porn, therapeutic vulva massage, hour-long orgasms and public clit-rubbing demonstrations – and redefining female sexuality on its own terms.
Discover Closer through the excerpt below and read the author’s thoughts on the passage.
The women in the room don’t come from especially repressive households. For the most part, they hail from Toronto, Etobicoke, Guelph – in a province governed by a lesbian premier, surely among the most progressive places in the world for girls to grow up. Some have suffered trauma and molestation, but not all. What they share is a secret. This special thing that is supposed to happen in the bodies of ‘normal’ women – ideally in a shower of stars and rainbows and wow – refuses to happen, and they don’t know why. Some can’t touch themselves. Some won’t let anyone perform oral sex on them because they think their privates are ‘weird’ and ‘dirty.’ A couple of them have ‘gotten there’ – but only if their partners aren’t in the room.
There is no pill they can take, no doctor they can see. The secret compounds with age: the older they get, the more some figure they should just let the whole thing go. To some, too, it feels self-indulgent to even complain about such a thing. What’s an orgasm, anyway? Just a momentary pop that disappears as soon as it’s begun. It’s not a real problem. Yet all these busy, seemingly practical women are here.
‘I am afraid to have an orgasm,’ says Denise. She leans forward, her bangs hanging over reddened eyes. ‘I’m afraid of losing control … I think I’ve come close, maybe. But I stop myself, because I’m afraid.’
‘Yup. Anybody else?’ asks Jansen.
Hands go up around the room.
A half-century ago, the story goes, there was a sexual revolution. Skirts got shorter, rock ’n’ roll got louder and sexuality was freed from its chains. We could pinpoint the exact moment, if we like, to 1956, when Elvis Presley caused a ruckus by gyrating his pelvis on black-and-white television: his hip-thrusting was so dangerous that the cameramen on The Ed Sullivan Show were instructed to film him from the waist up. Or maybe the revolution really happened in the sixties, when the birth-control pill was approved in the U.S. (and eventually Canada), permanently disentangling the act of intercourse from its most common hazard – pregnancy. In theory, it freed millions of women to do the thing men had always felt free to do.
From that decade onward, human sexuality was set loose to do its freaky, funky thing. Freudian psychology and the collective hormones of young baby boomers combined to liberate sex from the repressive jail it had been held in throughout history. It was all Ursula Andress in a wet bikini on the beach and copies of Playboy in the dentist’s office and Alfred Kinsey and Woody Allen telling us everything about which we were once, but no longer, afraid to ask.
Cut to a couple generations later, and our modern world is pure sex. Images of graphic coupling (or tripleting, or quintupling) are instantly available at the touch of a smartphone. The average music video has more high-definition close-ups of glistening, naked glutes than porn had in the seventies. Indeed, porn has become our mainstream aesthetic. Our ideal body is one that is sculpted, tanned and hairless – ready for nudity at a moment’s notice, as if a tripod, some Klieg lights and a mustachioed director are always lurking around the next corner. In other words, the world couldn’t get any more liberated than it already is, and if it could, one wouldn’t want it to.
Reality, however, is more complicated. Although we appear liberated on the surface – our clothing, our language and our media are more explicit than ever before – many of us feel overwhelmed, struggling to make space for our individual sexuality among so many idealized images. And if the person you ask is a woman, it may not be clear what the sexual revolution did for her.
When I began researching the differences between female and male sexuality for the book that would become Closer, I started by trying to understand why so many women have difficulties with orgasm, while most men barely have to try (many men have to try not to!). It’s an obvious point of difference. Trying to get at its root wasn’t going to be easy. But it was little more than a fascinating biological and social conundrum. It was a curiosity to bring up at a dinner party. It was only when I walked into the workshop/support group for women who have never, ever experienced an orgasm before, which was held at the women, non-binary and LGBT-friendly sex shop Good For Her, that I knew this was also a story: it had real people, emotion and consequences. The problem ran deeper, into personal trauma and deeply held belief systems. Yet those who suffered from it rarely talked about it. The day I came home from that workshop was when I realized that this book wasn’t just a curiosity — it was important. By beginning the book with that scene, I hoped that readers who might be skeptical that orgasms were worth a whole book would immediately see that there is genuine suffering there, and paradox. And that some who might relate to those women would appreciate seeing it represented.
To continue reading, purchase Closer here!
Sarah Barmak is a Toronto freelance journalist and author. Her writing has appeared in Maclean’s, The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, Canadian Business, Marketing and Reader’s Digest.