As a child of the internet age, I first became acquainted with sex not through a talk from my parents, but from sneaking onto Omegle and other chat sites with my friends at sleepovers. Of course we were too shy to participate in any way; we merely clicked through stranger after stranger, giggling every time a penis, oddly illuminated by a laptop screen, found its way into our chat boxes. I attended a Catholic school that taught abstinence-only sex-ed and had strictly pro-life preaching, so chatting online was pretty much the closest I came to understanding the world’s wide range of sexual behavior before learning about sex through IRL experience.
Because of my lack of formal education—something many, many people can relate to—Sarah Barmak’s new book, Closer, is a revelation. Barmak is a journalist who also has a master’s degree in cinema. With her experience in journalism as well as her keen academic understanding of pop culture, she’s created Closer, which combines discussions, personal experiences, and historical information on female sexuality. The book is entirely dedicated to female pleasure, and while its view of female sexuality is somewhat limited to cisgender women, (Barmak is cis), she does bring in the experiences of trans women, too.
Barmak captures a wide range of subjects surrounding the female orgasm, like the biology of the clitoris, nonsexual yoni massages, and an etymological discussion of how we describe sex. Part of Barmak’s impetus for writing the book was the orgasm gap—the reality that men have way more orgasms than cis women do, in part because of lack of understanding about the clitoris and because women’s sexuality is often unrecognized and underappreciated. “We invest so much in Viagra, and advertise it, and we would never even question that if a man can’t get an erection, that’s a really big problem,” Barmak said recently. “Whereas, if women have this issue, they feel ashamed to even raise it because we have this Victorian hang up that women are not as naturally sexual as men are.”
I talked with Barmak about orgasms, inclusive sexuality, and what she learned about squirting.
RACHEL DAVIES: The book is so vast in terms of the amount and range of people you speak with and statistics you consult. When you set out to write a book about the “orgasmic frontier of female sexuality,” did you know it would end up with this broad of a scope in a small package?
SARAH BARMAK: That’s true, and I was worried that, because it is such a small book, that there would be too much information for people to absorb. Early on, I just had a hunch that female sexuality was coming up more and more in the mainstream media, and there were books coming out about female sexuality, like What Do Women Want?. But I only really knew of a few examples of this. What I found was that every time I would talk to a woman about this, or I would say, “I’m researching female sexuality and how women are rediscovering their sexuality,” almost every woman I spoke to would either have a really interesting story about her own life, or she would say, “Here’s someone you really gotta talk to.” Or, “You’ve got to take this woman’s class” or “You’ve got to Skype with this woman in San Francisco who does naked meetings.”
Is that how you went about collecting and finding the sources in the book?
Yeah, a lot of it was just word of mouth. I would say that’s mostly how I discovered the more fringe stuff [that’s included in the book], but I did a lot of searching online because I also interviewed scientists, and I tried to read as much mainstream sex-positive feminism so that I knew where we were starting from.
A medical drawing showing a historic treatment for “female hysteria”—a water cannon that would stimulate the pelvic region. (CC)
The book is super inclusionary of trans and queer sexuality. I know that you’re bisexual, as you state it in the book, but were there any specific sources that helped you understand certain experiences that you don’t personally have?
Definitely Tobi Hill-Meyer, who I interviewed in the book. That probably helped me more than anything because she so bravely made documentaries about female trans experiences, which really educated me in a big way. It also educated me about why trans people, both men and women, don’t talk about their sexuality or spotlight it. In the beginning, I was trying to get information about trans female sexuality, and there wasn’t a lot of information out there, and I wasn’t sure even when I found information that it was actually coming from trans sources, because cis people have all of these exoticizations of trans sexuality that they layer over their actual experience. I realized that the reason was because trans women are so attacked about their sexuality, so talking about it could open them up to attack, which is so horrific. I found what Tobi Hill-Meyer is doing to be so brave because she was saying that we can be attacked because of this, but that doesn’t mean that we should be silent about our sexuality and how we love. That was a huge education for me as a cis white woman.
The book is very much centered in Toronto and reflects Canadian events and experiences rather than treating the U.S. as the center of the universe. As someone who grew up in and around Toronto, I really appreciate that. Was this intentional or did it just so happen because you do live there?
I’d say it’s both, because I am from Toronto. I ended up going to get a yoni massage in Toronto. But I think that—and I’d like to write about this at some point—Canada tends to be a really inclusive place when it comes to sexuality. I mean, we do have far to go, but I don’t think it’s an accident that amazing researchers like Lori Brotto and Meredith Chivers are doing groundbreaking work in female sexuality and they’re getting funding for it. I spoke to sex researchers in the U.S. who said it’s hard to get funding in the U.S. for sex research. So it’s possible that there is a more inclusive environment for sexual expression in Toronto than you would see elsewhere.
A vintage ad for vibrators in the Sears catalogue.
Rather than just being centered on personal accounts and experimental practices, like the one at Burning Man where there were live demonstrations of orgasms, the book also explains a lot of biological information surrounding orgasms. What did you learn about orgasms while researching this book?
I was aware that squirting existed, but I didn’t know the anatomy behind it at all—I didn’t know about the paraurethral glands. I had roughly heard that the clitoris was bigger than we thought it was—it’s a deep structure—but I didn’t know the details behind it. I also didn’t know the history of repression around women’s anatomy and the lack of research that’s been done on women’s sexuality in medicine. So that was all uncovered in the research I did. It’s stuff that’s available, but you really have to set out to do research to discover what your anatomy is.
You quickly jump from talking about scientific developments of pink Viagra to speaking about Nicki Minaj’s demand for climax. Can you talk a bit about the effect of the pop cultural on the scientific and what is considered factual?
It’s really interesting; we have hierarchies of knowledge, and we tend to place scientific knowledge at the top of the heap, then anthropology and psychology mixed in the middle there, and right at the bottom there’s anecdotal. The thing is, there’s context to all of our scientific knowledge, and we don’t absorb knowledge in a vacuum. These scientists are human beings who bring their cultural bias to the lab. So, I like to see that connection between things rather than saying this is science, and this is culture, as if they’re two different things. I like to see the connection between things.
When you were growing up, which pop culture stars were you most interested in? How do you think that these people affect your idea of womanhood?
That’s a really interesting question. When I was growing up, I was a huge tomboy, and all my favorite icons were androgynous men: David Bowie, Lou Reed, various Important Male Writers. I actually didn’t have enough women I daydreamed about becoming, which says more about my own upbringing than anything else—my mother didn’t make a lot of decisions in my family, and so I developed an unconscious assumption that in order to achieve anything, you had to be more like a man. Writing Closer, in some ways, was my way of coming back to my femaleness and loving being a woman. I did have one pop culture woman who slipped into my teen consciousness, however, and that was Tori Amos, because she was a mysterious, intriguing force of nature, and she left a lot of wonderful feminist seeds in my psyche that have bloomed later.
The pioneering 1974 book Orgasms featured women talking openly about their sexuality.
How did you go about learning the ways in which women’s sexuality was dismissed (which has a lot to do with undocumented interactions) decades ago?
It really stared me in the face as soon as I looked at any historical documents. Just read Sigmund Freud’s “theory” of female sexuality, which seems just bonkers until you realize that he was the freaking father of psychology. Anxiety over vaginal versus clitoral orgasms persisted for nearly a century after he first published his theories. Freud twists himself into logical knots in order to argue that the clitoris is bad and that any grown woman who enjoys clitoral stimulation is not a “mature” woman and may be a lesbian. And the clitoris itself was thought of as a worrying pseudo-phallus for centuries before Freud, if it was acknowledged at all in medical writings.
Once you sample a bit of public discourse, you can infer something about what private, ordinary women’s interactions with sex partners might have been like. There was the case of a French bride, in I believe the 16th century, who was divorced by her husband for refusing to undergo a clitoridectomy because her clitoris was deemed too large, and that’s documented. I’m sure there were plenty of private rebellions and that some women probably had fabulous secret sex lives in the 19th century (it seems like there was a little more openness to female pleasure in the 17th and 18th century, incidentally). But when the 19th-century British authority on gynecology, William Acton, declares that most women don’t experience sexual desire, you can assume that was a widespread view that had widespread private effects.
Of course it is far more informative to read actual, historical testimony from ordinary women about married life. Then by the time the 1970s rolled around, there were more and more first-person accounts from women about sexual issues they were experiencing. I really dug deep into a 1974 Canadian experimental feminist book called Orgasms by A.S.A. Harrison that is just pure interviews with 22 women about what orgasms feel like to them, and it felt revolutionary even now.
I’ve learned about the ways personal bias affected scientific understanding of female anatomy, which you speak about in the book, in university. I’m wondering if you’ve found that this information is accessible outside of an institution? Do you think that these truly enraging and baffling elements of academic women and gender studies programs can be brought to the general public in time?
I think there are definitely ways to get readers informed about these issues outside of academia. In this book I aimed to do journalism through a lens informed by the basic insights that academia has had access to for decades. We’re already seeing more mainstream media scrutiny of the way that gender bias works in science. When it’s shown in the individual story of someone, it stops being theory and becomes concrete. That’s the special power of journalism.