By Copy Editor Diana Pearson
Have you ever tried, in those sweatily joyous moments after orgasm, to find the right words to describe climax? Textures. Squiggly lines. Sunbursts. Flocks of birds. Shooting junk in a sun-drenched field.
Sarah Barmak knows the struggle to describe this elusive human experience. But this is just one of the wonderful topics she covers in her summer release, Closer: Notes From the Orgasmic Frontier of Female Sexuality.
This short, sweet, sexy whirlwind tour of Western female sexuality is refreshing from start to finish. It will arouse, enrage, intrigue, shock, and leave you feeling thankful and up-to-date on sex in our society.
Barmak offers us an easy-reading and concise history of women’s sexual repression which, while lingering, had its heyday in the Victorian era (1837-1901). She refers to the medical and cultural “erasure and denial of female sexuality” as “a history of forgetting”. Take, for example, the medical marginalization of the clitoris which until the late ’70s was described as “but a small nub” and an infantile flicker to orgasm. Have you ever been confused about whether or not the G-spot really exists? How about female ejaculation (aka “squirting”)? Barmak puts all these head-spinning arguments to rest, leaving the reader in a rage about why—in a so-called sexually liberated era—many of us remain confused about the female sexual anatomy.
But Closer doesn’t solely focus on repression. In her intimate investigations, Barmak breaks through age-old ideals of prescriptive femininity that have served only to cage us in a sexual binary: man | woman. She explores the “wild frontier of women’s sexuality” where women seek sexual freedom in what she calls the “female sexual subculture.” Vulval massage, orgasmic meditation, group masturbation, workshops for women who have never experienced orgasm—these are just a few pro-active avenues to pleasure and healing for today’s North American women.
Interestingly, there are suggestions in Closer that some of these paths are influenced by (though “watered-down versions” of) non-Western views of eroticism. But one of the shortcomings of this book is that Barmak’s critiques are unmistakeably “Western”; while she doesn’t totally dismiss the South Asian Taoist, tantric, medieval Arab, and even North American Indigenous practices she surveys, her tone is often skeptical. Maybe we are lucky here on the West Coast to be exposed to a higher volume of open-minded approaches to spiritual and sensual entanglement.
Unfortunately, Barmak also teeters on non-productive generalizations about sex and gender. She sometimes hints that female anatomy is more complex than male, or breezily suggests that men need reassurance of their sexual prowess. These are often subtle and make my skin crawl – generalizations of this sort are unnecessary asides made by someone who should know better. In any instance where these generalizations are true, they are more likely the product of oppressive cultural norms and not innate biological differences. This points to the necessity of public sex-positive, systems-oriented, pleasure-based, sex education (that’s a mouthful to swallow). Sadly rare in the mainstream of North America.
Because Barmak is a journalist, not a Gender and Sexuality researcher—I don’t hold these critiques against her. And it is her journalistic flair that makes this book stand out. It is like you are with Barmak as she attends workshops, interviews researchers, reads through case studies and struggles to find supports for her qualitative inquiries. The stats and historical insights aren’t dry, they build a mosaic, a spectrum of women’s sexual experiences in the Western World. A tough topic to tackle,butshedoesitwithaccessible,light,andgrippingprose.
I highly recommend reading this book with a friend, lover, or in a group. Because sexual experience is so diverse, having someone to discuss it with is fun and brings to the surface the strange and beautiful complexities of all our bodies, inclusive of all genders and sexual preferences.