Toronto writer Sarah Barmak on orgasms and female sexuality
Toronto writer Sarah Barmak on orgasms and female sexuality

Toronto writer Sarah Barmak on orgasms and female sexuality

Back in 2013, Sarah Barmak noticed female sexuality was getting a lot of buzz. It was a discussion point in books, mainstream media, conversations among her friends. The recurring theme, she says, was it’s “complicated.”

“To me, this seemed curious,” says the Toronto-based writer and journalist. “Half the people in the world — their sexuality is ‘complicated?’”

It sparked Barmak’s interest in probing the deeper story of female sexuality, with a focus on one thing in particular: the enigmatic, often-elusive female orgasm. Over the next three years, she spoke to sex coaches, researchers, neuroscientists and a variety of women, from those who’ve never had an orgasm to one who was once capable of climaxing 15 times in one session.

The result is Barmak’s new book, Closer: Notes from the Orgasmic Frontier of Female Sexuality, an exploration of the ways female sexuality is being redefined in scientific research and today’s sex-obsessed culture.

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. (From the publisher)


The ladies trickle, slowly and tentatively, into the sex shop. Rather than turning right through the main door toward the sales floor’s hot-pink vibrators and tattooed staff, they keep left, climbing a narrow staircase into a little carpeted attic. They shake rainwater off their umbrellas and find seats in the circle of chairs, scooting around each other and mumbling excuse mes and sorrys. They look shyly at their laps, poke at their phones. One floor above the array of silicone toys promising advanced pleasure to the adventurous, these fifteen or so women aged twenty to sixty are here on a much braver quest: to learn how to have an orgasm. For nearly all, it will be their first one.

In researching and writing about female desire, Barmak and others before her show women what a fallacy it is to compare their sexuality to men’s. They also show women that they are probably normal. In that, Closer is a valuable exercise, this in a world that still treats the entire subject as frivolous. Barmak describes a mortifying dinner party where a female guest guilts her for writing about orgasm at a time when women are staring down oppression and war. Why are we talking about orgasmic meditation when we could be talking about pay equity, domestic violence and abortion rights?

Ever self-aware, Barmak acknowledges that the “antics” in her book can certainly appear as the ultimate form of navel-gazing. Take the zeal with which orgasm champ Vanessa hounds doctors, counsellors, urologists and “a good pelvic-floor specialist” to help her when her orgasms suddenly sputter out. To even a liberal reader, the amount of time Vanessa devotes to coaxing her orgasms back can feel indulgent. But maybe that shows us the scope of the problem we have. Why are women rebuked when they give some thought to how satisfied they are with their sex lives? And who’s the loser here, ultimately? Probably not the person having a great time with her body.


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