1. You don’t need to have an orgasm to enjoy sex. 2. You don’t need to settle for sex without orgasm.
Sit with those seemingly incongruous ideas for a moment and you’ll get a sense of the liberating ideal of women’s sexuality that Toronto-based journalist Sarah Barmak puts forth in her first book, Closer: Notes from the Orgasmic Frontier of Female Sexuality (Coach House Books, $15).
Barmak is set to give a TedxToronto talk today about her book and what she discovered while investigating some of new ways in which women, researchers and hippy-dippy sex gurus are recognizing and redefining what we know as female sexuality. She makes the case for pushing the orgasmic frontier into a brave new world where women’s desire isn’t subsumed into the male-centric mainstream; it holds equal status instead.
Speaking to FLARE about the problems brought on by our current orgasm culture, Barmak also shares how we’re beginning to better understand female sexuality—one pointed question at a time.
What’s the problem with how we approach female sexuality at the moment?
There is the science of sex—and that’s great—but our cultural views haven’t really caught up. We still have a lot of outdated hangovers from the way we used to see women’s sexuality. In the very recent past, women’s sexuality was seen as essentially passive. There was this idea that women didn’t have a lot of desire, and that the female reproductive system was for reproduction rather than experiencing pleasure.
Conventional wisdom characterizes female desire as too “mysterious” to understand. What do you say to those that write off female desire as unknowable?
Women’s sexuality is not a mystery. It’s not complicated. Women’s bodies are not Rubik’s cubes any more than men’s bodies are; it’s just that we haven’t taken the time to really listen to women and prioritize women’s pleasure.
Naomi Wolf declared that the sexual revolution sucks for women. You book supports that thesis with stats that reveal a significant number of women don’t enjoy sex and don’t experience satisfaction from it. So why does the sexual revolution suck for women?
I think that there was an assumption that we understood what the act of sex was, and that both sexes would be free to enjoy it as much as they wanted. But there wasn’t a mainstream conversation about what women would really want out of sex once it had been freed. Instead there was a very top-down conversation about the vaginal orgasm vs. the clitoral orgasm, and stuff like that, which was kind of a Freudian hangover that didn’t actually reflect [an understanding of] women’s anatomy at all.
I’m not saying we need to get to a place in society where every woman is satisfied and has multiple orgasms. I don’t think that’s what we need to strive for. This is just about listening to women more. And it’s about listening to the amazing expertise that’s beginning to come from psychologists and researchers about how female desire and pleasure actually work.
I also think more young women need to be encouraged to explore themselves. Young women can often absorb the message that they’re meant to look sexy rather than figure out what they enjoy out of sex, or what they might enjoy. I think if there were more encouragement and more content in sex education about female pleasure, then young women would be more conscious of what they like and more confident in asking for it.
Does the marketabilty of male desire have anything to do with it? Because you can sell male desire on billboards in a way that you can’t really do for female desire.
That’s interesting because one study showed that there are something like 237 different reasons why a woman might choose to have sex. Female desire has turned out to be a less linear process compared to male desire… Often it’s called “responsive desire,” and it’s more circular, which means women might respond to their partner’s desire and they might get into a sexual encounter if it feels good, if the context feels good, if they have a memory of a good encounter with that person in the past—that whole long explanation is not “sexy” or easy to put on a billboard.
If you try and behave like a man when it comes to sex, and you don’t actually enjoy that approach, you’re often problematized in today’s culture. You’re seen as dysfunctional, or just a “crazy chick,” which discounts the fact that it’s really because it’s not clicking with who you are.
There are all these expectations that we put on ourselves as women, like, ‘Oh, I’m not going to be like all those other women. I’m tough and independent.’ We judge ourselves so much. I came at this research with intellectual curiosity, but also with my own experience growing up. In my early 20s, I was so interested in sex. I was like, ‘This is great, I’m really into sex, this is going to be so good!’ and then I found that it wasn’t actually that physically enjoyable, and that I wasn’t having the same physical fun that boys seemed to be having. Then I would have feelings develop, and I would tell myself, ‘No, boys don’t need feelings to get off, so why do I need them?’ I think we’re in kind of a confusing place with the messages that girls are absorbing.
When I hear the word orgasm I instantly feel a pressure to perform. You can experience tons of pleasure during sex, but that’s not enough for some partners—they want a big moment.
That’s totally another facet of the way we impose a male sexual paradigm on women’s sexuality. In the past, we didn’t even acknowledge the female orgasm. We’ve moved beyond that, but we’ve replaced it with this outsized focus on the female orgasm as the be-all and end-all of women’s satisfaction… Women do experience a ton of pressure—and, ironically, pressure is the enemy of being able to relax enough to actually climax or feel pleasure.
What do women need to know about orgasms that they don’t already?
I interviewed this amazing lesbian sex researcher, who is now in her 60s, and she did this huge survey of women. The range she found in terms of orgasm was huge. She spoke to women who don’t always have orgasms when they have sex, and who are completely fine with it because orgasm and satisfaction are not the same thing. She spoke to other women who needed to have an orgasm all the time and were upset if they didn’t. And then there were women who weren’t satisfied until they had their sixth orgasm. So there’s a huge spectrum: women are all a little different in terms of how their nervous systems are wired…
So if women come away from the book with anything, they should know that orgasm and satisfaction are not the same thing. One great part of the circular model of desire is that it can end at any point that there is satisfaction. It doesn’t need to end with orgasm or end in any sort of goal-oriented way.
Take the pressure off orgasm. If it happens great. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter.
Having sex and understanding your sexuality are two different things. How can we improve the experience of both for women?
There are signs that we’re moving in a really interesting direction to combat the “mysteriousness” that’s been applied to female desire. There’s an app and website called OMGYes, for example, where you can watch these amazing videos women have made to show techniques to get women off.
I also think better sex ed at a younger age, which mentions female pleasure and uses properly labelled anatomical diagrams, would help. And so would the availability of porn that is made for and by women.
Critics charge that a focus on sex and pleasure is a frivolous concern given all the problems women face in the world. But what are its broader connections to how we experience life as human beings?
It’s totally natural to ask the question, ‘Why does this matter?’ I understand not wanting to boil feminism down to women having more orgasms because that’s obviously very superficial. But I think sexuality is one of the most basic sources of joy, relaxation, confidence and creativity that we have as human beings. And I think it’s really sad that we have a lot of stories in our society that make it harder for 51 percent of the population to access that. Sexuality shouldn’t be seen as a chore or a source of unhappiness. I also think that sexual pleasure has a role to play in sexual consent education. As I argue in my book, I think that when you learn more about what kinds of touch feel right to you personally, then it’s easier for you to know when touch and sexual contact feels wrong in a very nuanced way.
How can women push the “frontier” forward?
It’s a really interesting time right now where people are actually talking about this. It’s not all positive—rape culture is still pretty rampant—but we are at a time when people are using formerly taboo words like clitoris and vulva and period, and there’s a lot more sources of discussion in media that are women friendly. There’s amazing literature out there, like Emily Nagoski’s Come As You Are, which is a science-centred sex book about female sexuality. There’s a ton of YouTube how-to sex videos and apps made by women.
There’s really never been a better time to just sit with yourself and ask, ‘What do I want? What do I want sex to be for me? What do I like about it, and what don’t I like about it? What do I wish it was like?’ and then ask for exactly that.
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