Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.
If it weren't for Sarah Barmak's Closer: Notes from the Orgasmic Frontier of Female Sexuality I might have gone for years of my life without ever finding out what my clitoris actually looks like.
"Illustrations of it resemble a swan with an arched neck," Barmak writes. "When I saw an illustration of the clitoris's true shape for the first time I felt like a blind man finally seeing a whole elephant when all he's ever known was the tip of it's trunk." I realized while reading those sentences that no one in my Catholic high school health class ever bothered to show me such an image and I'd never thought to seek one out.
I consider myself a feminist and a sexually liberated woman. Yet, there are still surprising gaps in my understanding of my own body. And that's why a book like Barmak's is important. Closer tackles its subject with eloquence, intelligence and humour.
The book is split into five essays that tackle the "fear of pleasure," the history of female sexuality, the science and psychology of the orgasm, the "female sexual underground" and the politics of acknowledging female desire.
While each essay has its own strengths, I think the most effective chapter is "A History of Forgetting." This section aligns the historical "discovery" and "loss" of the clitoris with the individual experience of a woman named Vanessa -- an actual interview subject.
We first meet Vanessa on the table at the doctor's office filming herself masturbating in order to prove to the doctor that she can indeed ejaculate. We learn that Vanessa has been having a series of problems -- pain after sex, recurring yeast infections and so on -- that no doctors can figure out.
From here Barmak momentarily leaves Vanessa's story behind and turns her attention to the clitoris itself, noting that "the mapping of the human genome was completed in 2003, years before we got around to doing an ultrasound on the ordinary human clit."
While the tendency is to see history as ever moving forward and progressing, Barmak counters that "women's sexuality began by being celebrated, then was feared as too potent, before being downplayed and denied in the scientific era."
The Christian church, the scientific revolution and various other factors resulted in a demonization and rejection of female bodies. It's a generalized historical account to be sure, but Barmak does point readers in the direction of Naomi Wolf's Vagina, a much more comprehensive book on the subject.
What makes this essay so powerful is the way it revisits and concludes with Vanessa and her struggle. Her story held up against the larger history of the clitoris itself demonstrates all too well an overall contempt for and neglect of the female genitalia.
Along with research and anecdotes, Barmak amasses a diverse collection of interviews with doctors, researchers and sex educators. I was excited to learn many factoids that I will surely whip out at dinner parties in the future -- for instance, vaginal self stimulation actually blocks pain in women, and even women who are paralysed can sometimes still feel sexual pleasure because of nerves which bypass the spinal cord and communicate directly with the brain!
Barmak combines this research and traditional journalistic writing with first-person narration, bringing her own experience into the story. This means attending seminars and workshops, watching a demonstration of a female orgasm at Burning Man, and getting a vaginal massage.
Barmak is open about her own skepticism and trepidation during these investigations. "I like to consider myself open to new things," she writes. "Yet, the idea of a strange lady's gloved fingers all up in my jade palace falls somewhat outside my personal boundaries." She goes through with it and the personal account makes for a richer narrative overall.
A note about the term "woman": Barmak uses it throughout the book to generally refer to the cisgendered female experience. If I have any strong critique of the book it is that by celebrating the distinctly female anatomy, the book sometimes verges on unintentionally emphasizing a gender binary. This is something Barmak herself seems aware of. She notes on pg. 21 that "the word woman can refer equally to cisgender, intersex, genderqueer and transgender women all representing varied shades of experience." While it's good that the acknowledgement is there, I think a declaration like this belongs even earlier on as a note for readers to keep in mind before the book even begins.
That said, Barmak does make an effort to include the experiences of typically marginalized women such as trans women and women of colour in her narrative. "Being white affords privileges even in non-mainstream spaces of revolt such as sexuality," she notes.
The topic is something "that requires far more depth and attention than this little book can offer," Barmak says and while this seems like a partial cop-out for having only a few pages devoted to women of colour and trans women specifically, Barmak makes a valid point. Issues regarding sexuality faced by marginalized women warrant entire books altogether, preferably penned by a writer who has lived those experiences.
Nevertheless, I think this book would have been more complete with a sixth section devoted specifically to these issues.
At its core this book is compassionately optimistic, celebrating the innate complexity of sexual pleasure itself and arguing in favor of orgasms for all, something I can definitely get behind.
Sex educator and vlogger Lindsay Doe has a motto she repeats at the end of each of her videos: "stay curious." Closer isn't the definitive book about female sexuality and it doesn't claim to be. But it made me curious about my own body, and even more curious about the wonderfully vast array of experiences we humans have between the sheets.
I recommend it to my friends of all genders, my boyfriend, my sisters, and especially the woman who started it all, my mother.
Clarissa Fortin is rabble's former book intern.