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book review

In part of her book Closer, author Sarah Barmak writes about how ancient civilizations treated female pleasure.Kayla Rocca Photography

There are moments in Closer, Sarah Barmak's fascinating expedition to "the wild frontier of women's sexuality," that may leave you feeling shortchanged by your orgasms.

Maybe it's orgasm-champ Vanessa, who experiences seven different types and compares her arousal to a "murmuration of starlings." Maybe it's Veronica, whose face goes numb as she climaxes six times in 40 minutes, riding a tricked-out pommel horse named Sybarite at Burning Man, Nevada's annual festival of hedonism. Or maybe it's Barmak herself, who, during a therapeutic "yoni massage," describes a "thirsty, red-eyed crotch dragon" waking inside her. "Afterwards, I felt powerfully hungry, like I could eat two steaks," writes the Toronto journalist.

They are details offered up in Closer, an engrossing look at the state of female desire in 2016. The title alludes to both the tense feeling before orgasm and the idea that we are on the brink of "deep realizations about the female body." Tracing the historical, cultural and scientific treatment of female sexuality, Barmak sees two realities colliding today: a porny mainstream aesthetic that has downgraded women's pleasure in favour of performance and a more feminist subculture resuscitating what actually makes women feel good – and a lot of it is pretty out there.

Before diving into the fun, fringy stuff, Barmak questions what, precisely, the sexual revolution has done for the quality of women's sex lives. In many ways, modern women have gotten the shaft – though the author deftly avoids such lame puns throughout her 165-page book. What she finds is that "a lot of ordinary women have a bad time in bed."

As she catalogues the ingredients for bad modern sex, Barmak is clear-eyed and doesn't moralize. Hardcore porn with coercive storylines is readily at hand online and often stands in for sex ed for its younger viewers. The hyper-accelerated hookup culture promoted on Tinder means that extended, loving foreplay is becoming a fuzzy concept, if not a total waste of time for dating adults. Slut-shaming is alive and well, as women are encouraged to perform a pornified version of sexuality and then get slammed both when they fail to deliver on it, and when they deliver on it. We want women to be sexual, but in stupidly limiting ways. Never mind the rise of self-inflicted labiaplasty among women wishing to resemble porn stars, in effect mutilating the parts of their bodies made for pleasure. We set up these horribly depressing paradoxes for women, all designed to make them fail.

"Sex for the modern woman is not so much an enjoyable release of stress and tension, or a time to simply do whatever the fuck she wants, but another sphere in which to evaluate her performance," Barmak writes. "We think too much about whether we're doing something right, whether our partner is turned on or whether we look good."

But there is some cause for hope in all this mess. We are seeing a "reawakening of sex-positive feminism" and it is mercifully more fun than it sounds. Through first-hand immersion, Barmak discovers a wide array of "sexual naturalists" interested in a more female-centred approach to sex. Straddling the disparate worlds of health care, therapy, spirituality, pornography and prostitution, this is "the art and craft of women's sexuality," writes Barmak, allowing, "It is weird, wonderful and at times bizarre."

Whether it's orgasmic meditation, group masturbation workshops, sensation-jolting mindfulness sessions, trauma-healing vulva massage from female shamans or "ethical" porn, the point is to help women change their relationship with sex. These "seekers" have turned away from pharmacology and toward the holistic mindset espoused in current trends such as yoga, meditation and slow food. The idea is to treat pleasure as part of your overall health, and to tweak the social conditioning of sex as a goal-oriented performance: "Forget about orgasms. Forget about goals. Just enjoy what's in front of you. Take your time," Barmak suggests.

Whether sex-positive feminists will win the war against trillions of megapixels of woman-punishing porn online remains to be seen. Barmak argues that at the very least, these sexual subcultures are giving women another way of looking at themselves. Thankfully, unlike that other recent feminist tome on female sexuality, the insufferably new-agey and widely panned Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf, Barmak is highly self-aware – and the result is a very funny book. She offers her adventures as a provocation, not a prescription: you'll find no Cosmo-esque demands for gymnastics or whipped cream here.

That approachability is important when dealing with a subject as fraught with insecurity as sex. The stats are bleak: Britain's 2013 National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles of 15,000 adults from the ages of 16 to 74 found that 40 per cent of women don't feel motivated to have sex. Some 16 per cent could not or-gasm, or did so with difficulty. A 2015 Cosmo survey of 2,300 women found that just 57 per cent climaxed with their male partner, while those guys came 95 per cent of the time.

What's even more startling is that this brand of sexual inequality wasn't always so ingrained. Barmak mines several ancient civilizations that actually dug female pleasure. Take the Sumerians, who worshipped women's "boats of heaven," or the medieval Tamils, who penned reverential poems about cunnilingus. My favourite had to be the Taoists of the Han Dynasty, whose sex manuals recommended 45 minutes of foreplay before penetration – "truly a golden age of sexual detective work," Barmak quips. Compare this epic warm-up to what you see in made-by-men-for-men porn today: rarely a hint of foreplay, not on her person at least. (Taoist tradition also offers an ominous warning to men "who ejaculate too often": you will age prematurely. Take note, PornHub subscribers.)

Sadly, long before online porn hijacked fantasy and female pleasure, "the party was over for the vulva," Barmak writes. Christianity treated it as impure: "Woman is defective and misbegotten" is a kind thing Thomas Aquinas once said. By the early 1900s, Freud did women another huge disservice, downgrading clitoral orgasms as "immature" while urging his female patients to have vaginal orgasms, with men. From the fifties to the seventies, sex researchers such as Alfred Kinsey and Shere Hite conducted large-scale surveys that made one thing abundantly clear: Most women climax clitorally. Both of the researchers faced intense censure.

Indeed, in a long history of misunderstandings of female sexuality, the most pathetic failures involve basic anatomy. Barmak does an excellent job of cataloguing the absurd unfairness here. Six years after we'd mapped the entire human genome, a couple of French gynecologists finally got around to mapping out the clitoris in 3-D with a sonogram – in 2009. Turns out "The Real Clitoris" is not just a small pea, but an expansive organ with 8,000 nerve endings that sits under the skin "like an iceberg." The author feels cheated when she learns this, "like a blind man finally seeing a whole elephant when all he'd ever known was the tip of its trunk." Jocular as Barmak is, it's a scathing indictment of sexist medicine, of our lack of interest in women's erogenous zones – the parts that don't produce children. To say nothing of the G-spot, or the more groundbreaking Italian research titled "Beyond the G-spot" that has located a "CUV complex" linking the clitoris, urethra and anterior vaginal wall. Good luck discussing any of this with your clued-out family doctor.

Unfortunately, the prevailing attitude is that studying sex – and women's wants, at that – is a waste of money. Here, Barmak notes that three times as many studies have been done on men's sexual difficulty as on women's, and she reminds us that, "Leonardo da Vinci was lovingly sketching cross-sections of male genital anatomy back in 1493." Today, when female desire is actually discussed, it is labelled as "complex" – our sexual organs "tricky puzzles, fleshy Rubik's cubes." This is yet another cop-out: if women's desire is forever shrouded in mystery, it means we can continue to ignore it. Or medicalize whatever we deem "dysfunctional," with "just for her" Viagra-substitutes that come with troubling side effects. Incidentally, a woman's sexuality is still often labelled dysfunctional when her brain and body fail to behave like a dude's, when her desire isn't spontaneous or when she can't climax as quickly as her male partner, or, back to Freud, from penetration alone.

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.

Discussions about female pleasure go well beyond simple hedonism, though. The best Canadian sex researchers now discuss pleasure as part of sexual health. It's also integral to the new focus on affirmative consent in our sexual assault laws. Today, we believe that consent should be enthusiastically communicated, but how do young women do that if they don't even know what turns them on, or aren't encouraged to find out? Pleasure, writes Barmak, "intersects with well-being, self-determination and consent."

Ultimately, when we deride conversations about female desire, we are shortchanging women and men. When we don't talk about what women actually want, porn takes over as teacher: "There may well be a kinder, gentler side to men's sexuality that is being erased in this culture," Barmak observes.

Among heterosexual couples, it is absolutely confounding that more men aren't into women's pleasure, overlooking that it will vastly heighten their own arousal. Barmak believes that if we accept the complexity of female desire and actually work to figure our partners out, our sex lives might become less "predictable and porn-mechanical" – and more hot.

In that, Closer is a provocation for women and men alike.

Zosia Bielski is features writer for The Globe and Mail.