Using a blend of reportage, interview and first-person reflection, journalist Sarah Barmak explores the cutting-edge science and grassroots cultural trends that are bringing us closer to understanding women’s sexuality. She covers these themes in her new book, Closer, which is “a provocative look at why our current understanding of female sexuality isn’t getting us off.” Barmak will be presenting her talk at this year’s TEDxToronto 2016 on October 27 at Koerner Hall, Telus Centre for Performance and Learning.

SDTC: What have you learned about women’s desire that has surprised you?

SB: How much women’s sexuality has been distorted and repressed over history. I learned that different cultures have known a lot about the female orgasm, even female ejaculation, for thousands of years. Western culture erased a lot of this and represented women as not naturally sexual; men were supposed to have the big sex drive and women were supposed to be passive. Science has struggled to accurately represent female sexuality ever since, and it’s only recently that we are seeing unbiased studies on the full, internal structure of the clitoris, how women experience desire and what female ejaculation really is. So if women ever feel confused about their sexuality, relax – it’s probably not your fault!

What are the current cultural trends that are really informing women’s sexuality?

First is greater funding for a variety of sex research on women, especially clinical research that sees pleasure as important to women’s well-being. Second is the ordinary women out there exploring their sexuality in adventurous ways. For some, that’s making feminist pornography – shooting porn that’s erotic to women and features performers who are paid equitably. For others, it’s the whole boom of holistic health, which has had its own effect on the culture of sex. Orgasmic meditation (i.e., OneTaste), tantric courses, slowing sex down. A lot of women are attracted to that.

How has your research in this field affected your view of your own sexuality?

I am just so much more comfortable with it. I came into this research thinking that female sexuality was a mystery and women’s bodies were complicated. I found out our bodies make total sense – they just seem weird because we’ve distorted the picture for so long. We expect women to be aroused and climax like men, but we don’t – we’re women! On average, we take longer. It’s cool. What then happened was that my own sex life got richer because I accepted my body and its feelings exactly as they were.

What can we look forward to in your TEDxToronto talk?

I’m a journalist, so I prefer in general to present interviews and research rather than big, flashy arguments. TED is all about big ideas! So my talk demands that I distill the meaning of my book, the real reason to read it. It’s that sex touches something deeper in us than just pleasure – it’s feeling okay with yourself. It’s feeling whole. That’s why it’s such a flashpoint for so many. It’s more important than we realize. And seeing women redefining and reclaiming it is momentous for that reason.