Roman goddess of love, Venus, was originally worshipped for fertility; later for sexual love. As Canada Research Chair in Women's Sexual Health, Vancouver Venus expert Lori A. Brotto examines desire, arousal and satisfaction for women in and outside of the bedroom in Better Sex Through Mindfulness: How Women Can Cultivate Desire (Greystone $22.95). About half of all women experience some kind of sexual difficulty at one point in their lives; lack of interest in sex being the most common. 978-1-77164-235-4


Better Sex Through Mindfulness: How Women Can Cultivate Desire by Lori A. Brotto (Greystone Books $22.95)

Lori a. brotto is a feminist sex scientist at UBC whose goal is to translate sexological findings into digestible and meaningful knowledge for women in search of fulfilling sexual activity.

At 260 pages, her Better Sex Through Mindfulness: How Women Can Cultivate Desire marks a sprightly addition to the raft of sex advice books marketed to women over the past thirty years such as Becoming Orgasmic (1987), For Yourself (2000), The Elusive Orgasm (2007) and Come as You Are (2017).

In Better Sex, Brotto notes that upwards of 30% of women globally experience some form of sexual difficulty, whether it is low desire or loss of libido, dissatisfaction as a result of sexual trauma, gynecological cancers, or genital pain.

She therefore aims "to bring the issue of low sexual desire in women into the open so that women feel less shame and are empowered to cultivate their feelings of sexual desire.";

Brotto points to stress arising from work, family, and money, the 'tyranny of infomania,' as well as the pressures of navigating contradictory cultural messages.

Such messages can pummel women into normative ways of looking, acting, and thinking.
The well-documented 'orgasm gap' among straight women suggests that women have been paying attention to men's sexual satisfaction much more than their own for far too long.

Brotto boldly criticizes the alleged benefits of ceaseless multi-tasking. Cognitive overload often leads to less efficiency, more mistakes and unwanted distractions in the bedroom.

Rather than endorse the promise of a pharmaceutical fix, such as Addyi-the 'pink pill' equivalent to Viagra -Brotto makes a persuasive case for applying the 4000-year-old Buddhist practice of mindfulness to matters of women's sexual dysfunction.

Mindfulness is a therapeutic approach with boundless capacity for lubricating women's sexual potential. As she explains, "when we pay attention to the body in a kind, compassionate, and non-judgmental, and present-oriented way, it offers us a new way of being in the world. And that new way of being might just be critical for the sexual satisfaction that so many women crave.";

Alert to the path-clearing work of others, Brotto carefully cites William Masters and Virginia Johnson who developed 'sensate focus' in sex therapy with couples in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as molecular biologist, Jon Kabat-Zinn, who began introducing mindfulness to patients suffering from chronic pain in the 1970s and 1980s.

We learn that Brotto, in collaboration with the B.C. Centre for Sexual Medicine in Vancouver, has co-led a mindfulness-based sex therapy program for hundreds of women over the past fifteen years.

During an eight-week period, Brotto and her interdisciplinary team at UBC lead small groups of women through awareness exercises such as the Body Scan (taking note of sensations in each part of the body, including genitals), guided meditation, and discussion about what participants are discovering, including the vulva-like properties of a raisin.

At week 5, women are encouraged to use sexual aids such as erotica (made by and for women) and/or vibrators to elicit sexual arousal. Post-session facilitation, or coaching, is made available online and through audio-recordings, and women are encouraged to complete up to 40 minutes of daily meditation between sessions.

Evidence-based results, including questionnaires and self-reports by session participants, reveal increased sexual satisfaction by 66%, as well as improvements in desire, orgasms, mood, and overall well-being.

To me, it was refreshing to encounter instructions for awakening the vagina, vulva, and clitoris through solely paying attention to genitals while lying on a bed.

In a later chapter, readers are invited to try hands-on 'pleasurable touch' exercises designed to enhance sexual response in both singles and couples, emphasizing the benefits of employing all five senses during sexual activity.
In her final substantive chapter, 'Tuning In To Pain,' Brotto addresses the 15% of women in North America for whom acutely painful sex is a regular occurrence.

While noting that research findings are still scant, Brotto draws on several studies to show that group mindfulness-based therapy-with its emphasis on acceptance and compassion-helps sufferers reduce genital pain, sex-related distress, and depression.

Exhilarating promise resides in Brotto's thesis that mindfulness practice can change the brain's structure and function to enable cultivation of more nourishing human sexual exchange.

At the same time, Brotto's research would benefit from a more rigorous adoption of an intersectional analytical framework. For example, she relies heavily on stories from white, heterosexual women, with very brief gestures to lesbians, bisexuals, and same-sex couples.

We could have learned more about the sexual desires and frustrations of LGBTQ folks and two-spirits, including those who identify as trans or non-binary.

Moreover, how do Indigenous women and women of colour navigate the added minefield of racialized misogyny en route to expressions of healthy sexual subjectivity?

For asexuals who narrate their contentment in life without sex, what might be the unintended consequences of the reductive claim that all areas of life suffer when sex suffers?

And might sex-based mindfulness yield dividends for the polyamorous and kinky as much as for the conventionally coupled?

I also wonder about the specific sex-related concerns of sex workers-escorts, cam girls, sugar babies, porn actors, and erotic dancers-who have rarely received non-judgmental treatment for sex complaints from health care providers?

Nevertheless, as a queer sociologist disturbed by sexology's legacy of pathologizing non-normative sexuality, I found Better Sex to be both surprisingly radical and immensely stimulating.

Lori Brotto's hope-filled book arrives at an auspicious moment: women, girls, and non-binary folks are breaking the silence about sexual harassment and assault at the hands of predatory men in the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp. Yet as we learn more about the contours and content of widespread sexual danger, and as we seek to redress the alarming under-reportage of sex-based crimes, our grasp of women's sexual pleasure remains murky.
Sexual literacy, desire, and practice have always been thorny arenas for women, given that possession of a lusty sexual appetite has sometimes meant the risk of shame, stigma, punishment, and even imprisonment.
It is no wonder that so many women in Brotto's research expressed self-criticism and self-doubt about their sexual selves, as well as unhappiness with obligatory and unrewarding sex.

Brotto also exposes the lack of evidence-based education in schools dedicated to the theme of sexual pleasure.

On the campaign trail, the new premier of Ontario, Doug Ford, catered to his fundamentally sex-negative and fearful base by promising to roll back the previous government's revised sex education curriculum.

Months later, as Ford and his conservatives dither, let's consider the value of re-imagining pedagogy in high school classrooms that a) introduces sex toys as valued stimuli for sexual arousal, b) explores the meaning and practice of enthusiastic consent, c) foregrounds knowledge of sexual and gender minorities, and d) integrates sex-based mindfulness as a strategy for sexual enlightenment, joy, and healing.

Lori Brotto's Better Sex not only innoculates the reader against the scourge of sexual ignorance, guilt, and dread, her book bravely enlarges our grasp of what might be possible on a new or even revolutionary sexual horizon.


Review by Becki Ross who teaches at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice at UBC. She is co-founder of the West End Sex Workers Memorial and author of Burlesque West: Showgirls, Sex, & Sin in Postwar Vancouver (UTP, 2009).

For the unabridged version of this commentary, visit The Ormsby Review.