Finding our Orgasms
A.S.A. Harrison’s underground classic comes home to Coach House
‘Well you see like a woman has a few things going for her, not very many but she has a few things going for her and one of them is uh, dare I mention it, a clit-clitoris and uh, whooo, a clitoris, yes. And what happens is that this old, this old clitoris of hers, it starts to thumpin. It starts to thumpin and it starts to humpin, and it starts to throbbin and it starts to sobbin, and this old !%6* %4*& %*?&:! $;//1 WHOOOOO! Well what happens is that you lie there and you get sort of helpless see, and like you get, it’s kinda freeze it’s kinda like a coke freeze if you know what I’m talkin about. Okay so you get this freeze and like you feel kind of helpless and you’re lying there and it’s like this little tiny part of you starts to scream this really really fine, exquisite, high pitched scream and it’s, it’s like a wire, it’s kind of like a wire that leads out into the sun that you find yourself being flung along arbitrarily and you don’t mind in the least, you know you just go whoo-oo, you just go up there and um, it’s good sheet, yeh coming is good sheet.’
– ‘Georgiana,’ interviewed by A.S.A. Harrison in Twenty-Two Women Talk Frankly about Their Orgasms (Coach House Press, 1974), excerpted by Sarah Barmak in Closer: Notes from the Orgasmic Frontier of Female Sexuality (Coach House Books, 2016)
When I started at the press, one of my duties was to dig into our website’s analytics – the hope being that we could better understand how and when readers came to visit the website and strategize accordingly. There were a few predictable search terms that brought visitors to the site (‘submissions guidelines’ ‘jobs at coach house’), but one that regularly came up in the mix was ‘a.s.a harrison orgasms.’
With some trepidation (and a SafeSearch filter enabled), I ran the search myself and discovered that in 1974, Coach House Press (as it was then called) had published a book of conversations with twenty-two women talking candidly – and anonymously – about getting off. Harrison edited this groundbreaking yet unassuming book, which pre-dates Shere Hite’s bestselling The Hite Report on Female Sexuality by two years. It sold for a very reasonable $8.95 and was designed by General Idea member A.A. Bronson. Check out that cover!
Though many online used booksellers stocked the book, it had been out of print at Coach House for years, with the rights reverting to the author in the ’90s. I inquired with the veteran staff about a copy and discovered we no longer held one in the press’s on-site archives, which were sadly incomplete, owing to being pilfered/on loan/reshuffled over the intervening years. (If you’ve ever been in the building, you’ll understand how things can be easily misplaced.) So that was the end of my Orgasms quest, for the time being.
In April 2013, Susan Harrison – the real name of a prolific artist and nonfiction writer who wrote under the pen name A.S.A. Harrison – passed away at the age of 65, of ovarian cancer, just months before the publication of her debut novel, a psychological thriller called The Silent Wife. (Published in Canada by Penguin, it went on to receive wide critical acclaim and became an international bestseller.) We were deeply saddened by the news at Coach House; I didn’t know her, of course, but the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail obituaries made me wish I had. And the web search for ‘a.s.a. harrison orgasms’ continued unabated.
In the summer of 2015, while sitting in the 500s at a Jays game, I saw on Twitter that the Vancouver used & new bookshop the Paper Hound, which had opened up in 2013 (after I’d moved away from Vancouver, as luck would have it) had posted a photo of the book on display in the store.
Customer: "I like that this book is so prominently displayed. Lets you know exactly the kind of bookshop you're in." pic.twitter.com/vhfFHcmsvq— The Paper Hound (@ThePaperHound) May 9, 2015
In retrospect, I should have ordered it on the spot (well, from across the country). But I took my eyes off the prize, and didn’t think of it again until we signed Toronto journalist Sarah Barmak to write a book for our Exploded Views series about female sexuality – specifically, how women were redefining sexuality on their own terms. In her author questionnaire, Barmak cited Harrison’s work as an influence on her own:
‘Hilarious, creative, this book didn’t give a shit. This was the 1970s trailblazing that opened up women’s sexuality.’"
So it would appear we at Coach House had come (...) full circle.
When I was in Vancouver in Spring 2016, I popped into The Paper Hound, as I usually do (seriously, check it out when you’re there – it’s the best merchandised used bookstore I’ve ever seen, with categories such as ‘The Rodent as Hero’ and ‘Indomitable Orphans’), and, after picking up a copy of Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty, I casually inquired – as much as is possible when asking about a year-old tweet – with the store’s co-owner, Rod Clarke, if they still had that copy of Orgasms kicking around. Of course it had sold quickly, and in fact they had sold another copy of it since then. But! Checking the store inventory, he confirmed that they had yet another copy (multiples!), only we weren’t able to locate it on the shelves. Determined to leave Vancouver fully satisfied, I left my phone number with Rod as he knew his co-owner, Kim Koch, would be able to track it down for me when she got in to the store.
Not fifteen minutes later, while walking around Gastown, I got a call from Rod informing me that Kim had located the book. ‘I’ll let her share the provenance of it,’ he said. I rushed back to the Paper Hound and Kim produced a plain, purpley-pink clothbound book, very unlike the printed paper-wrapped version I’d seen photos of. They believed it was a presentation copy of the book, which is a copy that had been presented by the author to one of the contributors. The dedication page was hand-inscribed ‘For Doody,’ with a lipstick print on the verso.
They shared some details on who they believed ‘Doody’ was, which were indeed very interesting, but in keeping with the spirit of the book, I’ll demure from publicizing any clue as to her identity.
Suffice it to say, we found our Orgasms. The book is now happily reunited with Coach House in our archives, and while we’ll allow House-guests the pleasure of flipping through it (Sarah Barmak included!), we’ll be keeping a closer watch on our Big Os going forward.