We had a focus group a couple of weeks ago, a gathering of women to check in on what’s on women’s minds. One of the questions we asked was to whom women talked about sex—beyond their partners—and about any sexual health questions they might have. The answers were just as varied as I thought they might be. One woman said she’d talk to a stranger on an airplane—someone to whom she could say, “See you never!” Another woman has a group of long-term friends who she says frequently talk about any part of life—including sex.
I remember sex as a subject of great interest and fascination when I was very young—whispers, conjectures, a lot of mis-information and tall tales. By high school, we knew more, the better informed among us bringing along the uninformed. In college, we received a great deal more detail as data from actual, rather than fictional, experimentation became more commonplace.
It may be marriage that closes our mouths. We may be willing to share exploits or guess at sex before we choose our mates, but once we do, the walls of privacy go up, and silence rules our sexual lives. Or maybe we’re susceptible to the cultural messages that suggest that older women plus sex equals nonstarter. Maybe we’re embarrassed, as we approach and pass into menopause, that we’ve got “symptoms”; we don’t want to become Great Aunt Tessie, who shared her upper-GI details at every family gathering.
I buy the privacy reason, the loyalty to one’s partner. But I reject the cultural messages and the embarrassment. We should allow nothing to get in the way of our opportunities to continue to learn and explore, and to find reliable sources of information and aid when things aren’t working. Because, let’s face it, most of us weren’t trained in sexual techniques—or even anatomy. We need information as we grow and change sexually, and most particularly during menopause, when our bodies, while still miraculous and powerful, are less predictable and consistent.
So, please. Talk. As a reserved Midwesterner, I’m not sure I recommend raising the topic with your fellow passengers on airplanes—but far be it from me to discourage you. Talk to your partner about how your experience is changing. Talk to your friends to compare notes—and recommendations for health care practitioners or websites or books you find helpful. Talk to your health care provider, and be sure s/he is listening. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Use our Ask Dr. Barb button, front and center on our website; you’ll get a private, personal answer and may inspire a future blog post Q&A.
Maybe you remember reading Our Bodies, Ourselves in the 1970s. Maybe for you, as for me, it demystified your own anatomy. Maybe that knowledge empowered you with a sense of self-determination. For a few people, as for me, it was liberating and challenging enough to inspire a career in medicine.
And even if you don’t remember reading the book, you were probably affected anyway by the changes toward women’s health care that it ignited. “Women were treated as ‘small men who have babies,’” says Dr. Susan Love, a well-know surgeon and breast cancer specialist. “Men were the model, and women were sort of this extra thing.”
Our Bodies, Ourselves challenged that paradigm. With explicit, well-researched, and no-nonsense information about women’s bodies and their sexual and medical issues, the book “changed the basic discourse” within medical circles and cultures around the world.
This approach was revolutionary. The book began in quintessential female style, almost literally around the kitchen table when a group of women began meeting during the summer of 1969 to research their collective questions about women’s health. They compiled a 193-page course called “Women and Their Bodies.” The first book under the present title was published in 1971 and quickly sold 250,000 copies. It was, apparently, a topic whose time had come.
Our Bodies, Ourselves turned 40 this autumn. The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective—which grew from that first group of girlfriends—has now published several books targeted toward various demographics, including Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause, so the generation that came of age during that seminal edition can grow old with this one.
While health issues have changed (HIV/AIDS wasn’t around in 1971, for starters), the perennial appeal of Our Bodies, Ourselves, which now includes the book, the website, and the collective—the group of women who run the whole shebang and who work together to compile the books—remains strong. The group is marking this milestone with a new edition, which includes entries from over 300 contributors.
Even in this post-feminist, technological era, where health information is a few clicks away and women are more strongly represented in medicine than ever, Our Bodies, Ourselves remains a practical, “girlfriend” guide for women. It may (and has) been argued that it created a new genre.
“The legacy of Our Bodies, Ourselves is that it spawned a whole new kind of book,” said Courtney E. Martin, an editor at Feministing.com in a recent interview, “like your best friend sitting down in a room with you and telling you about your body and how it works without any embarrassment.”
Kind of like this blog, we hope.