The Last Good Sex-Ed Book

For forty-five years, Our Bodies, Ourselves helped empower curious women. Now that it’s going out of print, what will replace it?

our bodies, our selves written on paper in glitter
Natalie Vineberg / The Walrus

Growing up in 1980s suburban Ontario, I learned all I thought I needed to know about sex from Judy Blume’s Wifey. Unlike Blume’s usual young adult fare, Wifey is about a housewife who escapes the reality of her monotonous life through erotic fantasies. Our local library’s well-worn copy tantalized with its cover of a naked woman’s torso and the torrid promise of “an adult novel.” It was a covert neighbourhood preteen rite of passage to flip through the book’s earmarked pages and underlined naughty bits, then hide the copy behind a stack of other books to ensure it wouldn’t get checked out.

Sex ed in my Catholic-leaning, conservative home was mostly self-directed. I don’t remember any formal sit-down talks. I do remember being both envious and horrified for other friends who endured the awkward yet somehow touching ritual in which their hippie-leaning parent handed them a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves, never to be spoken of again. That interaction seemed cool and pretty radical compared to my own experience. Still, at the time, I would have rather died than have my parents acknowledge to my face that I was a sexual being.

The seminal women’s-health manual didn’t have a real presence in my life until university. In the early 1990s, before Google came along to answer all our questions, every feminist I knew carried around a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves like a membership badge to an exclusive cool-girls club. Its purpose shifted for me from a how-to guide for a sex-curious kid into a fist-pumping weapon. It was an accessory to my new identity, purchased along with a screen-printed T-shirt from the university women’s centre that proudly declared, “We haven’t come a long way, and don’t call me baby.”

The book told anybody who saw me carrying it that I was taking control of my own body, which was equally exhilarating and frightening, given my outwardly shy attitude toward sex. Our Bodies’s no-nonsense straight talk seemed uniquely of the feminist moment. Its information about contraception, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, and sexual pleasure was nowhere else to be found, and it dovetailed perfectly with the DIY feminist ethos of the emerging riot grrrl movement, zine culture, and the Tori Amos albums my roommate would play ad nauseam. Our Bodies paved the way for Dan Savage and Details’s Anka Radakovich, whose candid sex-advice columns we devoured. Our Bodies, Ourselves’s holistic approach to women’s health issues answered questions I didn’t know I had and would never dream of asking my well-meaning but clueless doctor, let alone my mom. It was quietly reassuring that one book could address sexual assault and rape and, at the same time, promote a healthy sex life with expectations of pleasure.

In 2011, Time declared Our Bodies, Ourselves one of the top 100 non-fiction books published in English since the magazine’s inception in 1923. Time praised the book for helping generations of women take charge of their sexuality, eschewing long-standing taboos around our health. I, for one, can’t imagine how I would have survived my twenties without its influence. But this might not be an option for the next generation of young women. In early April 2018, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, the non-profit that founded the title, announced that, after nearly forty-five years, it could no longer financially support future updates to the print or digital material. The outpouring of support and appreciation was immediate and widespread. Although much of the content compiled over the years will remain on the organization’s robust website, the demise of the physical book still felt like a gut punch.

I questioned whether my reaction was inspired by the wave of nostalgic “hand-wringing” among “women of a certain age,” as a Boston Globe journalist posited. We now have access to a multitude of online resources, so how terrible was it to lose one old book? Perhaps my emotions were influenced by the fact that I report on the publishing industry for a living. Admittedly, I was also being hypocritical: I no longer own Our Bodies, Ourselves and haven’t for years. I don’t even remember getting rid of my copy. Curious to see if I was alone, I casually polled friends. Most were saddened by the news, responding with fond coming-of-age stories. I heard how it changed some lives. How much it meant to lesbians of that generation to see themselves represented in print. There were a few vulva jokes. But no one I spoke to uses the book now.

Yet I couldn’t help wondering whether losing even one reliable, medically vetted resource is a cause for concern when education and knowledge about female bodies both clearly remain at risk. Given that one of the linchpins in Doug Ford’s successful campaign to be the premier of Ontario was scrapping the province’s updated sexual-education curriculum, the need for nonbiased resources—regardless of how they’re delivered—seems more urgent than ever.

Our Bodies, Ourselves was born out of a 1969 women’s-liberation conference in Boston, where twelve white, predominately middle-class, heterosexual women, ages twenty-three to thirty-nine, commiserated over frustrations with their physicians. “When you asked questions, you were told not to bother your pretty little head,” says Judy Norsigian, who has been with the organization since it was incorporated in 1972 and is one of the collective’s former executive directors. “There was a lot of sexism and condescension.”

The coalition’s original plan was to provide teaching materials to be disseminated to women. The twelve original members—most of whom are still involved in some capacity with the collective and participated in the decision making behind ceasing publication—divided up the subjects they felt needed covering, such as anatomy and physiology, sexuality, and pregnancy, and began researching textbooks and medical journals and talking about their experiences. A lesbian collective contributed its knowledge, and later on, a member’s mother offered insight for a chapter on menopause.

The origial 1970 edition, titled Women and Their Bodies, was a modest booklet distributed on newsprint with a handwritten table of contents featuring topics such as “Women, Medicine, and Capitalism,” “Birth Control,” “Abortion,” and “Post Partum.” A 193-page republished version released by New England Free Press a year later retailed at forty cents and sold more than 250,000 copies. Realizing the breadth of the audience hungry for the material, the collective incorporated, selected Simon & Schuster from among its many courting publishers, and changed the book’s title to Our Bodies, Ourselves to reflect its self-directed ethos.

The book could have easily remained a relic of 1970s feminism, a punchline about women examining their vaginas with hand mirrors. But the forward-thinking coalition recognized that women outside of their mostly white, middle-class circle were also desperately in need of education. Norsigian recalls being approached by a group, which was interested in translating the book into Spanish for Latinx readers, that sent two translators, one from Argentina and the other from California, to Boston to collaborate on a new edition. Its success would lead to future publications in thirty languages and the eventual launch of an international arm, the OBOS Global Initiative, to support independent projects that could better serve women at the local level.

“We always have had this principle that it’s not for us to decide what women’s needs are elsewhere but that they decide for themselves,” says Norsigian. “We make a point of not directing any group to focus on a particular topic or issue or format, and each group figures out its own path.”

One of the last international publications to come out of the OBOS Global Initiative is a 2017 Ugandan adaptation covering sexual health and relationships. The booklet was published by a nurse-practitioner student and was distributed for free at places where women congregate, like hair salons and marketplaces. Other OBOS projects including one closer to home, are still in the works. In early spring 2019, Montreal-based publisher Éditions du remue-ménage is slated to release a French Canadian adaptation.

Spearheaded by the collective La CORPS féministe, the forthcoming publication is a collaborative project with several other local and provincial agencies, featuring testimonies from more than thirty Québécois women and nonbinary individuals. The collective’s crowdsourced approach is similar to the one New York–based psychiatrist and educator Laura Erickson-Schroth took when she began working on her book about trans health and wellness, modelled after Our Bodies, Ourselves. Published in 2014, the 649-page tome Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, which features an afterword by Our Bodies cofounder Wendy Sanford, is based on the idea that the writers should reflect the intended readers’ lived experiences. The multicontributor volume covers a broad range of issues and is supplemented by art and short writings from a group of contributors who identify as transgender and genderqueer. A second edition is currently in the works, scheduled for 2021.

“In 1970, when the first Our Bodies, Ourselves booklet was released, over 90 percent of physicians [in the US] were men, and women had little access to information about their own bodies,” says Erickson-Schroth. “Similarly, Trans Bodies, Trans Selves was published in an environment where health professionals dominated discourse about trans bodies and identities, rather than trans people themselves.”

Erickson-Schroth, who is in her midthirties, was “saddened and shocked” by news that Our Bodies would no longer be available in print, despite her first-hand observation that the book has mostly lost its status as a household name. “I’ve given a number of talks to health professionals in training, and one of the first questions I always ask is ‘who has heard of Our Bodies, Ourselves?’ As the years have gone by, fewer and fewer raise their hands.”

Perhaps our mutual sadness is misplaced. Norsigian, who has returned to the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective as board chair, doesn’t seem as nostalgic as her fans. She reassures me that Our Bodies is not disappearing but rather evolving into a volunteer-led initiative committed to health-policy advocacy and to supporting other agencies that can better speak to their constituents’ needs—which was a decision that was reached unanimously by the collective’s board of directors, staff, and founders. “We’re going to be at a much lower level of activity,” says Norsigian. “We will be piggybacking on the wonderful work and research that our close collegial organizations do, and we will amplify their advocacy efforts with our voice and our bully pulpit.”

Our Bodies, Ourselves the book has not completely disappeared. The most recent edition, published in 2011, is still available for purchase, but it is not as common in bookstores as it once was. As I browsed the health section at a downtown Toronto bookstore in early summer, it’s apparent that general reference books are out of fashion. Several rows are dedicated to yoga and detox. Titles on mindfulness dominate, and so do celebrity authors, as illustrated by the prominent front-facing display of Goop’s The Sex Issue: Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know about Sexuality, Seduction, and Desire. Dedicated women’s-health titles are relegated to a couple half-stocked bottom rows. Later, while checking Amazon, I discovered that Our Bodies’s top customer review is from a woman who bought it for her grandchildren back in 2016.

The traditional publishing industry has been through a rough ride this past decade. Publishers and retailers panicked that ebook technology would decimate print sales. (It didn’t. According to BookNet Canada, only 18.6 percent of book purchases in 2017 were ebooks.) The rise of discount mega e-retailers like Amazon and skyrocketing commercial rents in Toronto contributed to the shuttering of dozens of indie bookstores, including those dedicated to feminist subjects like the Women’s Bookstore in Toronto was. That a cautious industry with already slim profit margins is giving preferential space to a potential blockbuster compiled by the editors at Goop, the wellness company founded by Gwyneth Paltrow, is not a shocker. There’s little room for older-generation reference books, which are both expensive and time intensive to keep up to date—each edition of Our Bodies cost the organization about $250,000 (US) to produce.

For generations who came of age before social media, the nine editions of Our Bodies, Ourselves were radical and of their time. Each update put women’s-health issues in the context of the current social, political, and economic climate, expanding the book’s coverage of subjects like HIV/AIDS, eating disorders, and workplace harassment while introducing new topics such as teen dating, violence, and queering Black female heterosexuality.

But over the past year, watershed conversations around sexual consent, gender fluidity, and trans rights have been stacking up like a game of Jenga. As we watched #MeToo reverberate through Hollywood and Christine Blasey Ford bravely testify during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, women were turning to each other online, and to activists like Rebecca Solnit and Tarana Burke, for comfort and for context. It would be impossible for any one book, especially one as in-depth as Our Bodies, to maintain the pace and relevancy of faster-moving media.

As a printed health source, Our Bodies could never keep up, but the founders’ steadfast conviction to remain inclusive while respecting women’s varied values is a rarity in the current political media landscape. It’s an admirable, though perhaps wishful, goal when it comes to polarizing subjects like abortion, which the book handles in a straightforward, frank way. “Some people believe abortion is wrong, it’s killing. Other people believe it’s an important reproductive choice for women, but one thing you do want to know is out there is accurate information about what the procedure is, what the risks are,” says Norsigian. “That’s the nonjudgmental kind of content that Our Bodies, Ourselves instituted so well for so long, and that’s a little harder to come by.”

Our Bodies founders prepared for the reality that the lightning speed and economics of the web would eventually replace them (the last two editions included advice on evaluating online sources), but Norsigian still worries that women of all ages are not carefully scrutinizing the information Google serves up. “They’re looking online for an answer, and what they don’t appreciate is that very often the source of information isn’t good, it’s inaccurate, it may be funded by a drug company,” she says. “They don’t appreciate the need for highly, sort of carefully vetted material that doesn’t have conflicts of interests. Now, a lot of people think they know everything, and what’s in their heads is actually the wrong information.”

Few people google medical information for pleasure. Most often, we’re in a panic, looking up a specific concern or symptom. In that desperate moment, chances are you’re probably not in a headspace to fully evaluate an online source. While researching a women’s-health story on early perimenopause—a story I admittedly wrote because of my own personal frustrations trying to find reliable information—I discovered how many websites that appear legitimate are openly copying each other’s content. If there’s an error or outdated information on one, it spreads like it would in the faulty-telephone game.

A few shining examples do stand out as the Our Bodies for a new generation of digital natives. Publications like the reinvigorated Teen Vogue and Canada’s own Shameless cover sensitive topics like mental health and #MeToo experiences with expertise and care. A site that both Norsigian and Erickson-Schroth endorse is Scarleteen, one of the first online resources dedicated to sexual education for teens and young adults. Scarleteen was founded in 1998 by queer Chicago-based sex educator Heather Corinna, who initially wanted to write a book but didn’t have the financial means to do so (it came out two years later, in 2000). The site is savvy, well designed, and nonjudgmental, and best of all, it offers several free one-on-one support services.

As the child of a single mom employed as a nurse, Corinna spent much of her formative years in hospitals, observing how doctors translated medical speak into plain language. She says she couldn’t fathom Scarleteen’s existence without Our Bodies. “I don’t really know that I would have felt emboldened or have the authority to start it all if it wasn’t for their model, which always made it clear that you had the capacity to inform yourself without somebody who is a doctor as long as you have the research and skills.”

An online pioneer who reaches millions of readers each year through her website, Corinna—a self-declared Our Bodies “fangirl” who contributed to the final 2011 edition—is an unlikely advocate for the printed word, but she connects the need for books to a broader need for accessibility. “We have this idea that if something is on the internet, then everyone can get at it, so we don’t necessarily need print books anymore, and that’s just not true.” She’s right. The internet does not come without its own challenges either. In 2016, the CRTC released a report identifying major gaps in broadband internet access across Canada, in particular, for those who live in rural communities. Privacy also comes into play. Not every young woman owns their own computer. It takes a certain boldness to research menstruation or pregnancy scares at the public library. And what about women who fear their partners or parents may access their search history?

But sliding a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves into the hands of a young woman is not going to solve those issues either. One book cannot speak to the experiences of all women and neither can a single website. We need a variety of resources that are deeply researched, fact based, and not dictated by sales targets, political agendas, or marketing algorithms. I want my nieces—who are roughly the same age I was when I was sneaking off with Wifey—to have access to up-to-date information in whatever format is most comfortable for them, whether that’s a zine or an app. But at the risk of sounding like a classic Onion headline (“Cool Dad Raising Daughter On Media That Will Put Her Entirely Out Of Touch With Her Generation”), there is still something intangibly lovely and meaningful about presenting a loved one with a book. “You can share a link,” says Corinna, “but link sharing is so common, it doesn’t feel like any kind of gift.”

Sue Carter
Sue Carter is editor of Quill & Quire, Canada's book-publishing magazine.