Our Bodies, Ourselves turns 50
April 23, 2021 4:23 AM   Subscribe

“I walked into this lounge full of women,” she remembers, “and someone up in the front of the room was talking about the clitoris, orgasm and masturbation, and I was just so embarrassed. I just sank down to the floor and listened really hard. This was stuff that I had never heard said out loud before.” At one point, Sanford remembers, the speaker held up a lifesize picture of a woman, with legs apart, to show the location of the clitoris, and to explain how, contrary to Freudian thinking, it is the major organ of female sexual pleasure. “Who knew this before?” she asked the group, who sat largely blank-faced. “That’s my point,” she told them. “We should know these things. These are our bodies.” The clitoris, pain and pap smears: how Our Bodies, Ourselves redefined women’s health, a long read from The Guardian.

For Sanford, the opportunity to discuss such issues proved radical. “That evening really turned something around in my life,” she says. “I was so grateful, I gave the next 40 years of my life to the women’s health movement.”

Sanford would become one of the founding authors of Our Bodies, Ourselves, a book about women’s health and sexuality that would prove revolutionary. It sold more than 4m copies globally and became available in 33 languages, and is considered one of the most influential books of the 20th century. Across its nine editions, it addressed sexual health, sexual orientation, menstruation, motherhood, menopause, postnatal depression, abortion (still illegal in much of the US in the book’s early editions), violence and abuse, gender identity, birth control and desire. ...

As Our Bodies, Ourselves spread around the world, it took the crucial step of being adapted, rather than translated – so embracing the nuances and specificities of different cultures. Among those adaptations is the Ugandan edition of 2017, edited by Diana Namumbejja Abwoye, 35, a family nurse practitioner and a member of the board of directors of Our Bodies, Ourselves.

Our Bodies, Ourselves website
Remembering the meeting that led to Our Bodies, Ourselves (“What’s in this pill?” I asked the doctor. He came over and patted the top of my head and said, “Dear, dear, you don't have to worry about it.”)
Obituary of Vermont poet, playwright, artist and activist Phyllis Rachel Larrabee, née Phyllis Rochel Litman, who was part of the Bread and Roses Collective that published Our Bodies, Ourselves
posted by Bella Donna (25 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
When I was a kid our house had a multi-volume Encyclopaedic Dictionary which included some detailed diagrams of women's anatomy. But when you looked up the entries one said "the clitoris has no function."
posted by TheophileEscargot at 4:45 AM on April 23, 2021 [20 favorites]

Wendy Sanford, who is interviewed in the article, is a friend of mine. I'm younger—55 now—and had owned Our Bodied, Ourselves. When they did the last revision, she asked me to review a chapter before publication, and I did, and as a result, I have a little bio in the back of the book. It made me feel like I was a tiny piece of history. I felt very honored.
posted by Orlop at 4:47 AM on April 23, 2021 [78 favorites]

But when you looked up the entries one said "the clitoris has no function."

posted by Omnomnom at 6:33 AM on April 23, 2021 [3 favorites]

The significance of this book can't be overemphasized. Growing up in the 70's, it was common to see a copy of this book on shelves in the houses of my friends. Many parents who did not necessarily feel comfortable or knowledgeable talking about this stuff with their teen daughters, at least bought copies of the book to have it available. We did not have it at home (not sure why), but I read it regularly at friends houses, and girls also lent it to those with less enlightened parents. This information, written for women in a relatable and understandable way, just was not available anywhere else.
posted by gudrun at 7:19 AM on April 23, 2021 [15 favorites]

I love this book, I find the project inspirational, I appreciate this post, I look forward to digging into the links, and I thank you for reminding me to bring the spirit of Our Bodies, Ourselves to the grassroots educational media I make.
posted by brainwane at 7:36 AM on April 23, 2021 [4 favorites]

Good work, Orlop!
posted by Bella Donna at 7:44 AM on April 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

A lovely obit for Phyllis Larrabee, she sounds like a firecracker. May her memory be for a blessing.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 8:46 AM on April 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

Not exactly related, but I was amazed that it took this long (2019) for someone, specifically Dr. Jen Gunter, to write "The Vagina Bible"
posted by kschang at 8:52 AM on April 23, 2021 [4 favorites]

Also, we keep "forgetting" the actual size of the (very useful) clitoris: The Clitoris, Uncovered: An Intimate History (Scientific American, March 4, 2020) Around 90 percent of the clitoris’s bulk lies beneath the surface. It is a sprawling underground kingdom of crackling nerves and blood-pumping vessels. Underneath the nub, called the glans clitoris, a plump wishbone shape encircles the vagina, with arms that flare out up to nine centimeters into the pelvis. And all of the parts beneath the surface are made of erectile tissue, meaning they swell with blood when aroused to become even bigger. [...] The clitoris is intimately entwined with all of the pelvic structures around it, including the urethra (the duct for urination), the vagina and the labia. This arrangement has implications in the bedroom, in the classroom and on the operating table. [...]

Throughout history, the clitoris has been lost, found and lost again, with male anatomists jostling one another over who deserves credit for its “discovery.” Yet the full clitoris is still inadequately portrayed in most anatomy textbooks. [...] In 2005 Australian urologist Helen O’Connell thrust the full anatomy of the clitoris into the public eye. She used microdissection of cadavers and magnetic resonance imaging of living women to reveal what only a few brave anatomists had ever dared to point out. O’Connell compared the clitoris to an iceberg: beneath the surface, it was 10 times the size most people thought it was and boasted two to three times as many nerve endings as the penis. And its shape—part penguin, part insect, part spaceship—was a marvel that could only be appreciated in three dimensions.
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:53 AM on April 23, 2021 [15 favorites]

You can trace Professor Helen O'Connell's discovery of the full clitoris – and the rewriting of the world's anatomy texts – to two books: one that angered her and another that inspired. The first book, Last's Anatomy, she couldn't seem to escape. The 1985 edition was the set text for her surgical exam and – to her "utter disbelief" as a classic overachiever – she failed the test three times. She calls this the "ridiculous book"; it had almost no mention of the clitoris, and certainly no illustrations, yet there were two pages on the penis. To top it off, aspects of female genitals were described as a "failure" of male genital formation (O'Connell still has the book, the word "failure" underlined in blue pen).

"I knew at some point," she says, "that I was going to have to tackle that." - Sydney Morning Herald, Dec. 2, 2018
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:55 AM on April 23, 2021 [14 favorites]

My mom gave me a copy of this book as a teen in the early 80s and it was incredibly significant for me. I read and re-read it and used it to help form my ideas about how I wanted sex and relationships to be for me. I went to college and became sexually active, and though I participated in some messy interpersonal dynamics, I did always insist on safe sex and attention to my pleasure.
posted by See you tomorrow, saguaro at 11:29 AM on April 23, 2021 [6 favorites]

Yeah, I feel like younger generations might never understand how hard it was to get access to this type of info before the internet. We sure didn't have a copy at my house, and I was way too embarrassed to check it out from the library when I was super young, but I finally did when I was in college. It felt dated even then -- mid 80s -- but still, it was the #1 way to get so much of this info.
posted by BlahLaLa at 12:16 PM on April 23, 2021 [6 favorites]

Many parents who did not necessarily feel comfortable or knowledgeable talking about this stuff with their teen daughters, at least bought copies of the book to have it available.

This is exactly how I got my sex education. My parents didn't even tell me we had the book, it was just shoved into one corner of a bookshelf. It could be it was left there intentionally in the hope that we would find it and educate ourselves, or it's possible that they already owned it and just put it there with the rest of the books and weren't thinking about us at all. Whatever the case, it definitely provided the most valuable relationship and reproductive education that I had growing up. It was way better than anything I got at school, and my parents never talked with me about anything related to sex or relationships, ever.
posted by Anonymous at 12:46 PM on April 23, 2021

I had an old newsprint copy without even a cardstock cover. I have given several editions. I had a bookstore, and it was always in stock. The book made a huge difference in my and my generation's understanding of our bodies and so much more. Just realized I know a 14 year old girl who I should make sure has a copy. I have a debt of gratitude to these wonderful and amazing women. thanks for posting this.
posted by theora55 at 1:10 PM on April 23, 2021 [8 favorites]

I got a copy of this as a preteen and it was enormously important to me. Bought an updated version when my daughters were kids. So glad to read more about the women who made it happen!
posted by leslies at 1:52 PM on April 23, 2021

I got ahold of someone else's copy around 1993. I forget whose it was, but it was definitely bought for teens to see. Even so, since I came from the Bible Belt, it felt wild and liberatory just to be reading it.

I did not turn out to be lesbian or bi, as I hoped then. Nor did reading the book protect me from bad ideas about sex or bad men. It didn't make me sex-positive or happy with my desires just from reading it.

But I also didn't get teen pregnant or get talked into doing things with my reproductive system that I didn't want to do. The book gave me a foundation in fact (insofar as I paid enough attention) and reassured me that there were things I had a right to know, just by its existence.
posted by Countess Elena at 2:02 PM on April 23, 2021 [7 favorites]

Definitely a classic from every hippie's bookshelf.
posted by fairmettle at 10:49 PM on April 23, 2021

My experience was the same as schroedinger’s. My theory is that Mom knew we’d eventually get around to reading everything on the bookshelves, and the sex ed books would just fall into the rotation. I think I must have been around ten when I read OBO.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:01 PM on April 23, 2021

If I want to give my kids the same experience, what book should I leave "lying around"? Is there something better out these days?
posted by Omnomnom at 7:17 AM on April 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

My understanding is that the Scarleteen website does a very good job, especially for those who may be questioning their gender.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:03 AM on April 24, 2021 [4 favorites]

There’s a book by many of the same authors aimed at all teenagers, that would probably be good on a bookshelf. Wouldn’t have the same draw of Grownup Knowledge, I guess.
posted by clew at 9:40 AM on April 24, 2021 [3 favorites]

We definitely had it at home but I can't remember if I bought it or my Mom did. I kind of remember it confused the hell out of me at first; it was all a rush, one minute realizing I couldn't actually picture exactly how sex was going to work or how to find my clitoris, the next minute having my first boyfriend and then going to college, thumbing through that book all the time for answers to all my crazy questions.

The most important thing for me probably was just the starting proposition that my female body was important, that sex was just as important for my body as for any boy's body, and that my body was my own to take care of. These were fairly new concepts then, and I'm grateful to the people who put together that book and that it reached me at the right time.
posted by maggiemaggie at 7:26 PM on April 24, 2021 [6 favorites]

I bought it in a tiny bookstore called The Jabberwock on a residential side street in Boulder around the time it came out.

I read it from cover to cover, but my girlfriend barely glanced at it. They anticipated issues with male readership and admonished men not to use it merely as a guide to better technique when having sex with women, which I took seriously, and which I think also anticipated access to information aspects of the PUA problem, although those appear to be insoluble.
posted by jamjam at 9:01 PM on April 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

TheophileEscargot: ... But when you looked up the entries one said "the clitoris has no function."

Omnomom: WTF!

There aren't enough WTF's in the world to express how much damage this willful ignorance has done. Among just one of many examples is the story of Bo Laurent.

As Cheryl Chase, she was one of the first people, in the early 1990s, to tell the medical establishment that surgery on the gonads and genitals should not be done without the patient's informed consent.

Laurent was born in !956, in New Jersey, and assigned male at birth. Cathleen and Arthur Sullivan named their first child Brian.

Eighteen months later, doctors performed exploratory surgery on Brian and found a uterus and gonads containing both ovarian and testicular tissue.

They told the Sullivans that they'd made a mistake: Their child was a girl, the physicians said. Brian was renamed Bonnie, and Bonnie's external genitals – which the doctors believed were too big to be a clitoris and too small to be a penis – were completely removed.

The Sullivans never talked to their daughter about her first 18 months (the doctors told them to throw away all photos of Brian), except to inform her at age 10 that she'd had her "very large" clitoris removed and that everything was fine now. (Nobody told her what a clitoris was.) In the early 1990s, Laurent, who has no clitoral sensation and has never had an orgasm, asked her mother about the surgery and about her early childhood.

What she was told, as quoted by Elizabeth Weil in a 2006 New York Times Magazine interview, shouldn't be paraphrased:
According to Chase’s notes from that conversation (both of her parents have since died), her mother maintained that the clitoridectomy had not impacted her daughter’s life. “When you came home,” Cathleen Sullivan told Chase about her return from the hospital after surgery, “there seemed to be no effect at all. Oh, yes, wait a minute. Yes, there was one thing. You stopped speaking. I guess you didn’t speak for about six months. Then one day you started talking again. You had known quite a lot of words at 17 months, but you forgot them all.” ...

Chase says that her own mother’s discomfort with and ignorance about sexuality contributed to the decision to have Chase’s clitoris amputated. When Chase ... discussed her childhood with her mother, she also quizzed her mother about sex. “No, I don’t know what human genitals look like, exactly,” Chase’s mother told her. “I have never looked at myself, and I never looked closely at my children. The doctor said your clitoris had to go. Mine never meant anything to me, so I didn’t think it was wrong to remove yours.”
posted by virago at 9:19 AM on April 25, 2021 [5 favorites]

If you can access the BBC Sounds website Laura's episode can be found here. If you don't have access, and still want to hear it, memail me.
posted by urbanwhaleshark at 4:01 AM on April 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

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