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Landmark Book On Women's Sexuality Turns 40

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. In a moment, a critically acclaimed film tells the classic story of an immigrant's quest for success in America with a 21st-century twist. The movie is called "A Better Life," and Mexican actor Demian Bichir is the star. He portrays a gardener in Los Angeles, an illegal immigrant who is trying both to stay in the shadows and give his son a better life.

We'll hear from him in a moment about this film, which has earned rave reviews from critics. But first, we have another conversation about gender and health. It began as a pamphlet that sold for 75 cents each. Forty years later, it has become a comprehensive tome of more than 900 pages filled with information about subjects as wide-ranging as body image, sexuality or how to talk to your doctor.

And for the past four decades, women and girls who've had a question about their health or sexuality have known they can turn to this source for a frank and simple answer.

We're talking about the book "Our Body, Ourselves." Time magazine called it one of the 100 most-influential nonfiction books of our times. This month marked the 40th anniversary of its publication. Let's listen as readers share stories about the impact the book has had on their lives, as told to the editors of "Our Bodies, Ourselves."

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I started working on reproductive health and sexuality in 2001 in New Delhi, India, and "Our Bodies, Ourselves," the 1998 edition, was one of the first books that was handed over to me by my trainer and supervisor. And I remember my supervisor coming to me and saying if you know this book, you'll be fine.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: My mom always had it in the house, and she showed it to me at a very young age.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I think it's made for everybody, and I don't think - I think if you're 15 and you look at it, or if you're 21 and look at it, I think you feel the same level of comfort. It's people like yourself. So you don't have to feel a threat of that it's going to be too advanced, or you're not going to understand it.

MARTIN: The book was originally co-authored by 12 women known as the Boston Women's Health Collective. The group has grown quite a bit since then. Three of the contributors of the new edition are with us now: Christine Cupaiuolo. She's managing editor of this year's edition of "Our Bodies, Ourselves." June Tsang is part of the book team for the 2011 edition, and she also has a focus on the global initiative. And Jamia Wilson contributed to the body-image part of the 2011 edition.

We also hope to hear from Judy Norsigian, who was a co-founder and a co-author of the first edition. We hope she'll be joining us during this conversation. But ladies, thank you so much for joining us, and congratulations.

CHRISTINE CUPAIUOLO: Thank you. Thank you for having us.

JUNE TSANG: Glad to be here.

JAMIA WILSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: So Christine, I'm going to start with you. I think, you know, even with the clips that we just played, I think it's kind of hard for people to grasp, you know, what a game-changer this book was, you know, back in the day. The fact that it was passed around and a lot of us were, you know, comparing notes, people - women of my peer group - about how it was passed from hand to hand, almost like an underground newspaper, you know, in a communist country.

CUPAIUOLO: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Can you describe a little bit of kind of the atmosphere and why the book got started? You know, what got it launched? What was going on that made women feel that, you know, this is something we need to do?

CUPAIUOLO: Sure. Back when it first began, 40 years ago, there was much more of a paternalistic culture, and then an attitude that women didn't really need to know about their bodies. You know, it was something that they could just be taught by what were mostly male doctors at that time. And ownership of their bodies and a sense of comfort with their own sexuality was something that was really new.

So the fact that 12 women at that time really took it into their own hands to say, hey, you know, there is information here that we need to know better for ourselves and other women that, you know, that we know also need this information. And they put it together. They really educated themselves and presented it in a way that was very clear and understandable.

And through that, it grew in popularity. It clearly was something that women needed at that time, and that they continue to need still, even though, 40 years later, we have so much information that's available to us. You know, who hasn't, when they begin to feel ill or get an itch, you know, go on Google and try to figure out what it is.

But it's almost precisely because we have so much information that we still need a book like "Our Bodies, Ourselves" that provides accurate, unbiased data that is not influenced by any pharmaceutical or corporate interest, and can really provide women with honest information that makes them feel not only more comfortable with their bodies, but empowered to learn more, to educate themselves, to share information with others and to really take ownership of their lives.

MARTIN: I should have done this earlier. I just want to repeat the advisory I gave for the earlier conversation we had on this program about prostate cancer. I do want to mention this conversation might not be considered appropriate for everybody listening right now, because there are some issues around sexuality that we may want to discuss.

So with that being said, Christine, tell us about some of the new chapters in the book, especially the one titled "Relationships."

CUPAIUOLO: Sure. Well, in this edition, we really made a return back to the book's roots in terms of a focus on reproductive health and sexuality. And the relationships chapter is a chapter that has been in previous editions, but one of the problems in writing a chapter like that is that when you look to update it, you know, what can you say? Relationships: They're still hard work. We're still trying at them.

So we wanted to do something different this year, and we really wanted to include more women's voices, again looking back to what the origins of the book had been. So we decided to create a conversation where women would talk about their relationships, their marriages, their partners, and we wanted to do it in a way that we could involve as many people as possible.

So rather than pick a particular region such as New York or San Francisco and put women together in a room and ask them, you know, to participate in a discussion, we used our blog, OurBodiesOurBlog.org, and social media to ask: Hey, would you like to be part of the updating of the relationship chapter for "Our Bodies, Ourselves"?

And we weren't sure what reaction we would get, but we were soon overwhelmed. We had enough coming in from as far away as Australia, people who - you know, and again this goes back to what you said at the beginning, who had felt the impact of the book over the years and were just overjoyed at the possibility that they might be able to take part in a conversation that would end up in the book.

So we ended up selecting 37 women, ranging in age from, I think it was 17 to - in the mid-60s. And they spent a month engaged in a private, online site. We used Google Sites, so we've been blending technology with the book as we've been going along. And they discussed everything from family expectations and pop culture.

And it was really lovely. We had a group of women who had all different gender identities and sexual orientations and who came from all walks of life. And they really supported each other over this month, encouraged each other, offered great advice, and their words were far stronger and far more relevant than something we could have done just as a third-party analysis.

MARTIN: June, I want to turn to you now. The book's been published now in 25 languages, including Bulgarian and Turkish and Spanish and French. And I'm interested in what reaction that the book gets, you know, around the country, because, as we know, there are very different views about what is appropriate to discuss publicly, how the female form is to be depicted around the world. So what are some of the reactions that the book has gotten around the world?

TSANG: Well, I think a lot of our global partners have been able to use "Our Bodies, Ourselves" and sort of adapt it to their own culture and to their own language. And so some - you know, some global partners do choose to include certain chapters on sexuality, and others are sort of, you know, waiting until a little later. But it's usually - it's really just - it's more than just a book. It's really a platform for these organizations to really create movement building and activism and change.

So while it is in print or in digital and interactive formats, it's sort of more than just a book, as we like to say. And they're - it's a dynamic tool for us and for local women and girls in other countries to really transform their communities and inform themselves and to engage.

MARTIN: Jamia, tell us about the chapter or the section that you worked on, which is about body image.

WILSON: I worked on a chapter about body image and contributed a piece about the negative images that hurt girls. Girls as young as seven are being exploited as sex objects in a media-driven culture, and this is caused by the sexualization of girls in the media. And so I spoke about how the media landscape has become increasingly toxic.

And the American Psychological Association actually did a study that showed that these toxic images have been linked to increasing amounts of depression, low self-esteem and eating disorders among girls and creating a link to what we see and how we perceive ourselves.

We've also seen that it detracts from the ability for girls to concentrate and focus, and these sort of images are also bad for boys, so...

MARTIN: How do you expect people to use this information? What do you think people - how do you want them to react to it when they read this?

WILSON: When people read this information, I want them to understand that being comfortable and confident in your own skin makes a difference, and stronger girls create a better world. And we believe in creating alternatives, creating alternatives to the toxic media culture, as well as girls and the people who care about them taking action to hold the media accountable, expose sexualization in the media and to understand that this is the way it is, but it's not the way that it has to be, and we can work together to change things.

MARTIN: If you're just joining - I'm going to pick up on that in a minute, but if you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the classic guide to women's health, "Our Bodies, Our Selves." It is 40 years old this year, and we're speaking with contributors to the new edition, the Ninth Edition, Christine Cupaiuolo, June Tsang and Jamia Wilson. They all contributed.

And I want to pick up on something you said that, you know, the book says, right on the cover, right on the back cover, that this offers unbiased information. But they would argue - I think there are many people who would argue that it does strike a very political tone, and that is in itself a bias.

So Christine, could I just ask you to weigh in on that? Well, for example, I'll just say on the section describing abortion, there are a lot of Americans who say that there are important moral questions at the heart of issues like sexuality and, you know, abortion as one aspect of sexuality, and the book doesn't really take on the moral questions. It describes it in medical terms and so forth, but that they would - I think that there are some who would argue that that is a not complete conversation. So how do you respond to that?

CUPAIUOLO: Sure, and that's a very good question. I think that it's important to understand when approaching the book that we are providing women with information that is legally available, that is it should be accessible to all women, and that we are framing it in a way of explaining their rights and their responsibilities.

And by providing that, they are then left, you know, to really make their own choices. So in terms of positioning something such as abortion, we provide a historical context, showing how the laws have changed in the United States over the past 40 years, and also globally.

In "The Politics of Women's Health" chapter, we look at the effects of HIV, the effects of birth control - excuse me, not the effects per se but rather the effects of U.S. policy on birth control and contraception. And by offering that full picture of information, we show that, you know, these are not just decisions or issues that are popular right now or are in the political arena, that this isn't new but rather that there's a history to this.

And I think understanding the history, understanding all of the work that has gone before that reproductive rights and justice activists have done, is very important to understanding where we are now today.

MARTIN: Would you deny, though, that it has a point of view, that it does in fact have a political orientation? Would you resist that characterization, or would you embrace it?

CUPAIUOLO: No, I don't think that I would resist that characterization, but again I think it's important to acknowledge that the point of view that is presented is one of this is a legal situation, and this is something that women have a right to and should have access to. And so by us providing that information and by explaining who to call, what to ask, how to best find out that information for yourself, and also providing resources and services so that you can talk through whatever decision you may have when approaching the possibility of having an abortion or the possibility of also putting a child up for adoption or foster care services.

The book addresses all of those things. So we do not take a position in saying this is the only choice that's right for you, but rather we provide information on all of the choices that are available to women. And by providing them honest information and accurate resources on where to go should they have questions, or should they need help, that is the best service that I believe that we as a woman's health organization can be providing women today.

MARTIN: Jamia, do you mind if I ask you this question, because I think you are one of the, if I may say, one of the younger members of our discussion group today, and you grew up in a time when as, you know, Christine was pointing out earlier, well, first of all, when the book first came out, you know, the Internet was not, you know, available, all these sources of information were not readily available.

You grew up in a time when it is. So what role do you think a book like this plays when - throughout the world, I mean, not everywhere in the world, but in most places in the world, there's some way for people to get access to a lot of information that was not available 40 years ago. So what role do you think a book like this plays? And June, I'm going to ask you the same question too.

WILSON: I can personally say that it has impacted my life in a great way. And the book was given to me by my mother when I was reaching my early tweens and embarking on adolescence. And while I did have Internet access and access to information within popular culture, it was really valuable to be able to have a book with a trusted friend voice like "Our Bodies, Ourselves" provides.

I did not sense an agenda when I read it. I very much saw an openness, like we just described, to creating options for me and an inclusiveness to the text. And so I've actually had the privilege of having several editions of this book being a part of my life and was first introduced to the book in popular culture when Fred Savage was looking at it for sex information on "The Wonder Years" when I was a child.


WILSON: And it made me curious about that book. So it actually made me think that my mom was much cooler that she presented me with this book and made me more interested in learning about myself. (Unintelligible) seen it on TV.

MARTIN: How about that? How about that? June, what about you? What do you - what role do you think a book like this plays at a time when so much is available, you know, online?

TSANG: I think sort of going back to what Christine was saying earlier, you know, this book was so important 40 years ago because there was no information, and now there's sort of too much information, and it's difficult to weed through. And at least for me growing up, I didn't - like, my parents didn't talk about women's health or sexuality, safer sex, and I was sort of left to figure it out on my own.

And I was very confused, and I was just sort of drowning in a lot of - it was just too much information with all these different points of views, and to be able to have almost sort of - summarize it all for me very nicely and to sort of - you know, there was no agenda, as Jamia said, it's sort of, it's able to allow young women to see what is out there and not be influenced by the media.

MARTIN: Okay, but we're part of the media, but thank you for that. We understand what you're trying to say. June Tsang was part of the 2011 edition of the "Our Bodies, Our Selves" book, and she's also a part of their global initiative. She joined us from WHRB in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Jamia Wilson also contributed to the 2011 edition. She joined us from our bureau in New York.

And Christine Cupaiuolo is managing editor of this year's edition of "Our Body, Our Selves," and she joined us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Ladies, thank you all so much for joining us.

CUPAIUOLO: Thank you.

TSANG: Thank you.

WILSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.