Our Bodies, Ourselves: The Manual and The Mystery
The subject of a woman’s body, even in its most intimate functions, was not taboo in the orthodox Jewish world of my upbringing. The rabbis had plenty to say about menstruation, sexual intercourse, vaginal hygiene, conception, birth and its aftermath. In our circles we were privy to dictates and folklore most of which served the purpose of protecting men from our insalubrious bodily functions. For example...
According to Jewish law, marital relations are strictly forbidden during menstruation and for seven days afterwards. At the conclusion of the seven days, specimens of vaginal discharge must be presented to the community rabbi whose job it is to make sure the fluid is clear of menstrual blood. There is in the Talmud an explicit consequence for couples who resume intercourse before the official OK – nine months later they must settle for the birth of a baby girl rather than the coveted boy. Talmudic tradition lets us know that females are the living result of haste and transgression. We arise from the impurity native to our core; our essence is the issue of a bloodstain.
My friends and I were navigating the wider, post-high school world at the time of Our Bodies, Ourselves’ inception (1970). We were swept up in the early stages of the sexual revolution when, in 1973, the expanded edition was published. I can’t say it was an instant hit or familiar reference in our circles. Though it would have dispelled many a misogynist myth, no one I knew rushed out to buy it. Sober, precise, informative and graphic, it had all the allure of a medical text while we lusted for a Harlequin romance. Although we took great pride in our liberation from ancient mind-sets, owning our own womanly bodies had little to with studying its clinical details. Owning our bodies mostly meant making our own decisions as to how far we would go with boys.
The recent advent of the pill, together with legalized abortions availed us of all the bodily freedom we craved. Our urges were impatient and primitive while the book presupposed a level of responsibility we hadn’t attained. Technical information was in its own way kind of a buzz kill. Thanks to the book’s appearance and influence, a few years later, younger women were holding up hand mirrors to their genitals and arguing the merits of variously flavored vaginal douches. We were after sensual oblivion spiced up by a vague sense of danger. Enigma was far more seductive than science. Like Psyche before she turns on the light and sees Eros in the harshly revealing glare, we clung to the mystery and left the manual to others who recognized its merits.
My best friend Lilah and I shared one of those “everything but” pacts which were popular back in our day. That was our manifesto of sexual self-determination. I knew that Lilah did not violate our virginity pact (for if she had, she would simply have told me.) This explains our bafflement when after a heavy session of petting, she skipped her periods and woke up feeling oddly nauseous. It could not be pregnancy for there had been no penetration. That much we knew for sure. After she left New York City, with her condition still undiagnosed, Lilah found herself in Israel, 18 weeks pregnant. In Jerusalem, 1968 her late-stage pregnancy ruled out abortion and condemned her to social isolation, painfully birthing the baby and obligatory adoption.
Today, I look up “How Pregancy Happens” in the latest edition (2005) of Our Bodies, Ourselves and find this. “It is also possible for sperm to be deposited in or near the lips around the vagina during ejaculation even without intercourse and to travel up the vagina from there.” I do not know if that information was included in the original edition but we certainly could have benefited from the facts, nothing but the facts.
The book, just like Lilah’s baby girl, are both around 40 years old by now. Lilah died of metastatic breast cancer before the age of 50 and her subsequent three daughters have tested positive for the mutated BRCA1 gene that greatly increases the risk of the disease. They are now actively looking for their older half sister, born when their mom was just 18 years old. They, like Our Bodies, Ourselves, have vital health information and unlike their much-missed mom and I, they are well aware of its life-saving value. They want to pass the information along to their lost sibling. I pray that they reach her in time.
Susan Reimer-Torn is a writer, an executive coach and workshop leader who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and blogs at susanrtorn.wordpress.com.
In 1969 a group of women in Boston began to meet and talk about women's health issues. Out of this collaboration the first edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves was born. Of the 12 women who legally incorporated the group as the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, nine were Jewish, including Esther Rome, Paula Doress-Waters, and Nancy Miriam Hawley.
This year, Our Bodies, Ourselves is celebrating their 40th anniversary. Visit the website to share a story of how the book impacted your life and find other ways to participate in the 40th anniversary celebration.