Learning Curves

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W  ike most children of the ’80s, I had received a reasonable sex education via pop culture by the age of eleven. In fourth grade, I asked my mother what Darryl Hall was referring to when he sang “I Want to Play that Game Tonight,” and laughed knowingly when she answered “Monopoly.” I had suffered eye strain from repeated late-night viewings of the Spice Channel and was a longtime aficionado of The Joy of Sex. Still, nothing quite prepared me for the copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves that I found in my parents’ basement.
    It wasn’t the detailed diagrams of the female reproductive system, or the drawings of six different types of hymens, that captivated me. Nor was it the righteous, womyn-power assertions such as, “We are learning to live our sexuality on our own terms.” No, it was the book’s explicit, unflinching description of fantasies: real women revealing their most private erotic imaginings about horses (ew) other women (less ew) and men (totally awesome, as I may actually have said in 1986). I read the scenarios over and over in the privacy of my locked bedroom, until I finally left for college, where the logistics of living with a roommate promptly put an end to that.
    The eighth edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves arrives in bookstores this month. Touted as one of the most lasting contributions of the second-wave women’s movement, it has been called the definitive women’s-health reference of the last thirty-five years. But ask the daughters of its original intended audience — the women who now call themselves the third wave — why they love it, and they’ll confirm it wasn’t the advice on healthy eating or bicep-building that mesmerized them in their youth.
    “I definitely remember reading the sex parts, especially the lesbian parts, and being like, this is amazing, they’re real people talking about sex,” says Liza Featherstone, the author of Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart. “It must be like a teenage guy discovering Penthouse Forum. Except better, because these aren’t stories about people having sex in airplanes that are probably made up. It must be the way that people experience amateur porn now.”
    It’s true: reading OBOS isn’t entirely unlike watching a jiggly, implant-free woman and her paunchy, real-life boyfriend wrestling naked in front of their home cam. The fantasies in OBOS weren’t airbrushed, and neither were the people. And though one friend of mine claims that a childhood viewing of “the crazy picture of two fat lesbians, one of them in a wheelchair” led her to temporarily resolve that sex was absolutely, unequivocally grody to the max, most of us felt deeply, intuitively comforted by the knowledge that we could think our dirty thoughts and look like our less-than-centerfold-worthy selves and still get some action (eventually).
    Hell, you wouldn’t even need a lover. (That’s the book’s very Saturday Night Live-sounding term, not mine.) In fact, OBOS picks up where Gloria Steinem’s “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” maxim leaves off. Every edition devoted an entire section to sisters doing it for themselves, sexually speaking. From the

In OBOS, feminists weren’t man-haters  —  they seemed to love not just men, but also women, bondage, polyamory and water sports.

story about the gym teacher who feels up her female students to the girl who imagines sleeping with her brother because he’s “nineteen and groovy and looks just like me,” OBOS provided plenty of things to think about while doing the deed. “I don’t remember a lot about the rest of the book,” says Marisa Meltzer, a freelance writer who was given OBOS by her mother one Christmas. “I was like, let’s get back to the masturbation scenes.”
    I’m pretty sure that when the book was first published in 1970, its feminist authors weren’t attempting to recruit young ladies to their cause with a bait-and-switch — get ‘em with the sex stuff, then pump ‘em full of women’s lib. But it worked anyway. “The book definitely politicized me,” says Christine Cupaiuolo, the online editor of Ms. magazine. “It made me more aware of the issues. It showed me a paradigm existed that I could work and live in.” OBOS illustrated that women could (and should) march in defense of abortion rights, fight the inadequacy of the American health care system, and tell their husbands to shove it when they skipped the foreplay — but still have a threesome or fantasize about being spanked. In the OBOS worldview, political action was an easy bedfellow of un-PC sex.
    And by inadvertently appealing to pre-pubescent girls’ hormones, it provided a much-needed corrective. “One of feminism’s jobs has always seemed to be about giving women sexual agency and acknowledging they’re sexual people, and yet that’s not feminism’s identity,” says Jennifer Baumgardner, the author of Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism. (The North Dakota native confesses to a penchant for a certain OBOS scenario involving a bathtub and warm running water. “It was cold in Fargo,” she explains.) As far as OBOS readers knew, feminists weren’t man-haters — they seemed to love not just men, but also women, bondage, polyamory and water sports.
    And all this free-to-be sexuality wasn’t just appealing to girls. “I was first exposed to naked women in Our Bodies, Ourselves, well before Playboy," says Mike Carnegie, a thirty-year-old graduate student and artist in L.A. "So any titillation would have always been wrapped up in some kind of awareness of feminist body-image concerns." OBOS may have stealthily made a generation of men more feminist, though Carnegie isn’t convinced his experience with OBOS was entirely positive. “On the dark side, it contributed to a kind of imperial guilt in my teens — like jerking off to natives in National Geographic." But he admits that when the time came, “I probably knew my way around a vagina better than I might’ve otherwise. Or so I like to think.”
    To me, OBOS has exhausted its usefulness as a pornographic accessory. The scenarios don’t give me the same spark they did, back when I wasn’t just like a virgin. But the newest edition sits in an exalted position on my bookshelf, and not just because I’m nostalgic. Now, OBOS is what everyone says it’s supposed to be: a kind, tender, essential how-to manual. The new edition covers all of the old sexual stuff, plus more recent health-care issues — there are sections on plastic surgery, antidepressants and menstrual suppression, not to mention a misguided anti-Brazilian-bikini-wax diatribe — but the fierce feminist analysis, nowhere to be found in the average reference book, remains.
    It’s a good thing, because our sex lives may be even more embattled now. With TV gays making network execs rich while real-life queers can’t even get a tax break, OBOS‘s loving — and lusty — depiction of lesbian sex, coupled with its explorations of institutionalized homophobia, remains nothing less than radical. And as abstinence-only advocates tout the value of technical virginity — and their young charges comply by substituting unprotected oral or anal sex for vaginal intercourse — OBOS continues to provide comprehensive sex education without a hint of compromise.  

To buy Our Bodies, Ourselves, click here.

Kara Jesella is a freelance writer in New York City. She is currently co-writing a book on Sassy magazine for Farrar, Straus & Giroux.