Feminist pioneer Norsigian discusses sexual health book

Huffington Post/Damon Dahlen

By Lauren Paolini

Author Judy Norsigian and scholar Aziza Ahmed led a discussion about the evolution of sexual health March 6.

Fifty years ago, Norsigian met with a group of other women for a workshop at Emmanuel College, discussing ideas that would eventually become the first edition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” (OBOS).  

This book of information on women’s sexual and reproductive health was the first of its kind, and at the time, very taboo. There was very limited information about women’s health issues, especially concerning their sex lives. 

The first ever edition, “Women and their Bodies,” sold for about 75 cents apiece in 1970. 

Norsigian discussed the different editions and subsets of the book. In 2006, the group released an edition of OBOS focusing on menopause, and in 2008, another edition that detailed pregnancy and birth. There are copies all over the globe that have been adapted by different authors to fit the cultures and communities of whichever country they were released in. 

Norsigian said one of the OBOS group founders wrote an afterward of the book.

“’Transbodies, Trans selves: A Resource for the Transgender Community’ is as heavy and as long as the original ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’ and it’s modeled after ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves.’ … It had a lot of factual information as well as the experiences of people living with the challenges of gender identity and sexual orientation.”

Norsigian paralleled some of the major health challenges women faced decades ago to similar ones of today. She said most boys and girls are not receiving enough accurate sexual education, which is why in Massachusetts, the “Healthy Youth Act” is being considered. This would require any sexual education being taught to be scientifically accurate. 

The author also said reproductive rights are still under attack, referencing Roe v. Wade. Norsigian explained opponents of this ruling are spreading false information and putting women’s rights in danger. 

Norsigian also referenced gender bias, sex trafficking, gender-based violence, and even healthcare access as women’s rights issues that are still very much a problem today. She explained the Food and Drug Administration “often lets us down” when regulating drugs and devices. 

The list of concerning issues for women she shared went on and on, even including midwifery and breast implants. 

Norsigian said there is not as much medical research on silicone breast implants as the public thinks. This is an assumption the public makes of many women’s health issues. 

“The absence of evidence of harm is not proof of safety,” she said.  

One of these issues is female egg donation. Norsigian said the group “We are Egg Donors” is not against egg donation, but provides safe and honest information about what women will experience during the process. Norsigian even recalled ads seen on college campuses telling women to donate their eggs to make money. This is just one of the issues that she said is assumed to be well researched, but is not as understood as we think. 

Norsigian then turned the mic over to Ahmed. 

Ahmed is a professor of law at Northeastern University. She has a background in law and women’s rights through a legal perspective. Her interest in human/women’s rights was sparked at the age of 16 when she heard the word “feminism” for the first time. 

Ahmed explained how it was frustrating to grow up in a South Asian community where her male counterparts always ate meals before her and she felt this immense pressure to get married. 

Ahmed said the feminist movement “teaches us all to have a good amount of skepticism in our lives.” 

Her most recent focus is on the role of feminism during the AIDS epidemic. Ahmed discussed how many women were dying during the outbreak of AIDS, but were not seen as at-risk for the disease. This was due to the false belief women had “rugged vaginas” and therefore could not contract the disease. 

Doctors were primarily focusing on gay men, and women were being overlooked. At this point in history, an AIDS diagnosis was symptom-based because the blood test for the disease was not yet developed. 

Ahmed explained that to be diagnosed with AIDS, a patient had to fit in to the CDC’s definition of HIV/AIDS, which did not include cervical cancer or pelvic inflammatory disease – both symptoms that women were showing. 

This caused major problems for women with the disease because they could not file for disability. In order to qualify for social security benefits, a patient had to have an AIDS diagnosis from a doctor, Ahmed said. 

However, because gynecological issues were not symptoms listed on the CDC’s definition, Ahmed said “many of the women were dying before they were ever given the disability benefit and this inspired a movement … to say that women and AIDS were ‘dead but not disabled,’ because they were dying before they were ever given disability.” 

Ahmed said feminist advocates began to see through this, and in 1991, the AIDS Disability Advisory Channel called for a bill to be passed that would change the definition of AIDS to include women’s health issues. 

The CDC hesitated to change the definition of AIDS, because they were worried this would add to the complexity of the disease. Women’s bodies are chemically different than men’s, which means the disease affects them differently.  

They also didn’t want the number of AIDS cases to be “inflated,” because it would cost more money, according to Ahmed.

She said in 1992, the CDC finally updated their definition of AIDS to include gynecological issues as “AIDS-defining illnesses.” The Social Security Administration followed suit in 1993.

Ahmed said that it is now known that women are even more likely than men to contract HIV/AIDS. 

Ahmed and Norsigian both covered many topics during their visit to FSU, and both agreed that without the push from feminist activists, the last 50 years would not have been nearly as progressive for Women’s Rights. 

“The fact that we have seen so many problems that don’t stem just from sexism, but they’re also from corporate greed, means that we’ve got a lot to do,” Norsigian said. 

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