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Shira Wheeler: Thank you so much for having us to your home, Judy, and these Armenian pizzas!? Delicious!
Judy Norsigian: My pleasure. I’m very intrigued by your project and am looking forward to hearing more. So are you two partners?
Shira: Not partners exactly, but everyone that is part of our core team has some form of ownership of Oddo. Shula is our resident Sexual Health Expert.
Shula Melamed: Yes, I have a degree in Sexuality and Health from Columbia. I’ve been working with Shira to create the Oddo Body Manual and have been contributing to some of the other brand content.
Shira: Which leads nicely into what we what we wanted to discuss today. As a brand, Oddo explores the conversation around the body and sexuality and how the two are interrelated. Judy, the organization you co-founded, Our Bodies Ourselves, has championed this movement—reaching people with accurate information about health and sexuality for over 45 years. We’ve had interesting feedback about some of our Oddo visuals—even you mentioned initially that some of our imagery walked a fine line between art and objectification. With the abundance of marketing messages and hyper-sexualized imagery on social media, we’d love to look at the term “sex object” a little more closely. Women have been historically objectified—how do we reclaim our sexuality within that paradigm?
Shula: With Oddo, we’re using this ubiquitous object—underwear—as a symbol. We’re using it to talk about empowered and knowledgeable sexuality. We’re also talking about the human body—but not as an objectified, passive object, more of an active sexual subject. Somebody who can acknowledge and appreciate their sexuality, but not feel like they’re being manipulated. How do we define ourselves as a subject when we’ve fought so hard not to be viewed solely as an object?
Judy: We are all shaped by the culture around us and shaped by the families we grow up in; there’s no escaping that. You may think you’ve escaped it, but you haven’t. And the question is, in the morass of “you should look and act like this,” is there something that you might identify as “the real you” in all of that? Can you ever really know? We are products of our environments, even if we may not like what we’ve seen and/or grown up with. For example, there are men who have grown up with violent behavior towards their sisters and their mothers and so they, in turn, think that kind of behavior is the norm—or even “cool.” They actually think “yeah, I want to be king and the boss and order these women around.” Which for a long time was standard thinking for many men and in some cases, it still is. And does the problem lie in the fact that they don’t understand the pain they’re inflicting? Or have they recognized that power over another person is a great thing, and in order to gain that power, you have to inflict pain and keep people in their place? Some men may actually feel good about that dynamic. When you’re starting out in a relationship or thinking about yourself, it’s so hard to know where your socialization and your brainwashing starts—and we’re all brainwashed!
We have all seen people in pain and for most of us, we don’t like it and we want to stop it. This is where our ability to empathize comes in. Sometimes we don’t do anything, because we’re afraid we’ll get hurt in the process, and this is the whole reason why some programs have been set up to help us better understand “bystander” behavior. Men are generally, though not always, less likely than a woman to feel emotionally vulnerable; but many of them are still less inclined to speak up or challenge something they see and know to be wrong. They pay a price in their own way. How do you reinforce the importance of not being a bystander to acts of violence, verbal or physical?
We have to start thinking more carefully about our own personal responsibility and how we can best defend a basic set of principles of decency. And it all starts when we’re little. It starts with us as parents, as teachers. I think it’s more of an issue now than it was when we were growing up. And I think that’s part of why we’re seeing bullying as a huge and growing problem. We’re talking real trauma that kids are inflicting on other kids as a routine day-to-day thing, not just here or there. And while adults might see the problem, we don’t necessarily know how to deal with it. Most of us constantly struggle with this issue of what to do in a world saturated with social media, riddled with mixed messages as well as outright exhortations to violence.
Shira: There’s a sense of anonymity with social media—you don’t actually have to look someone in the eye.
Judy: But they’re not anonymous; these kids all know who they are. This hurtful stuff is done by students to other students in classrooms every day.
Shira: Maybe anonymity isn’t the right word—but, for example, I had this negative experience in high school and I knew that people were saying things behind my back. I think that social media adds this layer of disconnection where even though you know who’s saying it, it’s not as real for the person saying it because it’s behind a screen or this alter-cyber-ego.
Shula: It’s behind your back but in a different way than it used to be. Back in the day when we were in school, people would talk about you and hell was on the playground and in the hallways—but then when you got home you had your books, your dance class or whatever you were fortunate enough to do. But now people go back home and they continue talking about you on Instagram or whatever. You can’t escape it.
Shira: I think that’s something that we really want to address through this exploration of self image, body image and understanding yourself—through self reflection and being better informed. Being prepared and knowing how to deal with feedback and criticism in general is a positive thing. It’s not just about the more obviously hostile attacks. It’s about feeling confident and building up that shield—so that you know what to ignore and how to deal better with the cultural pressures out there…
Judy: So how do you open that conversation between women, where nobody feels judged? I think you can build up your level of knowledge through personal stories. Just think about all the people you know who say, “when I went through school, the only sexual messaging I got from authority was abstinence only.” I’ve heard this story so many times, with particulars about how being so poorly educated had a negative impact later. For example, this was a story from Miami University in Ohio:
“My friend from New Jersey had a copy of Our Bodies Ourselves, and everyone from the dorm floor poured over it. We were totally ignorant about the topics discussed in that book, and reading it together opened up this amazing conversation amongst people on our dorm floor. We started to realize there were all these things we didn’t know and needed to. The book started important conversations among peers, and without our parents around.”
Shula: It’s so hard to determine what is authentic and real information versus not. Perhaps by teaching people or suggesting they focus on pleasure or what actually feels good to them rather than criticism or negative feelings, and having a moment to think about what the source of that is, we can shift the way people treat one another. With this initial Oddo body manual we’re talking about the clitoris and how people didn’t even know how big it was—people think it’s this tiny little thing at the top of the vulva.
Shira: And that, actually, the clitoris is this incredible network of nerve endings—connected not just to touch but to your mind.
Shula: It’s a whole system. Traditionally when we learn about sex (if you learn about it at all other than just “don’t do it”) you’re learning more from a male point of view. In sex-ed we’re not learning anything about how to achieve this elusive female orgasm, just that we are supposed to have one. And it’s like, “what is that?” It’s all very confusing—I think for men just as much women.
Shira: Even reflecting on our own experiences: we might have had supportive parents who weren’t afraid to talk about certain aspects of sex, but they maybe didn’t get into the emotions and feelings that are attached to it. But I think being surrounded by peers and culture in general can influence you more than the ideas or values that you were raised with.
Judy: Look at notions of pleasure for example—where does it come from and how do you create it? Society may dictate just one path to pleasure (if it’s supported at all), and if we don’t fit one model or approach, then it’s assumed something is wrong with us. We’re not told that it’s OK (and often necessary) to change the world around you a little bit—which is one the themes we’ve been confronting all these decades: that women have always been taught to think that there’s something wrong with them, not the world around them. Ultimately, it’s the institutions and the structures around us, as you described, that shape our own personal preferences and ideas. We’re not as independent as we think.
Shula: Parents are also trying to protect you—they don’t want you to have harmful experiences. For most parents with female children, there’s a lot of, “this shouldn’t feel too good; don’t enjoy that too much. I don’t think it’s bad if you do, but you’re not going to find a partner who’s going to respect you.” Women are left to learn about their periods, and what they should and shouldn’t do. Which all turns into, “I’m going to talk to my friends,” and it ends up being the blind leading the blind. Women don’t get well-rounded sex education in school, then see media interpretations of sexuality and it becomes, “oh I see, I’m supposed to be like this,” but that’s showing them very little. Nothing of any depth.
Judy: That’s exactly right, and it’s the absence of decent sex education and human sexuality information that gets so many people into trouble. It interferes with pleasure but it also interferes with practical, important health messages and prevention of infections and pregnancies, things that you want to be able to prevent. I did notice that Obama finally defunded abstinence-only sex education completely, but it has already done so much damage since 1981, when it started under the Reagan administration. It’s a select group within our country that has had access to evidence-based sex-ed, and those who are profoundly ignorant about the most basic things can’t often admit it, because that would be uncool. We have a situation so ripe for problems.
Shira: And that’s really what we’re trying to address. We’re trying to take this select group that has been learning and thinking and becoming experts on these issues (like you and Shula) and package that information through a cultural lens. That’s why we’ve felt so strongly about working with artists since this project has begun—I believe artists have been able to portray and capture human sexuality much more openly than other areas of society. How can we bring these ideas and this information to more people in a way that really resonates? It’s a really exciting moment where this has become a very mainstream conversation. People are paying attention.
Shira Wheeler is the founder of Oddo, 100% cotton underwear that was designed to spark open, informed and elevated conversation about women’s health and sexuality. You can read more about her and Oddo’s mission through Kickstarter here.
Shula Melamed is a beloved counselor obsessed with human behavior, couples, and anthropology with over 10 years of experience helping people improve or develop intimacy with themselves and their partners. Shula holds a M.A. in Psychology from the New School University and an M.P.H. in Sexuality and Health from Columbia University.
Judy Norsigian is a co-founder of Our Bodies Ourselves: a health and sexuality organization which grew out of a workshop at a 1969 Women’s Liberation conference in Boston. An internationally renowned speaker and author on a range of women’s health concerns, Judy has appeared on numerous national television and radio programs, including NBC Nightly News, Al Jazeera, The Today Show, Good Morning America, The Early Show, Oprah, Fox News and The Current.