Core Values & Guiding Principles
What is Our Bodies Ourselves Today?
Our allegiance is to accurate, up-to-date, useful information and resources, rather than trying to sell you something. We are transparent about our mission, methods, staff, and values. We are free of corporate influence and other conflicts of interest, and operate solely on the public’s behalf. We don’t accept funding from pharmaceutical, medical device, or private medical insurance companies, or from any for-profit company that might have a conflict of interest.
We’re more than health information. We help you understand why you’re going through the health and sexuality issues you’re facing, so that you can be armed with knowledge as well as information. In both our staff makeup and our expert content, we aim to voice the perspectives and address the needs of women, girls, and gender-expansive people from all walks of life. We draw on over 50 years of experience in the global movements for women’s health and reproductive justice.
Most women’s health websites don’t address the diversity of their users, or speak to a diverse audience. Thin, white, able-bodied, middle-class, heterosexual women are the norm. We are committed to cultivating and addressing the needs of diverse audiences. The leadership, staff, and experts of the new Our Bodies Ourselves Today initiative are members of the communities we serve. We are an intentionally diverse group of women and gender-expansive people (race, sexual orientation, gender, disability, age). This diversity is a strength in terms of our expertise and perspectives.
Most women’s health and sexuality information online is siloed. For example, you can find a website about childbirth that doesn’t address abortion, contraception, or infertility. We are holistic. We honor the human dignity and rights of all people, including sex workers, people with HIV/AIDS, those who are homeless and/or incarcerated, refugees, victims and survivors of abuse and exploitation, and other oppressed and marginalized women, girls, and gender-expansive people, and prioritize their health and self-sovereignty. We will always value people’s health and security over corporate profits and inappropriate government mandates (such as population targets or abortion restrictions).
We have a feminist, social justice orientation. Our work is grounded in the feminist human rights principle that all people have a right to the highest attainable standards of physical, mental, and sexual health. Yes, we will all struggle and suffer in our lives, but society should be organized to prevent and ameliorate suffering, not make it worse. We always provide opportunities for our users to get involved with activists working to improve the specific health and sexuality areas they care most about.
To download: What is Our Bodies Ourselves Today?
What is Ageism?
Ageism is discrimination against people based on age. While in some settings it refers to bias against the young, we use it to refer to discrimination against those who are seen as “old.” Ageism is about power, exclusion, and who is valued in society. Ageism includes but goes beyond individual interactions; it is structured into social institutions like the healthcare system and the workplace. Women and gender-expansive people are especially subject to ageism in all these realms. Age relations are power relations based on age, just as gender relations are power relations based on gender. This means that younger people benefit from ageism whether they want to or not—just as men benefit from sexism, or white people benefit from racism. Yet, unlike most other forms of inequality, all of us will experience aging—and ageism—if we live long enough. Ageism is so deeply embedded in our society that it’s rarely recognized as an “ism” at all.
Ageism can be internalized, interpersonal, institutional, or structural. Internalized ageism is when we believe the stereotypes about aging and old people, and let them impact our self-image and limit our behavior. One example is believing our natural aging process makes us less attractive. Interpersonal ageism is when people discriminate based on their perception of someone’s age. For an extreme example, older women face high rates of family violence, which often goes unrecognized.
Institutional ageism is when an institution such as a workplace, school, or religious community limits involvement based on age. One example of ageism in healthcare is the lack of attention to depression in older women, based on the stereotype that it’s normal for us to be unhappy as we age. Finally, structural ageism is when laws and policies lead to negative outcomes for elderly people. One example is the way that Social Security excludes waiters, housecleaners, sex workers, and others working in female-dominated jobs, which leads to poverty in old age. At all of these levels, ageism can intersect with other forms of oppression, creating cumulative disadvantage for elderly people.
Workplace and economic discrimination against women accumulate over a lifetime to create insecurity and poverty in old age. Low lifetime wages, caregiving responsibilities that periodically take women out of the workforce, negative impacts of divorce, and sexist Social Security policies are some of the factors that contribute to the feminization of poverty in older women. In addition, discrimination against older workers has particular impacts against women and limits our ability to earn a living and get and keep employment as we age.
In the U.S. especially, children and adults alike are conditioned to be ageist. Unfortunately, old people, especially women, are often viewed as unattractive or even repellant. So, older women and femmes are vulnerable to our economy which thrives on the notion that being “forever 21” is an asset. Social media only intensifies this problem. We’re encouraged to look young by buying products or undergoing procedures that will youth-ify us. “You don’t look your age!” may be intended as a compliment. But is it really?
We praise older people for being “young at heart,” implying that there is one best way to be, and it is not old. Older women are praised mostly for looking “great for her age.” Being young is seen as the norm, even though as humans it’s normal to go through the entire lifespan, and there’s no rational reason for being old to be seen as “other.” Older people often try to defy the stereotypes in order to maintain status and value. Perhaps we hope that if we don’t fit the stereotype of being old, we can avoid being subjected to ageism. But what if we don’t fit this positive image of old age? Why should looking or acting our age justify loss of social connections or status?
Ageism affects us differently depending on our life stage. For women who are “young-old”—those of us who may be retired but who are basically healthy, independent, active, and mentally with-it—ageism may start with being ignored, de-sexualized, or talked down to. As we enter the life stage of being “old-old”—chronically ailing or disabled, more dependent on others for care, mentally less coherent—the ageism we face ratchets up as well. In addition to invisibility, we may find ourselves vulnerable to disrespect and mistreatment from a variety of quarters. Especially if we don’t have family nearby to advocate and care for us, we become vulnerable in a whole new way. This vulnerability is multiplied among those of us who are further marginalized for example by virtue of our race, sexual orientation, or poverty.
The meaning of old age is contested and differs greatly for men and women. Men gain in status as they age, until the point where they are old-old. Women, on the other hand, start losing status much earlier, as they “lose their looks” and conform less closely to sexist ideals of beauty. This form of “looksist” ageism has a lot of overlap with all the forms of oppression that base women’s value on appearance, including racism, ableism, fat-phobia, and transphobia. The taboo against women aging creates a huge market for products and procedures that claim to make us look younger. Depression and chronic illness in older women are both more common and stigmatized, leading to added discrimination and devaluing of aging women.
Being perceived as old can also be based on life course milestones, biological markers, or functional decline. Is it when our hair turns gray? When we retire? When we become grandparents? If we have some physical or cognitive limitations? The point at which we are considered old depends on the meanings we ascribe to all these factors.
When we’re considered old also depends on the context in which we’re seen. We might be considered old in our workplaces, but not when we’re at home. Some groups may be considered old sooner or later than other groups, depending on cultural norms and notions. And some groups within the broader U.S. culture are more likely to respect the elders in their communities. “Oldness” for women is affected by intersectional factors. Our race, ethnicity, and identity are all factors that intertwine with age. For example, the experience of discrimination is magnified for an older person of color or for an LGBTQ elder. But regardless of when or where we are seen as old, the outcome is the same: we are excluded and devalued.
Overcoming ageism and its impact on women and gender-expansive people requires work on many fronts. To become free of ageism, we need to advocate for political, policy, and cultural change that reduce inequalities so that we’re more equal at old age. Until we see the value of old age reflected in the broader mainstream culture, respected in our institutions, and addressed in our politics, policy, and economic structures, ageism will persist in our society. People’s mental processing speed wanes as we age, but it’s a good thing that as women grow older, we become more assertive (as men become less assertive), and wiser (as do men). We can use these strengths to help make the changes we need. Let’s embrace ourselves and support each other. Let’s age consciously, create new narratives, and recognize the wisdom we’ve achieved that comes with living a long life.
To download: What is Ageism?
How do we address disability and chronic illness?
We use an intersectional feminist understanding of disability as a socially, culturally, and politically constructed category. Women across the globe are both more likely to be disabled and to care for others who are disabled. Disabilities may be physical, psychosocial, cognitive, or some combination. They may be visible or invisible, temporary or permanent, and any of us may become disabled at any time. Significant impairments, injuries, and illnesses create physiological, cosmetic, and/or functional differences in both bodies and minds. People tend to think of disabilities as being something interior to our bodies, but disabilities are also defined and given meanings by societies that stigmatize some bodies and minds and valorize others.
There are important differences between disability and chronic illness. People with disabilities can be healthy and strong—witness runners with prosthetic legs. Chronic illnesses may be well-managed and not disabling. For a variety of reasons, these two groups may not want to be grouped in with each other. Yet chronic illness is often disabling, and there is overlap between these two groups. Since women’s, especially BIPOC women’s, suffering is so often trivialized and privatized, it’s important to acknowledge our own and each other’s disabilities whether they’re visible or invisible, physical, psychosocial, or cognitive.
Disability and chronic illness are created and made worse by disabling social conditions, as well as by society’s lack of accommodations for people living with bodily and mental differences. When we have adequate accommodations, disabled people are better able to live full, satisfying, and autonomous lives. Unfortunately, discrimination in critical areas such as education, the workplace, and health care persist. Even with the gains brought by the disability rights movement, we still too often have to fight for the resources we need to fully participate in life. We are still frequently blamed and stigmatized, rather than given the accommodations we need.
At the same time, advances in accommodations and medicine—including everything from wheelchair-accessible homes and public spaces to psychopharmaceutical advances—have led to remarkable increases in people’s ability to function. If we can tackle social and economic inequalities, then disabled people will be able to access such advances equally.
Patriarchy finds women unacceptable when disability or chronic illness prevents us from performing expected feminine roles. Society’s glorification of a narrow range of appearances as beautiful, especially for women, is not only used to sell endless products, but also casts those of us with visible disabilities as “ugly.” Capitalism, prioritizing profits over all other values, demands relentless “productivity,” and stigmatizes disabled and chronically ill people as “useless” or worse. In fact, exclusion, abuse, violence, and abandonment are common experiences for disabled and chronically ill people. Relatedly, those who care for disabled or dependent people are underpaid and undervalued (when we are paid at all).
In fact, all systems of oppression (for example racism, xenophobia, homophobia) both create more disabled people and intensify the disabilities that already exist. Oppressive systems also deny disabled and chronically ill people the vital healthcare and support we need. Justice and equity for disabled people requires a change in values as well as changes in policies. We need to demand societal changes so that fewer disabling conditions exist, and so that those of us who are disabled or chronically ill can live as well as possible.
To download: How do we address disability and chronic illness?
How do we address fat politics?
Given the general antipathy toward fatness and fat people in our society, we take a minority position. We hold to the intersectional feminist view that bodies of all shapes and sizes are valid and have beauty. We cannot discern anything about a person’s habits or character by the shape or size of their body; bodies of all shapes and sizes may be healthy and unhealthy.
We support every individual’s right to use the words for their body that feel best for them. We would like to get to the point where people use “fat” as a neutral, descriptive term, like we might use “tall” or “short.” As it is, we use it more as a term of defiance, much like nonheterosexual people often use the term “queer.” We avoid referencing Body Mass Index (BMI), because it has no predictive or descriptive value when it comes to an individual’s health. The term’s historical and continued use actively harms fat people, especially those who are Black.
With the right resources and support, most of us can enhance our health, regardless of our size and shape (see Disability, above). “Health at Every Size” is a framework that aims to equip all people with tools for improving their health without regard to body size or shape. At the same time, nobody should be pressured into believing that we should constantly labor to improve our health above every other possible pastime. This belief system, known as “healthism,” is used particularly against those considered “overweight,” who are disparaged for failing to “get healthy” (lose weight).
Body-shaming in all forms, whether inflicted by health care providers, family members, peers, media, partners, or others, has devastating and often life-long effects on women, girls, and gender-expansive people. Alternatives to fatphobia and fat-shaming include body-positivity–the idea that we all have the right to enjoy and feel proud of our bodies–and body-neutrality–focusing more on how our bodies feel and what they can do (rather than on appearance).
To download: How do we address fat politics?
What do we mean by feminism?
There are many definitions of feminism, as well as decades-long discussion and debate about various feminisms. In the simplest sense, when we describe ourselves as feminist, we mean that we center the needs, voices, and perspectives of women, girls, and gender-expansive people in our content. This is in line with the 50 plus year history of Our Bodies, Ourselves: “A Book By and For Women.”
Feminism is both a worldview and a politics; both the belief in the equality of all sexes and genders and the social movements to achieve that equality. Feminism seeks to identify and dismantle the power differences that perpetuate gender oppression across the globe.
What are the particular feminist politics that drive us? We are powered by diverse women who don’t necessarily agree on everything. But there are some fundamental shared views that we believe advance the health and self-sovereignty of us all:
Our feminism is green. We work with the knowledge of the interdependence of environmental, personal, and planetary health. People’s health is impacted profoundly by the health of the human and natural systems we live within. Exploitive and extractive economies are harmful to our bodies and the planet. The specific ways we are impacted, and paths to systemic healing, are included in our content.
Our feminism is red. We are profoundly critical of capitalism and how it obstructs quality health care. We acknowledge the many ways that profit-driven health care robs us of our health and well-being, while impersonal, commercialistic, and objectifying economies impoverish our lives. We address the ways that a commodified health care system affects specific areas of our health and sexuality. We also suggest ways to make our systems more just, woman-centered, and people-centered.
Our feminism is black and brown. We acknowledge “race” based inequalities across all dimensions of health and health care, and center the needs, perspectives, and expertise of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color in our work. While OBOS Today is launching with a focus on the USA, our next phase will “go global,” building on the Our Bodies Ourselves legacy of working in the global women’s health movement. Black feminism, in addition to fighting for racial justice and health equity, means making common cause with Black and brown women, girls, and gender-expansive people around the world, and especially in the global south.
Our feminism is rainbow. We support the health, lives, and sexual autonomy of women, girls, and gender-expansive people across all axes of sexual and gender difference. We reject the idea that there is only one proper way to be a woman or girl, and support freedom to achieve our full, self-defined, potential. We don’t consider being “equal” to cis men to be nearly ambitious enough for our feminism.
Our feminism is rainbow, again, the colors of peace. We reject militarism, mass incarceration, excessive police power, and other forms of violent toxic masculinity. These patriarchal forms are extremely destructive to the health and well-being of women, girls, and gender-expansive people. At the same time, militarisms divert vast precious resources from human needs, while actively traumatizing both people enlisted in the military and their victims. Shifting the flow of resources from organized violence to earth- and people-centered enterprises is critical for everyone’s health.
We organize and curate materials through a multicolored feminist lens. We value the bodily and life integrity of all women, girls, and gender-expansive people in all arenas.
To download: What do we mean by feminism?
What is healthism and why are we against it?
Healthism, simply put, is a harmful overemphasis on keeping healthy. It is a way of thinking that sees health, the appearance of health, and healthy-seeming activities as morally superior. Health is believed to equal success in life, and ill-health is seen as a shameful sign of failure. Healthism pervades our society, and leads to discrimination and exclusion against people who are, or seem to be, unhealthy. Healthism hits women, girls, and gender-expansive people especially hard, as we face toxic cultural demands to conform to gender norms.
People with healthist attitudes often engage in victim blaming, trying to find a “reason” why someone is sick, disabled, or has a chronic illness. For example, it’s easy for someone who is healthy to believe that their good health is due to their own virtuous actions: eating fruits and vegetables, exercising often, and otherwise “taking care of themselves.” Conversely, a person who is ill is often subject to judgments about their diet and exercise habits, their mental and psychological states, their weight, and numerous life choices. We deeply support health and well being, but not as a moral imperative, and not at the cost of every other aspect of our lives.
Healthism often puts the responsibility for health on an individual. Healthism does not acknowledge the social determinants of health, and how factors such as the environment, access to food, the healthcare system, or poverty drive health status. These social determinants are caused by social inequalities which disadvantage people based on race, immigration status, age, sexual and gender minority status, education, and social class. In a vicious cycle, social determinants of health both reinforce and exacerbate these same inequalities. Healthism encourages us to either overlook or purposely ignore these critical societal issues.
Healthism has many faces. It can be targeted toward our weight, eating habits, and exercise, as thinness is assumed to equal good health and fatness is assumed to equal bad health. Further, this good or bad health is believed to reflect good or bad character. Those who are slimmer are seen as better, more stable and desirable people, while larger-bodied people are stereotyped as lazy, greedy, slovenly, and compulsive. People with large bodies are subject to stigma and discrimination in many aspects of our lives, from family members and partners, neighbors and strangers, as well as workplace and health care discrimination. See “How do we address fat politics?”
The fitness-wellness-diet social media sphere has well-documented negative effects on girls’,women’s, andgender-expansive people’s mental health. For instance, we see “fitspirational” (fit + inspirational) posts that promote vigorous exercise or food restrictions in the hope that our bodies can become smaller and tighter. These posts do not address one’s actual health. In fact, they may actually make people less healthy. Some studies have found that “fitspirational” posts lead to increased negative moods and body dissatisfaction, resulting in a decline in one’s mental well-being.
While often applied to food and exercise, healthism also emerges in drug and alcohol use. Healthism would have us blame the user for their addictions, rather than addressing how poverty, trauma, social stigma, the lack of access to treatment and rehab, and other environmental factors contribute to drug and alcohol use.
Healthism is also tied to overmedicalization. As we cast greater areas of life in terms of health and illness, we can end up depriving ourselves of deeper well being. What is lost when we see our bodies, exercise, eating, meditation, fresh air, “down time,” and play—all pleasures in their own right—simply as measures of our potential health or non-health? Ironically, by objectifying and “rationalizing” our health and our lives, we disconnect from our bodies and our wholeness. By objectifying and blaming others for their health, we uphold hierarchies of “good” and “bad” bodies, and devalue people who are suffering physically, mentally and socially.
We oppose healthism in all its forms. We promote valuing every bodymind.
To download: What is healthism and why are we against it?
What is “mental health” and how do we address it?
We use the term “mental health” primarily because it is the search term that our users will most likely use to find resources about their emotional, behavioral, social, and psychological states. At the same time, we want to clarify that we don’t endorse all the meanings that the term implies.
Girls, women, and gender-expansive people have suffered under the patriarchal eye of psychiatry for over a century; these deeply problematic views have shaped our shared assumptions about mental health and well being.
How have women, girls, and gender-expansive people been harmed by mental health assumptions and psychiatry? Psychiatry and related professions have medicalized women’s suffering, looking for causes in the individual. One brutal example is the long-standing psychopathologization of African American women. In the 1850s, U.S. psychiatrists believed that Black people who escaped slavery, even mothers who were attempting to prevent their children from being sold away from them, did so because of a mental illness called drapetomania. Continuously until today, a focus on symptoms, labels, diagnoses, genetics, biology, and “distorted thinking” overlook the oppressive environmental factors that influence painful feelings, “deviant” behaviors, and thoughts. Most recently, an overemphasis on happiness and “positivity” has been a way to turn the focus on the individual who through therapy, medication, and personal effort is supposed to cope with difficult environments, sexism, patriarchy, and oppression. The lifetime incidence of sexual abuse, harassment, and rape, and the overburdening of women for the responsibility for children, elders, and families and our adaptive and understandable responses to all of this is rarely taken into consideration when diagnosing and treating “mental illness.” The exponential impacts of racism, poverty, and other forms of oppression are even less likely to be acknowledged.
Feminist therapies have long focused on the lived experiences of girls and women and the ways that specific forms of oppression and marginalization, misogyny, sexism, and patriarchy inhibit our flourishing. Sadness, anger, fear, unwellness, withdrawal, and even aggression look very different when placed under a feminist intersectional lens.
In addition to entering the mental health professions in droves since the 1970s, many feminists have created and embraced non-traditional approaches to healing. Some of these approaches emphasize activism and solidarity with other women as a pathway to health and well-being, trusting in mutual aid above hierarchical and sometimes coercive processes. Others build on relationships and relationality. Still others involve advances in approaches to distress caused by traumatic events and environments.
Our Bodies Ourselves Today highlights how race and gender intersect to explain our concerns, problems, and adaptations to difficult and hostile environments. Our Bodies Ourselves Today sees mental health against this backdrop and well being as an ever-changing state of internal balance that enables individuals to flourish and live lives of their own design without causing harm to others. Our materials related to mental health adhere to these guiding principles:
- We center women, girls, and gender-expansive people.
- We reject stereotypes and destructive myths about the mental health and well-being of girls, women, and gender-expansive people, as well as negative stereotypes about those diagnosed with mental illness. We affirm that people who are suffering emotionally are as kind, law-abiding, and valuable as anyone else in society.
- We oppose coercive “treatments” that deprive people of their agency and right to self-determination.
- We use person-centered language, such as “a person with a mental health diagnosis,” or “a person with a diagnosis of schizophrenia.” We avoid diagnosis-centered language, such as “a depressive” to refer to a person who is experiencing depression. We also support everyone’s right to define their own experience with mental health as they choose.
- Being “evidence-based” is not the only standard for inclusion in Our Bodies Ourselves Today. We recognize that most people lack equal access to research grants and social capital, such as relationships with prestigious institutions, which are necessary to producing evidence-based research findings. People in marginalized groups, including those diagnosed with “mental illness,” are typically excluded from contributing to research about themselves. This exclusion is a form of epistemic injustice, which both privileges those with mainstream views about mental health, and helps perpetuate those views.
- We are committed to exploring the social circumstances that contribute to a person’s suffering and lack of internal balance. Factors such as oppression and inequities, the lifetime incidence of sexual harassment, abuse, rape, and the overburdening of women with the responsibility for children, elders, and families are important drivers of psychological suffering.
To download: What is “mental health” and how do we address it?
Sex and Gender
How do we use the terms “sex,” “gender,” “sexual orientation” and “gender identity”?
Sex is a biological concept that defines us as male, female, or intersex based on our chromosomes, genitalia, and secondary sex characteristics. It is what leads doctors and parents to say “It’s a girl!” or “It’s a boy!” when we’re born. Intersex is an umbrella term to describe those of us who have elements of both male and female sexes.
Gender is what societies tell us about the meaning and expectations of our sex. Our masculinities and femininities are how we express our gender, according to the rules of our cultures and subcultures. This strict distinction is called the “gender binary.” If sex is biological, gender is learned and performed throughout the lifespan. Everyone, from children to elders, is expected to conform to the specific gender expectations of their sex. Retribution can be brutal for violating gender norms—not being adequately feminine (for girls and women) or masculine (for boys and men). Children of all genders are taught early to accept male dominance in many areas of life, from religion to politics to sexuality. Women, girls, and gender-expansive people are physically and mentally healthiest in the absence of rigid gender norms.
Sexuality is a state of being, a way of experiencing and giving pleasure to ourselves and others. It has the potential to be a powerful and positive force that deepens intimate connections and aliveness. It can also be a source of great pain. The term sexuality can refer to our sexual orientation, the way we express our erotic feelings and desires, or the physical and psychological components of sex and sensuality. Sexuality is also connected to reproductive health. Good sexual and reproductive health mean that everyone has safer sex lives and the freedom to decide if and when we want to have children.
Sexual orientation is defined by who we desire, who we have sex with, and which identities and communities we identify with. If we desire and/or are sexually involved with members of the same sex, and/or if we identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer, then we are members of the LGBTQIA+ community. People who don’t have sexual feelings are asexual (or ace). If we desire and/or are sexually involved with members of the “opposite” sex, and if we do not identify otherwise, then we are heterosexual or straight. Any of these identities may change over time or they may stay the same.
Gender identity is how we recognize and experience our own gender. Usually, our gender identity matches with what other people tell us we are: we have a vulva and breasts, and we identify as women. But how much of that is due to social pressure? Many people don’t identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. Others don’t identify as either male or female, man or woman. Of course, many women don’t accept the gender expectations placed on us by society. We may chafe against the sexist expectations of our families, workplaces, religions, etc. This doesn’t change our gender identity—we are still women just as much as conventionally feminine women. Gender identity is a subjective experience regarding who we are, and it’s important to believe and respect the autonomy of people when they tell us their gender identities.
The terms we use to talk about sex, gender, and sexual orientation are evolving and multiplying, and vary widely depending on time, place, and the communities we’re part of. There are many good lists of terms, but the most important thing is to respect the language each person uses about their own identity.
To download: How do we use the terms “sex,” “gender,” “sexual orientation” and “gender identity”?
Sex Work and Sex Trafficking
Sex Work and Sex Trafficking: What are the differences and why do they matter?
Many people think of these terms interchangeably, but there are important differences among them. Since some of our content refers to one or more of these areas, we’d like to clarify the differences.
Sex Trafficking is a human rights atrocity in which socially marginalized people (overwhelmingly women and girls, including trans women and girls) are sexually exploited through coercion, fraud, and force. Sex trafficking is a form of human trafficking, the economic exploitation—enslavement, indentured servitude—of people through force and coercion. The trafficker buys, sells, moves, and restricts the movement of the trafficked people, in order to make money from their sexual abuse. Sex trafficking is a global scourge, but women and children are trafficked for sex within countries as well. Sex trafficking is one of the most widespread and lucrative illegal “industries” in the world.
Other forms of sexual oppression can also be understood as forms of sex trafficking. For example, child marriage, in which a young woman or girl is traded by her family into marriage, is not typically thought of as a form of trafficking. Yet the powerlessness of the young women and girls to control their fate, and the way that their sexual exploitation is central to the arrangement, makes it important to consider.
Much is known about how people are trafficked, but there is also alarmist misinformation that circulates widely on the internet. This misinformation is often motivated by political agendas unrelated to human rights (e.g. “Q-Anon”), as well as by well-meaning people. Unfortunately, these viral “reports” fill trafficking hotlines with false claims, lead to unhinged behavior by concerned citizens, pull attention and resources from real anti-trafficking organizations, and divert law enforcement and social services personnel from real victims.
Unlike sex trafficking, sex work and prostitution describe arrangements that are not entirely (or not at all) coerced. Sex work covers a larger range of arenas in which primarily women are paid for their sexual services. For example, stripping, phone sex, being an escort or dominatrix, the many roles in the vast porn industry, and “turning tricks” in a brothel and/or for a pimp are all types of sex work. Prostitution is the narrower term, which includes trading sex for money, food, drugs, or a place to stay.
As with all kinds of work, sex workers’ experiences are varied. A lucky few have autonomy over the conditions of their work, while many experience degradation and exploitation. Because sex work is illegal in most countries, it is very difficult to find reliable statistics about how autonomous or oppressed sex workers are; it’s safe to say that the majority of sex workers are on the impoverished/exploited side of the spectrum. It is typical for street-level sex workers to be impoverished, homeless, repeatedly traumatized, and drug using. Most trade sex for drugs, money, or a place to stay, and regularly endure abuse at the hands of pimps, “players,” customers, and police.
The distribution of sex workers along the spectrum, from autonomous to exploited, is based on many factors, including each person’s race, class, gender, age, ethnicity, and other forms of privilege and vulnerability. So, a white, middle class, able bodied young woman with a college education and good teeth, who is slim and blonde, has a much better chance of negotiating the conditions of her work than someone who is socially, economically, racially marginalized and very young.
Still, there is a wide range of experiences among sex workers. For many women and gender-expansive people, forms of sex work can provide a living that is preferable, at least for a time, to non-sexual alternatives which can be even more exploitive, degrading, and poorly paid.
Disputes within feminism
Many feminists reject the term “prostitution” because of its stigmatizing, moralizing, and criminalizing implications. They prefer “sex worker,” because it describes a job, not a person. Further, as workers, people have rights and should be treated with dignity. Sex workers have organized at least since the 1970s, campaigning for legal rights, better working conditions, and an end to stigma.
Other feminists reject the term “sex worker,” because they believe it masks and normalizes the inherently exploitive nature of prostitution. Instead they refer to the industry as “commercial sexual exploitation.” They see prostitution as an exchange in which women are objectified and violated by men in an archetypal enactment of patriarchal abuse. These abolitionists want to see an end to the industry. They refer to “prostitutes” and “prostituted women.”
We strive to use the most respectful, supportive, and accurate language when writing about women and gender-expansive people working in the sex industry. We use the term “sex work/ers” both because it’s less stigmatizing and because it points to the possibility of harm reduction within the “industry.” We condemn trafficking in all its guises, along with every other human rights violation.
At the same time, we believe in favorable conditions of work for everyone, regardless of workplace or industry. We advocate for poverty relief, housing, health care, non-discrimination, and the fulfillment of all other human rights, so that no-one is forced to “choose” terrible work—in or out of the sex industry—just to survive.
We also support the rights all people, including sex workers, to live free of stigma, exclusion, discrimination, and criminalization; to plan for our futures; to be sexual how and with whom we choose, including for pay; and to organize for and demand our rights. We are proud to have current and former sex workers among our content experts. We honor sex workers, and former sex-workers, as part of our community.
To download: Sex Work and Sex Trafficking: What are the differences and why do they matter?
Women, Girls, and Gender-Expansive People
Why do we use the term “women, girls, and gender-expansive people”?
Our Bodies Ourselves Today provides information and resources for people of all ages and identities. “Gender-expansive people” is an umbrella term that includes all whose gender identity, experience, and/or expression lies outside the typical expectations of society. Gender-expansive people may identify as female or male. They may also identify with more than one gender (gender fluid) or with no gender (agender). Some of the identities that may fall under the “gender-expansive” umbrella include bigender, boi, butch-of-center, butch, demiboy, demigirl, fem, femme-of-center, femme, gender-nonconforming, gender-variant, genderqueer, intersex, non-binary, pangender, questioning, stud, trans, transgender, trans-feminine, trans-masculine, two spirit, womxn, as well as a wide range of culturally-specific terms such as muxe (Mexico) or burnesha (Albania).
For over 50 years, Our Bodies, Ourselves has been “A Book by and For Women.” It is still deeply woman-centered and will remain so. At the same time, Our Bodies Ourselves Today is expanding the tent to include people with various gender identities or expressions other than “woman” who use our resources. For example, many trans men will find relevant information about menstruation, reproduction, and heart health. It’s critical to our mission to include gender-expansive people. This inclusivity doesn’t in any way marginalize cis women. Rather, we aim to enlarge the collective “we” in “Ourselves.”
The language people use to convey identities can be very personal and may be a sensitive issue. Gender-related terminology is also in flux and varies by context and by individual. It would be impossible to list all the gender identities that are important to people who might use Our Bodies Ourselves Today. “Women, girls, and gender-expansive people” is our phrase of art to include as wide a range as possible.
A closely related issue that we continue to grapple with is how to refer to female reproduction and sexual anatomy. After all, not everyone who menstruates, gets pregnant, gives birth, has an abortion, etc., is a woman. Trans men and non-binary people do all of these things as well. Understanding the medical and psychosocial harm that comes to gender-expansive people when their existence is erased by binary language, we use gender-inclusive language whenever possible. To this end, we often use non-binary terminology (e.g. “menstruators”) when referring to people who have specific biological functions.
However, the vast majority of people who experience these functions identify as women and girls, the overwhelming majority of the clinical, public health, and social science research on these issues has focused specifically on women. The legal regime in the U.S. is organized so that women suffer unequal treatment. In many cases laws that criminalize abortion specifically target women, are constructed around gender binaries, and are rooted in patriarchy and colonization.
Many feminists use terms such as “people with uteruses,” aiming to be gender inclusive. While some of our resources use these terms, they can be problematic, just as binary language can be. Misogynist men and powerful social institutions have tried to reduce women to our sexual and reproductive functions since the dawn of patriarchy, denying our full humanity. Terminology such as “people with vaginas” can smack of this kind of reductionism. Many women experience it as objectifying, offensive, and even triggering to refer to us by our vaginas.
So, Our Bodies Ourselves Today uses both gender inclusive and gendered language, depending on context. We work hard to be as sensitive and inclusive as possible, recognizing that not everyone will be satisfied. While it’s all but inevitable, we hate the thought that any of our users might feel unseen, marginalized, or otherwise upset by it. So let us reiterate here that, whatever your gender identification, we see you and we built this site with you in mind. You belong here. Welcome!
To download: Why do we use the term “women, girls, and gender-expansive people”?
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