Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

How do YOU define reproductive health?

December 8th, 2011 by Heather Dillaway

By Justine Siegemundin, 1723. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Menstruation and menopause are reproductive health experiences, aren’t they? At least that’s what I think. But I’m starting to wonder how many people agree. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how people define the things they experience and how researchers define the things they research. The last blog entry I wrote was on the confusing and frustrating definitions of the menopause transition. Today I thought I’d zoom out a bit more and think about what “reproduction” and/or “reproductive health” means. I personally think of reproductive health as encompassing a woman’s entire life course and including a whole range of experiences (and the pursuit and achievement of individual wellbeing throughout all of these experiences) but I don’t know if others do. For instance, about two weeks ago I was on the phone with a potential coauthor, and she and I had a misunderstanding because I was talking about “reproductive health” as including prevention of HIV and other STDs and she was thinking of “reproductive health” as just about conception, pregnancy, and birth.  I’ve been studying what I think of as women’s normal reproductive processes and experiences (e.g., menopause, menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding) for a long time, so I thought I would use this blog entry to tell readers what I think about “reproductive health” and see if anyone agrees with me.

Adrienne Rich, in her 1986 edition of Of Woman Born, proposes that biological reproduction has been defined narrowly by most people (feminist or otherwise). Thus, for many, “reproduction” is equated with just two female processes: pregnancy and childbirth.  While it may not have been the goal of any one person to define reproduction so narrowly, this seems to be a reality.  At various points throughout history, conception and contraception – at times, even abortion – have been added to the definition of what “reproduction” meant, or what “reproductive rights” women were owed, but “reproduction” and “reproductive health” still refers to a very short list of experiences.

I believe we should acknowledge, however, that women’s “reproductive” experiences include more than just conception, contraception, pregnancy, and birth. Reproduction includes an entire range of reproductive experiences, including: menstruation and menopause, use of and problems with contraceptives, choosing whether to become a mother/father, breastfeeding, HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases/infections, prostate and breast cancer, awareness of and access to reproductive health care, protection against sterilization abuse, vasectomy and hysterectomy experiences, the rights of single and/or lesbian mothers, the rights of single and/or gay fathers, donor insemination, cloning and other new advancements in reproductive technology, adoption, infertility treatments and experiences, gynecological practices, alternative reproductive health movements, decisions over whether to engage in heterosexual intercourse, and making informed “choices” in any of these instances. This is just a partial list, and I could go on and on. I propose that we think of “reproduction” (and, by default, “reproductive health” experiences) as the collection of (a) biological, physiological and/or embodied processes and (b) emotional, social, economic, and political decisions and/or actions that individuals — along with their families and other social groups — participate in (either voluntarily or sometimes through some sort of coercion), as they transition in and out of certain stages of their life course, decide whether or not to be sexually-active, and/or decide whether or not to become genetic, gestational and/or social “parents” or caregivers of children.  Any one reproductive experience – for example, menstruation or menopause – can also really be a set of processes and decisions and actions that women make/take/experience/pass through over an indefinite period of time – usually not happening in just one moment. Thus, menstruation or menopause are full-fledged and complicated reproductive experiences in and of themselves, as much as pregnancy or childbirth or any other “reproductive” experiences are, that the majority of women pass through, albeit in different ways, throughout their lifetimes. So are all of the other processes and experiences I’ve named above, and more I haven’t named. “Reproductive health” would then refer to a state of physical and mental wellbeing, indeed biopsychosocial wellbeing, while experiencing any of these sets of processes or decisions or actions.

Menstrual Sex: The Last Taboo in Advertising?

December 6th, 2011 by David Linton

Click to view full-size image in another window.

For nearly a century, ads and other promotional materials for menstrual products have been based on claims that the pad, tampon or, more recently, cup or pill, would make it possible for women to participate in activities that their periods would otherwise have interfered with.  Furthermore, one would be able to do so without anyone knowing that a period was underway.  References to freedom and secrecy, expressed in a myriad of overt or euphemistic terms and images, have been ubiquitous.  Yet, there has been one constraint marketers have hesitated to defy.  Until now.

Surely the taboos against intercourse during menstruation are among the oldest and most wide-spread of all cultural prohibitions.  And while previously ads have suggested that one’s romantic engagements – dancing, dating, going to parties, etc. – could be continued or even enhanced by using the right pad or tampon, no company ever stated that women could have an active, joyful sex life regardless of, or even despite, a regular menstrual flow.  The new series of ads for Instead Softcup boldly challenges that taboo.

But not only does it reject the taboo, in doing so it depicts women in a sexually assertive way that makes menstrual sex look like fun.  The ad on this page is one in a series that playfully mocks one of the claims usually made for feminine hygiene products: “12-hour leak protection so you can sleep.  Or not.”

The photograph is striking for many reasons.  There’s a voyeuristic quality as we gaze from a high angle at an intimate sexual encounter narrowly framed by dark walls and an open door.  Though we only see the couple’s naked legs, the image is made particularly titillating by the fact that the woman has kept on her somewhat spiky heeled shoes, suggesting urgency and spontaneity as well as a hint of kinkiness.  What’s more, the woman is on top, an image of assertiveness and power reflected in the text, “So now your period can’t stop you from indulging in all your favorite activities, whatever they may be.”  Furthermore the “woman superior” position (as it used to be called in sex manuals) also implies that the cup is so effective that there’s no danger of having your blood stream out onto your partner, even when you’re straddling him.

Another ad in the series uses a similar framing technique showing a young couple who are kissing.  They are glimpsed against a window through dark, heavy drapes in a dimly lit living room decorated in an old-fashioned style with flowered wall paper and a formal mantle upon which rests a delicate tea pot.  Here the image suggests the rejection of old (parental) ways that held that women could not enjoy sex while menstruating.

And then there’s the clever name of the product: Instead Softcup.  The first word is a little dig at the competition; the second aims to reassure the customer that the product is comfortable and easy to use.  The company’s web site also takes a little shot at the chief competitor with the slogan, “No Strings,” but otherwise it’s a fairly straight-forward, even sober, site with video interviews with reassuring doctors and the usual endorsements and images of happy, young women of widely varied ethnic origins.

The marketing campaign is multi-faceted including teams of women staffing tables outside colleges giving away free samples.

Time will tell if Softcup succeeds in dislodging pads and tampons from their market dominance.  Readers are invited to comment on the likely outcomes of the campaign.

Osteoporosis Controversy, Transgender-friendly Gynecology, and other Weekend Links

December 3rd, 2011 by Elizabeth Kissling

The College offers ob-gyns suggestions on how to create an office environment that is welcoming to transgender patients. For instance, asking patients their preferred name and pronoun, posting non-discrimination policies, ensuring confidentiality, and offering sensitivity training for staff are all steps that signal acceptance and let patients know that they will be treated with dignity. “We want the transgender community to know that we, as ob-gyns, care about their health.”

Boxing and Bleeding

December 2nd, 2011 by Elizabeth Kissling

Robin getting her hands taped at Heavy Hitters Boxing Club (Photo by trainer Jay Morales, used with permission).

Guest Post by Robin Percyz

In the boxing ring, droplets of blood are often an indication of triumph.  In fact, if you’ve ever had the opportunity to fight, seeing blood on an opponent’s face will often evoke a primal, animalistic pleasure.   Boxing is, arguably, one of very few scenarios where bleeding is encouraged.

In this sport, the notion of blood is a funny thing, depending on where it’s coming from.  When I sit in my corner after Round 2 of a fight and stare across the ring at my opponent’s bloodied face, my trainer encourages me with zeal.  He’ll boast, “Look at the blood, mama- you’re hurting her!! GOOD!”  Even my own blood, running down my nose and into my mouth is somewhat appealing, reminding me of the “beast” I am trained to be.

At my boxing club, the carpet lining the ring is stained with visible traces of bloody bouts and sparring.  We can point and laugh at whose blood is whose and remember the victory and triumph that resulted from those stains.  However, that blood-induced pride would quickly dissipate had it resulted from menstruation.

In the gym, menstruation is held to a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.  You would be right in assuming that female boxers are the minority in this culture.  As such, my monthly menstruation is never the topic of the day, nor will it ever be discussed.  “Menstrually” speaking, we want our women to have healthy cycles, yet we generally regard menstruation as disruptive, unspoken, and above all, disgusting.  In the boxing community, we encounter a clear and evident divide between that of “good” and “bad” blood.  It’s as clear as this:  Blood from the nose – GOOD!  Blood from between a woman’s legs – BAD and, further, DISMISSED!

As a female boxer, I think about my “blood” on a fairly regular basis.  Bleeding is something that should innately occur to my system every 28 days (more or less).  However, like many female athletes, my menstruation has taken a hiatus for some unknown amount of time.  They call it amenorrhea, symptomatic of the female triad.  This is all fancy jargon that basically communicates one simple fact: I don’t get a period – ever.

Boxing is an interesting sport in that it exercises much more than physicality.  As fighters, we are expected to fight within a certain weight class.  For many competing athletes, this often means excessive physical exertion on top of brief bouts of starvation prior to fighting.  Smart?  Of course not!

After some time without a menstrual period, I certainly began to experience some psychological hypersensitivity.  Am I woman?  Where did my period go?  These were the kinds of thoughts running through my head prior to each bout, when the doctor would ask me, “When was the last date of your menstrual period?”  I don’t know.

As women, we associate our first menstruation as a coming of age that says “I AM NOW A WOMAN!”  The loss of a menstrual cycle would, reasonably, mean that you are now LESS of a woman.  Or, perhaps, am I woman at all?

It’s just blood.  I wondered why blood between my legs would have anything to do with feeling like a woman.  After all, it was annoying to have to worry about it for four to seven days out of the month, not to mention training with it.

It then occurred to me that “training with it,” or the essence of boxing, was at the core of my desire to bleed.  My menstruation was a metaphor for power!  By bleeding, I was staking my claim in the ring, or as a woman.  My inability to menstruate was like an inability to win or fight.  Assuming I wanted children, my amenorrhea certainly was a symbol for an “inability.”

Recently, my period found me again!  It was like finding your favorite pair of jeans that had been lost for several months.  I shouted, “oh my god,” exactly the same as the 13-year old girl I was when I first menstruated!  This was “good” blood, for sure.

Readers should note that statements published in re: Cycling are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Society as a whole.