Last fall, as a women and gender studies professor, I taught a course called “Psychology of Gender” where I decided to include an experiential activist assignment that asked students to form groups and engage in some sort of menstrual activism. The instructions asked students to choose some aspect of cultural attitudes toward menstruation that they wanted to improve (e.g., pharmaceutical labeling of “PMS” and Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, men’s negativity toward menstruation, shame and silence around menstruation, problems with conventional menstrual products, and so on) and design a simple intervention that could enact change either on campus or in the community. As I had never assigned this before, and I had no idea what would happen, I had no clear expectations for how this would turn out, though I had a hunch that students would encounter some resistance and pushback for this work.
My students created a series of innovative projects and set out in earnest to challenge negative attitudes about menstruation. One group designed labels with accurate information about menstruation, and they then put these on a variety of menstrual products that they distributed on campus. Another group made fliers and signs that warned passersby about the dangers of conventional tampons; they also handed out information about Lunapads, Gladrags, Divacups, and other do-it-yourself products. A third group made buttons that read, simply, “Real Men Buy Tampons”, and handed these out to men on campus, while a fourth group went into gas stations and created makeshift “need a tampon, take a tampon” boxes near the cash registers. A fifth group challenged negativity about menstrual sex by holding signs near the streets bordering campus that read, “Honk if you love menstrual sex,” and a final group dressed a woman in white pants (with a notable red stain on her pants) and filmed her as she walked through a local mall.
The results of this “experiment” yielded some fascinating clues about the culture of menstruation today, ones that have far-reaching implications for those of us who may think menstruation is, well, “out of the box.” While students certainly encountered many positive reactions (e.g., men who eagerly and proudly wore their buttons; women who appreciated the “free stuff”; people who praised the students for their bravery), they also dealt with a surprising amount of negative backlash. Students faced verbal harassment and “police presence” on campus while handing out tampons. Signs were removed from the cafeteria by administrators because they would “disrupt” student appetites. The woman walking through the mall faced stares and snickers (and, on one occasion, a group of teenage boys called her names and told her she was “disgusting”), though few people notified her of her “accident.” Most interestingly, however, the group that held signs about menstrual sex actually triggered a reaction from a local state representative, who started a full-blown menstrual panic by calling the office of the President at the university and demanding to know why students would engage in this sort of “obscenity” (humorously, she mixed up “menstruation” with “masturbation” in her description).
Without going into too many details of what followed after (we have a book coming out soon called The Moral Panics of Sexuality that includes a chapter about this “menstrual panic”), this entire project made me reflect on a few aspects of activism we too often forget: first, it takes very little to incite panic about menstruation; second, students can make a big impact in small ways, which makes menstruation an ideal site for pedagogical discussion and activism; and third, even the mere mention of menstruation is itself a radical act. This latter point has gotten me thinking about issues of disclosure and visibility about menstruation, particularly among our more like-minded feminist allies. What if we simply started to violate the silent stigma around menstruation by disclosing that we were menstruating today? I have a group of students (Jax Gonzalez, Stephanie Robinson, and Marisa Loiacono) who presented this idea last weekend at the National Women’s Studies Association conference in Oakland, California. Their claim? That simply saying I am menstruating today can radically upset discourses of silence and shame about menstruation, while also holding us accountable for how we put our bodies on the line in feminist activism.
I am menstruating today. A simple statement that has the potential to undermine and upset the most basic assumptions about menstruation: that it will remain invisible, silent, secret, “managed,” “maintained,” and certainly undisclosed in public. With this in mind, and in honor of these fantastic students, I encourage you to try this. “Out” yourself as menstruating, not just to your family/partner/loved ones, but in a public sense. See what happens. It is, after all, the simple rebellions that create the most panic.