Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Menstrual “Outing,” Menstrual Panics

November 16th, 2012 by Breanne Fahs

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.

Photo used with permission

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).

Photo used with permission

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.

  

24 Responses to “Menstrual “Outing,” Menstrual Panics”

  1. Tomi-Ann says:

    How awesome! I hope we can hear about all these great projects in greater detail at SMCR this summer.

  2. Chris Bobel says:

    Love, love, love this. Love the creative assignment and the students’ bold and diverse ways of engaging it, and YES! to coming out of the menstrual closet. I will be menstruating next week, I assume, and will definitely do my part to do a little disruption of my own. Who’s with me?

  3. What if SMCR were to create and market an attractive pin (with a secure fastener) that says “I’m menstruating today” ??

    I am past that but I would buy attractive pins and give them to my younger friends and relatives and students to wear. Or (grin) perhaps wear it myself to see the looks of astonishment.

    Time for the artists to step into this activism!

  4. I’m going to set “I am menstuating today” as my facebook status in about three days (at which time it will be true!) Love this idea of menstrual “outing”.

  5. Dina says:

    I’m always shocked at society’s repressed and backward attitude toward menstruation and menstruating women, products, etc. And good for anyone who wants to raise consciousness in positive ways. But I personally wouldn’t announce it publically (or try to hide it, for that matter) because it’s usually irrelevant and none of anyone’s business. I have no problem telling friends or coworkers if I need to be excused, change clothes, if blood loss is making me weak… but to announce it to strangers, to me, is intrusive toward them on my part, and just seems to lack social grace. just my 2 cents

    • Julia says:

      I agree, Dina. I’m a young woman who went to an all-girls’ school; an environment that couldn’t have been more female-centric. We certainly talked about periods and gender issues, men’s reactions to menstruation… we exchanged tips and concerns about our experiences as young women trying to get to know our bodies. Despite all this, I still think some things are private. There seems to be some difficulty for a lot of people distinguishing between ‘private’ and ‘shameful’.
      I believe that society needs to stop shaming women for menstruating, that we need to move away from medicalizing being female, and that all the juvenile hysteria surrounding menstruation is plain ridiculous. But just as I don’t discuss bowel movements in public, or talk about the fight my parents had last night with my co-workers, I have no desire to shove the fact that I’m menstruating in anyone’s face. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s also just not interesting to anyone – why should they care? I don’t care to know when they’re sweating, or having urinary incontinence, or struggling with loose bowels, unless of course someone needs my help or sympathy.
      Personally, I’d like to see people a little less focused on themselves (whether it’s the fact that they’re menstruating or the fact that they’re having a bad day) and certainly less hysterical about perfectly natural bodily functions, but I don’t know if I can get on board with trying to normalize sharing (or broadcasting) personal and mundane physical processes.

  6. Andrea says:

    HI! I’m Andrea, from Argentina, and I found this article thanks to Flor de Cayena, a fanpage in Facebook that gathers information and natural, ecological options for menstrual higiene… and this is AWESOME! I always thought that it didn’t matter if i said i was menstruating, but society doesn’t think the same… and of course, when i started using NaturCup (a silicon cup), and told my girl friends about it, they said it was disgusting and dangerous for health… there is no information about menstruation, i had to look for myself, always, because it is some kind of taboo. I want to congratulate everyone, the students that committed with the assignment, and specially you, for showing to the people that menstruation is nothing to be ashamed for…. I AM MENSTRUATING :)

  7. Think menstruation is taboo? Try menopause. I skated roller derby as “Flash Hottie” when I was in my early fifties. I got more snickers and blushes from others for that name than “Suzy Crotchrot” got for her derby name. Announce “hot flash!” when you’re having one. Say, “It’s better than bleeding,” when someone makes a shy reply.

    Plenty of innocent fun, and no curse words involved.

  8. During my youth my periods were easy and light, then in my late 20′s I became symptomatic with endometriosis. I suffered painful and heavy periods and luckily got diagnosed quite quickly. However, during the time before my diagnosis I found out even though it is thought that as many as 1 in 10 women of child bearing age have endometriosis, many girls don’t get diagnosed for years because they are told that pain is “normal” during their menstruation by the doctor and they have no method of comparison because no one talks about it. It is taboo, and because of that taboo our young women are suffering years of pain and confusion and possible long term fertility problems. This is a very real and worrying consequence of the taboo surrounding menstruation when it should discussed in a matter of fact way from an early age between mothers, aunts and their children. I had never heard of endometriosis until I was diagnosed, despite my aunt having suffered from it for many years, because it was always hushed up. More people should push the boundaries so that eventually those boundaries shift to a place where menstruation can be discussed in a calm and matter of fact way, so women can know when to fight for the right treatment to a painful medical condition.

  9. Ali says:

    I don’t understand this.

    Are we going to share bowel movements too? I’m not ashamed of my bowel movements. Doesn’t mean I have to post it all over facebook.

    This is starting to get ridiculous. Maybe we should post when we are ovulating too. You know… for full disclosure.

    • Elizabeth Kissling says:

      Why would you want to share your bowel movements? Why on earth would you think that’s even slightly similar to menstruation??

      That doesn’t even make any sense.

      Ovulation, on the other hand, absolutely. People announce their pregnancies and post photos of their sonograms, so why not.

      • Julia says:

        I don’t think it’s that hard to understand the comparison. Bowel movements and menstruation are both natural processes, and neither are any negative reflection on the individual. Neither imply that you lead an unhealthy or immoral (whatever that may mean to someone personally) life… Both have traditionally been considered private. Just because menstruation has been tied to feminism doesn’t make it any less private to many people, just like bowel movements are to almost everyone – the point she’s trying to make is that some things are private and personal but NOT shameful; not wanting to talk about them in public or force the discourse on others doesn’t mean you’re ashamed of it.

        • Elizabeth Kissling says:

          No.

          No. I’m so, so tired of this comparison. It’s not about ‘they’re both natural and they’re both private.’ Menstruation is shamed and vilified because women do it.

          Are manufacturers of toilet paper trying to sell you TP based on how shameful it is to poop? (See those dirty-ass bears in Charmin ads telling you to “enjoy the go” – a marked contrast from femcare ads.) Is the average time from onset of pain in bowel diseases to diagnosis eleven years because people think pain with bowel movements is normal or because physicians and/or family members think you’re exaggerating how much it hurts? (See well-documented endometriosis research. )

          Not only that, people do talk about bowel movements. All the time. They talk about how particular foods affect their digestion. They excuse themselves from meetings and social gatherings to use the bathroom, sometimes saying why in euphemistic terms, sometimes in coarse and graphic language. The older they get, the more they do it.

          This is not merely about what’s natural or private.

          (We can debate your proposition that “menstruation has been tied to feminism” another time. Many feminists have told those of us who work on these issues at re:Cycling that feminism has more important things to do. )

      • I agree – we should be outing ovulation too. It’s not just about getting pregnant! I feel really good when I’m ovulating…making it about the whole cycle is more interesting.

        • Also, this comment recalls a British TV show in which a dietician would visit the homes of families with particularly bad diets and a big part of that show was looking at samples of their feces! I think perhaps women feel they HAVE to more secretive than men about defecating – like running the tap when they’re in the bathroom etc – but it’s a very different subject. I have noticed in movies – both Hollywood and independent – cohabiting men and women leaving the door open when they’re on the toilet has become a strange sort of shorthand for relationship comfort/deterioration. They have women and men doing whatever they like on the toilet but rarely do we see a woman inserting a tampon or changing a pad.

  10. I see it’s working… the first step to making it possible to talk about menstruation is to desensitize ourselves to talking about menstruation.

  11. I’m menstruating! I also posted it to my fb wall and asked if anyone else was too. I included a link to this article. Ovulation, menstration, etc…it’s all a part of normal. :) My children from the youngest to the oldest(13 year old boy) know it’s a fact of life. Nothing shameful. I even have a pin board that is title Birth, Babes, Breasts and Blooding. (I wanted the alliteration! ;) ) but I’ve pins about menstruation, breastfeeding, birth, etc. Life. It’s normal.

    ~Honey

  12. [...] Matter” (which you can also submit a proposal to for June 2013), discovering some of the taboos around women and menstruation, or the #periodtalk, where everyone discusses their periods is held on the 2nd Friday of the month [...]

  13. Susan Langerman says:

    Hi, thank you, enjoyed your blog and all the comments.
    Personally I have no problem of talking about menstruation. In fact I talk about it a lot, but, the response that I usually get is an attitude of ‘let’s just bear with her. My interest lies more with how we manage our menstruation, how it impacts on our self-perception and sense of dignity together with the impact that the products that we use on sanitation systems. The manner in how we handle our waste products is leading to a catastrophy. My interaction with young women (students) are amazingly different to my experiences mentioned above with more mature women. They are open to discuss menstruation and are not afraid to express their confidence in their own femininity and biological aspects. What is however clear to me is that they all desire a better method of managing their menstruation and 90% were not satisfied with current products on the market. The result is that I designed, developed and patented an interesting product to cater for just about all of their practical concerns. I am however finding it extremely difficult to commercialise the product and I am wondering why? I’m wondering if big companies are not engaging because they want to protect their own product range or is there just not a need for a product that offers surity of no leakage? Of course there are other benefits too, but leakage seems to be the bigger concern. Care to comment??

  14. Stephanie Robinson says:

    As a student who participated in this initial assignment given by Dr. Breanne Fahs, and now have turned menstrual research and menstrual activism into a full time endeavor; I believe that disrupting the ideas around the “shameful” period to be one of the first (and one of the most important) steps in desensitizing ourselves and our society to the “taboos” of menstruation; and the beginning of meaningful conversations surrounding how to bring to light the problems that women face during menstruation- whether it be painful periods, poor accessibility to healthy and safe products, or the notion that we should be ashamed of our bleeding vaginas.
    Recently, I outed myself in a women’s studies class, stating that I was menstruating, and the reaction that I got from the students in an upper division women’s studies sexuality class was very surprising. Many women looked embarrassed for me, some scoffed and others just ignored my statement, which made me think, if in this supposedly forward thinking space, how are we still getting these reactions to menstruation? Having open discussions about menstruation, menstrual blood, menstrual products not only dispels myths and normalizes taboos, it allows women of all generations to begin to have conversations about something that has never been acceptable to have a public discourse about. If we talk about menstruation, and how we individually experience this process, my hopes are that it will inspire younger generations of girls to be open with such conversations and comfortable talking about the health of their vaginas.
    I see how keeping menstruation to yourself could be an option, but I think that it is denying yourself to be taking part in a conversation that needs to happen, one that is much overdue.

  15. [...] is about power. Power against the shame. Power against the patriarchal construction of the period. Power of the period. 0   Share this:EmailFacebookDiggTwitterPinterestGoogle [...]

  16. [...] status is similar to women disclosing that they have just urinated, defecated, or vomited. In my November 2012 column called “Menstrual outing, menstrual panics,” here are some of the responses I got when advocating that women openly discuss [...]

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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.