It seems that Canadian menstrual activists are way out ahead of those in the US with a drive to eliminate sales taxes on menstrual products. I understand that this issue has come up previously at the Provincial level in Manitoba and British Columbia, but this is a nation-wide drive.
The topic of menstruation is so delicate in the US that it’s unlikely that any party or mainstream candidate would sign on to support a bill to eliminate menstrual sales taxes at any level. It would surely invite ridicule and smarmy commentary from the uptight media pundits and politicians who run rampant over anything having to do with women’s health, especially when it comes to the menstrual cycle.
Yet it’s surprising that, to the best of my knowledge, there has never been a law suit filed on the basis of gender discrimination against state and local taxation of menstrual products since they are a necessity used almost exclusively by women.
Perhaps it’s time for more activists in the US and elsewhere to pick up on the lead of the Canadian feminists and raise a fist clutching a tampon, pad, or cup (whichever one prefers) and demand the elimination of this discriminatory levy. Readers are invited to propose appropriate slogans. And perhaps in Boston in June we could stage a new version of the revolution’s tea party. Boston harbor afloat with tampons! Now there’s an image sure to get coverage.
The history of women being discriminated against for having a menstrual cycle is, unfortunately, long and varied one, going far back into antiquity as demonstrated by prohibitions spelled out in the biblical book of Leviticus. Sometimes the prejudices or fears underlying both formal and informal practices spring from misunderstandings of biological functions; sometimes they are simply vestiges of patriarchal systems designed to maintain male dominance; sometimes they are indications of cultural lag, behaviors kept alive despite the fact that the individuals really “know better” but are stuck in their traditions. Shirley Jackson’s famous short story, “The Lottery,” captures such a phenomenon brilliantly.
The bad news is that there are still a lot of cultural practices in place whose meaning or usefulness has long ago been found to be worthless. The good news is that every once in a while enough noise is made or enough light is shed on a bad idea that it is abandoned, even if reluctantly.
The recent story about how women job applicants have been asked intrusive and pointless questions about their menstrual cycles and how the interview questions were dropped from the protocol gives us cause to sigh in dismay that such things continue to happen but also gives us reason to smile with pleasure that public exposure brought about change.
Readers are encouraged to respond with posts citing other similar stories.
The idea that animals (male animals, that is) mark territories with urine streams is well established, particularly in the case of dogs, wolves, and other similar breeds. It seems that men too (notably adolescent boys) engage in some sort of marking practices when it comes to failure to flush urinals or toilets in public (and sometimes domestic) facilities.
A story by Haruki Murakami in a recent New Yorker magazine (Oct. 13, 2014; pg. 100+) depicts a teenage girl who uses a menstrual product as a way of marking territory as well. Murakami’s character is a middle-aged woman in a story titled “Scheherazade” who, in the course of a string of post-coital sharing moments, confides to the narrator a time in her adolescence when she was obsessed with a boy in her high school. Too shy to approach him personally, she would occasionally sneak into his home and peruse the contents of his bedroom. Eventually she stole several of his personal objects – a pencil, soccer insignia, sweaty tee shirt – and leaves something of her own hidden in the back of a drawer or under some old notebooks. In addition to a few strands of her hair, she hides the most personal object she can think of:
“Finally, I decided to leave a tampon behind. An unused one, of course, still in its plastic wrapper. . . . I hid it at the very back of the bottom drawer, where it would be difficult to find. That really turned me on. The fact that a tampon of mine was stashed away in his desk drawer. Maybe it was because I was so turned on that my period started almost immediately after that.”
When she returns to the house on several later trips she always checks to see that the tampon is still in place and delights that it has remained in the boy’s drawer. The tampon comes to be described as “a token” that represents her unrequited crush on the boy who is barely aware of her existence. Eventually she comes to associate her erotic attraction with her menstrual cycle, even thinking about the boy’s masturbation as being compared to her period, “All those sperm had to go somewhere, just as girls had to have periods.” Finally, the boy’s parents discover that someone has been invading their home and change the locks so that her trespasses are ended. But the story’s exploration of the erotic associations of menstrual details is fascinating and fairly rare.
Furthermore, the fact that this is a male author’s take on the topic probably makes it somewhat unreliable even though it claims to be told through the words of a woman’s reminiscences. Readers are invited to respond with mention of other stories that explore both the erotic and territorial marking potential of menstrual products and blood.
Given their first-hand awareness of the role it has played in their own lives, it is not surprising that women writers (and researchers) have included references to the menstrual cycle in their books. Even so, social taboos have probably tended to keep the subject from appearing as often as it might have otherwise and literary menstrual references have only come to the surface in the mid-twentieth century. The women appearing in the fiction of Bronte, Eliot, Alcott, du Maurier, and the other major women writers of the 19th century seem to be lacking a menstrual cycle regardless of how otherwise thoroughly detailed their lives were depicted.
Men too have been menstrual-averse. The cycle played no part though later male authors, notably William Faulkner, did include specific menstrual details if only to capture a male chart in the lives of the women in the novels of Hardy, Conrad, James, Dickens, Lawrence or Hawthorne, to name a representative few. Men seem to be “in avoidance,” if not “in denial” about the cycle’s presence. Even male writers such as Updike and Roth for all their frank depictions of sexual behavior have treated menstruation gingerly, in the case of Roth using it in two novels to express characters’ kinkiness.
The more permissive climate of the past 60 or 70 years not only saw the rise of a new generation of women writers, but a greater openness to the inclusion of menstrual material in their stories. Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Patchett, and Margaret Atwood, to name a few of the most noteworthy, have built entire scenes or even complete plot lines around menstrual tropes.
This is a subject rich in possibilities for a wide variety of investigations in literary studies, women’s and gender studies, communication and media, sociology, psychology, and even religious studies. With the exception of Dana Medoro’s path breaking book, The Bleeding of America, the subject is virtually untouched. Readers are urged to dig into this treasure trove of material.
So, the purpose of this blog post is to invite suggestions of literary sources that are fertile ground for cycle commentary. Help build the menstrual canon with mention of “sightings” that have come to your attention.
Without endorsing the sites, readers of re:Cycling might be interested/amused by this item from Lauren Braun at BioWink that was received recently by a member of the blog team:
Women Break The Taboo Around Menstruation By Sharing Hilarious Period Reminders
Menstrual cycles are still a taboo subject, and this discomfort with talking about them results in both misinformation and lack of information about menstrual health.
But earlier this week a tweet went viral when @pamwishbow customized her Clue period reminders, a new feature we launched last month. As of today, she had 348 retweets and 458 favorites.
We were so inspired by how Pam confidently owned her period in this public way that we decided to encourage other Clue users to share how they made the period reminders their own through customization. The uniqueness of the reminders seems to represent the uniqueness of each person’s cycle.
Sharing something that’s so personal helps break the stigma and open the door to more honest conversation. We’re proud to be part of this growing trend of empowering women with knowledge about their bodies, so that they can make the most informed decisions about their reproductive health. We’re asking women to #OwnYourCycle.
Here is our website: http://www.helloclue.com/
In celebration of our fifth anniversary, we are republishing some of our favorite posts. This post by David Linton originally appeared October 8, 2009.
A lot of ideas get hatched in a bar over drinks with friends. Most don’t make it past the sober morning after. But a conversation in a Denver bistro in 2008 led to the creation of a new Internet service that aims to address Rodney King’s eternal question, “Can’t we all just get along?” In this case the “getting along” applies to men and women who feel afflicted by the scourge of Pre-Menstrual Syndrome – PMS – and its presumed negative impact on otherwise harmonious relationships.
Despite the sound research and persuasive arguments of writers such as Carol Tavris (The Mismeasure of Woman), Anne Fausto-Sterling (Myths of Gender), Joan C. Chrisler (Charting a New Course for Feminist Psychology) and Paula Caplan (Fighting the Pathologizing of PMS), to name just a few who have labored to dispel the pernicious misconceptions and stigma surrounding the menstrual cycle, stereotypes and myths have been tenacious. Thus, in the digital age it was probably inevitable that PMS Lore would find new outlets for dissemination. Which brings us back to Denver.
One of the participants in the fateful exchange over Coors and coolers in the Mile High City was Jordan Eisenberg, a self-described entrepreneur. He and a group of friends had somehow gotten into a spirited conversation about PMS. The women expressed annoyance that men sometimes asked, “Are you getting your period?” as a way to discredit feelings women had about real concerns. It was so bad, they said, that even if they actually were menstruating, they could never acknowledge it because they’d be dismissed out of hand.
Opinions bounced around until one of the men mentioned that he put the date of his girl friend’s expected period in his Palm Pilot so he could anticipate her mood swings and avoid topics that might provoke conflict on “those days.” The men thought that this was a sensible idea, and the women were outraged that anyone would track their biology so mechanically.
For all but one of the participants the evening’s outing yielded no more than another story to share with friends at some future bar gathering. But for Jordan Eisenberg it was an inspiration. And so was born the Web site PMSBuddy.com.
In no time at all, the site has become an Internet hit. It can be found as an iPhone application and comes up under a number of Google search terms. Within a year of its launch, the site claimed to have 150,000 registered users and that it was currently tracking (as of 10/5/09) 33,192 menstrual cycles. According to the daily tally 1,366 women whose cycles were being tracked began to have PMS that day. Another 6,437 would begin within five days and the “Overall Threat Index” was “1-4:1,” whatever that means.
One might view the site as just a “guy joke,” another way for men to make light of something they don’t understand and to cope with their menstrual fears. The PMSBuddy web site uses fairly benign language and claims to have good intentions. It even has what it calls an “altruistic” aim with a slogan that boasts, “Saving relationships, one month at a time!” yet it reflects an underlying anxiety. It addresses male subscribers in a chummy voice: “PMSBuddy.com is a free service . . .to keep you aware of when . . . things can get intense for what may seem to be no reason at all. . . .there is no reason to ever be blindsided by PMS again.”
In addition to tracking the cycles of women in the lives of its subscribers and sending warning announcements about the impending periods of one’s wife, girlfriend, daughters, etc., it has a section called “PMS Stories,” submissions from subscribers about their PMS encounters and opinions. On the first day I first looked at the site there were nearly 150 stories posted from both men and women, but by the time these pages are being read there are surely many more.
My first reaction on discovering PMSbuddy.com was a combination of wonder and amusement.
Of course, this is not the first (nor, sadly, will it be the last) example of men taking cheap shots at menstruation or trying to turn prejudice to profit. An episode of In Living Color from 1991 (Season 2, episode 9) was titled “PMS Defense System” and featured Jim Carey in a mock ad for an emergency phone link that gave men 24 hour access to a woman who could talk you through any encounter with a woman afflicted with the disease of PMS.
Every night Jon Stewart closes his DAILY SHOW with the sentence, “And now, your moment of Zen,” which is usually followed by a clip of some cable news program in which people say dopey or inane remarks. The purpose is to remind viewers of just how much stupidity is out there and the target is commonly self-inflated pundits on the FOX or CNN system.
Tuesday night, September 2, the clip consisted of a young woman reporting on a new line of underwear while holding up a pair of panties and saying, “Our underwear is actually functional; it’s fantastic for moms, and believe it or not it’s actually great for that time of the month. I bet you didn’t expect that.” A reaction shot includes a stuffy looking man who seems to hesitantly accept the fact that, since the show is about the “modern man” that means they’ll have to learn to tolerate “period talk” on TV news and consumer programs.
Is this a peculiar form of progress or just another adolescent period joke? Should we enjoy our moment of mockery of those up-tight men who are so-not-hip, unlike us Comedy Central fans? Or is the real joke on Jon Stewart and his producers for thinking that someone else making a casual period reference is something to poke fun at?
(Note: to watch the brief menstrual moment you will probably have to wade through an ad and a plug for the show itself.)
A noteworthy addition to the menstrual canon was published last year by Sara Read, a professor in the Department of English and Drama at Loughborough University in England, titled Menstruation and the Female Body in Early Modern England (Palgrave Macmillan). As the title suggests, the book delves into the menstrual ecology of 16th and 17th Century England in order to discover the nature of attitudes and practices of the time. Given the fact that the prejudices, myths, taboos, and emphasis on discretion and even secrecy were present as they are today (though sometimes taking different forms), it is a daunting challenge to unearth evidence of how the menstrual cycle was viewed centuries in the past. However, despite the secrecy surrounding the topic, Read has unearthed nearly 150 primary sources ranging from journals, sermons and letters to midwife instructional manuals which she subjects to close analysis assisted by more than 100 secondary scholarly references. In doing so she has revealed a complex set of social practices and has critiqued them with insight.
There is a striking symmetry between Sara Read’s documentation of Early Modern menstruation and Lauren Rosewarne’s Periods in Pop Culture (Lexington Books) published the previous year. Though they examine eras separated by 400 to 500 years of history and vast changes in practices and attitudes, their projects compliment each other in surprisingly felicitous ways. Both authors capture the nuances of the subject in their respective realms and invite readers to think more deeply about how menstrual values are formed.
Following the publication of Read’s book, she is one of the organizers of a conference in July at her home university titled “Early Modern Women, Religion, and the Body” that will include several presentations with menstrual themes, including my own paper titled, “The Early Modern ‘Period’ and Biblical Stories of Menstruating Women.” A report on the conference will be posted after its completion.
For nearly 20 years Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney has been working to have enacted into law a bill aimed at providing better quality control of tampon manufacture. Researchers have repeatedly raised alarms regarding the potential health risks women are exposed to due to the effects of some of the chemicals used in their composition, especially those involved in tampons. However, despite having attracted strong support from some other members of Congress, the bill in various forms has never made it through the committee process onto the floor of the US House of Representatives for a vote.
Undaunted, Congresswoman Maloney is about to try again and this time the members of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research are on board to muster support. Partly due to SMCR input, the bill has been refined and clarified so as to spell out the reasons it is needed and the expected outcomes. And, the bill has a new name, The Robin Danielson Act, in recognition of a woman who died of Toxic Shock Syndrome.
The timing for this legislative push coincides with SMCR commitment to support the international Menstrual Hygiene Day being spearheaded by the Berlin-based organization, WASH-United. Around the world various groups will be hosting special events, film screenings, menstrual poetry and art activities, and educational efforts throughout the month of May, all geared to a May 28, Menstrual Hygiene Day, celebration of the cycle and rejection of the taboos, stigmas, and shame factors.
More information will be forthcoming shortly on how everyone can get involved by signing petitions, contacting members of Congress, and becoming activated to pass the Robin Danielson Act.
A previous post, The Subject of Sneers or Jests: Menstrual Education in the Service of Racism, examined the confluence of eugenic notions that conflated the effects of environmental factors like clothing, alcohol, and masturbation with heredity and health as expressed in a 1913 sexual health manual sponsored by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, What Every Young Woman Ought to Know. It is important to note that not every book about sexuality that emerged early in the century was as misguided and misinformed as that one.
Just 13 years later, in 1926, another guide to sex and marriage was published, Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique, by Th. H. Van de Velde, M.D., that went on to its 44th printing at Random House by 1963. Though not much is actually known about its reception or the uses its readers put it to, its longevity suggests both popularity and impact. And in tone and content it is remarkably different from the previously discussed volume from 1913. It suggests that the sexual/menstrual ecology was in flux (perhaps it always is) but also that the earlier work did not fully reflect the spirit of its times.
In those sections of the book dealing with anatomy and physiology the information is mostly sound and presented in a straightforward manner. However, Ideal Marriage also contains an ample amount of less than thorough information about lots of topics, not the least of which is just what constitutes an “ideal marriage!” Of special interest to readers of re:Cycling are the portions that set out to explain and describe the workings of the menstrual cycle.
Though there are a few caveats or cautionary asides such as, “I am fully aware that we are here in an uncharted territory, full of traps and pitfalls. . .”(106) and that it is “. . . peculiarly difficult to sift the possible kernel of fact from the fantastic sheaf of tradition and superstition. . . ,” (107) none-the-less the author proceeds to paint a picture of the effects of menstruation as worthy of a Hitchcock thriller. Just before and during menstrual bleeding women have, “a lesser degree of bodily endurance, activity and dexterity; a tendency to exhaustion and malaise,” (100); “Temper, hypersensitiviteness, caprice, resentment, rapid changes of mood, liability to take offense unnecessarily appear, in women who are otherwise very free from these manifestations.” (100) And, women must take special care about “resolutely mastering their tongues and tempers. . .” (100) Naturally, these unfortunate flare ups create a special challenge for men: “For the husband, there are two occasions . . . in which tact, sympathy and self-control are urgently needed if he is to be an expert in love and life. Namely, in the first days of married life, and in the first days of the monthly vital ebb. The second is much the harder test—because it perpetually recurs!—but surely not any less important than the first.” (101)
In addition to these disturbances of mood, there are other physical defects that appear: “nausea and inclination to vomit, bad breath, increase of intestinal gas. . . a tendency to varicose veins, cold feet . . the vocal apparatus is impaired . . . the voice becomes easily tired and changes its quality. . .an appreciable narrowing of the field of vision, and less acute differentiation of colors. . . facial pallor, a tendency to blush easily, and blue rings under the eyes. . .[in effect] she is partly an invalid.” (104-105) Whew! Yet there is a saving moment. After a lengthy catalog of miseries and flaws we learn that, “Fortunately no one woman has to endure all the sufferings and disabilities described above. . . .And, I repeat, that fortunately, there are quite a number of women who do not suffer any of these things.” (105)
Despite the bleak depictions of what many menstruating women are believed to experience and what their husbands must endure, the author then goes on to confront and mostly refute the most deeply rooted sexual taboo of all. A full chapter is devoted to a discussion of sexual intercourse during menstruation and pregnancy. Beginning with acknowledging and identifying the wide range of historical religious and cultural prohibitions and traditions, the chapter then proceeds to describe how some women and men are not only indifferent to the prohibitions but, in fact, find menstrual sex more exciting:
“In women the wish for intercourse may be increased during menstruation, or during certain days of the flow. And the man’s impulse of sexual approach may be instinctively aroused by the menstrual condition of the woman.” (289)
“. . . the knowledge that menstruation has begun drives many a man into the embrace of the wife he loves.” (290)
The SMCR joins thousands of other groups and individuals around the world in celebrating Gloria Steinem’s 80th birthday. Her contribution to the full array of feminist causes is immeasurable, not the least of which is her insightful essay on the social construction of the menstrual cycle, “If Men Could Menstruate.” We were honored to present her with the first Making Menstruation Matter Award in June 2013 and recall her presentation fondly. Her opening statement to the auditorium full of menstrual activists and scholars was, “I can’t tell you how happy I am that you exist.” Well, there is no doubt that the feeling is mutual!