- Cunt has been in Oxford English Dictionary since 1972, and feminist debates about whether the word can be reclaimed go back at least as far. Many re:Cycling readers know this monologue (video at right) from Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues. This year, OED has officially added cunty to its lexicon.
- The Red Tent Sisters explain how to choose a condom.
- Here’s another non-hormonal method of contraception that doesn’t get enough press: vaginal contraceptive film, aka VCF.
- Want to have sex like a porn star? Check out these ten “mind blowing sex tips” from Stoya.
- Why we don’t talk about our abortions: “while not one of us feels like we did the wrong thing (not one of us looks wistfully into the distance and imagines the child-that-could-have-been) we all know that it takes braver women than us to be honest and say ‘I’m proud that I didn’t bring an unwanted baby into the world.’ “
Sometimes, when it seems that progress toward the elimination of harmful menstrual stereotypes, myths, and misinformation is slow or even stalled, it is bracing to take a look back at the kinds of educational materials, marriage manuals, and sources of advice that women were offered in the past in order to be reminded that progress does actually exist. Consider, for instance, an effort to enlighten women about sex, marriage, and the menstrual cycle from the early 20th Century.
One hundred years ago, in 1913, a book appeared in the “Self and Sex Series” titled, What a Young Woman Ought to Know by an author identified as Mrs. Mary Wood-Allen, MD. Her credentials, displayed on the title page, include the following: “National Superintendent of the Purity Department Woman’s Christian Temperance Union,” and she is credited with having written six other books, including Almost a Man and Almost a Woman.
To get a hint of the direction the book takes in its effort to instruct young women in what they ought to know a glance at some of the chapter titles may suffice:
Ch. V – “Breathing”
Ch. VI – “Hindrances to Breathing”
Ch. VII – “Added Injuries from Tight Clothing”
Ch. XVI – “Some Causes of Painful Menstruation”
Ch. XVII – “Care During Menstruation”
Ch. XIX – “Solitary Vice”
Ch. XXVII – “”The Law of Heredity”
Ch. XXXIV – “Effects of Immorality on the Race”
Ch. XXX – “The Gospel of Heredity”
As these titles suggest, the book manages to link menstrual education with some of the most virulent eugenic nonsense that had gained widespread acceptance in American science and politics of the time, the same sham-science that led to sterilization of disabled people and African-Americans in the U.S. and found a welcome home in Nazi Germany in the following decades.
Perhaps the best way to communicate the stupidity of the book’s content is to allow it to speak for itself. Consider the explanations of menstrual discomfort and the effects of bad reading habits:
“Whenever there is actual pain at any stage of the monthly period, it is because something is wrong, either in the dress, or the diet, or the personal and social habits of the individual.” (119)
“Romance-reading by young girls will, by this excitement of the bodily organs, tend to create their premature development, and the child becomes physically a woman months, or even years, before she should.” (124)
“…if girls from earliest childhood were dressed loosely, with no clothing suspended on the hips, if their muscles were well developed through judicious exercise, they would seldom find it necessary to be semi-invalids at any time.” (146)
The underlying disdain or fear of sexual pleasure is expressed in the chapter about masturbation, titled “Solitary Vice,” in which it states, “the reading of sensational love stories is most detrimental…This stimulation sometimes leads to the formation of an evil habit, known as self-abuse….The results of self-abuse are most disastrous. It destroys mental power and memory, it blotches the complexion, dulls the eye, takes away the strength, and may even cause insanity.”
As if these dire consequences were not bad enough, it turns out that once one has inflicted these conditions on one’s self, they can enter the girl’s genetic code and be passed along to future generations. Even a girl’s clothing choices can have long term, disastrous effects: “The dress of women is not merely an unimportant matter, to be made the subject of sneers or jests. Fashions often create deformities, and are therefore worthy of most philosophical consideration, especially when we know that the effects of these deformities may be transmitted.” (223)
The author minces no words as to the effects on the children of such a careless mother: “The tightly-compressed waist of the girl displaces her internal organs, weakens her digestion, and deprives her children of their rightful inheritance. They are born with lessened vitality, with diminished nerve power, and are less likely to live, or, living, are more liable not only to grow up physically weak, but also lacking in mental and moral stamina.”
Readers—I need your help!
Next month, I will participate in a friendly debate at the Museum of Modern Art about Sputniko!’s provocative piece “Menstrutation Machine.” We’ve written about Menstruation Machine on re:Cycling before. In short, the metal device is equipped with a blood-dispensing system and electrodes that stimulate the lower abdomen, thus replicating the pain and bleeding of a five-day menstrual period.
Here’s the video that the artist created to simulate what it was like for one fictional boy (Takashi) when he wore the device while socializing with a friend in the streets of Tokyo.
The debate is part of a series Design and Violence-an “ongoing online curatorial experiment that explores the manifestations of violence in contemporary society by pairing critical thinkers with examples of challenging design work.”
The exact debate resolution is still being worked out, but it will revolve around this question of EMPATHY.
That is, what is the potential of “Menstruation Machine,” specifically, or any other object, to engender empathy in another?
Need more examples? Think Empathy Belly (thanks to sister blogger Chris Hitchcock who conjured that connection).
But we can extend the concept to ANY experience designed to expressly help an individual see inside someone else’s reality. Think “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes”, the International Men’s March to Stop Rape, Sexual Assault & Gender Violence, “a playful opportunity for men to raise awareness in their community about the serious causes, effects and remediations to men’s sexualized violence against women”; The Blind Café; or the TV show 30 Days, “An unscripted, documentary-style program where an individual is inserted into a lifestyle that is completely different from his or her upbringing, beliefs, religion or profession for 30 days.”
So, dear readers, I am hungry for you to share your thoughts as I prepare for the debate.
What do YOU think?
Can design help us be more empathic?
Can a non-menstruator ever really know what it is like to menstruate?
Can a temporary simulated experience, like this or any other, build a bridge?
Are there limits to what we can know of another’s lived experience, even if we can, for a short while, FEEL the pain?
Guest Post by Jen Lewis
Beauty in Blood Presents
Cycle: March 2014
Menstrual Designer: Jen Lewis
Director of Photography: Rob Lewis
Untitled #1 is currently part of the “Period Pieces” Art Show curated by SMCR member Josefin Persdotter. This exhibition opened on March 1st and is on display all month long at the Urban Artroom in Gothenburg, Sweden.
I’d given up reading the comments on online articles for the good of my mental health when a small slip last week steeled my resolve. In response to an article exploring the arguments made by “birth control truthers” a concerned father decided to have his say, taking the defensive arguments put forward by those in opposition to these “truthers” to their only logical conclusion:
“Perhaps we should market contraceptive pills as hormonal supplements to reduce cancer risk instead of as “contraception”? After all, it is only in modern times that women have hundreds of menstrual cycles throughout their lives. Even up until 1800 it was common for women to be either pregnant or lactating throughout much of their short lives.
The body simply wasn’t built to handle so many menstrual cycles, which raises the risk for cancer.
Who could argue with taking supplements to prevent cancer?
This may sound strange, but I am seriously considering putting my 11 year-old daughter on the pill (with no placebo) just for the health benefits. I just have to convince my wife first who is a little shocked by the idea…”
I cannot count how many times I have heard that the birth control pill “prevents cancer” – specifically “preventing” ovarian and endometrial cancer. In the last few months I have seen references to this benefit explained less and less so as a “lowered risk” and more and more so as a “preventative” action. I think this is significant as the word “prevent” suggests that the pill guarantees you will not get these forms of cancer. And yet, to remark that the pill is counted as a carcinogenic substance by WHO – due on the increased the risk of breast and cervical cancers – will get you tagged as a “truther.”
What is interesting, of course, is that despite the “cancer protecting” benefits of pregnancy, and early pregnancy at that, we do not see women encouraged to get pregnant in order to lower their risk of ovarian cancer. Criticism of child-free women does not generally include comments about their lax attitude towards their own health. The risk goes down further with every pregnancy and further still with breast feeding, especially breast feeding for a long period of time after birth. Women who have children young, and multiple children, have a lower risk of breast cancer than women who have no children or children after 30. Yet we see more talk of women having “too many” children at an age that is “too young” – in fact I was contacted via Twitter by someone who read this piece and who saw, in the comments, that one woman who uses natural family planning admitted to both liking the method and having 14 children. This admission disgusted the person who contacted me, even when I pointed out that it seemed the woman had very much chosen to have those 14 children.
It seems the people who are advocating prescription of the pill for cancer prevention purposes are not advocating women have children earlier, more children, or consider breast feeding for the good of their own health – in fact two of the loudest critics of my “birth control truther” book are vehemently against pregnancy and breast feeding being part of women’s lives (Amanda Marcotte and Lindsay Beyerstein). The risks of the pill are frequently compared to the health risks associated with pregnancy and child birth, but we don’t often hear women say they are choosing to not have children to avoid putting their health at risk for nine or so months.
Which leads me to this article in the LA Times that suggested nuns should also be on the birth control pill for its cancer-protecting abilities:
“And are the pills really unnatural? Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had their babies four or five years apart, because of long intervals of breastfeeding. As a result of that and their shorter life spans, they had as few as 40 menstrual cycles in a lifetime, while a modern woman can have 400. Though we can’t claim that today’s pills are perfect, their use is certainly less unnatural than enduring the hormone turmoil of hundreds of menstrual cycles.
For those living in or around New York City, the New York Public Library currently has an exhibition called “The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter.” As the title suggests, the exhibit looks at popular children’s stories—consisting of The Wizard of Oz and Mary Poppins to Pippi Långstrump (Pippi Longstocking) and Goodnight Moon—from a historical perspective and examines the cultural impact of books and stories on society.
When I visited the exhibit one section caught my attention: books that have been censored. There were the usual “culprits” including Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, so censored because of its use of racial epithets and stereotypes. Also represented was The Diary of a Young Girl in which Anne Frank describes her own genitalia. The library highlighted that portion of the diary so visitors could read Anne’s description:
Between your legs there are two soft, cushiony things, also covered with hair, which press together when you’re standing, so you can’t see what’s inside. They separate when you sit down, and they’re very red and quite fleshy on the inside. In the upper part, between the outer labia, there’s a fold of skin that, on second thought, looks like a kind of blister. That’s the clitoris.
Anne’s narrative of her own body is an honest picture of the female body and I was pleasantly surprised that the New York Public Library decided to enlarge the text and bring such attention to it.
Another book mentioned is an obvious classic in the menstrual world, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. by Judy Blume. As a menstrual scholar I was waiting to read how the discussion of puberty and menstruation was deemed too much and the book was censored for such depictions. However, the enlarged book page that accompanied the exhibit was from the section where Margaret laments her lack of breasts and eventually asks her mother for her first bra:
All through supper I thought about how I was going to tell my mother I wanted to wear a bra. I wondered why she hadn’t ever asked me if I wanted one, since she knew so much about being a girl.
When she came in to kiss me goodnight I said it. “I want to wear a bra.” Just like that—no beating around the bush.
I was a bit surprised that the library chose this portion of the book to use as an example. The seemingly tame thoughts about wanting a bra counter the more graphic description of the female body that Anne Frank mentions in her diary. Furthermore, menstruation was never mentioned as for the reasons why Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. was censored (the word “puberty” was mentioned, though).
David Linton and Saniya Lee Ghanoui
Since its publication in 1974, Steven King’s story of a young girl whose telekinetic powers are activated by a humiliating menstrual experience has fascinated readers, movie goers, and theater audiences ever since. Now, with the release of a new film (recently out on DVD) treatment of the story by the director Kimberly Peirce (director of another film with powerful menstrual moments, Boys Don’t Cry) the saga is on the popular radar once again. This is at least the seventh rendering the novel has received, beginning with Brian De Palma’s film in 1976 followed by a 1988 Broadway musical, a sequel (The Rage: Carrie 2) in 1999, a made-for-TV version in 2002, an off-Broadway revival in 2012 (previously reviewed on re:Cycling), and, along the way at least two camp parodies in which Carrie is played by a male actor in drag. What makes the story so enduring? Or, in show-biz language, what gives it such strong legs?
There’s something about the mysterious nature of menstruation that compels both awe and fear, particularly in men and others who have internalized the prevailing menstrual phobias. Steven King has claimed that the inspiration for the story occurred while he was working as a janitor’s assistant in a high school and, while they were cleaning the girls’ locker room, asked what the dispenser machine on the wall was for. The man replied, “They’re pussy plugs.” Thus, the girls chant at the panicked Carrie while they pelt her with tampons and pads from a broken machine, “Plug it up! Plug it up!”
In DePalma’s Carrie this “plug it up” scene is a catalyst for Carrie’s telekinetic powers, but that is where the direct menstrual references end. Not so in Peirce’s version. What is most striking about this latest remake is the way Peirce uses technology and social media to further publicize the menstrual horror that Carrie experiences. Chris, the antagonist, uses her smartphone to film Carrie cowering on the shower floor as the girls scream “plug it up.” The clip is later uploaded to YouTube and becomes central to the way the director stages the horrendous prom scene in which Carrie is drenched in pig blood. Peirce frames Carrie between two large projection screens onstage. As Carrie accepts her crown, and the pig blood falls on her, the YouTube clip from the shower appears on the screens having been programmed by Chris as part of her plot to humiliate her.
Why is this so important? In DePalma’s version menstruation is shown only as the facilitator for Carrie’s first use of her powers. In Peirce’s version it is shown not only in the opening shower scene, but in the climactic prom scene where the wrath of Carrie’s powers is truly leashed. Here, Carrie’s first period is meant to serve as a point of embarrassment for her in front of the entire student body, thanks to Chris’s YouTube video. Those who exposed Carrie’s menstrual embarrassment in such a viral way are punished for their actions.
The new version is the first by a woman director, though in a New York Times article she says she had conversations with De Palma about his vision of the story. It remains to be seen if future directors will find new ways to get even more mileage out of this endlessly fascinating story of menstrual mystery.
One of my PhD students and I are attempting to start a new research project on women’s experiences of ovarian cysts. Because this is a new project for us, we have spent a lot of time researching the topic to see what others have to say about it. What we’ve found is that there is a serious lack of information about this kind of reproductive difficulty and, as a result, there is a lot of confusion among doctors and women themselves about ovarian cysts. Here is what we have found so far:
-There are lots of different kinds of ovarian cysts. Thus, when someone has an ovarian cyst they can still have quite a range of experiences. Cysts can be of varying sizes and can be filled with fluid, gaseous substances, blood, or semi-solid tissues. The two main categories are “functional cysts” and “non-functional cysts”:
- Functional cysts are typically fluid-filled and are tied to the ebbs and flows of the menstrual cycle. They can increase or decrease in size alongside different phases of the cycle. When women have problematic symptoms, doctors often just have them wait a few menstrual cycles to determine whether the cysts will decrease in size themselves or remain a problem. The other common solution is prescribing women birth control pills, to help prevent functional cysts from growing. Women often don’t know they have functional cysts however. It is possible that many of us have them but do not know, because there are often no signs or symptoms. If there are symptoms, then it’s often because the cyst has grown enough to put pressure on other organs or because the cyst has ruptured. Women in their 20s and 30s are often diagnosed with functional cysts, but women over 40 can still get small follicular cysts that fall in the “functional” category.
- Non-functional cysts do not correspond to the menstrual cycle, and often are filled with tissue. There are lots of different kinds of non-functional cysts, which makes this type of cyst even more confusing for women and doctors. From what we read, this category of cysts is often confused with fibroids and laparoscopic or open abdominal surgery is often the answer (depending on the size of a cyst). Sometimes these types of cysts can be linked to endometriosis and ovarian cancer, but are not necessarily predictive of those conditions; that is, some women just get cysts and that’s it. When women over 40 are diagnosed with this type of cyst, doctors often recommend complete hysterectomies (even though women themselves might not want this solution).
-We’ve also found that there are a range of diagnostic tools that can detect cysts (e.g., pelvic exams, ultrasounds, MRIs, and CAT scans) and a range of treatment plans and procedures (e.g., just making women wait to see if the cyst decreases in size, birth control pills, laparoscopic surgery, open abdominal surgery to remove just the cyst, hysterectomy, oophorectomy).
-We have read up on women’s experiences on online support forums, however, and realize that women typically experience misdiagnosis at first. When they present a problem for women, cysts have symptoms that are commonly associated with pregnancy, indigestion and IBS, menopause, PMS, PID, PCOS, gallstone or kidney problems, hernias, cancer, etc. As a result, women are told they are pregnant, fat, need new shoes, are just postpartum, eating badly, etc. It is often months before diagnosis, and months or years before treatment, unless a doctor knows to look for cysts. If women go to the ER or a family practitioner with signs and symptoms, they are often misdiagnosed more quickly; OBGYNs seem to be able to diagnose more quickly but still may be unsure as to what the solution is.
-In our quick perusal of online forums about ovarian cysts, we can see that it is not just women in the U.S. who are desperately searching for answers about ovarian cysts. It is women in many other countries as well. Women report the long waits until diagnosis and treatment, the worries about whether cysts will reoccur, their worries about the appropriate diagnoses and treatments, their distrust of doctors (who seem to be just as confused as women themselves most of the time), and the constant conflation of ovarian cysts with other reproductive and non-reproductive difficulties as well as with normal reproductive experiences. Everyone is confused and the common experiences seem to be confusion, worry, second-guessing, misdiagnosis, and long waits for answers.