In the past few weeks I have been meeting with women’s health activist Carol Downer to collaborate on a new book. She shared with me a work published in 1969 that was a catalyst for her development of the self-help movement and feminist women’s health clinics – ‘The Abortion Handbook’ by Patricia Maginnis and Lana Clark Phelan – which is extremely hard to get hold of these days (Carol found her current copy on Ebay for a significant sum). This book has a strikingly contemporary tone- snarky, conversational, with a lot of black humor. It is also conspiratorial with very much an “us” (women) against “them” (medical establishment) tone. It’s something like ‘Sex and the Single Girl’ by Helen Gurley Brown, but with a recipe for a “home made hemorrhage” instead of a “fabulous dinner.” That is, the writers outline ways in which women could circumvent the restrictions on abortion access of the time in creative, guerrilla-style ways in order to have a legal abortion. One of these is getting an IUD inserted in the early stages of pregnancy.
In an chapter entitled ‘The Loop Can Be Your Little Friend’ the writers provide women who have missed a period with a plan for persuading a doctor to insert an IUD, when, at the time, it was required that this be done during a woman’s menstruation, in part, it is claimed here, to ensure that an abortion would not be the outcome. Firstly the woman makes the appointment as soon as possible, not waiting for a pregnancy test to confirm, as, they say, she can always pull the IUD out herself later if she doesn’t want it as a contraceptive. Then:
“Buy some raw, fresh beef liver…dip your well-scrubbed forefinger into the blood on the raw liver and rub this bloody finger into your vaginal tract. Go way up, beyond your cervix, not just the opening. Menstrual blood collects in the back of the vagina, so be sure and put some there to make it look more authentic…if you wear a tampon, use a bit more blood before you insert it so there will be discoloration on the tampon. Do not remove the tampon before you see the doctor or loop-installer…if you use an external sanitary napkin, smear a bit of beef blood down the center of the napkin just as your natural menstrual flow would be distributed…not side-to-side and end-to-end like butter on bread.
(Sorry if this makes you feel sick, but this whole business nauseates us. We’d like to get out of this whole trickery business, and we will, just as soon as doctors get out of the abortion business so all this planned deception can stop)
Be sure to smear your vaginal interior lightly also, as this napkin-evidence may be removed by a nurse, and it would be hard to explain you nice, bloodless vagina after that bloody napkin. For heaven’s sake, don’t douche before adding your bloody, dramatic “proof of period.” Keep yourself naturally revolting and smelly to get even for this humiliation.”
Once the IUD is installed the writers suggest the woman go about exercising vigorously, swimming, horse back riding, dancing, moving pianos and having sex in order to help the IUD act as a fertilized embryo remover. They conclude:
“This has worked many times for desperate women lacking money for proper medical care, and who hadn’t the stomach for self-surgery. It is certainly worth a trial. Except for your spiritual humiliation for being forced to deception, it is certainly harmless to you physically.”
Reading this I was reminded of how today we see menstrual activists stain white jeans with fake menstrual blood to confront the menstrual taboo in public or create accessories like the Stains by Chella Quint, that are an attachable fake period of sorts, in order to question the need to be secretive about this natural bodily function. On the television show ‘Nashville’ a main character used animal blood to fake a miscarriage for the observation of her husband in order that he remain married to her (it’s complicated, but a great show, you should check it out!). I was also reminded of the study from 2012 that claimed 38% of women have used having their period as a way to avoid an activity they did not want to do at the time. 20% said they have used their period as an excuse not to go into work. The study did not show how many women are actually having their period when they do this or how many are pretending to be having their period.
The recent death of writer Doris Lessing led me to revisit her work a bit. *
Author of more than 50 books as well as an opera, Lessing was brave. She spanned genres, refused to tow a singular ideological line and used her Nobel Prize moment to remind us that privilege shapes greatness as much, even more perhaps, than talent. And Lessing wrote about menstruation when few others dared.
In her 1962 novel The Golden Notebook, protagonist Anna Wulf journals on the first day of her period—chronicling every thought and feeling her menses produced for her. In the passage below, Wulf’s disgust with her body is hardly a menstrual-positive standpoint (and isn’t something off with her cycle if she detects such an offensive smell?). But there is an honesty, here. A broken silence. Lessing brought to the fore the reality of the fraught and conflicted menstruating body in the early 1960s, and that was a bold move.
I stuff my vagina with the tampon of cotton wool … I roll tampons into my handbag, concealing them under a handkerchief … The fact that I am having my period is no more than an entrance into an emotional state, recurring regularly, that is of no particular importance … A man said he would be revolted by the description of a woman defecating. I resented this … but he right … For instance, when Molly said to me … I‘ve got the curse; I have instantly to suppress distaste, even though we are both women; and I begin to be conscious of the possibility of bad smells … and I begin to worry: Am I smelling? It is the only smell that I know of that I dislike. … But the faintly dubious, essentially stale smell of menstrual blood, I hate. And resent. It is a smell that I feel as strange even to me, an imposition from outside. Not from me. Yet for two days I have to deal with this thing from outside—a bad smell, emanating from me. … So I shut the thoughts of my period out of my mind; making, however, a mental note that as soon as I get to the office I must go to the washroom to make sure there is no smell (pp. 339-340).
Lessing is not alone among the brave who dare to Speak a Menstrual Language. In honor of Thanksgiving in the US, I offer this shout out to a short list of the courageous who inspire. Thank you menstrual champions.
Rachel Horn, of Sustainable Cycles, who cycled coast to coast this summer, promoting menstrual literacy and menstrual cup awareness.
Holly Grigg-Spall, who has put herself on the line with her new book Sweetening the Pill: Or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control. Grigg-Spall has been challenged, sometimes pretty nastily, for suggesting that one can use a feminist reproductive justice lens to be critical of the pill.
And how about radical feminist pioneer of queer cinema, Barbara Hammer. Her 1974 expeimental film Menses playfully interprets, though a group of women enacting their own individual fantasies, what menstruation means to them. 1974!
Menarchists Jaqueline J. Gonzalez and Stephanie Robinson, who founded the Menstrual Activist Research Collective (M.A.R.C) in 2011, and just released their line of menstrual gear (http://www.etsy.com/shop/menarchists) at cost so you can help them spread the good word, or as they put, leave your MARC! We bleed. It is okay. We bleed.
Then there’s Arunachalam Muruganantham, the self described “school dropout” (and now the subject of a new documentary) who developed a table top machine that rural Indian women can use to produce and sell low cost single use menstrual pads. He wants to make life easier for Indian women (and he is not interested in getting rich). Yes, there are sustainability issues, here, but there’s also a widening of options for women.
Every teenager who, on the way to the school toilet, ever dared to walk down the hall with femcare-product-of-choice in open view.
Every menstruator who hangs cloth pads on the clothesline with the rest of the laundry.
In an older post I wrote, I talked about how to check your cervical fluid with a folded piece of toilet paper or your clean fingers.
BUT! What if you’re doing that and not finding anything? What if you, like many women I talk to, think that they don’t have any cervical fluid?
Well, you’re in luck, because I’m about to explain how to measure your cervical fluid, even if it seems like you don’t have any! Are you ready for this? You’re so ready.
Things you’ll need:
- Hand mirror
- Clean towel
- Soap and water
So … it goes a little something like this — CRAM YOUR FINGERS IN YOUR VAGINA! Just kidding. Not really. Kind of. Kidding about the “cramming” thing, but not about the “in your vagina” thing.
First things first, wash your hands. You don’t want to introduce any foreign bacteria into the vagina — it’s got a whole host of its own friendly bacteria that keeps things running smoothly, and you don’t want to upset the balance.
Now that your hands are clean … wait a minute! Okay, a lot of you reading this are probably very familiar with your vagina, where it is, how it looks, and every little nook and cranny inside and out. But some of you may not be. For those of you in the second camp, there is an extra step.
Grab a hand mirror!
Okay, was that hand mirror very dirty? Did you take it out of the woodshed or something? Is it your husband’s shaving mirror? If any of the above are true, wash your hands again.
Now get naked from the waist down — think gynecologist’s office, but significantly less unpleasant. You can leave your socks on. No cold stirrups (hopefully). Now sit or squat on a clean towel on the floor, and hold the hand mirror between your legs so you can actually get a good look at your vulva (external genitalia). As women, our genitals are positioned in such a way that they are very hard to get a clear look at without the aid of a hand mirror, so unless you’ve done this before, you may be surprised at what you see. Look at how beautiful you are! So many little folds of soft delicate skin, so many different shades of color. Vulvas come in all shapes and sizes and colors, and each are perfect and beautiful and packed with nerve endings, so don’t you even dare consider labiaplasty, even if the vulva you see in the mirror doesn’t look like the ones you may have seen in certain adult movies (or Canadian strip clubs). Yours is perfect. I promise.
Have a look and a feel around! Gently spread your inner labia apart and take a peek at what’s in there. You’ll see your clitoris, vaginal opening, and, if you have keen eyesight, the urethral opening. Neat, huh? You may even see some cervical fluid at the vaginal opening.
Now see where your vaginal opening is? Gently slide one clean finger inside, see how that feels? Okay, now you know WHERE to stick your finger when checking your cervical fluid internally.
Crouch in a squatting position, and place one or two (if they fit) fingers in your vagina, until you feel something like the tip of a nose (if you are fertile it might be much softer). This is your cervix! The place from whence all cervical fluid hails! The motherland!
Now draw your finger(s) gently out of your vagina and have a look at them. They will be slightly damp, because the vagina is a mucus membrane, like the inside of your mouth, so wetness is a given. Other than that, is there any “substance” on them? Anything that looks like grade school paste, or hand lotion, or raw egg whites? If so … there is your cervical fluid!!!! You found it! Hooray!
If not, you may be a) on the pill, b) in the pre-ovulatory infertile phase of your cycle, before you’ve started to make cervical fluid, or c) in the post-ovulatory infertile phase of your cycle, after ovulation, and your body may have stopped making cervical fluid for the remainder of your cycle.
If you don’t notice any, check again later in the day, and several times tomorrow, and every day after that! Soon you’ll have something to record on your chart!
Now you can stand up, wash your hands (again), pull up your pants (this step is critical), and go about your day!
Wheeee!!! Any questions on that? Ask me in the comments.
Guest Post by Holly Grigg-Spall, Sweetening the Pill
At the West Coast Catalyst Convention for sex-positive sex-educators I was listening to a talk on definitions of sexual health when the birth control pill was brought up. I’d spent much of the event feeling desperately vanilla and so was pleased to be discussing something other than strap-ons and lube. The most popular forms of contraception – the hormonal kind – had been notably absent from all discussion that weekend.
The speaker told the group that the pill is the leading cause of low libido and pelvic pain. She explained that studies had suggested the impact on libido could be permanent. The reaction of the audience was immediate and urgent – questions were fired out and it became clear that this information was news to most. A number of audience members seemed genuinely shocked. “What’s the science behind that?” one woman asked, but the speaker said she didn’t know.
Although the convention’s attendees had an intimidating level of knowledge when it came to sexual technique and sex toys, I discovered that once I mentioned I was there to develop a book and a documentary on hormonal contraceptives, many repeated the usual disinformation about birth control methods.
The speaker was right – the birth control pill is a leading cause of lowered sexual desire and pelvic pain. It’s also known to cause loss of lubrication, vaginitis, and vulvodynia. Other hormonal contraceptives such as the Depo Provera injection, implant, ring and Mirena IUD have been seen to have similar consequences. In fact, Dr. Andrew Goldstein, director of the U.S.-based Centers for Vulvovaginal Disorders and one of the foremost vulvodynia experts in North America, blames an increase in complaints of this kind on third generation low-dose pills.
The study the speaker referred to was conducted by Dr. Claudia Panzer of Boston University and it did suggest some women may see a permanent effect on their testosterone levels, and so their level of desire. There have also been studies on these methods impact on frequency and intensity of orgasm, showing both to be decreased. Not to mention the 50% of women who will experience general negative mood effects that surely impact on their interest in sex. Many, many other studies have shown a clear negative effect on libido whilst using hormonal contraceptives. So many that it’s become something of a joke to roll eyes over the “irony” of prescribing a pill for pregnancy prevention that stops you wanting to have sex anyway.
At a convention dedicated to the celebration of sexual pleasure, I was surprised to see this information received with such confusion. A sex-positive attitude is becoming synonymous with “set it and forget it” long acting hormonal methods of contraception. But it struck me that sex-positive advocates should be the biggest fans of fertility awareness methods. Here’s why:
Last week at The Art of Manliness, a contributor wrote a post about numerous possible wilderness survival uses of tampons. The post was picked up by the popular site, Boing Boing, and the commenters in both sites added more uses, as well uses for disposable maxi pads (although some contributors seem uncertain of the difference). Many creative uses for disposable femcare products were suggested, and while I can’t personally vouch for (or against) any of them, I offer this post as Public Service Announcement to correct some of the misinformation about tampons and pads that those uses presume.
The use of an opened tampon or a maxi pad for a bandage probably seems obvious to re:Cycling readers, as many are familiar with the history of Kotex, developed when World War I nurses discovered that the cotton cellulose they were using on wounded soldiers was highly absorbent. (The phrase ko-tex stands for cotton texture.) But as a few sharp readers of The Art of Manliness are aware, it has been decades since maxi-pads or tampons of any brand were made of cotton (except, obviously, the all-cotton types sold in health food stores). Pads are made from mostly from wood cellulose fibers, with plastic outer layers made of polypropylene or polyethylene. Some of the newer, improved maxi-pads feature synthetic gels designed to draw blood away from the body — not exactly a feature you’d want in a bandage, when you’re trying to stanch the flow of blood and promote clotting. If you’re bleeding heavily, you’re probably better off tearing off your t-shirt and pressing it against the wound. Tampons are also made of wood cellulose, often with a core of viscose fiber. Viscose fiber is rayon, created by treating cellulose with sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide.
And although most brands are individually wrapped these days, neither tampons nor pads are sterile. Nor are they produced in sterile conditions. I’d be very leery of using a tampon as a water filter. Surely there are safer, equally portable, emergency filters one could pack in a wilderness survival kit.
Many of the other emergency uses of tampons involved using the fluffy wood pulp as kindling, or otherwise setting them on fire. Now there’s a use I can get behind!
Guest post by Michael Yazujian — Marymount Manhattan College
Caitlin Weigel knits and sells tampon cozies on her Etsy site, a website where people can sell crafts that they make. These cozies are perfect for women who are trying to avoid humiliation who are also fans of squids (and probably other tampon users as well). They may reinforce the shame and embarrassment that some women associate with tampons by concealing them, but they do so in a playful way that suggests the taboo be taken less seriously. The squids seem to be mocking society’s belief in tampon awkwardness with their googly eyes and promote a sort of tampon pride that you could show off to your friends. The reduction of shame through humor is not a new concept, but I believe that Caitlin Weigel has knit a useful weapon against the uncomfortable and serious manner in which tampons are viewed.
Editor’s note: See also Vinnie’s Tampon Case
Reel Grrls produced this animated vision of what watching television might be like in a world where Gloria Steinem’s classic essay “If Men Could Menstruate” wasn’t fiction.
(Via Lunapads twitter stream.)
The Kasiisi Project Girls Program is now the first producer of locally manufactured sanitary pads in Uganda. Their M.A.K.A. pads (Menstruation Administration Knowledge Affordability) are made of papyrus. A package of ten sells for 650 shillings — one-third of the cost of imported pads. The availability of MakaPads helps women miss work and girls miss school less frequently.