Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

An Uncharted Territory: Marriage Manual and Menstrual Sex

March 26th, 2014 by David Linton

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:

The Subject of Sneers or Jests: Menstrual Education in the Service of Racism

March 20th, 2014 by David Linton

Title page of What a Young Woman Ought to Know

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.”

Men(ses) At War

February 25th, 2014 by David Linton

Taboos against menstrual sex are probably rooted in an inchoate understanding that there is less likelihood of conception during menstruation. If procreation and tribal survival are the goals, then delaying sexual congress until ovulation makes sense, especially if the men and women involved are going to be reliably available to one another continuously. But, what if the window of sexual availability is open for a limited amount of time; what if it could close at any moment—permanently?

This is the situation facing men and women during war time mobilization. Soldiers are given brief furloughs following basic training before new assignments or prior to being deployed to a war zone. Such leaves are fraught with anxiety and questions: How long will the man be gone? Will he be wounded? Will he come back alive? The emotional stress of the moment is profound.

There is no way to know if couples in ancient cultures set aside menstrual prohibitions when faced with forced separations. Were love, sexual desire, and fear of loss stronger motivators than taboos and social conditioning? However, there is evidence that in mid-20th Century war times in the USA women were subtly encouraged to set aside any reluctance to engage in sex during their periods. In fact, doing so was framed as a patriotic duty, along with being a reliable worker in the defense plants. The evidence resides in a series of print ads widely distributed in popular magazines shortly after World War II began.

An entire campaign for Kotex products was built around the idea that women should be socially, romantically, and, by implication, sexually available to men home on leave from military service regardless of the status of their menstrual cycle. The most blatant example is an ad that appeared in Woman’s Home Companion and other women’s magazines in 1942 with the provocative heading, “You’re the fun in his furlough.” At the bottom of the ad we see two women working at a defense plant, a job that is made to seem doubly exhausting if the working woman has her period. Her problem is that her boyfriend is home on leave this night and she is thinking she just can’t go on a date. But it’s Kotex to the rescue. She can avoid being “a deserter” (at least it stops short of suggesting she’d be a traitor) if she’d only use the right menstrual product.

The sexual imagery in the ad is remarkably bold as she flaunts the labial folds of her gown and his penis/saber rises to her. The messages of the ad are quite clear: 1) this glamorous woman is menstruating and wearing a Kotex pad; 2) her boyfriend soldier is on leave for a short time; 3) both parties are sexually aroused; 4) they will engage in sexual intercourse this night despite the fact that she is menstruating; 5) the woman has a patriotic duty not to let her period get in the way of his sexual desire.

It is not surprising to think that sex would trump custom and tradition in circumstances such as the one depicted here. What is of greater interest is whether or not once the taboo had been defied in response to the threat of loss in the context of war the participants felt less inclined to return to the traditional ways once peace and stability had been reestablished. That challenging piece of research is yet to be undertaken.

Lookin’ for them reds everywhere – on menstrual leave

January 14th, 2014 by Holly Grigg-Spall

By MichaelBueker (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons

Last year Russian lawmaker and LDPR party member Mikhail Degtyaryov proposed that women have two days paid leave from their work when they are menstruating.

“During that period [of menstruation], most women experience psychological and physiological discomfort,” said Degtyaryov.

He also argued that pain from menstruation causes heightened fatigue, reduced memory and efficiency at work, and emotional discomfort.

NBC, amongst other sources, reported this news as a sign of Russia’s move towards more conservative social politics.

“Scientists and gynecologists look on difficult menstruation not only as a medical, but also a social problem,” Degtyaryov explained.

Responses to this across feminist media and others ranged from shocked to outraged.

I argue in my book ‘Sweetening the Pill’ that the emphasis on constant and consistent productivity and on quantity over quality of work is hard on everyone, not just women, and not just when they’re menstruating. As technology makes it so we can be available at all times, we therefore have to be available at all times. Dave Eggers’ novel ‘The Circle’ satirizes this pressure to be “on” brilliantly, making for an exhausting read in itself.

Our desire to miss out on the time when we might be pre-disposed to slow down – our period – by taking drugs that let us keep up the consistency in all ways is symptomatic of a wider cultural emphasis on inhuman work expectations.

SMCR’s own Margaret Stubbs pointed out in an interview with Yahoo! Shine – why can’t women just take sick days when they’re menstruating, if they want?

However, most US employers do not provide paid sick days, and those that do limit the number significantly. A sick day often needs to be used for a doctor’s appointment, a family emergency, or just to catch up on myriad other duties. A policy that attributes additional sick days (and if we’re talking two days per month that means A LOT of additional sick days) doesn’t seem such a bad idea to me at this point.

There was something of an echo of the Cold War in the reaction to this news. It was partly America’s faith in work as a cure-all that positioned it in opposition to the communists.

Yes, menstrual leave is not entirely unproblematic as a proposal, within the context. Apparently, according to Wikipedia at least, the LDPR party is worryingly nationalistic (any Russian readers please feel free to correct me on this). But some of the reactions suggested a pride in the American way of long hours and little vacation time. As I find myself saying at least once a week as a British person living in Los Angeles – take a look at the economically solid, recession-surviving countries like Germany and Australia for some good reasons why that pride is misplaced.

Sometimes it seems many women are so busy establishing the lack of difference between themselves and men that they find it hard to be truly honest about the experience – possibly painful, possibly tiring – that they are going through when they get their period. See Chris Bobel’s great post about suffering in silence for more on this. She suggests that discomfort during menstruation should indeed be a “social problem” of a kind.

If we are only valued for our productive output then menstrual leave will always be seen as dead time. It will then be more about getting women out of the office when their productivity is low and they may become a burden, than it is about valuing the potential benefits of the leave for the woman.

I admit that this is old news, and well-discussed elsewhere, but what prompted me to write a post is the desire to share more widely this great piece of writing over at the Irish Feminist Network by Barbara Scully. She discusses a BBC documentary that showed a British woman’s experience of a menstrual hut in a tribal community. Just as the capitalists saw the communists as backward, we sometimes too willingly believe our way of organizing things is the most progressive, most modern, most sophisticated. Perhaps we’re not always right.

Essentialism and experience

August 26th, 2013 by Holly Grigg-Spall

My forthcoming book ‘Sweetening the Pill or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control’ began to take shape on the pages of this blog and much of the process of its development was spurred on by the work of members of SMCR. As such, it seems only fitting, with the release date of September 7th soon here, to share for my post this month an excerpt and to say thank you for the support of this community. I hope to have added something of interest and value to this on-going conversation.

……

Women often discuss menstruation and birth as happening to them, rather than as part of them and their experience. Emily Martin remarks in ‘The Woman in the Body’ that women often see their self as separate to their body. Women’s central image is that “your body is something your self has to adjust to or cope with” and therefore, Martin concludes,“your body needs to be controlled by your self.”

Martin explores the idea that women did not fit into the structure of the jobs that were open to them in industrialized society. These jobs most often required monotony, routine and repetition. Although in reality no more suited to men than they were women, it was women that were judged as innately unable to succeed in such positions due on the constantly changing and supposedly unpredictable nature of their physical state.

As Martin states, “Women were perceived as malfunctioning and their hormones out of balance,” especially when experiencing PMS and menstruation, “rather than the organization of society and work perceived as in need of transformation to demand less constant discipline and productivity.”

The rigidity of society was forcefully imposed on women as it was on men. For all, both men and women, it is inhumane but it was women that were required to adapt in a more dramatic and overt way. Men are viewed as naturally given to the industrious and disciplined way of life demanded of them and the structure of society is built on these assumed capabilities.

If we admit that women do change through the month, that we do menstruate, experience PMS, have differing moods week to week, we fear that this admission will be used as justification for negative judgment.

Martin counters the feminist refrain of “biology is not destiny”; “I think the way out of this bind is to focus on women’s experiential statements – that they function differently during certain days. We could then perhaps hear these statements not as warnings of the flaws inside women that need to be fixed, but as insights into flaws in society that need to be addressed.”

The idea that men are otherwise unchanging is falsified. Men also experience hormonal changes with studies suggesting they experience a cycle daily that is equivalent to the monthly cycle of women as well as changes in hormone levels across their lifetimes.

Women’s “experiential statements” as Martin describes them are often silenced in the discourse surrounding hormonal contraceptives. It is a betrayal of the feminist cause to speak out with openness about the side effects of the pill.

When Yaz and Yasmin were released the marketing strategy co-opted the idea of word of mouth. In a commercial women were seen passing along the “secret” of these new drugs with their host of beneficial yet superficial side effects. Receiving messages of increased physical attractiveness as the result of a drug that many women were using anyway, only a different brand, increased the transference of this experience from one woman to the next.

In the face of such powerful manipulation, what place does a skillfully worded informational insert have in women’s decision making process? The time of the Nelson Pill Hearings was a very different to today.

Naomi Wolf mentions the pill briefly in ‘The Beauty Myth.’ She remarks that it was originally marketed as a drug to keep women “young, beautiful and sexy,” concepts parallel to those promoted by Bayer through its contemporary advertising. Wolf quotes, in the context of the beauty industry, John Galbraith, “Behavior that is essential for economic reasons is transformed into social virtue.”

Understanding Research: (Meta)Theoretical Frameworks

August 19th, 2013 by Paula Derry

Research results are often reported by the media as stand-alone statements and as though they are facts. “Slim women have a greater risk of developing endometriosis than obese women.” “Respiratory symptoms vary according to stage of menstrual cycle.” In previous blogs, I have said that a reader needs to understand research methods and basic concepts found in statistics in order to make sense of what results really mean. This blog is about another ingredient that goes into making sense of research. Metatheoretical frameworks, basic ideas of how the world works, are important influences on how researchers choose what problem to study, choose the methods with which to study it, and choose how to interpret the results.

The context of research is always stated in research articles. Articles always include a write-up of previous work, discussing what has been done and what unanswered questions remain. This sets the stage for why the research being reported is interesting and important. However, what I want to discuss are more general, often implicit, basic assumptions. Even what seem to be brute facts are understandable as such only within a given set of basic assumptions or paradigms. Paradigms guide thinking, but change over time.

Thus, as discussed by Sheila Rothman, a  nineteenth century metatheory was that assertiveness and activity are dangerous for women. As stated in a more specific scientific theory: All people have a limited amount of nervous energy; this nervous energy is distributed over a greater number of organs in women than in men (because of their reproductive organs); therefore, all of women’s organs are more “sensitive and liable to derangement (p. 24).” It was concluded from these ideas that exercise and exertion are dangerous for women; further, mental exertion, such as going to college, should be avoided. Rothman describes case studies written up by physicians of women harmed by exertion and cured by rest. In this context, designing research to evaluate whether college harms women appeared to be a sensible, even important undertaking. So did structuring a college curriculum to avoid precipitating debility or insanity.

What are some of our current basic paradigms? One example: Menopause is senescence and reproductive physiology is central to women’s health. It follows from these premises that menopause or the transition to menopause are key factors in the development of chronic illness; research addresses what harm is created or, alternatively, whether these premises are correct. Another example: Cyclic changes in mood, intellect, and energy during different stages of the menstrual cycle are very important, especially to understand distress. Alternatively, a healthy menstrual cycle suggests that a woman is physically healthy.

Research I am conducting with Greg Derry addresses another metatheory about the menstrual cycle. Periods are most often described as cyclic, recurring in a regular repetitive manner (“every 28 days”). However, modern systems theorists know that there is a different kind of system (a “nonlinear dynamical system”) that by its nature generates a little bit of unpredictability and by its nature interacts with other systems (“is an open rather than a closed system”). Our research has provided evidence that the menstrual cycle is a nonlinear dynamical system. This means, among other things, that menstrual periods would be expected to be a little bit irregular with an occasional extreme cycle length.

The psychologist Robert Abelson reminds us that research is an ongoing process of discussion. Understanding research means joining the conversation.

Giving birth in ditches

July 30th, 2013 by Holly Grigg-Spall

The second week of July began with a post at The Daily Beast titled ‘Are Tampons Anti-Feminist’ and ended with my own post for Dame ‘5 Facts About Menstrual Suppression.’ In between there was ‘Not Everything is a Feminist Issue for Chissakes,’ and ‘I Do Not Think Tampons Are Anti-Feminist, for Chrissakes.’ Meanwhile, towards the end of that week, women were having their tampons and pads confiscated by security guards at the Texas Senate as they entered to protest the proposed ban on abortions after 20 weeks. It was a perfect storm for a debate around menstrual shame.

With notable foresight the first article mentioned ends with, “For women who can’t break the silence, there are other ways to protest. Just ask DiFranco. “I didn’t really have much to say/the whole time I was there,” she sings in “Blood in the Boardroom,” “so I just left a big brown bloodstain/on their white chair.”” Later, women at the Texas Senate shared responses that were similar to this statement (“No tampons allowed? Guess we’ll just have to bleed all over the seats” and “Maybe it’s time for a bleed-in”), although there were an equal number remarking on their feelings of humiliation and horror at having their tampons and pads exposed in public.

Somehow, along the way, these threads of discussion were merged – if we’re considering tampons as anti-feminist, or menstrual shame culture as anti-feminist more accurately, then surely what we’re saying is that women should just bleed all over their furniture and clothing, right? Right?

Texas native and high-profile feminist writer Amanda Marcotte weighed in on the debate: “I used to joke that anti-choicers would start considering bans on menstruation,” she wrote.

I would argue that between menstrual shame culture and the pharmaceutical industry we have a “ban on menstruation” of a kind already.

When asked why it was necessary to keep tampons and pads “private” anyway and why it was that confiscating them in public was being discussed as a power move on the part of the Senate employees, she responded with:

“I’m not afraid to be a urinating human being, but I also don’t just go pee on the street corner. One can want to go about without blood on their clothes and not be ashamed of being female. I promise.”

And then, after some attempts at reasoning, “Convinced. I am going to pee freely now, and anyone who says no is just down on me for having a urethra.”

Never mind that they weren’t confiscating toilet paper, available and publicly displayed in the Senate bathrooms.

Elsewhere she suggested that those who were questioning our acceptance of the menstrual hygiene industry’s messages were just “weirdos.”

Marcotte: “I just want once to make a tampon joke without the weirdos who think women should bleed freely for “feminism” coming at me.”

Response: “Do these people have jobs? Or couches?”

Marcotte: “I have no idea. I just assume it’s part of that crunchy fake feminism that thinks women should give birth in ditches, too.”

I don’t think many women are going to argue that we bleed on our couches and clothes because, considering the statistics on division of housework, it’s definitely women who are going to have to clean that up. And if doing laundry isn’t anti-feminist, well, I don’t know what is.

Elsewhere the writer of ‘Not Everything is a Feminist Issue…’ Erin Gloria Ryan, another high-profile feminist writer, when directed to re:Cycling as a source of knowledge on the issue responded with “Ill read it (the blog) aloud at my next fun social gathering filled with normal people.”

Whether it’s from lack of awareness of the history of oppression of women via their bodies or whether it’s just another symptom of the corporate/capitalist feminism that dominates the mainstream, these are the women considered to be representative of the whole.

I relay the details of this interesting week not to depress, but to galvanize.

I, for one, am proud to be a weirdo, an abnormal person, a crunchy feminist, a fake feminist, oh and a miserable enemy of uteri everywhere, a bitch, and a…err…fish.

Yaz and Yasmin: An Unacceptable Level of Risk?

June 25th, 2013 by Elizabeth Kissling

Photo by Flickr user Beautiful Lily // Creative Commons 2.0

Don’t feel bad if you missed last week’s headline news about the deaths of 23 young women from their birth control. It was a top story for CBC news and a few other Canadian sources, but it was barely a blip on the radar of most U.S. news outlets. Yaz and Yasmin, two similar new-generation birth control pills from Bayer, are suspected in the recent deaths of these young Canadian women.

These are among the best selling oral contraceptives in the world, but this is not the first time Yaz and Yasmin have been suspected of causing death or adverse effects. Earlier this year, Bayer agreed to pay up to $24 million to settle claims from plaintiffs with gall bladder injuries caused by the drugs, and the company set aside $1 billion to settle claims from approximately 4,800 women who have suffered blood clots due to Yaz or Yasmin. As of February, 2013, approximately 10,000 lawsuits against Bayer are still pending in the U.S., and an additional 1,200 unfiled claims are pending. The company anticipates additional lawsuits—and additional settlements—regarding blood clot injuries, such as pulmonary embolisms or deep-vein thrombosis.

The history of the birth control pill and its social impact is well documented. First approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1960, it quickly became the world’s first “lifestyle drug,” and it has become the one of the most studied drugs in history. It is considered to be so safe that the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recently recommended that oral contraceptives be sold without a prescription.

But all hormonal contraceptives–the pill, the patch, the shot and the vaginal ring–carry a risk of blood clots. For most users, this is a minor concern, affecting approximately six of every 10,000 pill users. For users of new-generation pills—that is, pills containing drospirenone, the fourth-generation synthetic progesterone found in Yaz, Yasmin, Ocella and several other brands—the risk jumps to ten of every 10,000 users, although Bayer maintains that their own clinical studies find the risk comparable to older pills. Note, however, that the risk in most of these studies is compared either to other hormonal contraceptives or to pregnancy, not to using effective non-hormonal contraception. As if women’s only choices were to be pregnant or be on the pill.

And it is this matter of women’s choices that brings me to my main point: Why we have we seen so little media attention to the safety profile of Yaz/Yasmin (and hormonal contraceptives more generally)? This isn’t about just a few unlucky Canadian women: Four women in Finland have died, more than 50 U.S. users of Yaz and Yasmin died in just a few years and France reports 20 deaths per year due to birth control pills between 2001 and 2011, with 14 attributed to the new-generation contraceptives. This is a major consumer safety concern, and a women’s health issue.

In an earlier time, this might have led to Congressional investigations, such as the Nelson Pill Hearings, which resulted in FDA-mandated Patient Package Inserts (PPIs)—the printed information about risks, ingredients and side effects included in pill packets, first required for oral contraceptives and then for all prescription drugs. It is hard to imagine today’s Congress calling for such an investigation. Among many other social changes since 1970, drug manufacturers in the U.S. hold more influence over both legislators and consumers, now spending nearly twice as much on promotion as they do on research and development.

A parallel can be found in the health crisis triggered by an outbreak of Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) linked to tampon use in 1980. TSS is a potentially fatal infection caused by bacterial toxin Staphylococcus Aureus. A new brand of superabsorbent tampon was linked with 813 cases of TSS, including 38 deaths, that year. By 1983, the number of menstrual-related cases reported to the CDC climbed past 2,200, and manufacturer Proctor & Gamble had “voluntarily” pulled the product from the market before the FDA forced them to do so. The intense media coverage, public concern and outcry from feminist activists pushed the FDA to reclassify tampons as a Class II medical device, an upgrade which meant tampons would require more specific regulation and possibly after-market surveillance. They were much slower to mandate absorbency standards, but eventually did so under court order. These actions resulted in a documented decrease in menstrual-related TSS, although it is important to note that it has not disappeared.

Today, more than 30 years later, young women are again dying from something purported to help them, something that affects mostly women. Thousands more are experiencing life-threatening, health-destroying side-effects, such as blindness, depression and pulmonary embolism. Canada’s professional association of OB-GYNs defended the drug, suggesting that perhaps the recent deaths could be attributed to non-contraceptive reasons for which it was prescribed, such as PCOS or diabetes, both of which are associated with higher risks of blood clots. But there is little evidence of public concern, outside of Yaz/Yasmin user message boards. Even feminist outlets aren’t always covering these issues as vigorously as we might hope.

Yet the birth control pill in general has never been more politicized in the U.S.: In the last year or so, we’ve seen headlines and public debates about insurance coverage of the pill, access to emergency contraception and so-called personhood bills which have been introduced in legislatures in at least eight states. Feminist activists and health care advocates have been working tirelessly to protect access to the pill along with other forms of birth control, as well as the right to end an unintended pregnancy—and feminist journalists have been writing about these activities.

In the urgency of responding defensively to these political attacks—and we must respond—feminists cannot ignore corporate threats. Just as preserving contraceptive and abortion access is critical to women’s health and well-being, so is protecting contraceptive safety.

Cross-posted from Ms. magazine blog.

Early German Menstrual TV Advertising

February 26th, 2013 by David Linton

It is axiomatic that advertising commonly reflects and reinforces social values. At other times, by introducing new products or new perspectives on existing products, advertising serves as an agent of social change. Nowhere are these two phenomena more evident than in ads for menstrual products.

On one hand, when ads tell consumers that a particular device will guarantee secrecy or the avoidance of embarrassment, they perpetuate the shame factor that is deeply embedded in the social construction of menstruation. But on the other hand, when ads promise greater freedom of movement and social engagement, they make a contribution to undermining the notion that the period is a physically and socially debilitating event.

It is especially interesting to observe these processes at work in the context of varied social and historical settings. Though the menstrual cycle is a biological universal, its cultural significance is as mutable as any other human condition. For instance, consider the attached TV ad for Tampax, which is the first ad for a menstrual product to appear on German television.

Before we even know what the product is we learn that it has to do with some sort of perfection. Against a black screen the following words appear:

Stets Makellos. . . (Always Impeccable)
Freiheit in Sauberkeit (Freedom via Cleanliness)

Three brief vignettes follow set in countries that only a decade before were mortal enemies and are now depicted as role models for modern women. In the U.S. we see that modern women work in an office and that there’s a peculiar new word that has something to do with relieving work pressure: “Tampax.” Next, we visit a jazz club in Paris where sophisticated women also share the secret magical word that seems to make it possible for them to hang out in nightclubs. It’s some kind of password or incantation. Then we hit the beach in Italy, which was at the time this ad was created in the mid-1950s, was becoming a favorite destination for German tourists. Again the magic word, “Tampax,” has something to do with the fact that these attractive young women in their two-piece bathing suits can frolic in the surf.

Finally, we are told, “And now also in Germany,” accompanied by an image of a damaged Brandenburg Gate and two other German landmarks, and we get to see the product and find out what it is. By now the product is nearly a magic wand which, when waved while whispering the secret word “Tampax,” can result in an easier work day, fun evenings of dancing, and worry-free days at the beach. But while those are the characteristics of American, French, and Italian women’s lives due to Tampax, German women, if they adopt this “world brand, with applicator,” are promised “perfection of female hygiene.” And to drive the point home, a stern looking woman dressed in what looks like a nurse’s uniform, assures the women gathered around her and watching at home on television that if they use Tampax to manage their periods they will be, “Safe and Clean.”

There are many striking things about this ad, not the least of which is the stereotypical view of German concern for cleanliness which, in this case, takes precedence over the hedonism of those French and Italian women — although American women are depicted as hard workers (note the way the office worker assaults her typewriter). And note the specific reference to the fact that Tampax uses an applicator. The chief competition for Tampax in Germany was the o.b. tampon which was invented in 1947 and does not use an applicator. At the time the marketers of Tampax believed that German women would respond to the same appeal to fastidiousness that American women exhibited in their desire to avoid touching themselves too intimately. However, o.b. did become the German tampon of choice, far outselling the American competitor. Though the woman at the end of the ad is costumed like a nurse, the appeal to hygiene and hospital sterility did not tip the scale in favor of Tampax.

About thirty years later a reversal of this tampon competition occurred when the owners of the o.b. brand tried to take on the American market by promoting the superiority of using a tampon without an applicator. That campaign also failed, though its story reveals more nuances regarding the ever-evolving role of menstrual perspectives across cultures. A future post will delve into that chapter of menstrual history.

The Smithsonian Menstrual Archive

November 6th, 2012 by David Linton

Down the Washington Mall from the popular National Air and Space Museum and the National Gallery of Art lies the sprawling National Museum of American History with its fascinating collections of the history of American material culture: early plows, bicycles, mail boxes, tobacco tins, thimbles, shoes, harnesses, tools, stoves, and every other imaginable artifact from every aspect of American life.  The collection spans domestic, economic, military, technological, media, educational, and virtually every other realm of human endeavor.

And, locked away in a climate-controlled room next to cabinets full of objects associated with medical, disability, reproductive and health concerns are drawers full of items that woman have used to manage their periods.

Photo by David Linton

I was given a private tour of the collection by Dr. Katherine Ott, a curator of Science, Medicine, and Society at this branch of the Smithsonian and lead editor of Artificial Parts, Practical Lives: Modern Histories of Prosthetics. Her knowledge of the collection, its content, sources, and significance was coupled with a generous enthusiasm in sharing it.  The item we both marveled at most was a package of sanitary napkins made of sphagnum moss. Sphagnum moss is a substance commonly used today to line hanging pots of ferns and other plants to absorb and hold excess moisture.  It was also used by native American mothers who stuffed the moss into papoose back packs — early environmentally friendly disposable diapers. This menstrual management device consisted of a strip of moss wrapped in gauze and provided with safety pins to attach it inside an undergarment.

The packaging itself contained several details that revealed much about the menstrual ecology of the times. The demure picture of the “Sphagnum Moss Girl” dressed in a uniform echoing Clara Barton’s Red Cross nurses was coupled with a line that reinforced the picture, “Sphagnum Moss was used by the American Red Cross in the manufacture of surgical dressings for war time use”. This is strikingly similar to the descriptions used in the earliest advertisements for Kotex, which the company claimed was originally produced for use in front-line hospitals during World War I (or “the World War”, as it was described at the time before a second came along).

Photo by David Linton

And, in true ad-speak fashion, the product was given a catchy name: “SFAG-NA-KINS”. The package included a folded page titled, “A Short History About Sphagnum Moss From Which Sfag-na-kins Are Made”. The pamphlet includes details about how the substance was used by the Japanese army during their war with Russia and how it was perfected by various doctors and medical researchers, including one Dr. J.B. Porter of McGill University. Apparently competition from wood pulp-based products such as Kotex was already starting to take shape, as the pamphlet goes on to claim, “The SFAG-NA-KINS will be found to be greatly superior to anything else now on the market, and one of them should be equvilent to three or more of the Cotton Sanitary Napkins. The complete elimination of any stain to garments is only one of the many superior features of the SFAG-NA-KINS”. The fact that pulp products won out in the market may be due to the fact that “Kotex”, with its resonance to “cotton”, a substance more familiar and acceptable than moss, is a catchier name than the hard-to-pronounce and “sfag-na-kins,” not to mention the unsavory image of walking around with a wad of moss between one’s legs.

In addition to this rare mass marketed moss product, the collection contains every imaginable brand of pad, tampon, cup, and belt as well as drawers full of cycle management drug products including one of the original circular birth control pill dispensers. Adjacent cabinets were filled with hundreds of condom packages, pessaries, IUD’s, cervical caps, devices for containing a prolapsed uterus, and related marketing and educational posters, flyers, and brochures.

My tour of the Smithsonian collection and Dr. Ott’s insightful narration of its history enhanced my understanding of the complex connection between the biological characristics of the menstrual cycle and the social and economic context in which it exists.

Hypatia – Ancient Menstrual Heroine

September 11th, 2012 by David Linton

If ever there was a woman in history deserving of more attention, certainly Hypatia of Alexandria is one. Not only was this fifth century (CE) scholar a noted mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher (her father, Theon, was the last head of the Museum at Alexandria before the city was sacked and the famous library went up in flame), she was also, according to ancient texts, a bit of a menstrual activist.

The story goes that one of her male students had developed a crush on her and, rather than showing respect for her intellect, expressed his romantic desire. She rebuffed him by exposing her bloody menstrual rags and accusing him of base lust.

AGORA, the 2009 film starring Rachel Weisz and directed by Alejandro Amenabar, does a good job of depicting Hypatia’s intelligence as well as her beauty. (It is a big feature film, after all.) And though the trailer for the film does not include the menstrual scene, the full film itself does do it justice by showing how the teacher used her menstrual rags to refute a young man’s presumptuous overture.

I think AGORA is an under-appreciated film on many levels, not merely for its menstrual forthrightness. Hypatia and Rachel (in the biblical book of Genesis) are the only two women I know of in classical history who boldly confronted the menstrual taboos and they deserve our respect. AGORA helps bring one of these women to a contemporary audience.

Making Menstruation Matter–a new award 40 years in the making

September 3rd, 2012 by Chris Bobel

In 1978, feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem penned a brilliant satire first appearing in Ms magazine and later in her collected essays  Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions. In it, she blew the lid off how gender ideology (read: sexism) shapes how we “do” menstruation.

Nearly 40 years old, this piece STILL hums. Have you read it?

Where tongue meets cheek, Steinem was able to break the menstrual taboo of concealment in under 1000 words. Her bold thought experiment stimulated a conversation that we will keep having until something big shifts in the menstrual discourse.

Until then, Steinem wryly asks:

So what would happen if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not?


Clearly, menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event:


Men would brag about how long and how much.


Young boys would talk about it as the envied beginning of manhood. Gifts, religious ceremonies, family dinners, and stag parties would mark the day.


To prevent monthly work loss among the powerful, Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea. Doctors would research little about heart attacks, from which men would be hormonally protected, but everything about cramps.


Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free.

Nearly 40 years out, this prose should be nothing more than a quaint artifact of how things USED TO BE. It should be as relevant today as powder blue leisure suits, wide belts and platform shoes. But the gendered root of the menstrual taboo endures.

Because “If Men Could Menstruate”, near and dear to menstrual cycle advocates old and new, and emblematic of Steinen’s long career of speaking up for women and girls, the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research is pleased to announce that Ms. Gloria Steinem has been chosen as the first recipient of the newly established Making Menstruation Matter award.  This award recognizes a journalist, activist, artist, public figure or organization that has meaningfully contributed to the public understanding of menstrual cycle-related issues. The intention of the award is to honor and encourage thoughtful dialogue about the menstrual cycle beyond the academy.

Timing is everything.

At the same time that “If Men Could Menstruate” was published, The Society for Menstrual Cycle Research was forming. Now more than 3 decades later, it seems most appropriate to honor the courage Gloria Steinem has shown throughout her career in articulating and calling attention to women’s realities and imagine something better. To quote Peggy Stubbs, SMCR president:

The intersection of her lifetime achievements and our Society’s interests, is no doubt, an example of how far-reaching Ms. Steinem’s work has extended. For our part, we want to let her know that her work has and continues to energize ours. And we know there are others who, like us, have been and are similarly inspired by Ms. Steinem to continue to work in their own ways to enhance the quality of girls’ and women’s lives.

SMCR will present the award to Steinem during the 20th biennial conference, to be held in NYC, June 6-8 2013. Details on attending the conference and the award ceremony are available here.

Join us to honor Gloria Steinem and hear her remarks about a piece that is timeless, but shouldn’t be.

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.