Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Women’s Reproductive Health journal explores postmenopausal hormone therapy

June 17th, 2015 by Laura Wershler

Free access to Women’s Reproductive Health, the journal launched by the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research in 2014, is available to all SMCR members. To become a member of the society or to obtain a subscription contact info@menstruationresearch.org.  For media, submission, and other inquires about the journal contact editor Joan C. Chrisler at jcchr@conncoll.edu.

 

Guest Post by Joan C. Chrisler

The spring 2015 issue of Women’s Reproductive Health contains our first special section: on postmenopausal hormone therapy. The section contains a thought-provoking anchor article by menopause expert, psychologist Paula Derry. It is followed by short commentaries by a multidisciplinary group of menopause experts–a physician, a sociologist, an anthropologist, and a nurse. This set of papers would make an excellent reading assignment for a women’s health course, and it is sure to generate class discussion. The issue also contains two other research reports: one on women’s experiences with gynecological examinations, and the other on the relative absence of mentions of menstruation in novels aimed at adolescent girls because publishers are worried about challenges by parents and school boards that could hurt sales. The issue is rounded out with three book reviews.

 

Women’s Reproductive Health

Volume 2, Number 1 (Spring 2015)

Special Section on Postmenopausal Hormone Therapy

Article
Evidence-based Medicine, Postmenopausal Hormone Therapy, and the Women’s Health Initiative – Paula Derry

Commentaries
The Science of Marketing: How Pharmaceutical Companies Manipulated Medical Discourse on Menopause – Adriane Fugh-Berman

Medicalization Survived the Women’s Health Initiative…but Has Discourse Opened up? – Heather Dillaway

Animal Models in Menopause Research – Lynette Leidy Sievert

Lost in Translation? – Nancy Fugate Woods

Articles
A Multi-method Approach to Women’s Experiences of Reproductive Health Screening – Arezou Ghane, Kate Sweeny, & William L. Dunlop

The Censoring of Menstruation in Adolescent Literature: A Growing Problem – Carissa Pokorny-Golden

Book Reviews
Investigating the Ubiquitous: The Everyday Use of Hormonal Contraceptives – Marie C. Hansen

Menstruation’s Cultural History – David Linton

WomanCode: Caveat Emptor – Elizabeth Rowe

Joan C. Chrisler is a professor of psychology at Connecticut College and the founding editor of Women’s Reproductive Health. Her special areas of interest include PMS, attitudes toward menstruation and menopause, sociocultural aspects of menstruation, and cognitive and behavioral changes across the menstrual cycle.

Experiencing Menopause: Sexuality, desire and literary exploration

April 27th, 2015 by Laura Wershler

Three paper presentations on Menopause at the 21st Biennial Conference of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research at The Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights, June 4-6, 2015, Suffolk University, Boston will explore sexuality and the menopausal woman, as well as personal menopausal experiences as collected in a literary anthology.

1. Sex and the Menopausal Woman: Resisting Representations of the Abject Asexual Woman
     Presented by Jane Ussher and Janette Perz, Centre for Health Research, School of Medicine, University of Western Sydney 

Drawing on qualitative research conducted with women at midlife, and those who have experienced premature menopause after cancer, we argue that sexuality can continue to be a positive experience for women throughout adult life and into old age.

Medical discourse has traditionally positioned the menopausal transition as a time of sexual atrophy and loss of femininity, with hormonal replacement as the solution. In contrast, feminist critics have argued that women’s experience of sexual embodiment during menopause is culturally and relationally mediated, tied to discursive constructions of aging and sexuality, which are negotiated by women.

This paper will present a critical examination of women’s experiences of sexuality during and after the menopausal transition, drawing on in-depth one-to-one interviews we have conducted with 21 women at midlife, and 39 women who have experienced premature menopause as a consequence of cancer treatment.

Theoretical thematic analysis was used to identify three themes across the women’s accounts: ‘Intrapsychic negotiation of sexual and embodied change’; ‘Feeling sexy or frumpy: Body image and the male gaze’; ‘Indifference or desire? The relational context of sexuality during menopause’. Through this analysis, we challenge myths and misconceptions about the inevitability of sexual decline at menopause, as well as normalise the embodied changes that some women experience–whether menopause is premature, or occurs at midlife. We argue that sexual difficulties or disinterest reported by women during and after menopause are more strongly associated with psycho-social factors than hormonal status, in particular psychological well-being, relationship context and a woman’s negotiation of cultural constructions of sex, aging, and femininity. However, sexuality can continue to be a positive experience for women throughout adult life and into old age, with many menopausal women reporting increased sexual desire and response, as well as re-negotiation of sexual activities in the context of embodied change. This undermines the bio-medical construction of menopause as a time of inevitable sexual atrophy and decay.

2. Writing Menopause: Creating an Anthology
     Presented by Jane Cawthorne and E. D. Morin

The editors will discuss their process of envisioning and creating a new literary anthology that considers the diverse experience of menopause from various points of view. The anthology is composed of new works of poetry, short fiction, interviews, creative non-fiction, and cross-genre pieces, along with several previously published creative works that were chosen to round out the collection.

Although the editors make no claims that this work is in any way definitive, their focus instead was to create a venue for more stories and to encourage a richer vocabulary about this important transition within a literary context. The editors have observed that few literary representations of menopause exist. They will explain how they arrived at wanting to create this collection, as well as the submission process, the criteria used in accepting submissions, and how the shape of the collection shifted organically with the nature of submissions received. They will reflect on what types of submissions they would not accept, what they think the volume says about menopause, and how their own ideas about menopause were changed during the process. A few excerpts will be read.

3. Sexuality and Post-Menopausal  Women:  Desirability and Desire
     Presented by Maureen C. McHugh, and Camille J. Interligi,  Department of Psychology, Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Ageist cultural messages portray old bodies as ugly, asexual and undesirable (Calasanti & Slevin, 2001; Furman, 1997), and yet not engaging in sufficient partner sex is viewed as a sexual dysfunction.  How do contradictory cultural messages about the sexuality of older women impact their sense of themselves as sexual beings?

Aging threatens women’s sense of themselves as women, as sexual beings, and as sexually desirable (Clarke, 2011). Ageist cultural messages convey the cultural value placed on youthfulness and portray old bodies as ugly, asexual and undesirable (Calasanti & Slevin, 2001; Furman, 1997). Stereotyped as experiencing physical and sexual decline, and viewed as asexual, older women’s sexual interest may be deemed inappropriate. Yet not engaging in sufficient partner sex is seen as a dysfunction (McHugh, 2006).  Who says how much sex is enough? How do contradictory cultural messages about the sexuality of older women impact their sense of themselves as sexual beings?

State of Wonder–Part 3: Wondering about menstrual cycle misconceptions in a fictionalized theory for extended fertility

March 27th, 2015 by Laura Wershler

In Parts 1 and 2, I wondered why author Ann Patchett chose not to include information about menstruation, femcare products and birth control that, logically, would have enhanced her novel’s inciting premise—lifelong menstruation and fertility—while retaining the literary integrity of State of Wonder. I believe just a few sentences could have accomplished this.

Now, I wonder about the menstrual cycle misconceptions that underpin Patchett’s proposed explanation for the extended fertility experienced by the Lakashi tribe.

The reader learns with Dr. Marina Singh, the novel’s protagonist, that the Lakashi women continue to menstruate, ovulate, conceive and give birth into their 70s because they regularly chew the bark of Martin trees found in the Brazilian rainforest. The bark is so effective there are no post-menopausal Lakashi.

The women chew the bark once every five days except when they are menstruating and when they’re pregnant, because the bark repulses them from the moment of conception. The researchers, led by Dr. Annick Swenson who has been studying the Lakashi for decades, observe the women chewing the bark and collect cervical mucus swabs to monitor their estrogen levels. They dab the swabs on slides for “ferning.”

“No one does ferning anymore,” Marina said. It was the slightly arcane process of watching estrogen grow into intricate fern patterns on slides. No ferns, no fertility.

Dr. Saturn shrugged. “It’s very effective for the Lakashi. Their estrogen levels are quite sensitive to the intake of the bark.”

Hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle: Used with permission from Geraldine Matus, Justisse Healthworks for Women

Patchett perpetuates the myth that fertility is all about estrogen. Actually, fertility is dependent upon the cyclic ebb and flow of estrogen and progesterone. As the graphic illustrates, estrogen rises in the pre-ovulatory phase, peaks, then drops dramatically just before ovulation occurs. Post ovulation, estrogen continues to be produced but its effect on cervical mucus is suppressed (no ferns) by the substantially higher level of progesterone which acts upon the endometrium in preparation for pregnancy.

It would make more sense for the Lakashi to chew the bark more often during the pre-ovulatory phase but be repulsed by it post-ovulation as progesterone rises. How neat would that have been? The researchers could have pinpointed ovulation in their study subjects. Oddly, ovulation is not even mentioned.

Furthermore, if intake of the bark raises estrogen levels, chewing the bark every five days would interfere with the post-ovulatory rise of progesterone, throwing the hormonal interplay of estrogen and progesterone required to achieve and support a pregnancy out of whack.

Another issue: Marina is told that by chewing the bark “her window for monthly fertility would be extended from three days to thirteen.” What does this really mean? According to the scientific principles underlying the fertility awareness method of achieving or avoiding pregnancy, the fertile phase starts when fertile-quality cervical mucus is first observed and ends when three dry days have passed. The bark would increase the fertile quality of the mucus and the number of days fertile mucus occurs pre-ovulation, thereby increasing the chances for conception. But sperm can only survive five days, kept viable by the mucus that locks it in the cervical crypts until an egg is released. And that egg will remain viable for only 24 hours. Timing of intercourse still matters. The extended fertility explanation in the novel does not suggest the Martin tree bark has any effect on these accepted reproductive factors.

Am I being too picky? Perhaps. State of Wonder is, after all, a work of fiction. But I expect a seasoned novelist to have researched basic menstrual cycle facts so as not to pose an explanation for extended fertility that doesn’t pass scrutiny. Had Patchett consulted with a menstrual cycle expert, perhaps an SMCR member, she might have imagined a much more plausible scenario. In the actual book I read, there were no acknowledgements to those she may have consulted on the subject.

I loved State of Wonder for all it’s literary complexity that goes far beyond the details related to the menstrual cycle that I have wondered about in this 3-part series. But it’s been fun to explore how one novelist wrote about a subject I am intimately familiar with and to suggest how she might have done it differently.

Thank you Ann Patchett. Here’s to more menstrual mentions in literature.

NOTE: This post was edited for clarity, and the graphic added, on March 31, 2015. 

State of Wonder–Part 2: Wondering about missing femcare products and birth control references

March 6th, 2015 by Laura Wershler

In State of Wonder–Part 1, I mused as to why, in a novel revolving around the extended menstruation and fertility of the Lakashi tribe, only the menstrual cycles of the Brazilian women being studied are made visible to the reader. Why does author Ann Patchett ignore the menstrual cycles of the novel’s protagonist, Marina Singh, or the other female research scientists? If they are eating the tree bark responsible for the Lakashi’s extended fertility, their menstrual responses should be of interest to the author.

Failure to mention the scientist’s cycles points to another puzzling omission. There is no reference to menstrual-care products the women would have required while living in the rainforest for years at a time. There was opportunity to do so because a few key scenes are set in the store where research leader Dr. Annick Swenson buys all the provisions for the camp.

Marina must visit the store immediately upon landing in Manaus because the airline has lost her luggage. She has no clothing, no toiletries, none of the necessities for daily living. Why does she not purchase, visibly to the reader, tampons or pads? If not on her first trip to the store, then on her second as she prepares to leave for the remote research camp with Dr. Swenson? She obviously will need such supplies as her weeks in Brazil progress, and the timing of her cycle, as deduced by this reader, suggests she needed them while in Manaus or shortly after arriving at the camp.

I think Patchett’s reason for leaving out this menstrual-related information was not literary, but rather socio-cultural in nature. She tastefully shares the intimate details of the Lakashi women’s menstrual cycles, but can’t find a way—with even a few sentences—to convey this aspect of other female character’s lives? (Exception: Dr. Swenson, whose experiences I avoid mentioning to prevent plot spoilers.) Did she try? Did she resist? If so, why? What a missed opportunity. Marina’s interior dialogue makes it clear she is a still-menstruating woman wondering if motherhood will be in her future. How easy it would have been to use Marina’s need for tampons as a segue to consideration of her fertility.

Which brings me to another menstrual-related omission in the book. There is no reference to the birth control methods used by Marina and one of the female scientists who lives in the research camp with her husband.

Drs. Nancy and Alan Saturn are part of the research team in Brazil. Nancy is eating the bark, enhancing her fertility. Pregnancy is not an objective for this couple; they must be using contraception. The pill would be contra-indicated—a double whammy of exogenous estrogen provided by the pill and the Martin tree bark could have negative consequences. Condoms would break down in the heat. A Mirena IUD might not be at odds with the estrogenic bark, which has another critical medicinal effect the researchers are eager to access. Maybe a copper IUD? A diaphragm? Abstinence? Does it matter? Perhaps not, but why not be daring and tell the reader anyway? Surely the author must have asked herself these questions.

And what about Marina’s choice of birth control? At 42 she is in an intimate relationship with a much older colleague, the man who sent her to Brazil. Contraceptive use is implied but the method is, yet again, invisible. One can assume it was non-hormonal and not an IUD because of what happens at the end of the novel. But why not write one or two sentences along the way to convey this information? Isn’t this what good writers do, litter clues as a novel progresses to set up what happens later?

Ann Patchett chose not to mention the femcare products and birth control methods her characters used in her novel State of Wonder. I can’t help wondering: why?

Continued in State of Wonder—Part 3: Wondering about menstrual cycle misconceptions in postulating a theory of extended fertility

Depo-Provera and Fifty Shades of Grey—The Movie

February 13th, 2015 by Laura Wershler

Dear Readers: The following post first appeared on July 25, 2012, during the media think-piece flurry over the soaring popularity of E.L James’s Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. With the movie opening on Valentine’s Day, 2015, I can’t wait to find out if or how Depo-Provera is referenced as the contraceptive choice made for heroine Anastasia Steele by ob-gyn Dr. Greene, a character I have confirmed via IMDb is in the movie. I argued in the post that Depo-Provera as Ana’s birth control method was an unrealistic plot device. Commentary on Fifty Shades has again started to snowball, but I doubt anyone besides myself will have the slightest interest in this facet of the story. I invite readers who get to the theater before I do to report back in the comments section.

Menstrual Considerations in Fifty Shades of Grey

Fine literary fiction it is not, but the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy by E.L. James can certainly claim to be libido-boosting storytelling. Deirdre Donahue at USA Today summarized the books’ appeal in 10 reasons ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ has shackled readers. She pretty much nailed it. And she’s read the books, which is more than can be said for other writers, including this one who implied that heroine Anastasia (Ana) Steele signs a contract to become hero Christian Grey’s submissive in a BDSM relationship. She doesn’t.

Until he meets Ana, Christian’s sexual history has included only BDSM relationships, those involving bondage, discipline, dominance, submission and sadomasochism. BDSM plays a role in their love story, but the most sadistic thing that Ana submits to is a shot of Depo-Provera. re:Cycling readers know what I think of this contraceptive: I. Am. Not. A. Fan.

As a menstrual cycle advocate, I pay attention to menstrual mentions wherever they appear. It was impossible for me NOT to hone in on how James handles menstruation and birth control.

Christian quickly ascertains that Ana, a virgin when he meets her, is not using birth control. (His unflinching communication about sexuality is one of the books’ most appealing aspects.) As their sexual affair begins, he uses condoms. Within a week or so he asks when her period is due and says, “You need to sort out some contraception”. But our hero is a rich control freak, so he arranges for “the best ob-gyn in Seattle” to come to his home on a Sunday afternoon. Ana, the narrator:

“After a thorough examination and lengthy discussion, Dr. Greene and I decide on the mini pill. She writes me a prepaid prescription and instructs me to pick the pills up tomorrow. I love her no-nonsense attitude — she has lectured me until she’s as blue as her dress about taking it at the same time every day.”

Alas, Anastasia, just 21, is the perfect example for why researchers with the Contraceptive CHOICE Project are recommending that women under 21 use long-acting reversible contraceptive methods. She forgets to keep taking her pills when she and Christian briefly break up. It’s back to condoms for this couple, until Dr. Greene reappears, confirms Ana is not pregnant, and, after Depo-Provera’s side effects are dismissed as irrelevant because “the side effects of a child are far-reaching and go on for years,” gives her the shot. I almost had to stop reading.

I get it that James uses Depo-Provera as a plot device, as becomes apparent. But the author’s decision to give Ana Depo-Provera is not in keeping with either Dr. Greene’s or Christian’s characters. I don’t believe for one minute that the best ob-gyn in Seattle would give Depo-Provera to any patient; she’d recommend a Mirena IUD. As for control-freak Christian, he is adamantly committed to Anastasia’s safety, evidenced in many ways. He would never consent to her taking a drug with these potential side effects: weight gain, digestive problems, depression, loss of bone density, vaginal dryness, and — especially — loss of sexual sensitivity and desire. Never! And he’s too smart not to know this.

Christian’s occasionally expressed distaste for condoms also seems to be a plot device considering he uses them so skillfully, and without obvious diminishment to either his or Ana’s pleasure, through 986 pages of the 1594-page trilogy. The tearing of foil condom packets is a leitmotif that in no way hinders this man’s exceptional “sexing skills.”

But James gets full marks for this: Christian Grey is not afraid of blood. While making love in a spacious hotel bathroom, he gently removes Ana’s tampon and tosses it in the toilet. Later, sitting on the bathroom floor, Ana remembers she has her period:

“I’m bleeding,” I murmur.

“Doesn’t bother me,” he breathes.

State of Wonder–Part 1: Wondering about missing menstrual mentions in literature

January 22nd, 2015 by Laura Wershler

In her novel State of Wonder Ann Patchett explores, among many broad themes, the question: What if there were a drug women could take to extend menstruation and fertility into their seventies? Not evident on the dust jacket, this storyline grabbed the attention of this menstrual cycle advocate.

Set mainly in the jungle of Brazil, the novel revolves around the decades-long research of Dr. Annick Swenson who has kept the location and progression of her research secret from the drug company funding her work with the fictional Lakashi tribe. When a male scientist sent by the drug company to find Dr. Swenson and deliver a message is reported dead, Dr. Marina Singh, a research pharmacologist, becomes the second emissary charged with finding Dr. Swenson and assessing her progress towards the promised drug.

Finding Dr. Swenson is a formidable task, but when she does Marina eventually learns the complex botanical explanation for the Lakashi’s extended fertility, as well as the justifiable reasons why the research location has been so scrupulously protected.

This literary novel, a satisfying read, powerfully renders the mystique of the Amazon jungle, conveying both the wonder and trauma Marina experiences there. For an insightful review of State of Wonder I’d recommend Lydia Millet’s. This series of posts is not a review, but rather commentary on the niggling details related to the extended fertility storyline. Spoiler Alert: Some plot points will be revealed.

After a few weeks in the jungle—the timeline is fuzzy—Marina is invited by two other female researchers to the grove of Martin trees where she observes Lakashi women of all ages scraping tree bark with their teeth, a practices she is told that begins at menarche and is the key to their lifelong fertility.

Marina learns the women chew the bark every five days except when they are menstruating and when they’re pregnant; the bark repulses them from the moment of conception. She is told also that although the women don’t all come to the grove on the same five-day cycle, they’re menstrual periods are “pretty much” synchronous so the researchers “get a few days off every month.” That is, days off from observing them in the grove while taking pin-prick blood samples and collecting cervical mucus swabs to monitor estrogen levels that Dr. Swenson has taught the Lakashi to do themselves with Q-tips. Dr. Swenson’s research team charts and studies every cycle of every menstruating girl and woman.

The researchers tell Marina they also chew the bark and invite her to try it. Here is where, in a story that speaks intimately about the tribal women’s menstrual cycles, I wondered why Patchett did not include even one sentence to acknowledge when Marina had her last period. (At 42 she has thought about her fertility and her prospect of having a child someday.) Because she scrapes the bark one assumes she isn’t menstruating, and she’s been in Brazil long enough–weeks spent in Manaus before getting to the jungle–to have had at least one period. Where is she in her cycle? This matters because of what happens later in the story. So, since menstruation is integral to the novel, why not mention it? And why don’t the other female researchers mention whether their cycles, too, have synchronized with the Lakashi’s?

In most novels, probably too many, the menstrual cycles of female characters are invisible unless they figure prominently in the plot. It made no sense to me that Patchett chose to make Marina’s cycle invisible. Even if readers can deduce this missing information, surely this is the wrong novel in which to require us to do so. Again, I ask, “Why?”

Continued in State of Wonder—Part 2: Wondering about missing menstrual femcare products and birth control references

 

“Home Made Menstrual Period for Game-Playing With Doctors”

May 14th, 2014 by Holly Grigg-Spall

(photo by Holly Grigg-Spall)

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.

In Honor of (a Sampling of) our Brave Menstrual Champions!

November 26th, 2013 by Chris Bobel

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.

Used with Permission

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.

YOU, for reading this blog and demonstrating that menstrual issues are important, and deeply connected to how we ALL experience our embodiment, whether we shed or not. Can you imagine living in a world in which menstrual talk was NOT taboo? Pause for a moment and ponder that. Wow. Where’s the shame?  I see people talking freely about their experiences. Questions answered. Needs met. Isolation broken. As Liz Lemon of 30 Rock fame was known to say “I want to go to there.” I really do.

These menstrual champions are just a fraction of those who are actively creating that world so we can.

 

 

Celebrating Period Poetry in New York City

May 21st, 2013 by David Linton

The World’s First Menstrual Poetry Slam, The Red Moon Howl, will occur the closing night of the SMCR conference, June 7, at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City.  Featuring the works of noted poets such as Lucille Clifton, Sharon Olds, Anne Sexton, and Ntozake Shange as well as new works by emerging poets such as Coriel O’Shea and Maria Billini, the evening event will offer a variety of artistic perspectives on the menstrual cycle.

 

Given the history of menstrual lore and the way knowledge of the cycle has been shared by women over the span of human history, it is particularly appropriate that the topic of menstruation find an outlet in the form of poetry, the original form of oral creative expression.  The event will literally “give voice” to a commonly hidden, taboo topic.  In keeping with the conference theme, “Making Menstruation Matter,” the poets and performers will offer yet another contribution in the ongoing effort to bring the period out of the closet.

 

The evening will not be limited to just those who are on the performance roster.  Everyone planning to attend the conference is encouraged to prepare a piece for the open mic portion of the evening which will open the event.

 

Some questions have been raised about the nature of poetry slams.  Frequently such events have a competitive element as participants vie with one another for the favor of audience or judges.  That’s not the case this time.  Instead, the organizers are emphasizing the fact that the main difference between slam poetry and the more traditional, familiar variety is that poems presented in the slam setting are meant to be “performed,” that is, read or recited out loud so that the fundamental elements of the human voice engaged with the nature of spoken words can be savored by those in attendance.  In this regard, the poetry slam is a reinvigoration of the original sources of the poetic impulse.

 

Following the conference, video samples of the performances will be available on line.  Stay tuned for more information.

Portnoy’s (Menstrual) Complaint

January 1st, 2013 by David Linton

One way of telling how comfortable a man is with the biological facts of women’s lives is how he responds to calls for him to go shopping for menstrual products or to have physical contact with a woman’s menses.

Depictions of this challenge have occasionally been a subject of humor on TV shows such as in the episode of King of the Hill titled “Aisle # 8″ in which the bumbling Hank Hill has to enter the fearful menstrual aisle of a supermarket or, for contrast, in an episode of Californication when the father of a daughter who has just had her first period heroically fends off other customers to get her the last package of pads on the shelf.

An early literary description of a menstrual product shopping moment, one that was deeply traumatic for the character, is in Philip Roth’s 1967 novel, Portnoy’s Complaint. Set in a psychoanalyst’s office during a single rambling session, Alex Portnoy relates a terrifying incident from his childhood when, at the age of eleven, his mother sent him out to buy a box of Kotex:

“It was years later that she called from the bathroom, Run to the drugstore! bring a box of Kotex! immediately! And the panic in her voice. Did I run! And then at home again, breathlessly handed the box to the white fingers that extended themselves at me through a narrow crack in the bathroom door. . . Though her menstrual troubles eventually had to be resolved by surgery, it is difficult nevertheless to forgive her for having sent me on that mission of mercy. Better she should have bled herself out on our cold bathroom floor, better that than to have sent an eleven-year-old boy in hot pursuit of sanitary napkins!” (43-44)

Whew! Now there’s a Freudian field day, and from a time when Freudian technique was in full fashion. More than 30 years later, in The Dying Animal (2001 ), another Roth character seems to have made some progress, at least on the surface. Perhaps his analysis has succeeded. A senior professor, the 62-year-old David Kepesh, plays out an erotic fantasy with a 24-year-old graduate student, Consuela Castillo. Kepesh, a serial womanizer who considers himself an erotic master, is stunned when she tells him that a former boyfriend liked to watch her take out her tampon, realizing that he has never done anything like that. His sexual competitiveness requires that he immediately enact the same scene. However, the act throws him into a state of Portnoy-like humiliation:

“Then came the night that Consuela pulled out her tampon and stood there in my bathroom, with one knee dipping toward the other and, like Mantegna’ Saint Sebastian, bleeding in a trickle down her thighs while I watched. Was it thrilling? Was I delighted? Was I mesmerized? Sure, but again I felt like a boy. I had set out to demand the most from her, and when she shamelessly obliged, I wound up again intimidating myself. There seemed nothing to be done – if I wished not to be humbled completely by her exotic matter-of-factness – except to fall to my knees to lick her clean. Which she allowed to happen without comment. Making me into a still smaller boy.” (71-72)

Though there are more scenes in this book and others by Roth that employ menstrual details to capture character and advance plots, these two embody deep-seated male confusion and anxiety about how to deal with menstrual encounters. The candor Roth exhibits, as is often the case with his writing, is admirable for its openness to exploring taboos, but one also wishes he was able to provide more nuanced treatments of women’s experiences as well. Perhaps we should turn to Joyce Carol Oates in search of such treatments. Perhaps in a future post.

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.

Menstrual Considerations in Fifty Shades of Grey

July 25th, 2012 by Laura Wershler

SPOILER ALERT: Plot details in the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy are revealed in this post.

Second book in the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy.

Fine literary fiction it is not, but the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy by E.L. James can certainly claim to be libido-boosting storytelling. Deirdre Donahue at USA Today summarized the books’ appeal in 10 reasons ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ has shackled readers. She pretty much nailed it. And she’s read the books, which is more than can be said for other writers, including this one who implied that heroine Anastasia (Ana) Steele signs a contract to become hero Christian Grey’s submissive in a BDSM relationship. She doesn’t.

Until he meets Ana, Christian’s sexual history has included only BDSM relationships, those involving bondage, discipline, dominance, submission and sadomasochism.  BDSM plays a role in their love story, but the most sadistic thing that Ana submits to is a shot of Depo-Provera. re:Cycling readers know what I think of this contraceptive: I. Am. Not. A. Fan.

As a menstrual cycle advocate, I pay attention to menstrual mentions wherever they appear. It was impossible for me NOT to hone in on how James handles menstruation and birth control.

Christian quickly ascertains that Ana, a virgin when he meets her, is not using birth control. (His unflinching communication about sexuality is one of the books’ most appealing aspects.) As their sexual affair begins, he uses condoms. Within a week or so he asks when her period is due and says, “You need to sort out some contraception”. But our hero is a rich control freak, so he arranges for “the best ob-gyn in Seattle” to come to his home on a Sunday afternoon. Ana, the narrator:

“After a thorough examination and lengthy discussion, Dr. Greene and I decide on the mini pill. She writes me a prepaid prescription and instructs me to pick the pills up tomorrow. I love her no-nonsense attitude — she has lectured me until she’s as blue as her dress about taking it at the same time every day.”

Alas, Anastasia, just 21, is the perfect example for why researchers with the Contraceptive CHOICE Project are recommending that women under 21 use long-acting reversible contraceptive methods. She forgets to keep taking her pills when she and Christian briefly break up. It’s back to condoms for this couple, until Dr. Greene reappears, confirms Ana is not pregnant, and, after Depo-Provera’s side effects are dismissed as irrelevant because “the side effects of a child are far-reaching and go on for years”,  gives her the shot. I almost had to stop reading.

I get it that James uses Depo-Provera as a plot device, as becomes apparent. But the author’s decision to give Ana Depo-Provera is not in keeping with either Dr. Greene’s or Christian’s characters. I don’t believe for one minute that the best ob-gyn in Seattle would give Depo-Provera to any patient; she’d recommend a Mirena IUD. As for control-freak Christian, he is adamantly committed to Anastasia’s safety, evidenced in many ways. He would never consent to her taking a drug with these potential side effects: weight gain, digestive problems, depression, loss of bone density, vaginal dryness, and — especially — loss of sexual sensitivity and desire. Never! And he’s too smart not to know this.

Christian’s occasionally expressed distaste for condoms also seems to be a plot device considering he uses them so skillfully, and without obvious diminishment to either his or Ana’s pleasure, through 986 pages of the 1594-page trilogy. The tearing of foil condom packets is a leitmotif that in no way hinders this man’s exceptional “sexing skills”.

But James gets full marks for this: Christian Grey is not afraid of blood. While making love in a spacious hotel bathroom, he gently removes Ana’s tampon and tosses it in the toilet. Later, sitting on the bathroom floor, Ana remembers she has her period:

“I’m bleeding,” I murmur.

“Doesn’t bother me,” he breathes.

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.