Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Menstrual Prose Poem from #SMCR2015: “My feet flow through each cycle.”

July 20th, 2015 by Laura Wershler

On June 6th, 2015, at the 21st Biennial Conference of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research at the Centre for Women’s Health and Human Rights in Boston, conference participants celebrated with an Open Mic evening of Menstrual Poetry to close out #SMCR2015. This is the last in a series of posts at re:Cycling that aims to give a broader audience to some of the poetry performed that evening.

 

Flow – by Rosie Sheb’a

Sustainable Cycles cyclists Rachel, Olive and Rosie in Atlanta, Georgia, en route to the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research conference held in Boston, June 4-6, 2015.

Flow. My feet flow through each cycle. Every revolution takes me further into the cycle. Life cycle. Bicycle. Upcycle. Recycle.

My small wheels move along the road, a mirror to the larger wheel of which I am a tiny, insignificant, and yet pivotal part. My essence is essential to the whole. The microcosm of my womb reflects the entire universe!

I look at my legs powering my bicycle across state after state. I watch as I bleed and listen to my body as my ovulation is reflected by the road. My menstrual cycle is a perfect replica of the seasons, of the stages from egg to caterpillar, to pupa, to butterfly. The Earth rotates around the sun, just as my pedals rotate around my crank shaft, and foot by foot, mile by mile, I move forward. We move forward. Propelled by our destiny as cyclists. Life Cyclists.

We cycle, and millennia of oppression melts away. We are part of something immense. Individually, we are just a tiny cog in the giant clock of evolution, but together, we can say menstruation. Period. I bleed. You bleed. We were, are and will be bleeders. Without our blood, life as we know it would not be. Cycling, together, we conquer fear. We surmount shame.

Sustainable cycles? It’s a pun about bikes and periods, but it’s so much more than that. Our message is clear. Love your cycle. Love the cycle. Take care of yourself, and you take care of the planet. Learn about your body, and you will be empowered.

I watch a teenage girl ride her bike through the streets of Philadelphia. Will she have knowledge of her cycle?

I see an old woman on a park bench in New Orleans. Who is learning her life lessons?

A middle aged dame in Texas tells me she doesn’t like “that word” and I wonder. Does her daughter know her – Period?

A transgender man tells of his forgotten tablets and using soft leaves to soak up his accidental summer-camp flow.

So many perspectives from so many places and we’ve only just scratched the surface. So many lessons to learn from our neighbours. Collectively, we have a purpose.

Learn to love. Love to grow as our cycle continues. I watch a playground of children. What world can we envision for them?

A world where we know our bodies? Where we can be ourselves without fear?

A world void of hatred?

Who knows. I am but a tiny wheel on the cycle of life.

Yet one small action can trigger a revolution.

One cycle. One. Cycle. We are in it.

Where do you want to go?

Rosie Sheba is the owner/director of Sustainable Menstruation Australia and rode from Austin to Boston with Sustainable Cycles to present at #SMCR2015. She has a background in evolutionary biology and ecology. Rosie sees positive relationships and experiences of the menstrual cycle as the keystone for the evolutionary survival and success of humanity.

Menstrual Poetry from #SMCR2015: “Blood dried, but mysteries remained.”

July 16th, 2015 by Laura Wershler

On June 6th, 2015, at the 21st Biennial Conference of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research at the Centre for Women’s Health and Human Rights in Boston, conference participants celebrated with an Open Mic evening of Menstrual Poetry to close out #SMCR2015. This is the fourth in a series of posts at re:Cycling that aims to give a broader audience to menstrual-themed poetry.  

 

His First Period – by David Linton


Returning to the cave,
Arm gashed by claw of tiger, back scared by spear of foe,
Noting first the scent, then, adjusting to the dark,
The small red spots across the rubble, the rivulets down her leg,
Dried in the hair of her calf, glistening maroon,
Reflecting dimly the light of the smoldering fire.

Blood! Blood!!

Clutching his club and bending to grasp a stone
His eyes dart and nostrils flare
To find the intruder that had caused this flow,
The foreign beast, standing or crawling, on two legs or four,
That had drawn life’s fluid from his cave mate’s groin.

No sound of scurrying feet or padded paw,
No smell of body or of musky pelt,
No furtive move or change of shadows’ shapes.
While she, fresh fluid flowing still, detecting his concern,
Bared her teeth and lowered eyes
In gestures of welcome and ease.
Hair still on end, nostrils twitching, breath coming short,
Club slowly lowered and rock dropped to the floor,
He neared her by the fire, knelt to sniff the odor,
Reached to touch the matted nest of hair.
Pulling back his red smeared fingers,
He held them to his nose,
Touched them to his tongue,
Stared at the thick crimson,
Familiar and yet strange.

It did not clot and close the wound
But seemed to make it pout with berry-colored ripeness,
Unlike his that oft turned yellow and seeped foul stench.
Nor did she seem to ache or fear a loss,
The kind of ebb that brought down antlered giant,
Snarling beast, or timid runner in the brush.
The kind of ebb that slowed the pace or brought to end
The holder of the spear, the builder of the fire,
The hunter of all prey.

In unaccustomed calm they huddled near the heat,
Their hairy shoulders touched,
Their gnarled fingers felt each other’s grasp,
Blood dried, but mysteries remained.

David Linton is an Emeritus Professor at Marymount Manhattan College. He is also Editor of the SMCR Newsletter and a member of the SMCR Board. His research focus is on media representations of the menstrual cycle as well as how women and men relate to one another around the presence of menstruation.

Menstrual Poetry from #SMCR2015: “I looked up menstruation in the dictionary.”

July 13th, 2015 by Laura Wershler

On June 6th, 2015, at the 21st Biennial Conference of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research at the Centre for Women’s Health and Human Rights in Boston, conference participants celebrated with an Open Mic evening of Menstrual Poetry to close out #SMCR2015. This is the third in a series of posts at re:Cycling that aims to give a broader audience to some of the poetry performed that evening. 

 

You Menstrual Me – excerpted from the June 6, 2015 performance by Emily Graves

 

Balloons 1I told you I got my period,
And you said I could tell you once every 28 days.
But no more.

I traced the word menstruation
In the air, to see if anyone would give me a dirty look.
And they didn’t! Mostly.

I traced the word menstruation
On the computer screen.
Just to test it out.

I traced the word menstruation
For a whole hour
And I only got to the letter “r.”

I told you I had my period
And you asked
If I could get off the intercom.

I looked up menstruation in the dictionary.
I turned to the right page and made my way down,
but I couldn’t look.

I looked up menstruation in the dictionary.
But I panicked at the last minute,
And I looked up men instead.

Today I looked up the words
Gold, sky, and bliss in the dictionary
And they all said, “See also: Menstruation.”

I told you I had my period,
And you dug a hole
In our kitchen.

The class was ticking circles
But my little hand
Tucked into my underwear.

Without a tell
I bluffed. I sat over the
tattle trail.

The class did not hear
my underwear’s
alarm.

With a tiny tattle,
My jeans
Tell all.

I told you I had my period
And you asked
If there was any new business.

I searched for the word menstruation
on the bathroom wall.
But it wasn’t there.

I searched for the word menstruation
On my computer
But every file was called that.

I searched for the word menstruation
in my friend’s new updo.
It was written all over.

I searched for the word menstruation
on the midterm.
I think it was all of the above.

I searched for the word menstruation
In aisle 3.
But it was with the pickles.

I searched for the word menstruation
at the bakery.
But they had puns instead.

I told you about my period,
And you said,
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that.”

I’ve wondered
if you menstruate too.
Can I ask?

 

Emily Graves is an Instructor at Louisiana State University in the Communication Studies department where she teaches speech and performance.  She is interested in historiography, and in the performances of objects and language. Emily uses performance art as way to address the embodied and the discursive elements of menstruation.

Menstrual Poetry from #SMCR2015: “She who dreams the world awake”

July 9th, 2015 by Laura Wershler

On June 6th, 2015, at the 21st Biennial Conference of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research at the Centre for Women’s Health and Human Rights in Boston, conference participants celebrated with an Open Mic evening of Menstrual Poetry to close out #SMCR2015. This is the second in a series of posts at re:Cycling that aims to give a broader audience to some of the poetry performed that evening.

 

Who is Witch? – by Giuliana Serena

Red Witch by Giuliana Serena

Witch.

She who sweeps the space, lights the candle, calls the circle, stokes the fire, fans the feathers, stirs the cauldron.

She who straddles the hedge, the edge, of culture and the wild, bridging the divide.

She who holds holy the mysteries of existence, practicing reverence.

She who brings forth the transformation of consciousness at will, as medicine for the people.

She who soothes, and comforts, and holds those in need.

She who chants and drums, and dances the spiral dance, raising the power, and giving it back.

She who keeps the old ways, and manifests new ones.

She who says yes, and no, with discernment.

She who knows all and nothing.

She who seeks knowledge, sitting at the feet of death, and of birth, as teachers.

She who dreams the world awake, drinking deeply of the divine.

She who journeys, and conjures, and sings over bones.

She who navigates the depths of the river beneath the river.

She who celebrates, feasts, and makes love with abandon.

She who walks the wisdom path, who carries the vast fertile ocean within, who cycles, who flows, who bleeds on the earth, then holds her wise blood inside.

She who draws down the moon, and the light of a thousand, thousand suns.

She who embodies the magical nature of the cosmos, the transcendent feminine force.

Witch.

She who is Woman; Maiden, and Empress, and Maga, and Crone.

She who is rooted and grounded, present, aware.

She who is her authentic self, without apology.

She who is.

 

Giuliana Serena is a ceremonialist, Rites-of-Passage facilitator, menstrual cycle educator, and founder of Moontime Rising

 

Menstrual Poetry from #SMCR2015: “Existence ain’t real without blood”

July 7th, 2015 by Laura Wershler

On June 6th, 2015, at the 21st Biennial Conference of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research at the Centre for Women’s Health and Human Rights in Boston, conference participants celebrated with an Open Mic evening of Menstrual Poetry to close out #SMCR2015. This is the first in a series of posts at re:Cycling that aims to give a broader audience to some of the poetry performed that evening. 

 

together we bleed – by Iris Verstappen

“The Crimson Wave” by Jen Lewis

existence ain’t real
without blood
on moonless nights
on moon-full nights
we celebrate

together
we
bleed

and we celebrate the blood
that has been given to us
to give back
give back
to our mother earth
who holds
the tender soil in which our ancestral roots
take rest

together
we
bleed

we are the bloodline
that connects
generations of women giving
the life
we are living right now
and together
they
bled

we are the sisters
the guardians of the blood
the blood keepers
because

together
we
bleed

cherish the blood
honor the blood
because
together
we
will
bleed

Iris Josephina L. Verstappen is a menstrual awareness educator, doula & ashtanga yoga teacher from the Netherlands who is passionate about empowering people to make informed choices about their bodies on all levels.

 

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.

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.