Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Herpes Is The New Black

March 12th, 2013 by Kati Bicknell

Okay, the title of this post may have thrown you off, but hopefully it also lured you in so that you can hear me out.

What’s the story here? Just that herpes is way more common than most people realize, and that you can get it from people who may or may not even know that they have it.

 

Micrograph showing the changes of herpes simplex virus (HSV) – Photo by Nephron // Creative Commons 3.0

Herpes is a virus that causes outbreaks of blister-like lesions on the skin. Many people have had these on their mouth, where they are known as cold sores. When these same lesions appear on the genitals they are known as genital herpes. Technically they are two different versions of the same virus. HSV-1 is usually found in oral herpes cases. HSV-2 is usually found in genital herpes cases, but either virus can cause outbreaks in either location. Upstairs can go downstairs, and downstairs can go upstairs, as it were. Ahem.

According to the American Sexual Health Association, it’s estimated that about 50% of the adult population have had a cold sore on their mouth at some point in their life, meaning they have HSV-1. Half the population! That means that half the population could potentially give you genital herpes if they performed unprotected oral sex on you, so use protection, ask for your partner’s STI status well BEFORE you engage in any hanky panky, and don’t forget to ask if they’ve ever had a cold sore. If they have, you may be at risk to contract herpes. Unfortunately, most people who are infected with the herpes virus never show any symptoms, so even if they’ve never had an outbreak, they could STILL give you herpes.

According to the Center for Disease Control, around one in six people aged 14 to 49 in the United States have the HSV-2 virus, AKA genital herpes. One in six. That’s a lot. Same deal here, they may have never had an outbreak, but they can still give it to you, and YOU can have an outbreak! If you have one outbreak, you’ll likely have more, as the herpes virus will stay with you forever.The good news though is that the outbreaks tend to decrease in frequency and severity over time.

The best way to minimize your risk of getting herpes is to know the STI status of all your partners, and to know your own. You can (and should) be one of those awesome responsible people who doesn’t give their partners the surprise gift that nobody wants. Routine STI screenings won’t check for the herpes virus, so you have to ask for it specifically.

To get a test for herpes, ask for an IGG-type specific blood test. It will show if you have antibodies to either of the two viruses, and tell you which one, if either, you have. This test will only pick up the antibodies though, which take about three to four months after the initial outbreak to show up, so it isn’t 100% accurate. Just do the best you can. And always practice safer sex (no sex is totally “safe”).

Use protection when your partner’s STI status is unknown. That means dental dams for cunnalingus and analingus, and condoms for anal sex, vaginal sex, sex toys if shared between partners, fellatio, etc. And even if you DO use condoms every time, herpes has an asymptomatic shedding period, when the virus can be passed even if there are no sores, and only the part of the body that the condom is covering is protected, and herpes can be spread from scrotum to vulva.

But even if you do all of those things, some people will STILL get herpes!

I have four friends who I know have herpes. (All names have been changed to protect their privacy.)

Susie got an outbreak of herpes out of nowhere. Her ex-boyfriend had it, but she’d never had any signs of it. Six months after she left him she got her first outbreak.

Medicating the Postmenopausal Vagina

March 4th, 2013 by Paula Derry

On February 26, 2013, the Food and Drug Administration issued a news release saying that it had approved a medication called Osphena to treat a problem called postmenopausal dyspareunia (pain during sexual intercourse associated with changes in the vagina after menopause). The medical website Medscape reported that the news release had been issued. How to read these announcements? It seems as though FDA approval should be enough to know that a medication is safe and effective.   However, what are some guidelines in reading and evaluating this announcement?

First, some background: After menopause, when estrogen levels decline, tissues (cells) of the vaginal lining can become thinner, drier (thus providing less lubrication during intercourse), and less elastic or flexible.

This can result in pain during intercourse, feelings of burning or soreness, inflammation, and irritation.

Andreyeva by Ilya Repin // Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

There are a variety of solutions for dealing with this.  Regular sexual stimulation (intercourse, masturbation) is recommended to keep vaginal tissues healthy.  Water-based lubricants can help reduce discomfort during intercourse.  Expanded views of sexual pleasure that don’t include intercourse might work around the problem. Leaving enough time to become aroused during intercourse (extended foreplay), communication between partners about when sex is painful and when not, can also help. Herbs like dong quai and black cohosh are recommended, especially by complementary/alternative practitioners, although the herbs  lack a research base. A low-dose estrogen applied to the vaginal area (as a cream, tablet, etc.), is effective. Local application minimizes estrogen being absorbed into the bloodstream, traveling through the body, and having effects, some of them potentially negative, distant to the vagina. There is, however, controversy about some estrogen being absorbed.

Now, to the FDA announcement:  The FDA requires proof of a medication’s safety and effectiveness before it is approved.  According to the news release: “Osphena’s safety and effectiveness were established in three clinical studies of 1,889 postmenopausal women with symptoms of vulvar and vaginal atrophy. Women were randomly assigned to receive Osphena or a placebo. After 12 weeks of treatment, results from the first two trials showed a statistically significant improvement of dyspareunia in Osphena-treated women compared with women receiving placebo. Results from the third study support Osphena’s long-term safety in treating dyspareunia.”

Notice, first, that the drug’s effectiveness was tested for 12 weeks. This is not an unusual amount of time for such a study, but it is not very much time. Notice also that women treated with Osphena had a “statistically significant” improvement. As I discussed in a previous post, “statistically significant” means “unlikely to have occurred by chance.” In other words, there was evidence that Osphena  really did have an effect, but we don’t know how big an effect—it might be very large or very small.

Safety was established by studying the experiences of women for one year: however, one year is not a long time for side effects to develop. Osphena is a systemic medication. That means it is not applied locally in the vaginal area, it is ingested as a pill so that it travels to all parts of the body in the bloodstream. It is a selective estrogen-receptor modulator, or SERM. SERMs act like estrogen in some places in the body while not in others. The idea is that a SERM like Osphena would act like estrogen in keeping vaginal cells healthy while not acting like estrogen to increase health risks like certain cancers. However, more time than a year might be needed for health problems to show up. Indeed, the FDA news release stated that “Osphena is being approved with a boxed warning alerting women and health care professionals that the drug, which acts like estrogen on vaginal tissues, has shown it can stimulate the lining of the uterus (endometrium) and cause it to thicken…. Women should see their health care professional if they experience any unusual bleeding as it may be a sign of endometrial cancer or a condition that can lead to it.” The FDA announcement also stated that “Common side effects reported during clinical trials included hot flush/flashes, vaginal discharge, muscle spasms, genital discharge and excessive sweating” and that Osphena should be prescribed for the “shortest duration consistent with treatment goals and risks for the individual woman.”

A Quiet Celebration of the Horny Menstruator

December 28th, 2012 by Elizabeth Kissling

Guest Post by Lauren Rosewarne

Courtney Cox shocked America in 1985 when she became the first person to say “period” on TV. Period, at least, in the context of menstruation and not punctuation.

 


Tampax, 1985-style

 

Flash forward a couple of decades and this year the same daring word (along with a couple of other doozies) ruffled a few feathers in a Carefree ad. At least it did initially. The furore quickly dissipated and the ad now runs regularly, uneventfully, in Australia. We’ve seemingly learnt how to cope without the conniptions.

 


“That bit of discharge” ad, 2012

 

I daresay it’s the ingratiating of the Carefree ad – with its references to the bits of ladyhood ironically considered least feminine – into our landscape that’s paved the way for another revolutionary down-there-business ad going undetected. Undetected and surprisingly, unwhinged about.

 


Libra “Bootcamp” ad, 2012

 

The new Libra ad dares use the P-word again – sure, itself a euphemism but a) “menstruation” is probably too many syllables for a short ad and b) I’d still rather hear period than any other sanitised circumlocution.

The truly startling bit about the ad however, is the way female sexuality is presented.

For most of last year I was living and breathing menstruation while writing a book on it. My focus was on media presentations and sex n’ blood got treated to a whole chapter.

While there are signs that our culture has become more menstrually mature – we’ve evidently learnt not to dial 000 when discharge is mentioned on TV for example – some menstrual taboos remain. Menstrual sex is a biggie.

On one hand thinking of the menstruator as sexy seems outlandish in the context of film and television. A couple of wonderful Californication scenes aside, periods on screen invariably and inevitably disrupt sex lives and give women – and men – an excuse to restrict it to spoonin’.

On the other hand, feminine hygiene ads are in fact full of attractive ladies peddling products to help menstruators stay sexy all month long. In advertising, the idea of the bleeding woman as outwardly desirable is effortlessly detected.

A much more shocking – and far more insteresting – construct however, is the idea of the menstruator herself feeling sexy. By sexy here, I’m not referring to the way others see her – to her objectification – rather, to her being in touch with her own horniness at a time when women often feel – biologically or because society has coerced it – dirty and out-of-action.


“It’s like a crime scene in my pants” – No Strings Attached (2011)

 

The Libra ad involves a woman who, while initially reluctant because of her period, eventually joins her friend to perve on male boot campers.

Lecherous ladies in advertising are nothing new of course; Diet Coke has long been flogged with some mildly hideous Sex and the City-style male sexualisation:


Diet Coke, 90s style

 


Diet Coke, 00s style

 

My concept of feminism doesn’t deem women panting over men as something inherently progressive. It’s not the ogling in the Libra ad however, that interests me. Rather, it’s the act of ogling for the purposes of arousal while the woman has her period.

I can’t help but be charmed by TV offering us a horny menstruator.

While a niche genre, menstrual-themed porn – here, I refer to the indie material, rather than, say, the buckets-o’-blood-fetish stuff – hints to the idea that some women are, shock horror, actually randier during their periods. Mainstream pop culture and vanilla porn however, routinely give the idea a wide berth. As in No Strings Attached (2011), menstruation is apparently a time when a bloke is just not gonna get a look in.

Just as I’m delighted when I see a woman on TV who deviates from the young/thin/white archetype that pop culture so adores, equally happy am I to see an example of female sexuality presented as a little more complex – and a tad more messier – than what’s normally on offer.

A small win, but I’ll take it.

Republished with permission from The Conversation

Footloose and Pharmaceutical-Free?

October 26th, 2012 by Elizabeth Kissling

Guest Post by Holly Grigg-Spall, Sweetening the Pill

At the West Coast Catalyst Convention for sex-positive sex-educators I was listening to a talk on definitions of sexual health when the birth control pill was brought up. I’d spent much of the event feeling desperately vanilla and so was pleased to be discussing something other than strap-ons and lube. The most popular forms of contraception – the hormonal kind – had been notably absent from all discussion that weekend.

Toys in Babeland window display, Photo by Joaquin Uy // CC 2.0

The speaker told the group that the pill is the leading cause of low libido and pelvic pain. She explained that studies had suggested the impact on libido could be permanent. The reaction of the audience was immediate and urgent – questions were fired out and it became clear that this information was news to most. A number of audience members seemed genuinely shocked. “What’s the science behind that?” one woman asked, but the speaker said she didn’t know.

Although the convention’s attendees had an intimidating level of knowledge when it came to sexual technique and sex toys, I discovered that once I mentioned I was there to develop a book and a documentary on hormonal contraceptives, many repeated the usual disinformation about birth control methods.

The speaker was right – the birth control pill is a leading cause of lowered sexual desire and pelvic pain. It’s also known to cause loss of lubrication, vaginitis, and vulvodynia. Other hormonal contraceptives such as the Depo Provera injection, implant, ring and Mirena IUD have been seen to have similar consequences. In fact, Dr. Andrew Goldstein, director of the U.S.-based Centers for Vulvovaginal Disorders and one of the foremost vulvodynia experts in North America, blames an increase in complaints of this kind on third generation low-dose pills.

The study the speaker referred to was conducted by Dr. Claudia Panzer of Boston University and it did suggest some women may see a permanent effect on their testosterone levels, and so their level of desire. There have also been studies on these methods impact on frequency and intensity of orgasm, showing both to be decreased. Not to mention the 50% of women who will experience general negative mood effects that surely impact on their interest in sex. Many, many other studies have shown a clear negative effect on libido whilst using hormonal contraceptives. So many that it’s become something of a joke to roll eyes over the “irony” of prescribing a pill for pregnancy prevention that stops you wanting to have sex anyway.

At a convention dedicated to the celebration of sexual pleasure, I was surprised to see this information received with such confusion. A sex-positive attitude is becoming synonymous with “set it and forget it” long acting hormonal methods of contraception. But it struck me that sex-positive advocates should be the biggest fans of fertility awareness methods. Here’s why:

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.

Menstrual Sex — Well, Not Quite

June 19th, 2012 by David Linton

Some months ago we published a piece titled “Menstrual Sex: the Last Taboo in Advertising?”  It was an analysis of a magazine ad for Softcups, a disposable menstrual collection cup, and it generated some interesting feedback.  Some reader took exception to the analysis, pointing out that the device and the add didn’t actually deal with menstrual sex since its purpose was to create a situation that eliminated any need to actually encounter menstrual fluids and therefore not having to deal with any of the social or psychological taboos nor with any aesthetic reservations the parties might have about having sex during the period.

Taking into consideration those thoughtful comments, I thought it might be worthwhile to take a look at another ad in the same series.

The tag line for the earlier ad was, “12 hour leak protection so you can sleep.  Or not.” And it showed the legs of a couple lying on top of each other with the women on top glimpsed through an open door, creating a voyeuristic sense of witnessing a private, erotic encounter.  The companion ad uses a similar approach, this time revealing a young couple kissing and holding hands seen through a narrow opening in a pair of thick curtains.  They are back lit by a window and might even be thought to be hiding behind the drapes.

The ad is a semiotician’s delight.  Everything surrounding the couple reads “old fashioned.”  The drapes are dark and tattered; a mantel on the left has a gilded picture frame above it and a small china tea pot on the shelf; to the right is another formal picture frame, floral wall paper and the edge of a deer’s antlers mounted high on the wall; the bottom of the picture fades into darkness.  However, at the bottom edge is a box of the Softcup product, angled in such a way as to appear to be emerging from the dark room.

In addition to the headline, “Do everything you would if you didn’t have your period. We’re not just talking about swimming.” The body text drives home the notion that this is a new product for a new generation that is less squeamish about sex during the period than the original occupants of the room: “The next generation of period protection.”  It goes on to mention “mess-free sex” and the rest of the copy stresses that the cup will contain the menstrual flow so that you can go about your life just as though you didn’t even have a period.

And, ironically, that’s just what turns the ad into a reaffirmation of the anti-period sex stereotype.  Though posing as a hip, new product to appeal to young women who presumably are not hampered by antiquated notions of when in the cycle it is OK to have sex, the ad implies that, just like the long tradition in pad and tampon ads, you can go about your life as though you did not have a period.  In other words, it’s another appeal to “keep him from knowing.”

Menstrual Bonding, Birth Control Brouhaha, and other Weekend Links

March 10th, 2012 by Laura Wershler

Research by SMCR members Tomi-Ann Roberts and Nicki Dunnavan garnered a lot of attention this week. Stories showed up at Live Science – Why Why Women Should Bring Their Periods ‘Out of the Closet, popular ladyblog Jezebel – Your Period Is a Time for Deep Lady-Bonding, and the Daily Mail - Women, start talking about it. Period! Roberts and Dunnavan surveyed 340 religious and non-religious women about their experiences and attitudes about menstruation. As the Daily Mail reported: ”U.S. researchers say women across the world need to be more positive about menstruation – and that means talking about it in public.”

Credit: MK Carroll

There’s been lots of public discussion about contraception, some might say too much!  The birth control/medical insurance coverage brouhaha hit a boiling point last week with Rush Limbaugh’s egregious comments about Sandra Fluke, and the heated debate rages still. Maureen J Andrade at OpenSalon writes that Birth Control Is Not a Women’s Issue: It’s a Human Right, while Asma T. Uddin and Ashley McGuire, blogging at the Washington Post, insist It’s about religious liberty, not birth control.  A group of crafters has come up with a  unique protest action: sending “interfering” male government members a knitted or crocheted uterus, vagina or cervix, while feministing.com has invited readers to Talk About Birth Control For REAL.

Back to women’s experience of menstruation,  Enith Morillo in Menses’ non-sense: Menstruation and the Muslim Woman’s “Red Tent” and Carolyn West in Menstruation – Celebration or Taboo?, explore different cultural menstrual traditions.

Sex Ed for Teens: Where’s the Mucus?

February 24th, 2012 by Laura Wershler

Guest Post by Lisa Leger

Teen girls are getting pregnant, in part, because they don’t understand their menstrual cycles. It’s time for sexual health educators to step up and teach girls the primary sign of fertility.

A recent report by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on teen pregnancy in the U.S., based on a survey of close to 5,000 young mothers who got pregnant unintentionally, found that half of them had not used birth control.  When questioned further, a third of those said that they didn’t think they could get pregnant. Their reasoning ties in with previous research findings that girls who get pregnant in their teens have misconceptions about their menstrual cycles. They don’t seem to understand how ovulation works and are failing to correctly identify the fertile days in their monthly cycles.

Photo by Acaparadora // CC-BY-SA-2.5

My colleagues in sexual and reproductive health education should take notice. These findings reveal a knowledge gap in sex education: Teens don’t know about the easy-to-spot sign of fertility that precedes ovulation – cervical mucus secretions. Let’s fix it by adding one simple phrase to our sex ed classes: “When you have mucus, you can get pregnant.”

We would also need to explain the ovarian cycle, how estrogen promotes cervical mucus production, the role of mucus in sperm survival and how to check for it. This is arguably among the most useful information young women and men could receive before leaving high school.

If girls had this knowledge then I believe that at least some of them would more accurately identify fertile days in their cycles and at least some unintended pregnancies would be prevented. When a girl knows that mucus on the toilet tissue means she is fertile and able to get pregnant, she may be empowered to avoid intercourse, insist on a condom if she has sex, or know if she needs to seek out emergency contraception. Or she may decide to just hang out with her girl friends. I’m not saying that fertility awareness is a magic wand. Of course, many factors influence our decision-making. But teens are capable of making wise choices when they have accurate information on which to base them.

I’ve talked to many public health nurses throughout my 20-year career as a fertility awareness instructor. They usually quibble about the effectiveness of fertility awareness as a birth control method and seem reluctant to mention the existence of cervical mucus for fear that “a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.” They worry that some students, if taught fertility awareness, might screw it up, thinking they were “safe” when they were not. But the CDC report tells us that garbled understanding about how ovulation works is doing more harm than good.

I hasten to reassure my public health colleagues that I am not proposing we teach teenagers natural birth control. What I’m proposing is the awareness part, that we correct this critical gap in teenagers’ knowledge by explaining that mucus is an obvious sign of fertility.

I won over my local sex educator to this idea by showing her the evidence-based Justisse Method of Fertility Awareness User’s Guide. She now teaches the meaning of mucus in her ovulation lessons.I predict her students will benefit. When they feel that slippery wetness when wiping, they will remember that it has something to do with being fertile. When they see clear, stretchy mucus on the tissue, they will know it’s a fertile day. It seems obvious that reducing confusion about the fertile phase would result in fewer unplanned pregnancies among girls who are currently confused about when they’re safe and when they’re fertile.

Instead of withholding useful information about what cervical mucus means, let’s tell teens that avoiding sex when they observe mucus can prevent pregnancy.

SMCR member Lisa Leger teaches the Justisse Method of Fertility Awareness & Body Literacy and is a Natural Health Consultant on Vancouver Island.

Menstrual Sex: The Last Taboo in Advertising?

December 6th, 2011 by David Linton

Click to view full-size image in another window.

For nearly a century, ads and other promotional materials for menstrual products have been based on claims that the pad, tampon or, more recently, cup or pill, would make it possible for women to participate in activities that their periods would otherwise have interfered with.  Furthermore, one would be able to do so without anyone knowing that a period was underway.  References to freedom and secrecy, expressed in a myriad of overt or euphemistic terms and images, have been ubiquitous.  Yet, there has been one constraint marketers have hesitated to defy.  Until now.

Surely the taboos against intercourse during menstruation are among the oldest and most wide-spread of all cultural prohibitions.  And while previously ads have suggested that one’s romantic engagements – dancing, dating, going to parties, etc. – could be continued or even enhanced by using the right pad or tampon, no company ever stated that women could have an active, joyful sex life regardless of, or even despite, a regular menstrual flow.  The new series of ads for Instead Softcup boldly challenges that taboo.

But not only does it reject the taboo, in doing so it depicts women in a sexually assertive way that makes menstrual sex look like fun.  The ad on this page is one in a series that playfully mocks one of the claims usually made for feminine hygiene products: “12-hour leak protection so you can sleep.  Or not.”

The photograph is striking for many reasons.  There’s a voyeuristic quality as we gaze from a high angle at an intimate sexual encounter narrowly framed by dark walls and an open door.  Though we only see the couple’s naked legs, the image is made particularly titillating by the fact that the woman has kept on her somewhat spiky heeled shoes, suggesting urgency and spontaneity as well as a hint of kinkiness.  What’s more, the woman is on top, an image of assertiveness and power reflected in the text, “So now your period can’t stop you from indulging in all your favorite activities, whatever they may be.”  Furthermore the “woman superior” position (as it used to be called in sex manuals) also implies that the cup is so effective that there’s no danger of having your blood stream out onto your partner, even when you’re straddling him.

Another ad in the series uses a similar framing technique showing a young couple who are kissing.  They are glimpsed against a window through dark, heavy drapes in a dimly lit living room decorated in an old-fashioned style with flowered wall paper and a formal mantle upon which rests a delicate tea pot.  Here the image suggests the rejection of old (parental) ways that held that women could not enjoy sex while menstruating.

And then there’s the clever name of the product: Instead Softcup.  The first word is a little dig at the competition; the second aims to reassure the customer that the product is comfortable and easy to use.  The company’s web site also takes a little shot at the chief competitor with the slogan, “No Strings,” but otherwise it’s a fairly straight-forward, even sober, site with video interviews with reassuring doctors and the usual endorsements and images of happy, young women of widely varied ethnic origins.

The marketing campaign is multi-faceted including teams of women staffing tables outside colleges giving away free samples.

Time will tell if Softcup succeeds in dislodging pads and tampons from their market dominance.  Readers are invited to comment on the likely outcomes of the campaign.

Cosmopolitan, the Sex Magazine That Won’t Talk About (Period) Sex

October 21st, 2011 by David Linton

Guest Post by Saniya Ghanoui

Cosmopolitan is open about its coverage of sex. It is curious then that the coverage of period sex is limited and not as open or adventurous as other sex ideas found in the magazine. The message regarding period sex is simple: men must be protected from menstrual blood.

The idea that a male will touch blood stirs the ideas of castration, a battle, or even death and thus must be avoided. This is ironic, given that many women actually have a heightened sexual arousal while on their periods. And since Cosmopolitan is directed towards women it is odd that it does not put women’s issues on the forefront but rather still caters to the taboo, despite hiding behind its catchphrase of “Fun Fearless Female.”

In the Cosmo Sex Challenge, one Cosmopolitan writer and her boyfriend attempt to try 77 sex positions in 77 days. Typically the writer’s period should come up approximately twice in 77 days, yet is only mentioned once. She mentions that her boyfriend isn’t “into it,” in reference to period sex, but convinces him to do it. After one hot and heavy night, in the boyfriend’s bed, she notices red handprints on the sheets so she throws a pillow over them and makes a “mental note to change his sheets tomorrow morning.” This is a physical act of apologizing.

The changing, and it can be assumed the subsequent washing of the sheets, not only works as an implicit apology but also reemphasizes the stereotype that women must perform this idea of a proper feminine role in a relationship. Also, she is changing the sheets so her boyfriend does not find out about the handprint, meaning she does not want him to see the blood. For what reason? Is she ashamed that she bleeds? Embarrassed?

In addition, when she first sees the handprint her reaction is “Oh. My. God.” Obviously this is an expression of shock that is emphasized by the separation of each word with a period. So after doing these complex sex positions (and many more to come), this is what makes her express shock? Yet, she doesn’t seem to be shocked that her period only came once in 77 days.

Literary Menstruphobia, Part I

September 1st, 2011 by David Linton

The taboos against menstrual sex are ancient and deep-seated.  Despite the well established fact that sexual intercourse during the period is not medically counter-indicated nor somehow debilitating to women and, furthermore, that some women find the experience more pleasurable than the non-menstrual variety, the prejudice lingers on.  What’s more intriguing is the ways and places that menstrual sexual phobias are made manifest.

According to several literary and cinematic biographies, two of the most revered figures in the English language critical and literary cannon may have been so traumatized by menstrual encounters on their honeymoons that they swore off sex for evermore.

In 1994 a British biopic named “Tom & Viv” offered up the sad story – we might call it an anti-romance – of the poet T.S. Eliot and his wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood (played by Willem Dafoe and Miranda Richardson) who eloped in 1915.  According to the IMDB summary, the film depicts how “her longstanding gynecological and emotional problems disrupt their planned honeymoon.”  In fact, what the scene shows is that Eliot is so appalled by his wife’s menstrual condition – the sheets are awash in the results of her heavy flow – that he nearly goes into shock.  His repulsion is so great that he has to leave her for a walk on the beach where he wades fully clothed in the waves to cleanse himself.

The entire film consists of little more that a series of scenes in which Viv causes one embarrassing emotional fracas after another in desperate attempts to gain the affection of her increasingly alienated, cold and aloof husband.  There is little doubt that hormonal imbalances are the cause of her instability as early in the film a close mother-daughter conversation conveys the fact that she is perpetually on the brink of yet another menstrual misstep.

Eventually, Eliot has his wife committed to a mental institution where she spends the rest of her life, even after she enters menopause and, we are told and shown, she has become calm and serene.

The YouTube clip that is posted from the film does not include the crucial honeymoon bloody sheets scene but, at over eleven minutes in length, it does display quite a few of the scenes demonstrating Viv’s hormonal flare ups.  Though the film might deserve a subtitle like “Beware the Menstrual Monster,” it does give Miranda Richardson an opportunity to chew up every piece of available scenery.

Hymen Seek; or, Good Blood, Bad Blood

August 18th, 2011 by David Linton

The cultural taboo against male contact with menstrual blood can be traced all the way back to the Biblical book of Leviticus, and there have been various attempts to explain its origins, including the Freudian notion that male avoidance of menstrual blood stems from the fear that blood on the penis evokes fears of castration.

However, the contrary social value that prizes the presence of the hymen and, therefore, the evidence of its having been broken being blood on the penis, suggests a more complicated dynamic.*  James Joyce identified the conflict in the long stream of conscious ramble by Molly Bloom in Ulysses when she reflects on the connections she sees between the blood of her period and that produced by the broken hymen.

I bet the cat itself is better off than us have we too much blood up in us or what O patience above its pouring out of me like the sea anyhow he didn’t make me pregnant as big as he is I don’t want to ruin the clean sheets the clean linen I word brought it on too damn it damn it and they always want to see a stain on the bed to know youre a virgin for them all that’s troubling them theyre such fools too you could be a widow or divorced 40 times over a daub of red ink would do or blackberry juice no that’s too purply. . .

Today, rather than resorting to red ink or berry juice, as Molly Bloom suggests, women who can afford a surgical solution can purchase a hymen reconstruction operation.  But for those with fewer resources there are available fake hymen kits marketed under the name Joan of Arc Red.  Aside from the unfortunate image of poor Joan of Arc whose blood was shed at the burning stake rather than in a sexual encounter, these devices promise cheap and effective means of “passing” as a virgin.

When they first appeared, even the New York Times reported on the product, but not because of interest in quaint notions of virginity.  Rather, the focus was on the political ramifications.  The Times headline read, “Egyptian Lawmakers Want to Ban Fake Hymen.”  (10/5/2009) A member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sheik Sayed Askar, was quoted as saying, “It will be a mark of shame on the ruling party if it allowed this product to enter the market.”  Other individuals interviewed for the article called for the exile of those who import the kits or some other forms of punishment.  The medical procedure that reconstructs a broken hymen by stitching is already illegal in Egypt.  It remains to be seen if the recent upheaval in Egyptian society will lead to changes in hymen values.

For more information on the story, a more detailed report is available at the Huffington Post.

*Editor’s note: For more on the just the anatomical eomplexity of this dynamic, see our December 8, 2009, post about the re-naming of the hymen as the vaginal corona.

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