Guest Post by Jen Lewis
Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research
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.
A few weeks back I did an interview with Leslie Botha regarding the distribution of Depo Provera to women in developing countries. Recently Leslie shared with me an email she received from someone working in a family planning clinic in Karnataka, India. He described how he was providing the Depo Provera injection to women and finding that, after they stopped using it, they were not experiencing menstruation for up to nine months. He asked for advice – “what is the procedure to give them normal monthly menses….is there any medicine?”
I have written previously about one potential problem of providing women with Depo Provera – the possibility of continuous spotting and bleeding that would not only be distressing with no warning that this might happen and no medical support, but could also be difficult to navigate in a place with poor sanitation or with strong menstrual taboos. As women in developed countries are so very rarely counseled on side effects of hormonal methods of contraception, it seems unlikely women in developing countries receive such information. As we know, some women will instead experience their periods stopping entirely during use of the shot and, as we see from this email and from the comments on other posts written for this blog, long after use.
In this context I find it interesting that the Gates Foundation’s programs for contraception access have a very public focus on Depo Provera. The method was mentioned again by Melinda Gates in a recent TED interview and when she was interviewed as ‘Glamor magazine Woman of the Year’ the shot was front-and-center of the discussion of her work. Yet the Foundation also funds programs that provide support for menstrual management and sanitation. Continuous bleeding from the shot, or cessation of bleeding altogether, would seem to be an important connecting factor between these two campaigns.
Much has been written on the menstrual taboo in India and how this holds women back. In the US we have come to embrace menstrual suppression as great for our health and our progress as women. We see menstruation as holding women back in a variety of ways. However, in India could lack of menstruation also be seen as a positive outcome? Instead of dealing with the menstrual taboo with expensive programs that provide sanitary products and education, might suppressing menstruation entirely be seen as a far more cost-effective solution? It may seem like a stretch, but I am surprised this has not been brought up during debates about the need for contraceptive access in developing countries. Yet of course, the menstrual taboo may well extend to absence of menstruation – a woman who does not experience her period might also be treated suspiciously or poorly.
When Melinda Gates says women “prefer” and “request” Depo Provera I always wonder whether that’s after they’ve been told how it works (perhaps described as a six-month invisible contraception) or after they’ve had their first shot or after they’ve been on it for two years and then, via FDA guidelines, must find an alternative? How much follow up is there? As the self-injectable version is released widely how will women be counseled? Gates argues that the invisibility of the method is part of the draw as women do not have to tell their partners they are using contraception, but what happens when they bleed continuously or stop entirely?
It seems to me like there might be a real lack of communication – both between medical practitioners and their patients, drug providers and the practitioners, and those who fund these programs with everyone involved. It is often argued that the risks of pregnancy and childbirth in developing countries justify almost any means to prevent pregnancy – including the use of birth control methods that cause health issues. How much feedback are groups like the Gates Foundation getting on women’s preferences if they seem to be so unaware of the potential problems, even those that would greatly impact their wider work?
Readers—I need your help!
Next month, I will participate in a friendly debate at the Museum of Modern Art about Sputniko!’s provocative piece “Menstrutation Machine.” We’ve written about Menstruation Machine on re:Cycling before. In short, the metal device is equipped with a blood-dispensing system and electrodes that stimulate the lower abdomen, thus replicating the pain and bleeding of a five-day menstrual period.
Here’s the video that the artist created to simulate what it was like for one fictional boy (Takashi) when he wore the device while socializing with a friend in the streets of Tokyo.
The debate is part of a series Design and Violence-an “ongoing online curatorial experiment that explores the manifestations of violence in contemporary society by pairing critical thinkers with examples of challenging design work.”
The exact debate resolution is still being worked out, but it will revolve around this question of EMPATHY.
That is, what is the potential of “Menstruation Machine,” specifically, or any other object, to engender empathy in another?
Need more examples? Think Empathy Belly (thanks to sister blogger Chris Hitchcock who conjured that connection).
But we can extend the concept to ANY experience designed to expressly help an individual see inside someone else’s reality. Think “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes”, the International Men’s March to Stop Rape, Sexual Assault & Gender Violence, “a playful opportunity for men to raise awareness in their community about the serious causes, effects and remediations to men’s sexualized violence against women”; The Blind Café; or the TV show 30 Days, “An unscripted, documentary-style program where an individual is inserted into a lifestyle that is completely different from his or her upbringing, beliefs, religion or profession for 30 days.”
So, dear readers, I am hungry for you to share your thoughts as I prepare for the debate.
What do YOU think?
Can design help us be more empathic?
Can a non-menstruator ever really know what it is like to menstruate?
Can a temporary simulated experience, like this or any other, build a bridge?
Are there limits to what we can know of another’s lived experience, even if we can, for a short while, FEEL the pain?
Beauty in Blood Presents
Cycle: March 2014
Menstrual Designer: Jen Lewis
Director of Photography: Rob Lewis
Untitled #1 is currently part of the “Period Pieces” Art Show curated by SMCR member Josefin Persdotter. This exhibition opened on March 1st and is on display all month long at the Urban Artroom in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Since its publication in 1974, Steven King’s story of a young girl whose telekinetic powers are activated by a humiliating menstrual experience has fascinated readers, movie goers, and theater audiences ever since. Now, with the release of a new film (recently out on DVD) treatment of the story by the director Kimberly Peirce (director of another film with powerful menstrual moments, Boys Don’t Cry) the saga is on the popular radar once again. This is at least the seventh rendering the novel has received, beginning with Brian De Palma’s film in 1976 followed by a 1988 Broadway musical, a sequel (The Rage: Carrie 2) in 1999, a made-for-TV version in 2002, an off-Broadway revival in 2012 (previously reviewed on re:Cycling), and, along the way at least two camp parodies in which Carrie is played by a male actor in drag. What makes the story so enduring? Or, in show-biz language, what gives it such strong legs?
There’s something about the mysterious nature of menstruation that compels both awe and fear, particularly in men and others who have internalized the prevailing menstrual phobias. Steven King has claimed that the inspiration for the story occurred while he was working as a janitor’s assistant in a high school and, while they were cleaning the girls’ locker room, asked what the dispenser machine on the wall was for. The man replied, “They’re pussy plugs.” Thus, the girls chant at the panicked Carrie while they pelt her with tampons and pads from a broken machine, “Plug it up! Plug it up!”
In DePalma’s Carrie this “plug it up” scene is a catalyst for Carrie’s telekinetic powers, but that is where the direct menstrual references end. Not so in Peirce’s version. What is most striking about this latest remake is the way Peirce uses technology and social media to further publicize the menstrual horror that Carrie experiences. Chris, the antagonist, uses her smartphone to film Carrie cowering on the shower floor as the girls scream “plug it up.” The clip is later uploaded to YouTube and becomes central to the way the director stages the horrendous prom scene in which Carrie is drenched in pig blood. Peirce frames Carrie between two large projection screens onstage. As Carrie accepts her crown, and the pig blood falls on her, the YouTube clip from the shower appears on the screens having been programmed by Chris as part of her plot to humiliate her.
Why is this so important? In DePalma’s version menstruation is shown only as the facilitator for Carrie’s first use of her powers. In Peirce’s version it is shown not only in the opening shower scene, but in the climactic prom scene where the wrath of Carrie’s powers is truly leashed. Here, Carrie’s first period is meant to serve as a point of embarrassment for her in front of the entire student body, thanks to Chris’s YouTube video. Those who exposed Carrie’s menstrual embarrassment in such a viral way are punished for their actions.
The new version is the first by a woman director, though in a New York Times article she says she had conversations with De Palma about his vision of the story. It remains to be seen if future directors will find new ways to get even more mileage out of this endlessly fascinating story of menstrual mystery.
“During that period [of menstruation], most women experience psychological and physiological discomfort,” said Degtyaryov.
He also argued that pain from menstruation causes heightened fatigue, reduced memory and efficiency at work, and emotional discomfort.
NBC, amongst other sources, reported this news as a sign of Russia’s move towards more conservative social politics.
“Scientists and gynecologists look on difficult menstruation not only as a medical, but also a social problem,” Degtyaryov explained.
Responses to this across feminist media and others ranged from shocked to outraged.
I argue in my book ‘Sweetening the Pill’ that the emphasis on constant and consistent productivity and on quantity over quality of work is hard on everyone, not just women, and not just when they’re menstruating. As technology makes it so we can be available at all times, we therefore have to be available at all times. Dave Eggers’ novel ‘The Circle’ satirizes this pressure to be “on” brilliantly, making for an exhausting read in itself.
Our desire to miss out on the time when we might be pre-disposed to slow down – our period – by taking drugs that let us keep up the consistency in all ways is symptomatic of a wider cultural emphasis on inhuman work expectations.
SMCR’s own Margaret Stubbs pointed out in an interview with Yahoo! Shine – why can’t women just take sick days when they’re menstruating, if they want?
However, most US employers do not provide paid sick days, and those that do limit the number significantly. A sick day often needs to be used for a doctor’s appointment, a family emergency, or just to catch up on myriad other duties. A policy that attributes additional sick days (and if we’re talking two days per month that means A LOT of additional sick days) doesn’t seem such a bad idea to me at this point.
There was something of an echo of the Cold War in the reaction to this news. It was partly America’s faith in work as a cure-all that positioned it in opposition to the communists.
Yes, menstrual leave is not entirely unproblematic as a proposal, within the context. Apparently, according to Wikipedia at least, the LDPR party is worryingly nationalistic (any Russian readers please feel free to correct me on this). But some of the reactions suggested a pride in the American way of long hours and little vacation time. As I find myself saying at least once a week as a British person living in Los Angeles – take a look at the economically solid, recession-surviving countries like Germany and Australia for some good reasons why that pride is misplaced.
Sometimes it seems many women are so busy establishing the lack of difference between themselves and men that they find it hard to be truly honest about the experience – possibly painful, possibly tiring – that they are going through when they get their period. See Chris Bobel’s great post about suffering in silence for more on this. She suggests that discomfort during menstruation should indeed be a “social problem” of a kind.
If we are only valued for our productive output then menstrual leave will always be seen as dead time. It will then be more about getting women out of the office when their productivity is low and they may become a burden, than it is about valuing the potential benefits of the leave for the woman.
I admit that this is old news, and well-discussed elsewhere, but what prompted me to write a post is the desire to share more widely this great piece of writing over at the Irish Feminist Network by Barbara Scully. She discusses a BBC documentary that showed a British woman’s experience of a menstrual hut in a tribal community. Just as the capitalists saw the communists as backward, we sometimes too willingly believe our way of organizing things is the most progressive, most modern, most sophisticated. Perhaps we’re not always right.
A month ago I was musing about what it might be like to blog about fun stuff like food, fashion or travel – you know, topics not quite so “fraught” as the menstrual cycle. Sometimes it feels like just so much work sharing facts and opinions about why body literacy matters, why knowing how our cycles work and how ovulation impacts our health can lead us into meaningful, self-determined relationship with our bodies and ourselves.
But in the days leading up to Christmas, I was reminded by two young women, both of whom I’ve known since they were babies, daughters of friends, one in her late 20s, the other in her early 30s, why I do what I do.
The younger had contacted me last September, at the suggestion of her mother, with questions about switching birth control methods. She was fed up with the Pill, wanted to quit, was considering the Mirena IUD, told me about her history with ovarian cysts, irregular cycles. In a stable relationship, she hadn’t thought much about children. We talked about options. I assured her there were effective non-hormonal methods she could use, that by doing so she could assess her fertility, get her cycle functioning normally before making a decision about the Mirena. I sent her information about treatment – not involving hormonal contraceptives – for ovarian cysts; I asked a medical colleague questions on her behalf. She was thankful, emailing me that she had “some heavy thinking to do, including my actual timeline for children.”
I hoped to see her at her family’s annual Christmas party. We greeted each other briefly when I arrived, but not until the house was teeming with guests did we have the chance to talk privately amidst the holiday din. She told me she’d stopped the Pill three months before, could hardly believe how much better she felt, even though she’d yet to have a period. She thanked me, again, for validating her desire to quit the Pill. It so happened she had an appointment the next day with her family doctor; she knew what treatment she would request to help get her cycle started.
It did not go well. Her doctor, like so many I’ve heard about, was not interested in the menstrual cycle research she had done or the choices she wanted to make about her reproductive health. Quite the contrary: her doctor was hostile. It was disheartening for her, maddening to me, but not surprising.
A day later, at another holiday gathering, the other young woman stopped me in the hall to ask what I thought of the Mirena. She’d made the switch from the combined Pill (estrogen/progestin) to a progestin-only version to help with migraines. She offered that she and her partner had not yet decided about children, but she was concerned about leaving it too late. I told her the Mirena was intended as a five-year method, and if she was thinking she might want a child, it was a good time to stop hormonal contraception and assess her fertility before making a decision, either way.
I forwarded both women links to a naturopath skilled in menstrual cycle and fertility issues, and to a fertility awareness instructor who’d just announced her 2014 Eco-Contraception Program. The decision about what to do next, of course, will be theirs.
I sense both young women are searching for new, mindful connections to their bodies. Even if all I ever do is help a few such women find the support they need to make this connection, then to hell with food and fashion, I’ll keep writing about the menstrual cycle.