Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

An Uncharted Territory: Marriage Manual and Menstrual Sex

March 26th, 2014 by David Linton

A previous post, The Subject of Sneers or Jests: Menstrual Education in the Service of Racism, examined the confluence of eugenic notions that conflated the effects of environmental factors like clothing, alcohol, and masturbation with heredity and health as expressed in a 1913 sexual health manual sponsored by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, What Every Young Woman Ought to Know. It is important to note that not every book about sexuality that emerged early in the century was as misguided and misinformed as that one.

Just 13 years later, in 1926, another guide to sex and marriage was published, Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique, by Th. H. Van de Velde, M.D., that went on to its 44th printing at Random House by 1963. Though not much is actually known about its reception or the uses its readers put it to, its longevity suggests both popularity and impact. And in tone and content it is remarkably different from the previously discussed volume from 1913. It suggests that the sexual/menstrual ecology was in flux (perhaps it always is) but also that the earlier work did not fully reflect the spirit of its times.

In those sections of the book dealing with anatomy and physiology the information is mostly sound and presented in a straightforward manner. However, Ideal Marriage also contains an ample amount of less than thorough information about lots of topics, not the least of which is just what constitutes an “ideal marriage!” Of special interest to readers of re:Cycling are the portions that set out to explain and describe the workings of the menstrual cycle.

Though there are a few caveats or cautionary asides such as, “I am fully aware that we are here in an uncharted territory, full of traps and pitfalls. . .”(106) and that it is “. . . peculiarly difficult to sift the possible kernel of fact from the fantastic sheaf of tradition and superstition. . . ,” (107) none-the-less the author proceeds to paint a picture of the effects of menstruation as worthy of a Hitchcock thriller. Just before and during menstrual bleeding women have, “a lesser degree of bodily endurance, activity and dexterity; a tendency to exhaustion and malaise,” (100); “Temper, hypersensitiviteness, caprice, resentment, rapid changes of mood, liability to take offense unnecessarily appear, in women who are otherwise very free from these manifestations.” (100) And, women must take special care about “resolutely mastering their tongues and tempers. . .” (100) Naturally, these unfortunate flare ups create a special challenge for men: “For the husband, there are two occasions . . . in which tact, sympathy and self-control are urgently needed if he is to be an expert in love and life. Namely, in the first days of married life, and in the first days of the monthly vital ebb. The second is much the harder test—because it perpetually recurs!—but surely not any less important than the first.” (101)

In addition to these disturbances of mood, there are other physical defects that appear: “nausea and inclination to vomit, bad breath, increase of intestinal gas. . . a tendency to varicose veins, cold feet . . the vocal apparatus is impaired . . . the voice becomes easily tired and changes its quality. . .an appreciable narrowing of the field of vision, and less acute differentiation of colors. . . facial pallor, a tendency to blush easily, and blue rings under the eyes. . .[in effect] she is partly an invalid.” (104-105) Whew! Yet there is a saving moment. After a lengthy catalog of miseries and flaws we learn that, “Fortunately no one woman has to endure all the sufferings and disabilities described above. . . .And, I repeat, that fortunately, there are quite a number of women who do not suffer any of these things.” (105)

Despite the bleak depictions of what many menstruating women are believed to experience and what their husbands must endure, the author then goes on to confront and mostly refute the most deeply rooted sexual taboo of all. A full chapter is devoted to a discussion of sexual intercourse during menstruation and pregnancy. Beginning with acknowledging and identifying the wide range of historical religious and cultural prohibitions and traditions, the chapter then proceeds to describe how some women and men are not only indifferent to the prohibitions but, in fact, find menstrual sex more exciting:

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

March 20th, 2014 by David Linton

Title page of What a Young Woman Ought to Know

Sometimes, when it seems that progress toward the elimination of harmful menstrual stereotypes, myths, and misinformation is slow or even stalled, it is bracing to take a look back at the kinds of educational materials, marriage manuals, and sources of advice that women were offered in the past in order to be reminded that progress does actually exist. Consider, for instance, an effort to enlighten women about sex, marriage, and the menstrual cycle from the early 20th Century.

One hundred years ago, in 1913, a book appeared in the “Self and Sex Series” titled, What a Young Woman Ought to Know by an author identified as Mrs. Mary Wood-Allen, MD. Her credentials, displayed on the title page, include the following: “National Superintendent of the Purity Department Woman’s Christian Temperance Union,” and she is credited with having written six other books, including Almost a Man and Almost a Woman.

To get a hint of the direction the book takes in its effort to instruct young women in what they ought to know a glance at some of the chapter titles may suffice:

Ch. V – “Breathing”
Ch. VI – “Hindrances to Breathing”
Ch. VII – “Added Injuries from Tight Clothing”
Ch. XVI – “Some Causes of Painful Menstruation”
Ch. XVII – “Care During Menstruation”
Ch. XIX – “Solitary Vice”
Ch. XXVII – “”The Law of Heredity”
Ch. XXXIV – “Effects of Immorality on the Race”
Ch. XXX – “The Gospel of Heredity”

As these titles suggest, the book manages to link menstrual education with some of the most virulent eugenic nonsense that had gained widespread acceptance in American science and politics of the time, the same sham-science that led to sterilization of disabled people and African-Americans in the U.S. and found a welcome home in Nazi Germany in the following decades.

Perhaps the best way to communicate the stupidity of the book’s content is to allow it to speak for itself. Consider the explanations of menstrual discomfort and the effects of bad reading habits:

“Whenever there is actual pain at any stage of the monthly period, it is because something is wrong, either in the dress, or the diet, or the personal and social habits of the individual.” (119)

“Romance-reading by young girls will, by this excitement of the bodily organs, tend to create their premature development, and the child becomes physically a woman months, or even years, before she should.” (124)

“…if girls from earliest childhood were dressed loosely, with no clothing suspended on the hips, if their muscles were well developed through judicious exercise, they would seldom find it necessary to be semi-invalids at any time.” (146)

The underlying disdain or fear of sexual pleasure is expressed in the chapter about masturbation, titled “Solitary Vice,” in which it states, “the reading of sensational love stories is most detrimental…This stimulation sometimes leads to the formation of an evil habit, known as self-abuse….The results of self-abuse are most disastrous. It destroys mental power and memory, it blotches the complexion, dulls the eye, takes away the strength, and may even cause insanity.”

As if these dire consequences were not bad enough, it turns out that once one has inflicted these conditions on one’s self, they can enter the girl’s genetic code and be passed along to future generations. Even a girl’s clothing choices can have long term, disastrous effects: “The dress of women is not merely an unimportant matter, to be made the subject of sneers or jests. Fashions often create deformities, and are therefore worthy of most philosophical consideration, especially when we know that the effects of these deformities may be transmitted.” (223)

The author minces no words as to the effects on the children of such a careless mother: “The tightly-compressed waist of the girl displaces her internal organs, weakens her digestion, and deprives her children of their rightful inheritance. They are born with lessened vitality, with diminished nerve power, and are less likely to live, or, living, are more liable not only to grow up physically weak, but also lacking in mental and moral stamina.”

Men(ses) At War

February 25th, 2014 by David Linton

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

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

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

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

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

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

Global Menstrual Progress

December 31st, 2013 by David Linton

Nicholas Kristof’s and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky

Nicholas D. Kristof has for some years been a regular contributor to the op-ed page of The New York Times where he frequently writes about sex trafficking, child abuse, and the lives of women around the world.

In 2009 Kristof and his wife and writing partner, Sheryl WuDunn, published a volume that examined a wide variety of the ways women are oppressed around the world titled, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. The book moves from Congo to China to South Africa to Cameroon to Afghanistan and many places in between. And though their focus is on the more dramatic and life threatening problems such as maternal mortality, prostitution, rape, AIDS, and economic discrimination, to their credit they also include the role that attitudes and practices surrounding the menstrual cycle play in determining the fate of women. In effect, they have added their own voices to the ongoing project of the SMCR: MAKING MENSTRUATION MATTER.

Half the Sky (the title is an allusion to the Chinese proverb, “Women hold up half the sky.”) is not reluctant to address ancient, deep-seated cultural traditions, including the vicious practice in Deuteronomy calling for stoning to death of girls suspected of having had premarital sex, and in a chapter titled “Is Islam Misogynistic?” they confront some of the darker portions of that faith’s history. For instance, they cite the writings of a “ninth-century scholar, Al-Timmidhi,” who “recounted that houri [the heavenly virgins who await martyrs] are gorgeous young women with white skin, who never menstruate, urinate, or defecate.”  The chapter goes on to explain how statements such as this are not consistent with other Islamic tenets nor with the beliefs of many Muslims, but the notion that menstruation is equivalent to processes of bodily waste elimination is a deep-seated conception that permeates many other belief systems as well.

Another chapter, “Investing in Education,” addresses the challenges involved in providing adequate schooling for girls and the need for sanitary facilities and products so that girls can manage their periods discretely and hygienically. Mention is made of a Proctor & Gamble project to distribute free pads in Africa, however, surprisingly, insufficient attention is given to home-grown efforts, such as SMCR member Megan White Mukuria’s ZanaAfrica, to provide both products and empowering education to girls in Kenya. One program called Camfed, for Campaign for Female Education, that operates in several African countries is justifiably credited for its thoroughness in addressing girls’ education, including the practice of supplying girls with pads and underwear so they can continue to go to classes during their periods.

Obviously, an entire book could be written about the links between women’s liberation and the menstrual cycle. Half the Sky is not that book, but it does make a contribution that is worthy of applause.

The Smithsonian Menstrual Archive

November 6th, 2012 by David Linton

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

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

Photo by David Linton

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

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

Photo by David Linton

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

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

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

Vintage FemCare Advertising

January 20th, 2011 by Elizabeth Kissling

In my visual communication class this week, I used several femcare ads (along with a couple of cell phone commercials and other images) to illustrate Althusser’s concept of interpellation. My students got more of a lesson than they bargained for, as I ended up also talking a little about the history of advertising for femcare products. I mentioned but did not show this historically significant ad, notable to my students for the appearance of pre-Friends Courtney Cox, but more important because it was the first time the word “period” was uttered on television in a menstrual product ad.

It aired in 1985.

Book Review: The Modern Period

February 8th, 2010 by Elizabeth Kissling

If I correctly understand the terms of SHM’s copyright agreement with Oxford University Press, I am permitted to publish this unedited version of my review as a “pre-print” article. The final version will be available only from Social History of Medicine.

Lara Freidenfelds, The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth Century America, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. Pp. 242. £31/$60. ISBN 978 0-8018 9245 5.

Book cover: The Modern Period by Lara Freidenfelds Lara Freidenfelds, an historian currently teaching in Women’s Studies at Wellesley College, has written a thorough and engaging history of menstruation in twentieth century USA. Her title, The Modern Period, is more than a succinct description; it cleverly references her discussion throughout of how advancing Progressive values shaped beliefs and practices surrounding menstruation. These Progressive values included faith in scientific rationality, belief in the value of education, and unqualified endorsement of technological progress. The ‘modern period’ also references the evolution of menstrual management practices into a coherent whole and the movement away from practices and beliefs considered old-fashioned, such as worries about catching a chill or the use of cloth pads. Her analysis throughout addresses the class implications of modernization; that is, the perceived need to adopt modern practices of bodily presentation and self-control for class mobility. Such modernization, asserts Friedenfelds, is a key component of Americans’ ability to see themselves as middle-class across great gaps in education and income.

Friedenfelds skillfully integrates a variety of historical sources, such as advertisements, promotional brochures, educational texts, and previous historical and sociological research on menstrual beliefs and practices with her own extended interviews with women and men of a range of ages, occupations, social standings, and ethnic backgrounds. This adroit synthesis helps Friedenfelds show how the modern period was created collectively by advertisers, health educators, manufacturers of menstrual products, and other ‘experts’, with the eager assistance of ordinary people.

The diversity of age and ethnicity among Friedenfelds’ interview participants is particularly striking and significant in a work such as this: the oldest informant was born before 1910, and the youngest after 1970. The 75 interviewees included white Americans in New England, African Americans in the rural South, Chinese Americans in California, as well as 13 people from other backgrounds. Examples from these interviews are well contextualized and grounded with historical research.

Friedenfelds’ choice to organize The Modern Period thematically rather than chronologically made the text a more appealing read as a whole while simultaneously making it possible for each chapter to stand alone. This organizational choice also makes clear how changes in the evolving modern period came about gradually and often in fragmented ways. The book is divided into five chapters, plus brief introduction and conclusion, around the themes of life before modern menstrual management, modern talk about menstruation, modern menstrual behavior, modern techniques of menstrual management, and a fifth chapter about tampons as a case study in controversy.

Some contemporary readers may find it difficult to believe that tampons were once controversial. But when they were first introduced as a commercial product in the 1930s and 1940s, both menstruators and physicians were skeptical about their safety and efficacy. There were also debates about the sexual implications of tampons, and whether it was advisable for sexually inexperienced women to use them. This chapter provides a keen example of how effectively Freidenfelds uses interview data to supplement documents-based research: Using tampons required women to cross boundaries of race, class, culture, and region, as well as learn different bodily practices required by tampon use compared to menstrual pads. Freidenfelds shows this with vivid interview narratives about women experimenting on their own to learn how to insert a tampon, modern daughters explaining to traditional, immigrant mothers that tampons were safe, and more. The frankness of these narratives is a testament to Freidenfelds’ skill as an interviewer.

Despite the apparent advances in menstrual management and communication about menstruation that Friedenfelds documents, it is important to note that discourses of menstruation remain quite constrained:

The kind of “openness” about menstruation that is part of modern menstrual management is very specific: it is openness in carefully circumscribed locations and constrained language, just what is needed to support the modern desire to make menstruation impinge as little as possible on people’s lives, and no more. (p. 11)

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.