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:

Diary of a Mad Menstrual Metaphor

January 8th, 2014 by David Linton

In 1967 a new novel, Diary of a Mad Housewife by Sue Kaufman, struck a chord with Boomer Generation women, the post-war era’s cohort who were already the subject of Betty Friedan’s 1963 The Feminine Mystique and who are characterized today in TV’s Mad Men. The novel became a best seller and shortly received a successful film treatment in 1970 with a script by Eleanor Perry and directed by her husband Frank Perry. Carrie Snodgress was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in the title role, and Richard Benjamin, as her obnoxious husband, also received rave reviews. The novel is still in print having been reissued in 2005 with an introduction by Maggie Estep who was only four years old when the novel was first published.

There is a time travel quality to reading the novel today, or perhaps it’s like visiting some remote, foreign culture. So much of it is dated to the point of obscurity: pop culture references are lost; jargon and slang are quaint; fashions are out; brand names no longer exist. Most striking of all are the iron-clad gender rules the characters live by. The Husband, Jonathan, is a condescending, arrogant, inconsiderate bore. The Wife, Teena, is a shrinking, obedient, victimized mouse who timidly scurries about until a hot sexual affair with another self-centered cad and the collapse of her husband’s job and ambitions finally suggest, at the novel’s end, that maybe there’s hope to be found in the ruins of their miserable lives. Today’s readers are unlikely to feel much sympathy for her passive acceptance of her plight.

In the midst of this otherwise overwrought and curious artifact from a pre-Second Wave, pre-consciousness, pre-Steinem, pre-SMCR age, there can be found several glimpses into the menstrual values of the times. Through the lens of literary products such as this we can sometimes gain perspectives on both past and present. In this way Diary of a Mad Housewife enters the literary menstrual canon.

Considering the way any mention of menstruation was assiduously avoided at the time, the period references are surprisingly frank. And of more significance, the story avoids any cheap, clichéd attempts to connect Tina’s “madness” with any sort of hormonal fluctuation.

Within the first ten pages, having identified the fact that she’s feeling unhinged, paranoid, and depressed, Teena speculates that perhaps she’s suffering from “a Pre-Menopausal Agitation,” brought on by having recently turned thirty-six, the same age as Marilyn Monroe when she presumably committed suicide – “Thirty-sixitis.”  Her husband is urging her to pay a visit to her old psychiatrist, the peculiarly named “Dr. Popkin.”

The rest of the narrative, in the form of a secret diary that she is keeping, details Teena’s trials and tribulations with her children, party caterers, friends, house keepers, lover, husband, and assorted others, including a social acquaintance who ducks a dinner engagement with a crafty menstrual evasion (“I seem to have these perfectly beastly curse cramps.”) that turns out to have been a lie.

Teena’s menstrual values are also detailed in a description of difficulties scheduling trysts with her obnoxious lover, George. At one point, juggling party chores, parenting, domestic duties, hairdresser and dental appointments, she tells him, “I can see you early in the week. It has to be early because I’m due to get the curse about the middle of the week.”  George responds, “I don’t mind that,” and Teena answers, “I do.”

The “no menstrual sex” rule reflects the menstrual ethos of the times as well as serving as a means of illustrating the limits of the character’s freedom from sexual inhibitions despite the lustiness of her sexual performances with George – and they are “performances,” for her acts of defiance and at least a momentary flaunting of convention.

Eventually, the story moves toward climax with an ancient, reliable plot device: a late period. Once again relying on the derogatory slang expression, Teena writes in her diary, “the curse is now five days overdue.”

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

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 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.

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.