Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Menstrual Marking

November 18th, 2014 by David Linton

The idea that animals (male animals, that is) mark territories with urine streams is well established, particularly in the case of dogs, wolves, and other similar breeds. It seems that men too (notably adolescent boys) engage in some sort of marking practices when it comes to failure to flush urinals or toilets in public (and sometimes domestic) facilities.

A story by Haruki Murakami in a recent New Yorker magazine (Oct. 13, 2014; pg. 100+) depicts a teenage girl who uses a menstrual product as a way of marking territory as well. Murakami’s character is a middle-aged woman in a story titled “Scheherazade” who, in the course of a string of post-coital sharing moments, confides to the narrator a time in her adolescence when she was obsessed with a boy in her high school. Too shy to approach him personally, she would occasionally sneak into his home and peruse the contents of his bedroom. Eventually she stole several of his personal objects – a pencil, soccer insignia, sweaty tee shirt – and leaves something of her own hidden in the back of a drawer or under some old notebooks. In addition to a few strands of her hair, she hides the most personal object she can think of:

“Finally, I decided to leave a tampon behind. An unused one, of course, still in its plastic wrapper. . . . I hid it at the very back of the bottom drawer, where it would be difficult to find. That really turned me on. The fact that a tampon of mine was stashed away in his desk drawer. Maybe it was because I was so turned on that my period started almost immediately after that.”

When she returns to the house on several later trips she always checks to see that the tampon is still in place and delights that it has remained in the boy’s drawer. The tampon comes to be described as “a token” that represents her unrequited crush on the boy who is barely aware of her existence. Eventually she comes to associate her erotic attraction with her menstrual cycle, even thinking about the boy’s masturbation as being compared to her period, “All those sperm had to go somewhere, just as girls had to have periods.” Finally, the boy’s parents discover that someone has been invading their home and change the locks so that her trespasses are ended. But the story’s exploration of the erotic associations of menstrual details is fascinating and fairly rare.

Furthermore, the fact that this is a male author’s take on the topic probably makes it somewhat unreliable even though it claims to be told through the words of a woman’s reminiscences. Readers are invited to respond with mention of other stories that explore both the erotic and territorial marking potential of menstrual products and blood.

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:

Sex, Lies and Pharmaceuticals

December 16th, 2010 by Chris Hitchcock

There’s a new book about the intimate role of the pharmaceutical industry in the construction of diseases, using the example of FSD (female sexual dysfunction). The authors are Ray Moynihan, an Australian investigative journalist with a longstanding interest in this topic, and Barbara Mintzes, Assistant Professor in the Department of Pharmacology & Therapeutics at the University of British Columbia. I haven’t yet seen the book, but listened to the webinar, which is now available on the Canadian Women’s Health Network (CWHN) website.

There were a few things that struck me. One is how blatant the interference of the pharmaceutical industry can be. For example, the webinar includes a reference to an email sent to Lenore Tiefer letting her know that a formative 1997 meeting about female sexual dysfunction was only open to those who were either part of or willing to work with the pharmaceutical industry. Another was the way in which the language about the medical understanding of the cause of FSD tracked the introduction of 3 different potential drugs, each with different targets and different mechanisms. So far, each drug has failed in clinical trials.

The medicalization of human sexuality separates our bodies from our emotional lives, and creates a framework within which emotional or relationship difficulties are seen as being caused by the biological, rather than being interdependent. And little attention is paid to the ways in which pharmaceutical cures may even create relationship problems that were not there before.

There are, of course, parallels with other cases. For example, the idea that menopausal is a hormone deficiency disease makes it much easier to argue that every healthy menopausal woman should take hormone replacement therapy. This replacement language is unfortunately still alive and well in both medical and popular usage.

Another parallel is the construction of “premenstrual syndrome” into a psychiatric diagnosis. This has been provisionally incorporated into the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association, initially as “Late Luteal Dysphoric Disorder”, now “Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder”. Among other things, this construction supported the repackaging and marketing of Prozac as Sarafem for this newly created psychiatric disorder, extending the marketability of Prozac beyond its patent expiry date.

The APA is currently working on DSM V, to be published in May, 2013, and there is an opportunity for activism. So far, PMDD is listed in the “needs more research” section. But chances are it will be put forward again for the next edition.

Help Trixie Films Go All the Way

June 9th, 2010 by Elizabeth Kissling

All the way to $10,000, that is. Work on the new production from Trixie Films, How to Lose Your Virginity, is nearly complete. This film promises to be an innovative exploration of the American obsession with virginity and an outstanding classroom teaching tool:

It’s a quest to dig beneath the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t double-speak of a culture that cynically encourages both virginity and promiscuity. How can young women wade through these mixed messages–like a reality show that auctions off virgins to the highest bidder or Disney starlets flashing purity rings while writhing on stripper poles–and act instead on their own needs and desires? What’s behind this strange moment in American culture?

The road to understanding our obsession with virginity takes me to places I never thought I’d go–from the set of a Barely Legal porn movie shoot in the San Fernando Valley to a Love & Fidelity Abstinence Conference at Harvard to the fitting rooms of David’s Bridal.

Can you help?  Independent women’s media needs support, and lots of small contributions add up to a big total. Visit the film’s fundraising page, and give what you can. Thanks to kickstarter.com, almost $5000 has been raised. But there are only 23 days left to reach the $10,000 goal or they’ll get none of it (which is how Kickstarter works).

Be part of the next edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves

January 26th, 2010 by Elizabeth Kissling

Cover of OUR BODIES, OURSELVESOur Bodies, Ourselves is seeking up to two dozen women to participate in an online discussion on sexual relationships.

Stories and comments may be used anonymously in the next edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves, which will be published in 2011 by Simon & Schuster.

We are seeking the experience and wisdom of heterosexual, lesbian, bisexual, queer and trans women. Perspectives from single women are encouraged, and you may define relationship as it applies to you, from monogamy to multiple partners. We are committed to including women of color, women with disabilities, and women of many ages and backgrounds.

In the words of the brilliant anthology “Yes Means Yes,” how can we consistently engage in more positive experiences? What issues deserve more attention? And how do we address social inequities and violence against women? These are some of the guiding questions that will help us to update the relationships section in “Our Bodies, Ourselves.”

The conversation will start Sunday, Feb. 14 (yes, Valentine’s Day) and stay open through Friday, March 12.

Participants will be invited to answer relevant questions (see sample below) and build on the responses of other participants. We’ll use a private Google site to post questions and responses.

Personal stories and reflections are welcomed, along with updated research and media resources. While we hope to use some of the stories and experiences in the book, names will not be published.

We hope the open process* will spark robust discussion. We expect new questions to arise that challenge us to re-work this section even more.

If you would like to participate in this conversation, please e-mail OBOS editorial team member Wendy Sanford: wsanford@bwhbc.org

In your email, please tell us about yourself and what you would bring to the conversation. We need to hear from you by Feb. 5 Feb. 3 and will let you know soon thereafter about participation. Thanks for considering this!

*We have thought a great deal about privacy. If you want to share a story or information, but do not want to participate in the private Google site discussion, please indicate that in your email. We may send you questions that you can answer on your own.

* * * * * *
Sample Questions
Participants can suggest other questions

How do you define — and express — intimacy?

What are you looking for in a relationship? What kind of relationship do you seek at this time in your life — monogamous, non-monogamous, long-term, short-term, one partner or more than one? How is this related to being a woman or to your gender or sexual identity in the society(ies) and culture(s) to which you belong?

What do you enjoy most about being sexual?

What are your experiences in a relationship that spans differences such as class, race, age, physical or mental ability, chronic illness, other?

How does it affect your relationships when you are with someone whom the world gives more or less power than you have — because of race, income, gender or disability?

What role has love played or not played in your relationships?

Describe a time when you realized that despite the romantic images you may have grown up with, a relationship you intended to stay in over time was going to be work.

What are some obstacles that can get in the way of our relationships? What images or stereotypes in popular culture add to the difficulties?

What helps? What books or other resources do you trust to speak honestly about relationships?

What is it like to be in a relationship with a man/with a woman when you don’t like some or all of your own body?

How have specific acts of sexual violence against you, or general societal/cultural acceptance of violence against women or LGBT people, affected your intimate sexual relationships?

If you have been in intimate sexual relationships with both women and men, are there special dynamics and challenges that you have noticed in each?

If you have experience with online dating networks, what would you want someone to know who was just starting to explore that venue? What are the safety issues?

Period Sex is a Bloody Good Time (says college newspapers)

January 4th, 2010 by Elizabeth Kissling

Back in November, we commended a bold student columnist for taking on menstrual sex in the student paper at Chico State University. In yesterday’s edition of The Faster Times, columnist Veronica Mittnacht advises a reader about how to broach the subject of period sex in a casual relationship, and works to normalize menstruation – even heavy flow.

Fortunately, most men, even if they don’t really like it [menstruation], know enough to pretend not to mind, because, after all, most women do it, and there’s not much men can do about it.  And for your purposes, for now, pretending is enough. There’s still the occasional guy who can’t handle blood, but the bell curve compensates by giving us the occasional fetishist or enthusiast to make up for it.

Human Mate Choice and the Pill

October 8th, 2009 by Chris Hitchcock

In a review article in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, University of Sheffield researchers Alexandra Alvergne and Virpi Lummaa [1] present a range of evidence that using oral contraceptives influences women’s preferences for mates, and men’s sexual interest. Some of the research shows that women’s preference for human odors while taking the pill are for odors from men who are more likely to be close relatives, with similar variants of the majorhistocompatibility locus (MHC), but that women who are ovulating prefer odors from men who are less similar. There is speculation that the degree of similarity in the MHC locus may affect fertility.

Further evidence comes from a study by Geoffrey Miller and colleagues, looking at men’s willingness to pay professional lap-dancers for sexual access over the menstrual cycle. This was a difficult study to do, and assumed that ovulation occurred on a standard day during the menstrual cycle, which we know is not valid, because women vary in ovulatory timing and may not ovulate in otherwise normal menstrual cycles. Nonetheless, the average curves for women selling sexual access through lap-dancing show a menstrual pattern in profits that is strikingly similar to the pattern of estrogen over the menstrual cycle. Women taking oral contraceptives both made less money, and did not show the same pattern as those who were naturally cycling.

Men's willingness to pay for sexual access to lap dancers by menstrual cycle day. From Miller (2007)

Men's willingness to pay for sexual access to lap dancers by menstrual cycle day. From Miller (2007)

There is further work that needs to be done here to connect all of the dots, but the information is interesting and points to an unsuspected role of the menstrual cycle in women’s (and men’s) lives.

What I would like to know is this:
1. How much of a difference does the degree of MHC similarity make to the average couple’s fertility? Are those who are similar in MHC overrepresented in fertility clinics?
2. Is there an effect of odor preferences on what we think of as “chemistry” in a relationship? On conflicts and marital harmony? On sexual behaviour? I am thinking of some of the excellent work done by John Gottman in Seattle, analyzing couple interactions and predicting relationship success. Do couples who start on the pill differ from those who don’t? Does that relationship dynamic change when pill use changes?
3. What happens when a woman stops using oral contraception? Do her preferences change? How (if at all) does that show up in the relationship?
4. And what about other relationships where odor-based mate choice is blocked, such as internet dating? Are there similar issues?

The bigger picture for me is this – science knows very little about the many roles and effects of the naturally cycling menstrual cycle, and replacing that naturally occurring cycle with oral contraceptive pills is likely to be having other effects that we will come to know in the future.

Control over our own reproduction is a very important part of women’s rights, health and well-being. However, oral contraceptives are not the only effective method of birth control. In addition to a variety of rare but serious side effects, they also leave women at risk of sexually transmitted infections, interfere with peak bone acquisition in younger women, and are the highest risk factor for young men not using condoms during intercourse. Perhaps it is time to rethink the wisdom of widespread and routine use of oral contraceptives, and to recognize the value and the unexamined effects of the menstrual cycle.

References:
1. Alvergne, A, Lummaa, V: Does the contraceptive pill alter mate choice in humans? Trends in Ecology and Evolution, to appear in 2009.
2. Miller G, Tybur J, Jordan B: Ovulatory cycle effects on tip earnings by lap dancers: economic evidence for human estrus? Evolution and Human Behavior 2007, 28:375-381.

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.