Talking periods

I couldn’t help but wonder: what was the deal with periods? Why is there so much taboo around them? 

Prerequisite: although this article will refer to ‘women’ based on surveys and research done, it is imperative to understand

Image retrieved from @emmycoletti on Instagram

The average menstruator, having their period for roughly 5 days every 28, from the average ages of 12 to 52 (NHS, 2019) will menstruate for a total of 6.5 years across their lifetime. This is a considerable amount of time. Certain factors affect this stat, such as pregnancy, hormonal contraception, reproductive issues such as PCOS or endometriosis, stress, testosterone (taken during gender transition) etc.

The word ‘period’ was used for the first time in a television commercial in 1985 (Hampton, 2017)  (a tad late considering electronic TV has been around since 1927), and it wasn’t until 1972 that pads could be stuck to pants, as opposed to using an elastic belt that held pads in place (Moss, 2014); I CANNOT imagine using this now. Considering that the humans have been around some 200,000 years these developments are revolutionary to say the least.

Everyone experiences periods differently, ranging from preferences for hot water bottles, chocolate, yoga, pain killers, emergency care, none at all etc. Some people refer to it as a disaster zone while others find their periods as a time to nest/reflect/hibernate – referred to as Winter by Maise Hill (2019).

I wanted to ask how you all experienced yours, because collective voices are louder, richer, and relatable:

 ‘Lighter since going on the pill. Periods were awful and irregular when I had the implant’

‘PMS KILLS ME EVERY MONTH but my actual period is light and short’

‘The week before is worse than the week on. Much bigger boobies, back pain, emotional haha. Since I cut down my sugar & meat consumption they are much more manageable’

‘Confession: I have a weird fascination with the contents of my menstrual cup during my period’

‘After losing my period for 8+ months due to stress, I now appreciate them more than before!’

‘Super irregular because of PCOS so its super hormonal dependent and variable’

‘I used to hate mine. Very heavy and painful. But I love them now. I love how cyclical they are. Embracing them has made me more in tune with the natural ebb and flow of my body’

Most menstruators will recall cases where they haven’t had products on them, and awkwardly mouthed or mimed ‘I need a pad’ to a friend/fellow menstruator, and then skurried off with one tucked up sleeves/in bras/crunched in ones palms – it is time to say it with our chests.

Periods in history

If we cast ourselves back to ancient Western civilizations, who claimed that women’s bodies were the source of their madness, it is fair to argue that women’s bodies have often been a site of debate. 

Many amusing anecdotes have been produced on the ‘danger’ of menstruating women: Pliny, a famous Roman thinker thought that “bees will forsake their hives if touched by a menstruous woman”; others thought that men whose penises touched menstrual blood would be burned, or that menstruating women turned meat and flowers ‘bad’ (Hampton, 2017) (now that seems like madness). 

Such beliefs have been understood by anthropologists like Mary Douglas, who examined the ideas of pollution of the body, of which menstrual blood was seen to transgress the boundary of in/out of the body (Tunstall, 2015). It is no surprise then, that 45% of men refuse to have period sex, with 44% of women saying that they ‘don’t feel sexy on their period’  (Bodyform, 2020). However, periods have also been seen as protecting people from danger, purifying, or even a “love charm” (Hampton, 2017) – their social positioning is significant. 

Beyond the minimal knowledge school biology offered us, we often aren’t taught the practicalities of periods, and how they actually feel. This is evidenced in that as many as 44% of young women were unsure of what was happening when they first had their periods. As in, young women have genuinely thought they were dying when they first began to menstruate. This isn’t comical, or a case of ignorance; it is a serious lack of education. 

Period education is only recently becoming more common, and I was lucky enough to get my first post-uni job working on one. 

Let’s Talk Period

The Let’s Talk. Period project was a partnership of two charities in the UK (Brook and Plan International), that aimed to develop period education, distribute period products, and raise awareness about the realities of period poverty to young people who menstruate. Such work builds on campaigning, such as ending the tampon tax, moving it from its previous tax status as a luxury product – private jets weren’t exempt from this, but tampons we paid tax on. Bloody cheeky if you ask me. Pun intended.

Activists such as Amika George spearheaded the #FreePeriods movement, campaigning for free period products to be made available in schools for those who are struggling to access them. From January this year, schools in the UK can order a certain amount of products through an online portal.

(Life) Lessons I learned on this project:

  1. Convincing a group of young people to speak about something they find ‘gross’ is intimidating at first
  2. Lots of young people aren’t comfortable speaking about their bodies – when I asked if they were comfortable speaking about vulvas – they said “Miss I swear vulva is a car company?!” 
  3. Many menstruators will fall through the gaps of the government school scheme; more needs to be done, following the example of Scotland, where menstrual products were just voted to be free everywhere
  4. Ultimately, speaking about periods offers menstruators the opportunity to discuss the changes in their body, and encourages them to reflect on sex, contraception and their cycle fluctuation, which in turn becomes empowering over time

Lack of knowledge, coupled with taboos also affects access to period products (in order to see periods in a better light in society, issues like period poverty equally need to be tackled!).

It seems that many of us could have had more education at school, particularly to break the deeply entrenched taboos, make everyone more comfortable with the practicalities and sights of period blood, and to destigmatise period sex. 

Poll conducted on Instagram on 26/05/20, approx 73 participants

Lest we forget: periods and sex

People, there are benefits of vaginal period sex: oestrogen levels increase leading up to your ovulation: so many people have an increased interest in having sex during their periods, some evidence of reduced cramps (from the increased contraction of the uterus during orgasm) (Brochmman & Dahl, 2017) and more ‘natural’ lubrication (although you can still use lube, as menstrual blood is not exclusively designed for vaginal lubrication). 

Get creative: shower sex (if you’re using condoms be very careful, they could slip off), sex on towels, or red sheets (gamechanger). Some menstruators may ask their partners to focus more on oral sex, particularly if they are wearing a Mooncup or tampon (McWeeney, 2018). 

Many a creative and tender epithet were imparted with me on Instagram, which I will plop here for you all to take notes on:

As long as everyone is OK with it then go for it! Nothing to be ashamed of’

Be prepared! Always found it made by flow heavy so have a pad / tissue /whatever near’

‘It’s not for everyone but it’s a pain reliever and feels empowering and very intimate’

‘In my experience, it’s more pleasurable for both people if you get creative with ways of having orgasms that aren’t as messy so both people are comfortable and satisfied’ (on period sex in a lesbian relationship)

‘Just bleed all over your lover. They should love your blood, hair and body’.

Image retrieved from @whoregasmic on Instagram (INTENDED AS TONGUE IN CHEEK OFC)

It must be noted that you can still get pregnant on your period if you are having unprotected sex/aren’t on hormonal contraception: sperm can live in the body for up to 7 days. So, if you ovulate earlier in your cycle than the typical day 14, you’d still be at risk – which is dependent on how irregular your cycle might be.

STIs, unfortunately, don’t stop during periods (rude I know): the cervix is more open leaving space for bacteria/viruses to move on up, the pH of the vagina becomes more alkaline (its slightly acidic pH normally helps protect the vagina more), and the increased blood from the vagina can mean an increased risk of bloodborne infections such as HIV or Hepatitis (Franklin, 2018). So period sex is more ‘risky’ in terms of STI transmission with no external/internal condom/dam usage, but doesn’t HAVE to be a sex-free time.

Apparently 70% of women don’t have period sex, although that is not case for you lot… perhaps more research needs to be done on this!

Poll conducted on Instagram on 26/05/20, approx 73 participants

Concerning the future of periods, we have:

  • Concerns about lack of access to sanitary products during coronavirus lockdowns globally 
  •  Increased market shifts towards more sustainable products, such as the Mooncup, period pants, reusable tampon applicators, sanitary pads etc.
  • To include all genders in the conversation (check out Kenny Ethan Jones article below)
  • To integrate periods into wider sex education programmes 
  • To normalise menstrual leave policy – for people who have debilitating period pain such as dysmenorrhea. Since 1947, a policy like this has existed in Japan, Italy since 2017, Nike has had it in their employee code of conduct since 2007 and Coexist, a firm in Bristol has recently included it (to much debate) (Denteh, 2019). Time’s up.

Have sex on your period, or don’t. Shout from the hills about them, be as un-discrete about your pads/Mooncup chat as you want. Or don’t discuss them at all. But if you want to, that’s great! You should be able to discuss the monthly goings-on in your body without people being ‘squeamish’.

While you’re at it, discuss with your workplace HR what they think about menstrual leave policy (at your own risk, because it causes a little stir).

Resources 

Reading: 

Listening: 

Watching: 

Cover image by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash

References

Bodyform. (2020). Period Sex Survey: Why The Taboo? Our World Webpage. (Accessed online: https://www.bodyform.co.uk/our-world/period-sex-survey/ 24/05/2020)

Brochmann, N & Dahl, E. S. (2017). The Wonder Down Under: A user’s guide to the vagina. Great Britain: Yellow Kite

Denteh, B. (2019). Should The UK Implement a Paid Period Leave Into Work Policies? TCS NEtwork Webpage. (Accessed online: https://www.tcsnetwork.co.uk/should-the-uk-implement-a-paid-period-leave-into-work-policies/ 25/05/2020)

Franklin, A. (2018). You’re More Likely to Get an STI During Your Period—Here’s Why. Sexual Health Webpage. (Accessed online: https://www.health.com/condition/sexual-health/std-risk-during-your-period 25/05/2020)

Hampton, J. (2017). The taboo of menstruation. Essays Webpage. (Accessed online: https://aeon.co/essays/throughout-history-and-still-today-women-are-shamed-for-menstruating 30/04/2020)

Hill, M. (2019). Period Power. Green Tree: London.

McWeeney, C. (2018). Period sex 101. Articles Webpage. (Accessed online:  https://helloclue.com/articles/sex/period-sex-101 25/05/2020)

Moss, G. (2014). I Wore An Old-Fashioned Sanitary Belt For My Entire Period, and Here Are The Gory Details. Articles Webpage. (Accessed online: https://www.bustle.com/articles/46404-i-wore-an-old-fashioned-sanitary-belt-for-my-entire-period-and-here-are-the-gory-details 24/05/2020)

NHS. (2019). Periods and Fertility in the Menstrual Cycle. Period Webpage. (Accessed online: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/periods/fertility-in-the-menstrual-cycle/ 24/05/2020)

Tunstall, E. (2015). Re-doing the cycle: menstrual power protests and design. The Conversation. (Accessed online: https://theconversation.com/re-doing-the-cycle-menstrual-power-protests-and-design-40526 30/04/2020)

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