When my oldest was somewhere around 5, we got to talking about human reproduction. I don’t remember why. Maybe someone was knocked up or he’d mentioned lions humping on the Discovery Channel. I just explained the whole damn thing. And we’re into biology in our house, so it got weird. You know your penis? Girls have a vagina instead, blah blah blah.
Snakes have two penises; they’re called hemipenes. Most mammals go into something called estrus, where they can only get pregnant at certain times. Human females can be fertile at any given time and so they build up a special lining in their uterus — the part where the baby lives. Once a month, that lining has to come out so it can be rebuilt. And that’s called a woman’s period.
This was far less interesting than the snake penises.
So when my kids barged into the bathroom, as kids do, and saw me, legs spread, pulling a menstrual cup full o’ blood from between my legs, I just said, “I’m having my period. This is a menstrual cup. It catches the remainder of my endometrium. But it does not require an audience, so get out.”
Unfortunately, when it comes to Aunt Flo, my now 7-year-old is more enlightened than the vast majority of America. Because we’ve got a period problem, and it ain’t one that bleeds.
A 2002 study in Women in Psychology Quarterly found that women who dropped a tampon, compared to women who dropped a hair clip, were seen as less competent and less likable, and people “marginally” didn’t want to sit next to them. Participants who saw the dreaded tampon dropped also responded with an increased objectification of women in general. And this was only the mere suggestion of a woman menstruating.
When the blood actually comes out, people tend to go abso-fucking-lutely ballistic. Take the case of Alisha Coleman, whose perimenopausal symptoms included sudden-onset, super-heavy periods. Well, two happened, heavy enough to stain the chair beneath her in one gush and drip through her pants in another, splattering the floor (which she immediately cleaned, one can assume, in total shame and panic). For this health condition, she was actually fired, and one of her judicial appeals was already denied. Now the ACLU is fighting for her. Because discrimination based on menstruation is the ultimate form of sexism.
We’d like to add “this happened in Georgia” to Alisha’s case, to make it appear like it’s some backwoods and unenlightened rare circumstance, where men fear buying pads and women hide their tampons in their sleeves before they sneak off to the bathroom (yeah, you’ve probably pulled that move). Except no, this shit happens everywhere in the U.S. Everywhere.
On a Reddit question about why it’s so difficult to buy menstrual products for your significant other, one guy refers to the “walk of shame to the checkout line.” As if seen touching even period-related products is something shameful. Another dude says that it’s embarrassing because “girls are icky and they have bleeding in their ‘down there places.’ And most people never get out of the middle school mentality.”
Most men on the thread say they’d buy the tampons or pads and assert that the guys who wouldn’t are any number of unmasculine invectives; the scared-of-tampons dudes are stereotypes perpetuated by TV and movies, etc. But the truth of the matter? According to a sex survey by Straight, only 41.5% of men would have sex with a woman while she’s on her period, and a 18% say, “No, that’s gross.”
But some women are working to change that — in spectacular, in-your-face ways. Kiran Gandhi ran the 2015 London marathon while “free bleeding,” or allowing herself to bleed without any protection, staining her clothes and making her menstruation completely visible. She told The Independent, “On the marathon course, I could choose whether or not I wanted to participate in this status quo of shaming. […] Why not use it as a means to draw light to my sisters who don’t have access to tampons and, despite cramping and pain, hide it away like it doesn’t exist?” Rupi Kaur, a Toronto University student, had her picture of menstruation — her lying on a bed, with blood staining her pants and two spots of it on the sheet — twice removed from Instagram. She was trying to bring awareness to the shame surrounding menstruation (the pic has since been restored), and the social media community proved her point.
And then there are everyday free bleeders, many of whom, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation says, “want to normalize menstruation, forcing society to get comfortable with the fact that women bleed from their vaginas.”
But none of this will help until we in the U.S. change things on the everyday level. We need to talk to our daughters — and especially our sons who will have the male privilege to really change minds one day — about periods in ways that are non-shaming and nonjudgmental, matter-of-fact, and normal. Because periods are normal.
We need to teach our boys, with their male privilege, that periods are just part of life, no big deal, nothing to be ashamed about. If we’re open about menstruation and tampons and pads and DivaCups and bleeding from our vaginas, then when they see a girl their own age with a tampon, they won’t join in the ridicule — they’ll tell their friends to lay off. When someone has a period accident — and it happens to all of us — they won’t point, stare, or call her Cap’t Bloodsnatch. They might even offer her something to cover up until she can change her clothes.
When you talk about periods openly, you make all these events not only possible, but also probable. You make your son into the man who will buy pads without shame. The one who makes all the other guys look like assholes.
It needs to go more like this:
“Are you on the rag?” one Twin Peaks character snarls at his wife in episode 16.
“What the fuck if I am?!” she snarls right back.