It’s That Time of the Myth

As with any other topic, there exists a broad range of attitudes in human societies toward menstruation. Ancient cultures like the Cherokee thought menstrual blood was imbued with a woman’s strength and spirit, a source of power that could be harnessed to defeat enemies (Blood Politics, Sturm), and the Greeks may have used it for medicine and fertilizer. Menstrual blood was thought by some societies to have magical healing properties, so it was consumed or used in ointments. Yoruk women made menstruation a spiritual experience. But the attitudes have typically not been positive. Joan Chrisler summarizes the myths in Psychology of Women Quarterly:

Drops of menstrual blood upon the ground or in a river kill plants and animals; wells run dry if a menstruating woman draws water from them; men become ill if they are touched by or use any objects that have been touched by a menstruating woman; beer turns sour if a menstruating woman enters a brewery; and beer, wine, vinegar, milk, and jam go bad if touched by a menstruating woman. These beliefs have been reported in various places in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Americas, and they are related to contemporary beliefs that women should not bathe, swim, wash their hair, do heavy housework, play sports, tend houseplants, eat or drink certain things, or engage in sexual intercourse during the menses.

The Romans thought a woman on her period could stop storms, dull swords at a glance, or use her blood to cure ailments, but also kill crops and bees, drive dogs mad, and cause people and animals to miscarry (Natural History, Pliny the Younger). Monthly bleeding was seen by some cultures as the female body ridding itself of disease, impurities, excess emotions, or demons. Eskimo men thought contact with women on their periods would spoil their next hunting outing by making them visible to prey, and Bukka women could not go in the sea because they might poison fish. Europeans in the 13th century thought that menstruation produced fumes that would “poison the eyes of children lying in their cradles by a glance” and that a child conceived while a woman was on her period would have “epilepsy and leprosy because menstrual matter is extremely venomous.” In the 1920s and for decades later, pseudoscience claimed “menotoxins” secreted by women killed plants and caused colic and child asthma. In Britain as late as 1982, menstruating women were instructed to avoid killing pigs, milking cows, and making butter so the food wouldn’t go bad (Everyday Discourses of Menstruation, Newton). Plus, dough wouldn’t rise.

Today some Nepali force menstruating women to sleep in sheds and stay out of school so they won’t infect others or anger the gods (similar traditions persist in rural Africa and Brazil), and some Indians still believe magical menstrual blood is an aphrodisiac if consumed. In some parts of Ghana and among the Ulithi the cycle is celebrated and women receive gifts. A sect of Hindus in India celebrate the yearly menstruation of the goddess Kamakhya Devi with their huge Ambuwasi Puja festival, yet Indian women are typically barred from entering places of worship while “impure.”

In the United States, of course, the idea that women shouldn’t hold high political positions because of their cycle exists and has for a long time. In 1970, Dr. Edgar Berman infamously explained to U.S. Congresswoman Patsy Mink that a woman should not be president — or perhaps even a CEO — due to “raging hormonal imbalances.” Just imagine a “menopausal woman president who had to make the decision of the Bay of Pigs” or the head of a bank “making a loan under these raging hormonal influences.” Yes, because the Bay of Pigs was such a success. In 2009, conservative pundit G. Gordon Liddy said of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor: ‘‘Let’s hope that the key conferences aren’t when she’s menstruating or something, or just before she’s going to menstruate. That would really be bad. Lord knows what we would get then!’’ Hillary Clinton’s presidential runs in 2008 and 2016 drew plenty of the same from conservatives. Dimwits preached the tired inanity that a period could lead to nuclear war and holocaust. From male commentators on Fox News to female CEOs on Facebook, it’s consistently made clear that many believe menstruation disqualifies women from gaining the same power as men. We still live in a nation where sexism is a problem.

This stigma, that a woman who menstruates is too dangerous and unstable to handle major political affairs, exists alongside a larger stigma that positions menstruation as something shameful and horrid. This goes beyond mere evolutionary aversions to bodily fluids, to being “grossed out” by blood, urine, feces, or semen. Those attitudes exist, but do not always carry the same degree of associated stigma in a society (further, the fact some societies have more positive views of menstruation and others more negative views reveals the power of social factors as well). As Emily Jupp at the Independent wrote:

It’s interesting that so much embarrassment, awkwardness, and shame surround a natural bodily function experienced by half the population at some point in their lives. We don’t hide toilet paper away, yet some women still get flustered if a tampon drops out of their handbag, or we might buy a floral-patterned tin to hide our sanitary pads. If you spotted some toilet roll tucked away and covered in a little bespoke baggy in someone’s loo, wouldn’t you find it faintly ridiculous? And yet that’s what we do all the time with sanitary products, as though the evidence that we have periods is something to be ashamed of.

The mark of shame is pervasive, from the word “period” being censored on television to hiding away the “feminine hygiene” section in stores (which, as Chrisler writes, “itself suggests that there is something dirty about women”) to Kotex marketing “a new ‘crinkle-free’ wrapper, so that other women in a public restroom will not know that someone is unwrapping one of their products.” Experiments show people sit further away from a woman they suspect is on her period and judge her as less competent and likable. Research also shows women expect this, which demotivates them. Men and women alike are often highly embarrassed about this topic or anything that approaches it. Women commonly report that particularly great shame accompanies menarche.

Again, this is not to say other, related things don’t cause shame and embarrassment — the bloke who inadvertently gets an erection in class or has his condoms discovered by his mother for example. Addressing the stigma of menstruation doesn’t posit others don’t exist. It is important to ask how shame comes about and is perpetuated, and what might be done to alleviate it if that would be beneficial to society. These questions should be asked concerning many topics related to biology and sex, but this article only addresses a particular one.

While acknowledging the role that biological aversion to anything that exits the human body plays in the creation of stigma, we must consider the social factors as well. Different social factors will produce different attitudes in different societies. A more general piece would examine the absolute hysteria over human anatomy, nudity, sexual intercourse, sexual orientation and gender identity, and so on that still grips much of America, but looking at how social factors affect a specific issue like menstruation serves as a nice exemplar of the whole.

I see three major ideologies that affect American cultural attitudes on menstruation: patriarchy, religion, and conservatism. Whether these effects are positive or negative I will mostly leave to the reader for the sake of time, even though my position is clear and my last paragraph suggests action.

The ways in which patriarchy, religion, and conservatism encourage or perpetuate discomfort or disgust toward menstruation are obvious.

Consider patriarchy, the domination of societal power by men. What has historically been used to justify such a system? All the talk of women being inferior — inferior intelligence, reason, or courage, say — but also the fact that the ability to carry children or the menstrual irritability that would destroy a nation should a woman be president or even vote mean we’d all be better off if women were consigned to the home. In other words, biology dictates what women should or shouldn’t be allowed to do. This is blatant discrimination and patriarchal tyranny, of course, but the point is menstruation has been used in history as an excuse to not allow women to do this or that, and still is. They were (are) considered unclean and handicapped by periods. So if menstruation serves a function in a male-dominated society — if it’s a means of preserving male power by holding back the other sex — it is quite natural that men would hold and perpetuate negative attitudes towards it (even subconsciously), such as disgust. It’s highly useful.

This is on top of the fact that because men don’t experience menstruation it easily becomes taboo in a male-dominated society. It shouldn’t be discussed. They say man fears what he doesn’t understand, but I have always found this a poor choice of words. A better phrasing: Man is disgusted by anything outside the norm of his own experience. What he doesn’t experience is abnormal by default. Sadly, many women, particularly religious and conservative women, have been indoctrinated by his vain worldview, taught to view their own biology as shameful and horrid. Well, a female-dominated society would look quite different, wouldn’t it? Imagine if our society had been historically run by women and men were the powerless, marginalized sex. Don’t you suppose attitudes toward menstruation would be less taboo, more openly discussed, more normal? If you think it might, you can therefore see what patriarchy does.

Chrysler writes:

It is powerful members of a society who determine what the social (or physical) norms are and what defines people as deviant. In the case of stigma applied to women’s bodies, the norms are androcentric [male-centered]. Stigmatization legitimates the status hierarchy because it allows the nonstigmatized to justify the status quo and their place in it. Stigmatizing others also enhances the self-esteem and personal empowerment of the stigmatizers because it promotes favorable social comparisons with outgroups [marginalized women].

Powerful people can also protect themselves from the types of threats [to male power] by distancing themselves from stigmatized individuals, bodily substances, and biological processes; by objectifying the stigmatized groups and thinking of them less as individuals and more as objects to be derided, admired, or manipulated; by discriminating against stigmatized individuals in social and employment settings in order to minimize their contact with those individuals; and by setting and enforcing cultural rules that require individuals to control, eliminate, or hide their stigmatized marks from public view. After all, as Steinem wrote, if men could menstruate, the menses would be a badge of honor, not a mark of stigma.

As for religion, that one is almost too obvious to get into. Religious texts written by primitive male-run desert tribes that billions of people still hold dear and take far too seriously of course describe menstruation in superstitious and primitive ways. For example women on their periods are “unclean,” so unclean that anything they even touch is unclean, at least according to the bible. There are many examples in Christian, Jewish, Islamic, and other holy books of the horrors of this natural human body function. All unsurprising considering the unscientific, ignorant men who wrote them and the barbaric times in which they were penned.

So here you have God or Allah or whomever passing out laws that treat menstruation with disgust, as something that makes you a pariah. That’s going to influence societies and people, and has for thousands of years. It’s going to hurt and shame a great many women. Again, imagine if it were women who were the priests throughout history and made up the gods. You can imagine things might be a bit different in how female biology is discussed in holy books, how the church treated women, and so on.

On top of all this is the hysteria over sex itself, which on its own is a dark, dirty secret in the eyes of the ultra-religious. It’s taboo, can’t be talked about, certainly can’t be on ads and in shows, books, films, or even art. So anything related to menstruation is out by default. I don’t think there’s any question that less religious people have been the first to be more open and public about sexuality and sexual matters as the human race progresses. Considering that’s something the ultra-religious consistently complain about, it seems a fairly uncontroversial opinion.

Similarly, there’s conservatism, which by definition is resistance to new ideas and change (the term “conservatism” has been explicitly used to justify holding women back in U.S. history, I might add). So you have entrenched patriarchy and unyielding religious indoctrination since birth, and the conservative attitude, whether consciously or subconsciously, is to maintain the status quo. Conservatism by definition will resist new, more open attitudes to sex and menstruation and related topics. If you don’t, you’re more liberal on the issue, again by definition.

Political and social conservatism are very closely interwoven with religion (which conservatives take pride in) and patriarchy (which doesn’t get as much enthusiasm these days but is still an issue among some on the Right — check out the ultraconservative, sexist website Return of Kings, but not after eating). Many conservatives are deeply uncomfortable with and quite closed to public discussions of sex, so again menstruation is basically out automatically.

It won’t be controversial to say that the people who create period-related content like this cover of the Village Voice are usually not conservatives, nor is it a shock to suggest the people who react with the most consternation likely are conservatives. Liberals and feminists, like nonreligious people, tend to be much more open about matters of sex and anatomy (whether or not you agree that’s wise is your business). Because of this aversion to open discussion of sex and female biology, misinformation and disgust are allowed to breed like viruses in a petri dish. For a final round of role playing, imagine if there were only liberals in the U.S. Do you not suppose a reaction to the Village Voice cover — deemed indecent, vile, vomit-inducing, and so on by conservative critics — would be a bit quieter? Would it even be a thing? Well, the reaction itself is going to perpetuate ideas of female biology being so nasty it’s unmentionable. It will teach others to react in the same way. I think it’s clear where the loudest reactions come from and how the next generation is taught that menstruation is shameful and appalling. That’s conservatism perpetuating the hysteria.

This is not to say all religious persons and conservatives are horrified by periods, believe they shouldn’t ever be mentioned publicly, think they disqualify women from gaining the same power as men, etc. But I think we all understand reality too well to think these ideological factors don’t impact attitudes toward menstruation.

If we see women experiencing shame over their own biology and men perpetuating that shame and holding women back as undesirable, as any decent person would, we need to normalize menstruation, and that begins with open discussion and thoughtful listening to the experiences of women and unyielding assaults upon the ignorance and misogyny of men. We need to question the prevailing attitudes. That’s the only way stigma eases, and when you think about it there are many modern examples. The stigma of pornography use is easing, as is the masturbation stigma. It’s become easier, perhaps, to come out as gay or trans as humanity has progressed a bit. This doesn’t mean bodily functions aren’t still gross to most humans, but it does mean fewer humans are experiencing shame because of our innate sexual nature and biology. We have to likewise ask ourselves: Why should women be embarrassed concerning periods? Why should men make them feel embarrassed or handicapped? Why should it be this way? Why not build a society where the stigma doesn’t exist?