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Addressing the ‘Men’ in Menstruation.

October 8 2020 | Written by Rhea Kumar

If you have a uterus, keep reading. Don’t have a uterus? Keep reading.

Disclaimer: At Marlow, we recognize that not only women menstruate - men and non-binary individuals do too. We use ‘women’ and ‘menstruators’ interchangeably in this article to be consistent with the language of the studies we cite. 

It’s a strange phenomenon, isn’t it? Men have always held a large stake in the menstruation narrative, yet their knowledge of this natural process often ranges from ‘very little’ to ‘absolutely nothing.’  As a result, the education about periods has been shoved into a stigmatized corner, forcing menstruators to re-claim truths about their bodies.

Remember in 2019, when CBS banned an ad depicting boys having periods that aimed to normalize the idea of menstruation? Or how about this ad from 1968, which claimed to help men tame their wives and make them the “perfect woman”?

While we have come far as a society, it hasn’t been enough. Menstruation will never be de-stigmatized until young boys and men actually understand what it means. Creating future generations of period allies will not be easy, but with the right tools and the breaking down of conversational barriers, progress can be made. 

The very mention of periods and menstruation conjures up thoughts of “angry women” and “mood swings” to those who have never experienced menstruation. Can we really blame men for holding these stereotypes? After all, back in elementary school, periods were something that only girls were allowed to learn about. During sex-ed, it was standard practice for teachers to usher the boys out of the classroom so that the girls could receive lessons about their reproductive systems while a giant tampon was passed around. 

According to a study conducted in 2007, education about menstruation can raise uncomfortable issues of sexuality, cultural norms and gender relations. This gendered education gap offers boys the opportunity to practice male power by ridiculing their female schoolmates about periods. The ridiculing is not necessarily the problem, the question is: how do we solve this education gap? Until systemic education leans toward the traditional methods of instruction, even the well-intentioned.  Until systemic education leans away from the traditional methods of instruction, even the well-intentioned may come off as uneducated and put menstruators in difficult situations.

What could be more embarrassing than being the first American woman to go into space for a one-week flight, and being told by your male colleagues that 100 tampons would be “the right number”. Sorry, Sally Ride!

Don’t get us wrong, overly prepared NASA scientists are very distinct from schoolyard bullies, but the crux of this issue is the lack of education about the process of menstruation.  

Is teaching young boys to be period allies rocket science? Absolutely not! In fact, UNICEF created the Menstrual Hygiene Management Program (MHM) to improve the social conditions surrounding menstrual health management. This program combats period shaming with non-stigmatized representations of menstruation, and boys are required to participate as well.

In North America, the educational gap is steeper, because most instruction focuses on the biology of menstruation, leaving school-aged children confused about the process, and embarrassed to seek clarification from teachers. Boys often rely on friends and media cues such as popular movies and t.v shows to fill in the blanks. Given how poorly sex and periods are portrayed in mainstream media, this type of education is not ideal. 

Education at home plays a large role in addressing the men in menstruation. The social behaviors young boys develop at home often translate to real-world situations, and will influence the way they approach adult relationships. Giving boys a chance to learn that periods are a natural process rather than a taboo word is one way to start. Codewords like, “my time of the month,” “riding the crimson tide,” or “aunt flo,” are cute, but ultimately need to be eradicated from the household lexicon. 

These cover-up words are employed to mask the real words, and in turn contribute to the stigma. One could argue, however, that maybe the stigma has caused us to use these code words, as young boys are embarrassed to call out menstruation for what it is. Whichever side of the crimson pendulum that you find yourself on, the message stands clear: non-menstruators need to know what menstruation is. 

It’s no surprise that conversations about bodies and menstruation are uncommon between family members. In a 2011 study, men aged 18-24 were asked how they learned about menstruation. Many responded that they first learned about menstruation through their sisters' experiences. However, a large portion of respondents admitted that they had never been taught about menstruation, as their mothers shied away from the issue. As a result, some respondents relied on their older brothers and male friends to inform them about periods. As we have learned over the course of history, learning about menstruation from those who do not menstruate is problematic, allowing misinformation to spread like wildfire while reproducing harmful stereotypes about periods. 

To be a period ally is not a sign of weakness. Instead, it is a mark of informative strength that will help to dismantle the preconceived notions and stigmatized beliefs that surround menstruation. If you want to learn more about menstruation, see below for some useful resources and tools. If all else fails, your best bet is to ask a menstruator all of your burning questions- after all, knowledge is power! Dismantling preconceived notions about periods will not be easy, but when we come together, it can be done. 

Have you ever been asked a bizarre question about your period? Let us know in the comments, we would love to hear from you!

Knowledge is Power!