I’ve been trying to get this piece about the language we use when discussing menstruation published for four weeks now. Since today is #MenstrualHygieneDay, I thought I’d go ahead and post it myself.
Recently, I attended a sex talk and the conversation of period sex came up. The room seemed pretty divided and some of the panellists stated they didn’t like the idea of all that mess. I’m a writer – and a period positive one at that – and period sex is something I practice often, enjoy immensely, and talk about a lot. The talk was an open forum and a sex positive space where audiences are encouraged to participate, so without missing a beat I chimed in: “but it doesn’t have to be messy.” Getting ready to list my top period-sex tips off the bat, I was interrupted: “I don’t know why people say you get free lube, because lube makes it cleaner”. There wasn’t enough time to respond as the discussion changed quickly, but the comment stayed with me through the rest of the evening.
I completely understand some people preferring to use lube and I would never argue with somebody else’s sexual preferences. What irked me is the suggestion that you would need lube because guess what? Menstruation isn’t dirty. You may be reading this and thinking I’m overreacting, but resist the urge to call me a ‘snowflake’ for just a minute and hear me out.
Stigma around periods still very much exists
Sure, we’re seeing menstruation being discussed more (which is great), but for every positive story there’s about a dozen more heartbreaking ones. For example: there’s an ancient Hindu tradition where menstruating women are banished to an outhouse and in western Nepal it’s still being practiced. In America, the recent house-approved Affordable Health Care Act repeal bill suggests periods are a pre-existing condition, and people with absolutely no idea how vaginas work are trying to tell us how they do and flog ridiculous products. Mainstream menstrual products still use water in their ads in place of actual blood and use words like ‘vagina’, ‘menstruation’ and ‘periods’. And closer to home, it was recently reported that British girls are missing school because they cannot afford tampons.
With menstruation still quite a large feminist issue, ‘trivial’ things like this add up. I thought we had moved on from discussing periods so flippantly. Suggesting menstruation is dirty alienates and shames a large group of people for their sexual preferences. It’s disrespectful of people’s choices and frankly this is something they have to deal with literally everyday. Careless comments like this and letting them go unchallenged is the reason why period stigma is still alive and kicking today. After all, the most effective way to challenge stigma is to talk about it.
It’s not just people contributing to this stigma though, it’s brands too
There has been a rise in independent menstrual companies recently and some of them are no better than mainstream ones. To clarify, I am not a fan of mainstream brands because they refuse to ditch nauseating and exclusionary terms like: ‘feminine hygiene’, ‘lady parts’, ‘time of the month’ to name a few. They also refuse to declare what ingredients are in their products and dance around the fact that we don’t know the long term effects they can have on our bodies. I believe alternatives like menstrual cups, period pants and cloth-pads are the future. But like I said, recently these brands have been failing short too. There has been controversy after controversy with THINX, a brand who were not the first to invent period pants but the first to really market them. And more recently, a rise in brands who completely ignore potential customers altogether.
I guess the most recent example of this would be Mensez, a brand that nobody can tell is serious or not. In case you missed it, a few months back a ‘doctor’ attempted to patent a way for women to ‘stop menstrual leaking’. The idea is that you ‘glue’ your vulva shut using their product and then flush it all away when you urinate. The whole thing called quite a stir, particularly on Facebook, as the page was full of ignorant and sexist comments from the inventor himself.
Not only are they in dire need of an anatomy education, they banned anyone who dared to call them out from the page. The literature that accompanies this products and all the ‘reasons’ they believe this product is needed all stem from one thing: a disgust towards menstruation. At one point, their website stated their goal was to ‘better the lives of women around the world’, despite many fundamentally disagreeing with this across their social media.
In addition to this mess, Mensez is another brand that assumes only women menstruate. I know this is probably the last brand we should expect inclusivity from but this is something I’ve grown to expect from independent menstrual brands since brands like Lunapads get it so right. It’s 2017, not everyone with a vagina is a woman and it’s not just women who menstruate.
There are a number of transgender people online writing about this, yet people are still not listening. I’m still seeing so many careless articles that focus on if men had periods or talk about things women want men to realise. Some men do have periods and there has even been stories about some trans women experiencing period symptoms too (although they don’t require menstrual products). And what about non-binary people? If they don’t identify as a man or a woman, where do they come into the equation?
Brands that haven’t even launched yet are alienating potential customers and refusing to take feedback even when prompting audiences for it
I get it, it’s not fun being called out
Being comfortable in your privilege can sometimes make you feel like it’s a personal attack. I’ve been writing about periods online for a few years now and I remember being horrified the first time somebody raised the subject of language with me. I was embarrassed and automatically went into defensive mode. How dare these people brush over everything else and nitpick something like this? But here’s the thing, it’s not about me. In fact, it’s not really about cisgender people at all.
Non-binary and trans folk are one of the most attacked and marginalised group in the world right now. Day in and day out, they are fighting for their right to simply exist. To be respected, to be represented, to stop being killed. And it’s not that hard to listen. If I change bad habits and adapt my language, these brands can too.
These things may be seem trivial to some, but they are pivotal in combating period stigma and making the world a more inclusive place
Language is everything and it’s about time we start thinking about the power it has. How can we do this? Look at the way you talk about periods in general and change it. Obviously you can talk about your own period whatever way you like, but I think it’s important to look at the language we use generally-speaking.
Get into the habit of replacing women with more gender neutral terms like ‘people who menstruate’ for example. And most importantly, listen to the people you should no longer be alienating.