The menstrual taboo is alive and well as we all know through direct experience, and as documented in the recently published book About Bloody Time. This taboo has many negative effects on girls and women, and society as a whole. As the authors of that book say, “despite the best effort of individuals (both private and professional) menarche, menstruation and menopause still tend to be difficult and traumatic for many girls and women.”[i]
We also know that our Rites of Passage influence how we are in the world, for these rites of passage are our initiation into the next phase of our lives, they provide us with messages about how to be and who we are.
What happens during and around this transition, whether by conscious creation or by default, sets the theme for a woman’s experience of her self in her new role in her next life season.[ii]
And given that menarche is our rite of passage into womanhood, into what it is to be a woman, then the effects of this Rite of Passage on a girls and woman’s life are profound indeed.
There are many ways in which this pervasive negativity, and anxiety around our menarche and menopause plays out in the lives of girls and women, including alienation, body discomfort, low self-esteem, professional discrimination, economic disadvantage, and mental health. There is some strong evidence also on the relationship between menstrual shame and sexual health.
Research shows us that
women with negative attitudes towards menstruation have significantly less sexual assertiveness than those with positive attitudes.[iii]
And by sexual assertiveness we mean the ability to ask for we want, being able to openly discuss contraception, and being able to refuse unwanted activity. Sexual assertiveness is vitally important to the body autonomy and healthy functioning of individual females and for society at large. And yet it is undermined by the pernicious negativity towards menarche and menstruation.
If we want women to be able to enjoy safe fulfilling sex then it is necessary for the conversation around menstruation to change. Remember we were born with a clitoris, the main function of which seems to be sexual pleasure, and yet our ability to enjoy our own sexuality, to be assertive and creative with our sexuality is restricted by the menstrual taboo, and a wider negative cultural discourse on female sexuality .
The research reported in About Bloody Times demonstrates that seven in ten girls aged between 12- 18 have negative feelings about their periods- with four out of ten disliking everything about their periods. Given what we have learnt about the relationship between sexual assertiveness and attitudes towards menstruation, this is indeed worrying.
Negativity about their periods is translated by girls and women into negativity about themselves. One of the deeply harrowing realities of our culture is the ways in which this negativity is internalised and manifest as shame. The report, Cycles of shame: Menstrual Shame,Body Shame and Sexual Decision Making, demonstrates that “shame about menstruation is likely to extend more broadly to the body as a whole. It is not just the act of menstruation that is dirty and shameful, the young women who menstruates becomes dirty and shameful.” [iv]
How is it that something so powerful, and so necessary for life became so reviled? Well it is precisely because of its power that menstruation became shameful in patriarchal societies trying to (and succeeding) in diminishing women’s power.
“Instead of awe for the life giving properties of the menstrual cycle, our culture demeans it, fostering and perpetuating feelings of visceral disgust, revulsion and distrust, along with inconvenience, boredom, and resentment”. [v]
The menstrual taboo is a powerful way of keeping women in their place, and it continues to do this to this day. We know that one of the most devastating ways we are kept in our place is through sexual and physical violence. In Australia on average each week one woman is murdered by her current or former partner.[vi] Other horrifying statistics include:
- 1 in 5 women have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15.[vii]
- 85% of Australian women have been sexually harassed[viii].
Clearly there are other factors at play here, but while women continue to internalise shame about themselves, it makes it easier for this kind of violent behaviour to continue.
It is vitally important that we continue to do the work of
reframing menstruation, our menstrual cycles and our rites of passage in order
to restore dignity, body autonomy, health and power to girls and women here and
across the world. For these are global
We need to work to create different menstrual stories- one in which we celebrate the menstrual cycle, and its life giving properties. For many of us that means looking at our own stories and the ways we have internalised this shame too, for all too often we are unconsciously living out this internalised shame and passing it on to our daughters. Unless we have actively worked to reframe our relationship to periods, our menstrual cycle and our sense of self, then it is highly likely that we will continue to be affected by it. We humans are social and cultural beings, who absorb the stories and messages our culture gives us, unless we actively work to notice, and to change them.
I can see how this thread of shame, and the mistrust of my own body has been woven through my Rites of Passage. And I can also see the opportunity to reframe the story. My most recent rite of passage was Menopause- and this was surgically induced. I now see that this has been a really important way to celebrate my body and to change the story, for I could have easily felt shame about having surgically induced menopause – I work in the area of the women’s mysteries, of reclaiming feminine wisdom and yet I did not have a natural menopause. But instead I have turned this on its head and celebrate all the wonderful ways this has led me to reframe my whole menstrual story, and my story of myself as a woman.
And in my discussions with many women, and my reading on the issues, menopause is a really powerful time of meeting our sexuality-and ourselves, and coming to terms with all that we have internalised in our bodies, our images and our stories of self. For the loss of libido, the vaginal dryness, sleeplessness, the changing body shape- to name just a few instances, can become powerful portals to healing past wounds, and to creating a new story of our own unique sexual selves, one which celebrates our desires, our creativity, and one which heals those wounds which will have been held deep in our bodies for so long. But we need to support women to be able to navigate these profound changes- and we can do that not only by reframing menopause as a powerful rite of passage, but as the authors of About Bloody Time say
The best preparation we could give women for the new frontier of menopause is a healthy, respectful view of menarche and menstruation throughout their life leading up to that point.[ix]
It is very helpful if women begin to understand the cycle itself, to learn about the fundamentals of this life giving process, for
We are here as testimony to this profound ongoing process
Not surprisingly the research also indicates that most women and men, have very limited knowledge or understanding of the menstrual cycle. With this knowledge comes awareness and respect for the biological imperative of our menstrual cycles, and our bodies.
Indeed if we are to change the story of sexual shame, of body shame we need to begin this urgent work on reframing our menstrual cycle, for surely it is about bloody time.
[i] Pickering, K and Bennett, J, About Bloody Time, the Menstrual revolution We have to have, Victorian Women’s Trust, 2019.
[iii] Schooler, D, Ward, M, Merriwether, A & Caruthers, A 2005: Cycles of shame, Menstrual Shame, body shame and sexual decision making, Journal of Sex Research 42:4, 324- 334.
[v] Pickering, K and Bennett, J, op cit
[ix] Pcikering, K and Bennett, J, op cit