(Warning: This post is really long. Primarily because it took me about 3-4 weeks to write and research.)
Well, It seems like menstruation has been the hot topic on feminist blogs for the past few months, and I wanted to follow-up on my previous post about using hormonal birth control to suppress menstruation. For those of you who missed the earlier post here it is at Alas and at Rachel’s Tavern. My concerns about menstrual suppression revolved around three issues 1)the lack of studies of the long term health effects of this 2)the possibility that women may get pregnant and not know about it in time to get adequate prenatal care or have access to abortion and 3)the marketing and framing of menstruation as abnormal bad or gross. If I were to prioritize those three things, the last one is the one that I am most concerned about, and that is the one I would like to emphasize in this post.
Amanda over at Pandagon took exception to my view, and made this argument:
The problem isn’t discussing one’s feelings about it or anything like that, but I have a big, fat problem with the kneejerk assumption that “natural” is more valuable than “unnatural”. Every time someone praises menstruation as something that makes them feel like a woman or whatever, I wonder if they’re working for Tampax or something.
The only problem with that argument was that it was not my point. If I was making that argument, I think she has a valid point. I try very consciously to avoid the term “natural”–things like poison ivy and stinging nettles natural. The natural framework is problematic. First, off you’d be hard pressed to get people to agree on what is natural, and second we can’t assume that things that are “natural” are necessarily better than things that are created by people. I also think there are just as many people making money off menstruation as there will be on stopping menstruation. Whether you think a period is “natural” or not, we do need to understand that there is nothing abnormal about periods.
One commenter defended my position very well. La Luba said,
But traditionally, it is the male body that has been viewed as “normal” or “natural,” and the female body that is viewed as abnormal, unnatural, cursed, in need of “fixing.” Arguments like this are really intended to reclaim the female body as OK in its own right; that there isn’t something wrong with us, simply because our bodies aren’t male.
I’m not attached to “natural” as meaning “completely without medical intervention.” But I’m very suspicious of an effort by Big Pharma to focus the marketing of this pill formula towards women without problem periods. The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. There is a lot of effective right-wing organizing towards abolishing birth control; Big Pharma is reacting to that by targeting the market in a way they know will have a positive effect on their bottom line–by reminding women of the negative aspects of their periods. That will create a demand. Women who wouldn’t dream of fighting for their right to control when and if they get pregnant will definitely get out in the streets to demand the right to live without a period–and don’t think for a minute that has nothing to do with the history of how women, and our menstruation, has been viewed.
Color me skeptical.
And yes, the fact that many women aren’t aware that “periods” while on the pill speaks to the fact that we are taught to be divorced from our bodies and their functions—that we are taught that our bodies are for being seen and being “done to,” rather than being active. I’m seeing this issue against a backdrop of how women’s bodies are viewed and treated, and I see Rachel’s point about semen. Semen has never been traditionally viewed with the negativity menstrual blood has. We haven’t heard semen referred to as “the curse” our whole lives.
I can’t see the marketing of this pill as being any different from the marketing of say, breast implants, or plastic surgery. Restorative breast implants and plastic surgery can make sense for cancer patients, or burn patients….but is this something the rest of us need, or should want? No one would question this “choice” if periods had been traditionally viewed through a neutral lens, as neither good nor bad, just there. That’s not the backdrop we’re working with here. Especially considering the religious overtones of “unclean” menstruating women; of “hysterical”, “unstable” menstruating women. Those myths are still out there. We are still fighting those myths. Whether or not an individual woman makes the choice to take this pill is immaterial. But whether this pill is seen as a “magic bullet” to rid us of the “hysterical” myth is very material. I don’t want a future of “but of course women are just as capable as men! we’re not hysterical anymore, ever since the pill! It’s only those women who don’t take the pill who are hysterical!!” arguments. There’s plenty of pseudo-feminists who would ride that train. (not that it would work. the bars would just be moved again.—but that’s another reason these conversations are necessary.)
I’m not saying that having this pill as an option is adding fuel to these fires. This pill is neutral, in and of itself. I’m saying it’s well worth questioning the why of this option. There are good reasons for making this choice, to take this pill. There are also good reasons for making the choice to not take this pill. Guess which choice is likely to be validated in an antifeminist, capitalist society such as we live in? A world where plastic surgeons make sales pitches in health clubs, because working out isn’t “enough” to make a woman “beautiful?” A world where women are more likely to swallow a man’s semen after oral sex than men are to perform oral sex on a menstruating woman (why is menstrual blood generally considered “ickier” than semen, hmm? wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact it comes out of a female body, would it?).
Natural hell. That’s not the bottom line for me.
Later LaLuba, also added the following comment which I agree with,
Who here is fetishizing “natural” I don’t have high blood pressure; does that mean I’m fetishing the concept of “natural” if I don’t take high blood pressure medicine?
I haven’t really noticed a mainstream tendency to fetishize natural. The mainstream tendency is to fetishize the “better living through chemistry”. And women’s bodies are the favorite battleground. For all the mention of fetishizing “natural”, I have yet to hear of a bottle-feeding mother being asked to leave a public place for not breastfeeding. It’s breastfeeding mothers who are regarded as disgusting, animalistic, filthy, unsanitary, and a public health hazard. Not to mention just plain slutty broads who want to show their tits. I have yet to see much cultural support for women who aren’t getting the full intervention workup. And yes, part of that is because historically, women were/are viewed as being closer to “animal” nature than men. I don’t like fuzzy-headed la-la arguments about some amorphous concept of what is-or-is-not “natural” either, but dammit, we are pressured to tamper with our bodies more than men are, and for specious reasons. Like I said before, there are good reasons for choosing this particular version of the Pill (in reality, a continous dose of the same-old-same-old Pill), but there are also good reasons not to. And women who choose not to are likely to be regarded as unclean freaks, the same way breastfeeding mothers are.
Look. This Pill has been around for generations. There’s a reason it is being marketed in this way, at this time. And it’s because of the pre-existing disgust women were taught to feel about our bodies. Yes, blood stains clothing. Yet people in general do not feel the same way about a bloody nose and a bloody cunt. There is a special revulsion reserved for menstruation. Why? It’s not just about the bloodstains.
I think we need to take a particularly strong stand against the phenomenon that La Luba addresses (in the bold writing). I strongly agree with this proposition. Marketing anti-period or no period pills really is really an ingenious way to help the fight against birth control. I can’t tell you how many young women I know who swear they take birth control pills ONLY to regulate their periods or cut down on period cramps. They say this because they know it is much more acceptable to say, “I am trying to feel better during my period” than it is to say “I’m having sex, and I don’t want to get pregnant.” I’m not chiding people for taking BCP to cut down on painful periods. I’m just pointing out that the “ick” fact associated with periods is something that the right wing embraces, and feminists need to be very careful not to embrace this too.
To me one of the underlying issues is body image—how we feel about our periods is part of our body image. Body image is not just whether we like our weight, breasts, or cellulite. It’s also whether or not we accept the bodily processes that are associated with women. A study by the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals found that MOST women did not enjoy their period (71%) and would like to stop periods (62%). I don’t necessarily find this troubling. I did find some of the study’s other findings bothersome:
Forty-five percent do not avoid touching themselves when menstruating; but the sample was split on whether they thought menstrual blood was disgusting, at 37% disagree/strongly disagree and 37% agree/strongly agree.
I’m shocked at the number of women who will not touch themselves when they are on their period. I remember having an argument with a classmate in high school who believed that women were not supposed to bathe while on their period. She learned this from her mother who forbade her from washing during her period. One of the other findings I found interesting was the fact that 75% of women “believe men have a real advantage by not having the monthly interruption of a period.” On some level this is probably true, but I worry that people are not going to realize that it is the social arrangements of patriarchy that disadvantage menstruation, not anything defective in women’s bodies. Menstrual shame is a real issue that should not be minimized. In fact, Planned Parenthood dedicates a whole webpage to the subject.
The scientific community seems divided over the issue. The Society for Menstrual Cycle Research has released a statement on menstrual suppression. This statement includes results from three studies on the subject of menstrual suppression. Here is a quote on the study findings (the bold emphasis is mine):
Authors of the first paper, Christine Hitchcock and Jerilyn Prior, reviewed studies that have been published on extending the schedule of oral contraceptive pills in order to reduce the frequency of menstrual bleeding. They concluded that we do not yet have evidence to suggest that menstrual suppression is entirely safe and reversible. The second set of authors, Alex Hoyt and Linda Andrist presented results from a study of women’s attitudes toward menstrual suppression. They concluded that negative attitudes toward the menstrual cycle were a better predictor of women’s interest in menstrual suppression than women’s menstrual symptoms, suggesting the importance of psychosocial factors in women’s decision making about altering their menstruation. The third paper, by Ingrid Johnston-Robledo and Jessica Barnack, addressed popular media coverage of menstrual suppression. From their analysis of print media, they concluded that regular menstruation is presented as bothersome and even unhealthy. Advocates of menstrual suppression and its benefits were afforded more space than opponents and risks. As with many other health issues, women are not getting accurate, balanced information, rendering an informed decision about this health care option difficult if not impossible.
While the response of this group is more tempered, the doctor who created Depo Provera, has a popular (but controversial) book arguing that menstruation is obsolete. (I still think menstruation is no more obsolete than semen.) Others advocate menstrual suppression, but don’t go as far. Here are two good sites that give information that is generally favorable to menstrual suppression—The Well Timed Period and No Period.
Some people, who disagreed with my previous post, took me to task arguing that I did not know what a period is. They claim that people taking BCPs do not have periods, just break through bleeding. I think what these people are missing the fact that the definition of a period is socially constructed, and the vast majority of people define a period as bleeding from the vagina as part of the cycle of a woman’s reproductive system. I know cases of women not taking BCP who were anovulatory, but still had monthly bleeding that they label as a period. Most women label the period in which they bleed as their period whether they are on BCP or not. Since my argument was more about the potential marketing of periods as icky disgusting and gross, I think the physiology of BCP is a moot point. What troubles people is blood coming from a woman’s vagina. They don’t care whether she has ovulated or not; they don’t care about the lining of the uterus.
Let’s be real menstruation needs a public relations firm. Imagine if I had written this post about diet pills or a new breast enhancement pill, making the same argument that women should have the right to take it, but that we should be leery of the marketing. I think we would see many more feminists up in arms. I have a feeling the response would have been much different, and I would have been getting high fives all over the place. The disgust with female bodies is widespread unless of course we are talking about the aspects of our bodies that are most accepted by men. (Having your breasts partially revealed on the cover of Maxim is good, but having your breast partially revealed while breast feeding invokes a totally different reaction.) I think views on menstruation are some of the most negative, especially when you have only 45% of women willing to touch themselves while menstruating.
I’m not saying that women should not take these sorts of BCP regiments. I believe in women’s rights to make decisions about our bodies. I also haven’t lost sight of the fact that our bodies have been and continue to be pathologized, and that’s a part of the reason that I still want my period.
Endnote: Clearly, this debate is very contentious among feminists. I collected several discussions on this subject, which are listed below. Overall, the feminist bloggers that I have read are fairly evenly divided on this issue, and both sides seem to feel passionately about the subject. Here are some posts on this subject: Pandagon, Shakespeares Sister, Feministing—Pt. 1 , Pt. 2 , Pt. 3, Niobium, Pandora’s Bazaar, Deanna Zandt, The Primary Contradiction..