After a month full of blood and gore leading up to Halloween, let’s take a complete 180: let’s talk about periods.
Last year, Petra F. Collins and Alice Lancaster brought a shirt to American Apparel and the masses. A shirt that was, in every sense of the word, provocative. There were two main reasons this shirt was controversial: first, it was in keeping with the super-sexed, provocative zeitgeist of founder Dov Charney and the company itself. Second, it brought to public discussion—through public habillement—menstruation and masturbation.
This shirt, a drawing by Lancaster of a woman masturbating while menstruating, is the definitive call to #PeriodPower. She’s wholly unconcerned with the fact of her menstruation as she touches herself, and while this is a simple, not-so-astounding image and concept, it is totally shocking to anyone who passes the masterpiece of a masturbating madame.
I’ve no doubt that most people reading this are scrunching up their faces in distaste just imagining or looking directly at the accompanying image of this self-indulgent self-touching—particularly as it’s at a lady’s “time of the month.”
That’s exactly why the image is so necessary, though: because menstruation and female masturbation are both so dismissed and disdained.
We aren’t supposed to talk about menstruation. When we do verbalize its existence, we’re supposed to come up with quaint synonyms and euphemisms: time of the month, monthly, visit from Aunt Flo, tide, red sea, one’s friend, menses, discharge, and—perhaps most tellingly—the curse. We perform these evasive tactics because periods are supposedly disgusting and disturbing, and these words ease our discussions of the natural, biological process.
While we generally accept any phenomena we deem natural and normal, menstruation and female masturbation have somehow missed out. I wouldn’t say it traces back to any sort of squeamishness towards blood—it’s not like women faint from having to use tampons, pads, and Diva Cups.
More likely it emerges from our socialization which asserts that menstruation and masturbation (particularly female masturbation) are unclean. Consider the fact that menstruation itself is supposedly a punishment originating from legends of snakes and apples. We see menstruation as dirty; a burden or curse that women have to bear, and keep secret from others. That means taking your bag to the bathroom with you when you only need a small cylindrical object. Attempting not to roll your eyes when someone accuses you of “being emotional because you’re on your period,” whether you’re menstruating or not.
In an article on social attitudes towards menstruation, Alysha Seriani of the Peak writes, “Much 19th century writing argues that women should not attend university because menstruation debilitates them and their capacity to learn. In 1883’s Sex in Mind and Education, Henry Maudsley argued that women are ‘of another body and mind which for one quarter of each month, during the best year of life, [are] more or less sick and unfit for hard work.’” Periods become not just taboo, but a supposedly legitimate reason to exclude women from daily life and activity.
Many women are able to spout off on a “period horror story”: a moment when that phenomenon that biological women experience almost came to light—people almost found out that, well, you know. And of course I’m sure we’re familiar with the tried and true tale that women don’t masturbate or enjoy sex—heaven forbid! We keep these secrets, and deny occurrences that are so a part of women’s experiences, and indeed of our existence.
When we erase these discussions from public consciousness, or remove the language from our lexicon entirely, we make the topics and the acts themselves shameful. It’s become shameful to menstruate, or to masturbate as a woman. Maybe I’m frustrated by this erasure of language (I am); maybe I’m a feminist (I am); or maybe I’ve had a few glasses of wine (I have). Regardless, sex and masturbation are fun, and menstruation is not so fun, but they’re all aspects of life; I’m not going to mince words with not-so-quaint phrases. Get the fuck over it.