My friend Kate had a boyfriend in college who thought that periods only lasted for one day a month (if only). Earlier this year, radio host Tom Steele commented in response to a story about New York prisons expanding access to free sanitary protection that using eleven pads a month “seems like a lot”. On the other side of the coin, when Sally Ride became the first U.S woman in space, NASA’s allegedly brilliant male rocket scientists grappled with the question of how many tampons she might need for her one-week trip, and decided on a hundred.
It’s a little funny, how clueless cisgender men can be about periods. But it’s also enraging how little interest some of them have in women’s biology, especially considering most them want to have relationships with us. The fact that they get away with this lack of knowledge is another symptom of our patriarchal society, where men make references to their penises all the time but women are encouraged to feel shame about our bodies and to not mention menses in mixed company.
When I posted about this on Facebook, some of my friends said “you can’t really blame men,” because sex education has historically been so bad. I see their point: while the girls in my class got a one-hour talk about periods, the boys were sent outside to play soccer. But even if men weren’t taught about periods, they could take the time to educate themselves when they’re older – we all have the internet now.
It shows an appalling lack of interest in the lives of women to overlook something that happens once a month to most of us. And for men who want to have kids one day, it’s just not acceptable to have no idea how our reproductive system works.
Boldly, though, a lack of knowledge doesn’t always stop men from focusing on how our periods might affect them. In September, Australian columnist Elizabeth Daoud reported that one of her female friends had a colleague who was secretly tracking her periods and forwarding that info to other members of staff. He claimed that it helped him to avoid arguments by not raising sensitive topics when she was PMS-ing.
And he’s not alone. Developers keep releasing apps (none of which deserve to be named, some of which are now defunct – shame) so men can track their partner’s periods and learn when they should walk on eggshells around us – you know, instead of talking to us or respecting our feelings. They have taglines like, “Saving relationships, one month at a time,” because what improves a relationship more than one person secretly tracking the other’s moods and behavior?
Still, it’s one thing when men practice their ignorance of our bodies recreationally. It’s more disturbing when they do it for a living. Researcher Frank Bures recently suggested that PMS, which up to 90% of women have experienced, is a “cultural syndrome”, rather than a medical one, i.e. we expect to feel bad before our periods because we’ve been conditioned to do so. Psychologist Kathleen Lustyk from the University of Washington, who wants to undertake research that could give us a deeper understanding of PMS, says she’s been refused funding for this exact reason.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that when 19-year-old “meninist” troll Ryan Williams started trending on Twitter after he suggested that instead of buying tampons women should just “control their bladders”, it initially seemed like he was serious.
We all need to do better. We have to look past our internalized shame and be more open about our periods with the men in our lives, even if it’s embarrassing at first. We should teach girls and boys about periods from an early age, to let them know that they’re not shameful or disgusting and the side-effects women experience are real. And when a woman’s going into space, maybe we could ask if it’s that time of the month before hurling a long string of tampons at her. Just a thought.