This blog post is based on a research project done by PGE students for RECAPSS course.
It was written by Salomé de Bryas, Jacques de Certaines, Priscille Desjonquères, Alexandre Mikulaniec et Camille Forquin.
It was copyedited by Maira Magalhaes Lopes (postdoctoral researcher at emlyon).
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The menstrual flow arouses mixed feelings. On the one hand, it can be painful and a filthy source of shame. On the other hand, that flow is a healthy sign and a symbol of life. This ambiguity leads to a tendency to hide menses (Elias, 1976). Women tend to see menses as a burden. Not only due to practical and economical constraints, but also because of social pressure. In fact, menses are often a taboo. In commercials, menstrual blood is rarely red and social networks ban graphic images of menstruation. Where does such a taboo on menstruation come from? How can we grasp such taboo?
On the men’s side, to our knowledge, there is little work on how men perceive menstruation. However, it seems that men do not know well the structure and functioning of the female reproductive system. They see it like a cloaca (Rembeck, Möller, Gunnarsson, 2006; Shaeffer, 2015).
On the women’s side, it seems that a lack of information worsens the feeling of shame. The least well-informed teenagers are the most traumatized by their menarche (Mardon, 2011). Many mothers refuse to talk about menstruation with their daughters. They prefer leaving this task to external institutions, such as schools. According to Bourdieu’s analysis of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, the disgust of menses is a revulsion of anything apt to remind one’s animality. The fact that some women feel disgusted suggests that revulsion could be a rejection of their own corporality. Furthermore, the forms taken by the menstruation taboo vary from one culture to another. Reactions are shaped by culture.
We conducted exploratory interviews with cisgender women. All of them suggested that men play an underestimated role in this taboo. Hence, we decided to focus our research project on cisgender men. More precisely, we asked the following research question: How does men’s perception of menses contribute to set up and perpetuate the taboo of menstruation?
To explore such an intimate topic, we decided to collect data through qualitative methods. More precisely, we conducted fourteen interviews with cisgender men. Our participants were between eighteen and eighty-seven years old, from different cultural and religious backgrounds. In addition to interviews, we analyzed secondary data. More specifically, we studied the evolution of French advertisements for hygiene products through decades. Our goal was to point out what these ads are saying about the mindset of the time in which they were made.
- The importance of exposure to menstruation in the family environment
We found that talking (or not) about menstruation at home shapes how male adults perceive menstruation. Also, we identified different factors explaining the presence (or absence) of menstruation in family conversations. Having sisters often brings menstruation into the realm of normal and makes the subject of menstruation a familiar topic in the household. In fact, coming across sanitary pads when going to the bathroom or witnessing your sister’s upset stomach makes menstruation part of the landscape and creates a peaceful relation to menses. The age of the interviewed subject is taken into account in the place of menstruation at home, thus Hervé, 76 years old, confides to us: « We were discreet about it. Well, well, the girls and women were discreet about it. It was, well, it must be said that it was not the same times. We didn’t display that. ». Barnabé, an 18-year-old student, tells us that the normalization to menstruation is growing « it’s the movement of liberation of speech, of accepting that it’s normal […] well, it takes its time and it necessarily takes its place in the younger generations« .
Several interviewees use the term « traditional » to refer to their families, and this adjective seems to go hand in hand with the eradication of menstruation from family conversations.
Thus, talking about menstruation at home during childhood and adolescence influences the perception of the male subject, and a reproduction of the family pattern can be seen when it is time for interviewees to have a family of their own.
- Traces of a considerable (and denied) taboo
First, we noticed a distancing from menstruation by the way they are referred to. Men use circumlocutions and nicknames to talk about menstruation. They might as well use terms or phrases that only suggest menses without naming them. For example, “She has her_” or “She is mad”. When asked why they do not directly name menstruation, men answer they find it softer or more child-like. This implies explicit words for the “red period” have a negative connotation. Such words are associated with negative feelings like pain, anger, or disgust. However, we noticed strong differences among interviewees depending on their age. The youngest use more commonly the words “period” and “menstruation”.
Secondly, speech discrepancies also reveal an underlying taboo. Men often try to show they are open-minded. They define themselves as always empathetic with women; they firmly condemn the taboo on menses. It is rare that they openly contradict this facade. Yet, there are signs of the ambivalence of such position on closer inspection of the repeated use of pronouns and circumlocutions. For example, Colin (20 years old) first declared that he usually explicitly says “menstruation”. However, he avoids using the word explicitly afterwards. He exclusively and repeatedly says “it” or “this subject”. The embarrassment of seeing menstrual blood is not due to the substance itself, but to its origin: female genitalia. The actual problem is “the fact that it flows out of there” in the words of Colin. This specific taboo is strongly linked to the taboo on female genitalia.
Finally, some interviewees declared they used to mock girls at school when they had their period. For example, when a girl did not participate in a sports class because she had her period, they used to say it was a basic excuse for not exercising.
- Men VS. women’s blood
On one hand, our interviewees said that they do not make a difference between menstrual blood and body blood. Yet, their reaction when they saw menstrual blood for the first time contradicts their discourse and reveals their disgust. For Marc, 21 years old, this is almost reptilian “It was a reflex, I didn’t think”. Could it be the different functioning of the male and female organs that leads to this reaction? It is the theory that Edgar, 21 years old, supports “It is curious, I think it is the fact of discovering physical reactions that I cannot live.” There is also an association between menstrual blood and bodily waste in the minds of the interviewees. Many men compare menstruation to feces. In fact, excrement often causes a feeling of disgust, even though it is natural. According to 18-year-old Barnabé, “It’s not the blood that is disgusting, it’s everything that is body-related”.
However, most interviewees declare that blood flow is not an obstacle to sexual intercourse. It can be disconcerting, but not disgusting, as Timothy, 28 years old, says, “For sure the first times you see your penis with a little blood on the condom, it’s confusing […] In the end it never disgusted me.” It’s mostly indifference that comes out of the discourse on sexual intercourse during menstruation and practical worries, as Martin, 57 years old, sums up: “It’s not a constraint, except that you have to wash afterwards.”
Men’s perception of menstruation is closely linked to their relationships with the women they are with. They admit that they are gaining experience in this area – an experience that influences their compassion when they were close to women with painful periods, as Edgar, 21 years old, says, “I really had this compassionate posture because it obviously hurts you”.
While all men recognize that menstruation can be a great constraint and say they feel empathetic, the attention paid to women who menstruate differs according to age and education. Thus, the four men over 50 are the most detached. This is due to the girls leaving the family home or to their wife’s menopause, as Martin (57 years old) suggests. It can also be due to a lack of curiosity. For example, Herbert (51 years old) justifies his lack of reaction to his daughter’s pain: “Well if I don’t react, it’s maybe because it’s a girl thing. That’s it. I can’t intervene, it’s a girl thing.”
Building on our interviews, we can say that the taboo on menstruation is an implicit standard in French society. This acknowledged standard is easy to spot. The explicit Nana hygiene product TV ad shocked many people. Most interviewed men commonly used circumlocutions to avoid mentioning menstruation. This implicit standard seems perpetuated by the main places of early socialization, such as school or family.
Even though freedom of expression on this topic is getting larger, menses are still considered as a private and intimate matter. Men unknowingly play an important part in this. Their apparently innocuous remarks and mockeries actually perpetuate the taboo. These mockeries are negative sanctions that prompt discretion. However, men often say they are tolerant and understanding when their significant other faces menses’ inconveniences.
Masculine perception of menstruation could be summed up in the following quote from Noémie de Lattre: “I fear what I do not know, and what scares me repulses me”. Menses remain mysterious to men. Misinterpretations and euphemisms remain rife despite better freedom of expression in private life and efforts from school.
The main limitation of our research is a possible bias during data collection. Being a female interviewer might have oriented interviewees’ answers. Male participants might have been afraid of shocking or harming the interviewer. Another limitation deals with our sample. Most interviewees are men from the upper and middle classes. However, we managed to create diversity in our sample by including people of very different ages, occupations, and religions. We do hope that our work contributes to increasing our understanding of the taboo on menstruations and its societal consequences.