Issues Of Blood: The Politics of Menstruation


Sophie Laws’ Issues of Blood asks some important questions: Why do women feel ashamed of menstruation? Why do we maintain our silence, removing it from public discourse? And why are new products endlessly developed to enable the secrecy to be ever more effective, while at the same time adding bleaches and perfumes to sanitize the natural and convince us that we are unclean and foul smelling?

Laws interviewed 14 white. Christian males in Great Britain between the ages of 21 and 40. While her sample is admittedly tiny, her premise as a sociologist is that “the ideas of a dominant group in a society are those which will dominate, and therefore to some extent determine, the ideas of the oppressed.” Her second, feminist, premise is that “ours is still a male-dominated society in which men act as a group to maintain their superiority.” Laws concludes that male ideas about menstruation are “likely to dominate the ideas women have about themselves as well as about the social world.”

Then there are the male jokes about “that time of the month.” In many, the punch line implies that if a woman is sexually off-limits because of pain or reluctance, she should be temporarily replaced, as if lack of sexual availability renders her useless. Furthermore, men’s jokes about “being on the rag” are used to humiliate us, to make us self-conscious, vulnerable and insecure.

But it is one particular group of men who are targeted by Laws for misogynist ideas— doctors. “The ideology they promote is one which defines woman primarily as a childbearing creature. Menstruation is not felt to be a natural event, and on the whole they are uninterested to the point of hostility in menstrual problems.” Some blame mothers for making their daughters “neurotic,” or for indulging them. Others believe that we exaggerate pain to manipulate male co-workers and family members to our advantage. Still others label the complaints psychosomatic and prescribe tranquilizers and anti-depressants as antidotes.

Another cure-all, the orgasm, has come into recent vogue, says Laws, as if all women need is more sex to cure pre-menstrual and menstrual discomfort and tension. “Women who want to refuse the old order of menstrual secrecy are offered a new system where menstruation may be openly acknowledged within a heterosexual relationship. Women wanting freedom to determine their own sexuality find their demands reinterpreted as a desire for sex during periods.”

Thus, we still have our work cut out for us: to challenge the notions that women have been “cursed,” punished for the crime of having been born impure, a.k.a. female.

Eleanor J. Bader is a freelance writer and teacher in New York