Over fifty per cent of the human race menstruate. Women, as well as many non-binary and trans people experience it once each month from adolescense to menopause. That’s a lot of periods, and a lot of time for us all to get accustomed to it – so why is menstruation still taboo?
Over fifty per cent of the human race menstruate. Once a month from adolescence to menopause: I estimate that I’ll have over 460 periods over the course of my life. That’s a lot of periods, and a lot of time for us all to get accustomed to it – so why is menstruation still taboo?
Menstruation has been hitting the headlines recently, and it’s a welcome change from the hushed silence which normally surrounds it. Kiran Gandhi ran a marathon while freebleeding (i.e. without a tampon/towel to catch the blood) to highlight the plight of women across the world who have no access to sanitary products, and encourage a more open discussion about periods. When people saw the pictures, the response was one of disgust or shock. On top of this, women and men have joined the #JustATampon campaign, which shines a spotlight on how menstrual stigma and inadequate sanitary facilities can affect girls’ education around the world.
There are plenty more examples, and it’s fantastic to see. The idea that periods are somehow shameful or disgusting is something that’s long been embedded in our society – there are plenty of religions which used to preach (and some which still do) that a woman is somehow ‘impure’ when she’s on her period. It’s an age-old problem, and I for one am bloody sick of it.
What we’ve seen little of recently, though, is discussion around periods and sex. So let’s get frank here: many people have sex when they’re on their period. I am personally a huge fan of period sex – I get hornier at that time of the month, and I know lots of others do too. At my heaviest flow we might have to put a towel down, but my blood is not something I am ashamed of. And yet when speaking to some people about menstrual sex there’s an idea that there’s something a bit gross or weird about period blood. We conceive of it differently to other bodily fluids, and so menstrual sex appears almost fetishistic, as opposed to what it is for me: sex that I happen to fancy when I happen to be bleeding.
From a sex perspective, this sucks for many of us who do menstruate. There are guys who genuinely believe that for one week per month they’re entitled to endless blowjobs or anal sex because they just feel a bit ‘icky’ when there’s blood. Others who’ll make jokes about women being ‘on the rag’, as if a period makes a woman gross, unattractive and worthless.
Yes, when you’re on your period, you may feel hormonal. You may feel extra-sensitive. You may feel horny. Each of us gets different period symptoms, and deals with things in different ways. But to assume that the period itself transforms a woman into an asexual, unclean or disgusting creature is a dangerous and offensive interpretation of a perfectly natural bodily function.
So what can we do to challenge these perceptions around period sex?
Menstruation and period sex in porn
We’ve talked here before about how porn can be a powerful tool to educate people. So could it be used to educate people around period sex and help break the menstruation taboo?
Well, yes and no.
I spoke to an advisor from the BBFC (the British Board of Film Classification) to find out about menstruation in porn. The fact that porn films (even those shown only online) now have to submit to BBFC rules is a terrifying prospect for many filmmakers to begin with – Petra wrote about this at the end of last year, and you should check out her blog on ATVOD and the new UK porn laws. My key question to the BBFC this time was: are directors allowed to show sex scenes involving menstrual blood, or will those scenes be cut?
The BBFC advisor told me that, as with almost any of the porn rules, there’s no hard and fast answer. A porn scene shot between two or more people in which someone happened to be menstruating (as happens a fair bit when I have sex at the beginning of my period) would probably be OK. But conversely a film which was made for the express purpose of highlighting menstrual blood probably would be banned. This is because the BBFC, alongside their own rules and guidance, have to adhere to the rules laid out under the Obscene Publications Act. Alongside things like sex with animals, the Obscene Publications Act also prohibits acts such as blood play, where blood itself is eroticised. The act makes no distinction between menstrual blood and blood drawn from an injury.
Earlier this year a collaboration of porn directors (including Kitty Stryker, Pandora Blake and Courtney Trouble) released ‘Ban this Sick Filth‘ – a compilation of things that would be censored from UK porn films. One of the scenes was a solo menstrual masturbation scene with Courtney Trouble. Menstrual masturbation is something which happens all the time – certainly in my own bedroom during the week each month when I’m bleeding – and yet this scene would likely be stripped if it were to be shown to the UK film censors.
Petra explains why this taboo around menstrual blood is a gross double-standard:
“What is wrong with a filmmaker shooting a sex scene whilst a female performer is free-bleeding? As a feminist filmmaker it is important to me to embrace real women and their bodies – warts, pubic hair, periods and all. Why should this be censored and the filmmaker be shamed for doing something that the censor considers “obscene’, when it is completely natural?! The fact that female bodily fluids such as female ejaculate and menstrual blood are largely banned in UK porn, whereas the male cum shot is the focus of most porn and does not get censored, reflects the over-all sexist attitude we have towards female vs male bodies. Why is squirt and menstrual blood taboo whereas cum is king? The more we see something the more “normal” and acceptable it is. If we never see women bleed (during sex) this perpetuates the shame many women feel endlessly und unnecessarily.”
Are you angry yet? We fetishise blood all the time: in action films a blood-splattered shirt is heroic. On TV we see stabbings and gore, and even real live blood in surgery programmes. Yet for some reason menstrual blood is so taboo that to see it in a sexual context is considered abhorrent. Despite the fact that menstruation is part and parcel of human reproduction and sex, we’re only allowed to see it in a porn film if it’s incidental. If a woman can run a marathon while free-bleeding, why can’t we eroticise period sex to try and challenge the menstrual taboo?