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Ferly - Period Sex

Published for Ferly app

Dr Marni Sommer – a leading researcher of menstruation at Columbia University – has dubbed vaginal bleeding as one the most ‘neglected topics’ conversed about and managed, globally.

So, what happens when the culturally hush-hush topic of menstruation collides with the equally stigmatised topic of female sexuality and pleasure?

A mega taboo is formed, that’s what! Also known as ‘period sex’.

‘Period sex is messy’

‘Period sex is gross’

‘Period sex is unhygienic’

‘It smells’

‘It’s not sexy’

‘I don’t feel sexy’

These are the common qualms around period sex.

And these views, incidentally, come from both men and women. Data published in 2017 by – an online intimacy questionnaire service – revealed that of 4,000 participants, 7 in 10 women and 6 in 10 men root an aversion to period sex.

It seems that it’s the ‘ick factor’ that prevents us from wanting to introduce that red, female-centric bodily fluid into the sexual-setting. A fear of provoking that infamous scene from Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’. A paranoia of exposing our vulvas as anything other than controlled, neat and sweetly perfumed. A reluctance to deviate from the ‘norm’ in any way…Much like why so many women fake their orgasms. God forbid they stray from the narrow, rigid, porn-inspired, media-driven ‘sex script’ that has permeated and culturally shaped our sexual behaviours.

To break down and overcome a taboo, it is helpful to know why it exists in the first place. A little peep back into history shows us that the stigma of period sex has in fact got deep roots that go back centuries. And as a student of the history of sexuality, the menstruating and sexually active female featured frequently in my textbooks as an abhorrent figure to fear and eschew.

We have much to thank what is known to historians as ‘the Civilising Process’ for this.

Let’s go back to eleventh century Europe for a moment, the supposed beginning of the Civilising Process, a phenomenon coined by sociologist Norbert Ellias. Essentially, it brought about the development of increased consciousness and management of the body, spreading outwardly from the privileged to the lower classes. It was a period when European customs and manners pertaining to sex, body impulses and social manners underwent a significant transformation from the ‘grotesque’ to the ‘civilised’. There was greater awareness towards strict maintenance of the body and the control of its functions. These were reflected in a body of more sophisticated manners which became an outward symbol of social acceptability. For example, the new palette of conduct in polite society meant it was unacceptable across the board to publicly spit, urinate, vomit, defecate and fornicate.

Why is this relevant?

The main take out is that the Civilising Process produced an irreversible change in culture by cultivating internal shame and embarrassment so that individuals would self-regulate. It marked a turning point, as forms of self-control shifted ‘from restraint by others to self-restraint’. It was a phenomenon which planted a deep self-consciousness of the body as a way to maintain social manners and ‘proper’ conduct across all social strata.

It was also a time when the body became used as a vehicle in which to symbolise the accepted social order of things, relying on the binary categorisation of its various parts to be either ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’. Bodily substances became perceived as fetid, which should be kept out of public view. In a world that was centuries away from identifying ‘germ theory’ as the root cause of disease, it was believed that ‘miasma’ (aka dirty, foul-smelling air) spread illness. Cleanliness became dependent on the concealment and eradication of dirt. Dirt or its proxies were therefore covert, impolite and consequently became taboo. It was not something you spoke about.

And so, it is within this culture of self-restraint, dirt-phobia and public refrain that we can locate the widespread expression that period blood was a source of shame, to be concealed from discourse and exposure even within the most private domain.

Let’s now canter forward to the early modern period – a time where fear of the sexually active and menstruating female was firmly culturally entrenched. It was an era when women were saddled with a diverse array of sins and where connotations of corruption and filth surrounding the female body prevailed. This misogyny was pervasive and stemmed from the two bastions of authority in this era – the Christian Church and medical practitioners. Records in 1506 expose beliefs that having sex with a menstruating woman was dangerous for their male partners; at best weakening their virility, at worst condemning them to an early death. Male perceptions of woman’s deviant body functions found legitimacy in the Old Testament, where the book of Leviticus determinedly denounces menstruation – its existence in and out of a sexual setting - as ‘unclean’. This sinful act of period sex was punishable by death. A plethora of preachers and theological writers in early modern England disseminated the meaning of the Leviticus text in plain English. Their aim was to prevent this ‘immorality’ being committed through ignorance, indicating the panic surrounding the topic. Biblical text promoted misogynist attitudes that the role of woman was solely for procreation and domestic work, whilst defending male domination and female subservience in terms of female salvation.

By the end of the seventeenth century, religious superstitions about period sex gave way to medical misinformation and pathology. Menstruation was considered to be a pollutant and a defect of women’s already inferior bodies, whilst contemporary physicians such as Ambroise Paré and Lieven Lemnes identified menstrual blood as a contaminant to the male seed during intercourse. In fact, these doctors upheld a popular theory that drew a link between the menstruous woman and the phenomena of ‘monstrous births’. To this end, it was widely believed that a child conceived during menstruation would be born with a disability or defect. What an astonishing piece of women’s social and sexual history!

In the seventeenth century, sexual contact with a menstruating woman was one of the biggest taboos of the time. It’s useful to pause and consider why. In a time of unsophisticated medical knowledge, it can be argued that views about menstruation were constructed to justify the subjugating of women in a male dominated culture. They were used to ‘prove’ female physical inferiority to establish patriarchal hierarchies and keep women in an inferior position in the domestic space. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these ideas were not necessarily shared by women of the time. Menstruation was seen as a normal part of life among most women, who relied on each other for advice, pain remedies and solidarity. Many women were modest and private about their periods, resenting any male interference and hijacking of this female-centric affair. Perhaps they even found relief and respite in the cessation of their sexual obligations whilst they menstruated…

Four centuries later and our ancestors’ patriarchal and misinformed views still cast a long shadow. Science may have evolved from connecting ‘the monstrous’ to the ‘menstruous’ – and gladly so – but men and women today still internalise shame and disgust when period blood is brought into a sexual setting. By locating the roots of this stigma and examining the social history of period sex, I hope it can help us detangle our own pre-conceptions and embarrassment so that we can move towards a more shame-free sexual culture.

Widespread and factually-correct education about period sex can also reduce confusion or any misconceptions that it’s dirty or unhygienic. In fact, period sex is perfectly safe and perfectly sanitary. There is certainly no health reason to forgo period sex, it just comes down to a matter of preference. Let’s strive to squash all the period sex myths out there! And for those unsure: having sex on your period does NOT protect you from pregnancy or STIs.

I am also a great believer in the power of media and popular culture to normalise traditionally stigmatised topics. We need to see more depictions of period sex in art, TV shows, movies, books and articles to help blow open the conversation in the mainstream. And within a private setting, communication about period sex with your sexual partners can also help break down the taboo and make all parties feel more confident and comfortable. Always remember to state your boundaries and honour them. If you still feel iffy about period sex, that’s OK! Cramps, PMS and a heavy flow aren’t always an aphrodisiac! But at least you now know the history and the facts and can move forwards armed with knowledge and an authentic assessment of your own mindset towards period sex.

Artwork by Bronwen Bender

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