The Sexist

How Feminists Ruined Menstruation, and Other Insights of a Dude Psychologist

Jesse Bering is "curious about the . . . immediate, subjective experiences of girls who are faced inexplicably with the fact that their uterine linings are literally falling out of their vaginas," he writes in his Scientific American column. There's just one thing standing in the way of Bering gaining an intimate knowledge of a girl's first uterine-dumping: Feminism. "There’s a smattering of empirical studies on girls’ firsthand experiences with menses, most coming with a rather heavy-handed feminist slant," he writes. Leave it to this dude "research psychologist" (the kind who, for the record, refers to an elderly woman as a "spirited old ape before me") to cut through all of that bullshit to tell us what women really think of their first periods.

Bering's stunning conclusion: Vaginal blood brings either (a) shame or (b) nonchalant acceptance, depending upon which culture you are vaginally bleeding in! Incidentally, feminists have also observed this phenomenon, but they are wrong and he is right, for some reason. Bering explains it all:

This curious air of embarrassment, secrecy and shame surrounding menarche is a recurring theme in the empirical literature, and in fact this negative view of menstruation displays a surprising cross-cultural regularity. Even in some African nations where the first menses is publicly celebrated and the girl is doted on with special attention and gifts (perfumes, dresses, pajamas, towels), adolescent females are often deeply uncomfortable with their new biological state of affairs. A Zambian woman interviewed by York University psychologist Ayse Uskul described how embarrassed she’d been that her menstruation had become public and pointed out how she’d in fact shied away from all the attention being showered on her by her relatives.

Such anecdotes would appear to pose some serious problems for traditional feminist theories, which tend to argue that Western negative attitudes toward everything from menstruation to vaginas at large are simply the result of cultural constructions. “How society officially views and treats menarche does not mean that the girl who is having her first menstruation will experience the event in the same positive way,” says Uskul. Communal ostracism of menstruating girls is also fairly common. One woman from South East Asia said that she decided to become an atheist when she was told that she couldn’t participate in any religious rituals or even enter the temple while having her period. But there are also a handful of societies in which menarche is more or less shrugged off as just one of those things and public menstrual bleeding seems to stir up about as much awkwardness as a sneeze. Among the Kayapo of the Amazon, for instance, there is no such thing as makeshift sanitary protection or hygienic napkins; rather, the word there for menstruation is translated literally as “stripe down the leg.”

Let's slow this down for a second and follow Bering's reasoning here:

(a) Menstruation brings shame to women in a variety of cultures.

(b) Even in Zambia, where women are publicly celebrated with towels and stuff on the event of their first bleed, one Zambian woman was nevertheless embarrassed by the public attention to the inner workings of her vagina.

(c) The nuanced experience of this single Zambian woman—who illustrates how both "positive" and "negative" cultural responses to menstruation turn women's bodies into public property —apparently threatens to debunk all feminist work claiming that the shame associated with menstruation is culturally constructed.

(d) Uhhh, also, there are a few cultures where menstruation is neither punished nor celebrated and everyone is pretty much nonchalant about it, so I guess the feminists were right that reactions to menstruation actually may be culturally constructed, but I'm not going to admit that because feminists annoy me. Heh, women. What do they know about this shit?

Bering's column touches on some hugely interesting research on menstruation, even if he then uses it to bash feminists and conclude with this baseless attribution of menstruation shame to evolutionary forces: "I’ve often wondered if the tremendous reservation that most parents have in communicating with their children about sex has the ironic consequence of making their children more curious about it—a curiosity that translates into earlier and more frequent sexual activity," Bering writes. "And that makes me wonder if there weren’t (and aren’t) perhaps some natural selection pressures at work here, forces favoring parental modesty over candor in the sex education of children." And it makes me wonder if there aren't some natural selection forces favoring mansplaining over research in the field of evolutionary psychology. Get Bering on it!

Photo via amy b, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

  • Jeff Fecke

    You're welcome, ladies. I mean, how would women even know about menstuation if not for we smart men and our big boy brains?

  • kza

    I don't think this is something a guy can understand. I myself how an involuntary bodily function can possibly produce shame.

  • Kit-Kat

    I'm not a research scientist, but it would seem to me that society does not always view menarche in a single, monolithic, "official" way. Even in my very Western upbringing, getting your first period was a mixed experience: it was a little scary (because even if you know what is happening, there's still the whole bleeding-from-your-vagina thing), kind of uncomfortable (cramps, putting in tampons, etc.), and potentially embarrassing if you stained your clothes or a pad fell out of your backpack and one of the oh-so-enlightened teenage boys in your class saw it and made a big deal out of it--but it also meant that you were growing up, becoming a woman, somehow initiated into something. So it's not that hard to imagine that even in a culture that officially celebrates it, a girl might still feel uncomfortable having so much attention drawn to her private bodily processes. Let's face it--the last time someone paid that much attention to you genitals, you were potty-training.

  • Jess

    kza, you're being sarcastic, right? About guys not being able to understand how someone could possibly be ashamed of an involuntary bodily function, like wet dreams or premature ejaculation?

  • Marty

    This seems like a good time to play a game of Evolutionary Psychology Bingo!:

  • Melissa

    That last bit about how natural selection favors parents who don't want to talk to their kids about sex because that, in turn, increases sexual activity...oh boy. That was the best part.

  • Ryan

    This is the voyage of Jesse Bering: To go where no mansplainer has gone before!

  • Elizabeth

    Thank you, Amanda Hess, for this brilliant take-down. As they say over at Shakesvill, I would totally do your taxes. I spend a great deal of my time talking about the cultural construction of menstruation, and it makes me deliriously happy to have other smart ladies join me.

    (And thanks, Marty, for EvoPsych bingo! This will come in handy.)

  • Stassa

    Not a helpful observation in any way, but the word menarche makes me giggle. A lot. But I guess it's shame - good ole fashioned feminist shame.

  • Laura

    Wow, not only is he mansplaining to the max, but he's actually using feminist scholarship to do so.

  • Laura

    Also: In this column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen's University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior.

    Menstruation: so obscure!

  • firefly

    There is more "shame", then when a culture views a woman's body more as public property, or worse, a period as a shameful thing. There is less shame if a culture doesn't endorse negative views on periods, but women are individual, so some will still be annoyed by their periods, depending on how they feel.

  • Nancy

    I love Evolutionary Psychology bingo!

  • kza

    "About guys not being able to understand how someone could possibly be ashamed of an involuntary bodily function, like wet dreams or premature ejaculation?"

    How is ejaculation durimg my sleep shameful? People feel shame to easily. When I was younger and with a girl and I couldn't get it up, yeah maybe then I'd be embarrased but I'm older now who cares I can't control it.

  • queen of carrot flowers

    I think firefly's got a good point. Talking about vaginas is really taboo most of the time (y'can't say anything even close to it on TV, for example, so we're subjected to va-jay-jay, down there, and the like). When they are discussed, it's generally either in the context of sex or periods, and often the two are seen as mutually exclusive. The vagina is totally gross and I can't have sex with it one week a month! Plug it up!

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  • Jess

    When I was younger and with a girl and I couldn’t get it up, yeah maybe then I’d be embarrased but I’m older now who cares I can’t control it.

    You realize that the people discussed in the article who are feeling shame about an involuntary bodily function are probably 12, right? I just think it's pretty classless to pass judgment on young girls for feeling embarrassed about something that they've been told is shameful, just because you're a big smart adult now -- even when you admit that when you were younger, you might have felt similarly.

  • kza

    Oops. Good point. Nevermind.

  • Madeleine

    Is it just me, or did the whole pretext for the article, the random meeting of a youngish male psychologist and an elderly woman on a bus who end up talking about her experience of menarche - seem kind of, oh... unlikely??

  • Maggie

    I just kept cringing at the use of "females". It really does sound creepily dehumanizing.

    And for the record, even though I waited with bated breath for my period, I still was a bit freaked out by it. Even in nonchalant Canadian society.

  • samantha

    "immediate, subjective experiences of girls who are faced inexplicably with the fact that their uterine linings are literally falling out of their vaginas" - he lost me there already. fall is just not an accurate verb. he's already dramatizing inaccurately. to me the word "fall" indicates something falling through space, not trickling, gushing, or whatever liquid motion verb you feel represents your flow, through a cervix and a vagina.

  • CassieC

    Ha! Mansplainers in academia - should be a band name. Actually, often it should be the department name. But that's depressing.

  • Old joke but very apt

    Of course Bering know best. Why else would they do call it *men*struation, you silly ladies?


  • Rocio

    Ya stuff "falling" out of your vagina is just a really inaccurate way to describe menstruation. Semen does not "fall" out of the penis and neither does blood "fall out of the vagina".

    Also weird that he had to try to sound fancy and call it "uterine lining", its just mostly blood. Not like people probably haven't seen their own blood from a cut at some point before they get their periods. I guess bleeding just sounds a lot less scary and less ridiculous than "falling from your vagina"

  • Kate

    I actually had to stop reading this because it was making me INSANE WITH RAGE and I had a meeting I had to go be nice in.

    But: wtf, dude.

    Also, why would indigenous Amazon people's sanitary protection be any more or less 'makeshift' than anyone elses? Back in the day in Europe women used to do the same thing - just let it run down their legs and into their skirts. But I guess when a French woman does it, it's 'cultured' and 'civilised' and when a woman form the Amazon does it it's 'primitive'. GRAR!

  • bananacat

    Huh, so sometimes adolescent girls have uneasy feelings about turning into adults? I'm so glad Mr. Dood explained that to me because I could have never come up with that one on my own. I'm sure that some girls also have negative feelings about pubic hair, body odor, and breast development, and adolescent boys have some fear or concern when they start going through physical changes too. I bet that boys and girls even feel uneasy about the mental changes they go through, and the new sexual feelings they have. Kids generally have mixed feelings about becoming adults, and it has nothing to do with the shame of bleeding. It's just part of going through a big change.

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  • Joy-Mari Cloete

    This article's title is misleading. The 'dude psychologist' never said feminists ruined menstruation nor did he imply it anywhere.

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