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Don’t Mention the War…m red sticky liquid running down her leg

August 11, 2013

If you are a man, you might already be familiar with the suggestion that you should not ask women if they are on their periods, and wondered why not. You might even have asked someone female and failed to get a satisfactory answer. Unfortunately, we find ourselves in a society that assumes bad intent; questions are prying, sensitivity is condescension and considerateness is naïvety. It makes the discussion difficult to have, which makes the question difficult to answer. There is a wall between men and women in our communication, a wall that separates “women’s issues” from “men’s issues” and assumes they do not relate to each other. The result of this is that any attempt to get through the wall is considered an intrusion and creates anger which could have been easily avoided if only we understood that the fault lies squarely with the boundaries themselves, not with the people on either side of them.

When you are constantly pressed up against something that gets on your nerves, it’s hard to think logically beyond your anger and analyse why it is so profoundly irritating; the reason it annoys you in the first place can be obscured by the sheer annoyance of it. Often, you entertain the notion that it’s just you, and it’s an irrational thing. However, if the anger produced in women when asked if they are on their periods was personal and irrational, it wouldn’t be a frame of mind that affects a substantial proportion of the population. So, since I have the liberty of experiencing no personal reaction to this topic, allow me to analyse the real reasons for this vehement dislike of the question.

1) Negative context. You have probably never walked up to someone in the street and asked them if they are currently menstruating. Usually, the subject only arises in an unpleasant context.

This is a problem in itself. It represents an immediate negative attitude towards periods; they are a Bad Thing that makes people do Bad Things, as opposed to an innocuous by-product of female fertility. Consequently, periods get blamed for every tiny thing; the question of whether or not someone is menstruating will usually occur during an argument, as an indirect (and thus irritating) way of suggesting that the other person is being unreasonable. It is an accusation, and who doesn’t respond badly to that? An accusation, no less, related to something which is not that person’s fault and can neither be helped nor ignored – if only because other people refuse to ignore it.

In addition, nearly anything said in a negative context can be construed as highly offensive, no matter how neutral. During an argument, you could say “And I hate the way you eat bananas!” and rather than just laughing in your face as they should, the recipient will instead get all huffy and spend several hours meditating on how exactly they are supposed to be mindful of your preferences for 3rd person banana-eating observations. Then, the next time someone mentions bananas, it’s like a red rag to a bull. So we can see how, already, frank discussion on the topic becomes impossible. Even more so for periods than for bananas, which as far as I’m aware, carry no social stigma.

2) Historical relevance. Way back, our limited understanding of anatomy led to some peculiar fears and superstitions, my favourite being the view that a menstruating woman can turn a ham rancid with one touch. It’s like a really crap superpower. Periods involve blood, associated with death and injury and they also mean no pregnancy which, in societies that placed heavy emphasis on its importance for the sake of population increase, would be considered a cause for concern. Periods have long been treated with distrust and disgust and these attitudes have not been much updated since finding out what they actually entail. All that has happened is that we have acquired an updated version, one based less on the physicality of it (so we believe) and more on the emotional impact.

Only, this is not as much of a difference as you might think. From the time that Hippocrates in Ancient Greece claimed that PMS (or “hysteria”) was caused by the uterus migrating up to the brain, we have been hanging onto this perception that period time = stressy time. The accuracy of this is to be examined below, but for now just think about the longevity of that idea, considering where it came from. It would be annoying even for (or perhaps especially for) the most level-headed person to once a month be faced with a prejudice based on mistakes made in Ancient medicine.

3) Prejudice. For it is a prejudice. The full effects of menstruation on mood is wide and varied, changing considerably from person to person. You, as I, may know of certain people for whom particular angry comments are a monthly occurrence, so you could be forgiven for making the connection. However, for every one individual like that, there are a dozen more whose periods you don’t even notice. True, it may be because you don’t know them well enough to gauge the difference, but that’s precisely the point; your intimacy with someone makes it easier for you to recognise trends and characteristics Your ability to see the effects of one person’s period but not another’s should be taken as a sign of complexity that renders generalisation impossible. This complexity is not acknowledged in women as often or as easily as in men. Instead, women’s problems are over-simplified – when it it convenient.

Men are offered a larger scope of explanation for their behaviour As boring as they are to hear, “Someone’s got a case of the Mondays”, “Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning”, “He has anger management issues” and “Just because you broke up with her doesn’t mean you get to be a jerk” are at least mainly gender/sex neutral, varied and have the flavour of being personal to the one about whom the comment is being made, or at the very least, the person speaking; a Monday hater might say the first, someone who isn’t a morning person might say the second, a non-confrontational person might say the third and your best-friend-who-thought-she-was-no-good-for-you-anyway might say the fourth. The problem with lazily accusing bad moods on periods is that it never wavers in relation to what’s actually happening in an individual’s life, and lacks personal engagement or empathy; period-based commentary is usually the refuge of those who have never experienced one.

4) Lack of experience. No one likes a jerkwad who talks beyond his knowledge, particularly when his presumptions impede on someone’s right to speak freely for themselves. To assume is a different kettle of fish to asking questions, listening, and being supportive – assuming carries with it the illusion of knowledge, when actually we have anything but. We are taught that periods are purely a Bad Thing, so whenever we think the Bad Thing is happening, we stop giving credence to whatever other personal issues may be prevalent at the time, assuming that “It’s the hormones talking” and it will all blow over. We do the same for pregnancies.

In short, we assume that hormones have the power to completely cloud judgement (by implication suggesting that we considered it pretty poor to begin with). We have no reason to think this; if hormones had that potent an effect, periods would be considered a just defence in a court of law. I don’t believe I have ever heard a single feminist argue a case for making it so, and I’ve heard some pretty strange feminist claims.

5) Lack of engagement. Having assumed that it’s all the period’s fault that our happy little lives are in disarray, we stop listening properly to our female partners and friends. We don’t engage with the reality of those entirely genuine and legitimate concerns, hoping they will all simply melt away when the blood stops flowing. They may be expressed differently, or unexpressed they may bubble away poisonously under the surface for a while, but the problems are still there and will rear their ugly heads sooner or later, period or no period. In short, blaming everything on menstruation trivialises and disregards the emotions of over half of adult society – sometimes including those of an individual you care about. This could be a major shoehorn in a relationship if left unchecked. Either way, it is better to grant people the courtesy of assuming they know their own minds.

6) Balls-out ignorance “Hormones” is word that is regarded with no small amount of trepidation. When we hear it, we automatically process it as “sex hormones” and by association, gender (in itself a major inaccuracy, but not relevant here). Any differences we perceive between men and women relevant to behaviour are often attributed to hormones and these are often not differences we value; testosterone is linked to aggression, oestrogen to “excess” of emotion (whatever the heck that means).

This association blocks our recognition that sex hormones perform important, unnoticeable, day-to-day functions that have nothing to do with reproduction or personal characteristics. For example, they just happen to be integral to bone maintenance; osteoporosis, a condition that causes bones lose their strength, is most common in post-menopausal women, whose oestrogen production is significantly lessened. Sex hormones are so important, people beyond reproductive capability sometimes need HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) to top up what is no longer naturally produced.

Sex hormones aren’t the end of the news, either. “Hormones” describes all the chemicals released by the endocrine system into your body, of which sex hormones are the minority. The endocrine system includes areas like the liver and pancreas and is responsible for a huge variety of vital processes. To say someone is “hormonal right now” is like saying someone is having a neuron-firing session right now. Hormones don’t go away and come back again on a monthly basis, for men or women. They are always there, doing their little work: affecting your appetite, increasing / decreasing your sex drive, your happiness, your energy levels, etc.

Physical experiences are hormonal experiences and physical experiences can be inextricably bound with emotional ones, from the hotness of anger right down to that tenseness you feel when you get a disturbingly powerful urge to squeeze a cute li’l puppy ’til it pops. Your hormones, both sexual and not, are always at least partially responsible for your mood. In fact, the most significant hormone in relation to mood is not thought to be oestrogen or testosterone but rather serotonin, the “well-being” hormone, sited as a cause for eating disorders, depression and anxiety when imbalanced in either direction – though since its peaks and troughs are not as conveniently predictable as that of female sex hormones, it will probably never overtake as the number one Bad Thing.

Consider the “Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed” comment from earlier What is it we think is being said – that the floor literally opened up into a cavernous void which swallowed the unfortunate sleeper and spat them out whole into their old classroom wearing nothing but their underpants? It refers to your natural mood, the way you feel when you wake up in the morning. Even something as severe as depression can have nothing to do with situational factors. For no good reason, sex hormones are considered differently, because of the sex part. It relates to sexuality and in the case of periods, specifically to women – two things still regarded with deep suspicion

Another reason to start on the period hatin’ is simply the safety and convenience of it; adult women have periods – that’s a fact. They occur, usually regularly, once a month for about a week. Another fact. Periods can affect your mood. An established theory, though not nearly as provable. Together, these ideas provide the comfort blanket of uniform explanation – rather than spend hours analysing why-she-feels-the-way-she-feels, you can just write it off as the Bad Thing.

7) Insensitivity. OK, so say we just disregard everything I’ve written and concede that it’s all true; periods do turn women into raving lunatics who tear the double glazing out with their teeth because there’s NO ICE CREAM.


What’s confusing me is the drastically ill-conceived idea that acknowledging this is actually helping anything. We’ve just admitted that hormones are doing it – are we seriously suggesting that we can logic the hormones away? There are no prizes for being able to recognise that somebody is not entirely in control of their own feelings. Generally, if you point this out, they feel even worse about their situation, sometimes spurring them into defensive mode and causing a ruckus. Unless she’s standing on top of the 7-Eleven yelling “Goodbye, cruel world!” you needn’t mention the possibility of hormonal imbalance. If that is genuinely what is causing the problem, it might be gone tomorrow, but the memory of your having been insensitive will not. Basically, there is nothing to be gained from bringing it up.

There are more complicated factors at work, too. Unless you’re a raving masochist, a blithering idiot or allergic to listening, the likelihood is that once you’ve made this mistake, you won’t do it again. However, remember how I highlighted earlier that there is a widespread culture of dislike and wariness surrounding periods and PMS – this means you will not necessarily have been the first person to have mentioned her period, even if it’s your first time doing so. What’s the betting her ex pulled exactly the same stunt? There are few things more annoying in this world than discovering that your current whatever displays the same not-so-wonderful traits as someone you dislike who you thought you were well shot of.

8) Fear. It doesn’t take awesome powers of perception to notice that many men are pretty uncomfortable around the subject of periods. Throughout all of this, you might have been thinking that my advocating not mentioning them would let a gigantic elephant into the room. The problem is, that elephant was already there. The fear of talking about periods couldn’t possibly have come before the fear of periods themselves. As for fear of periods, we encourage it when we make the beginning of menstruation a big secret, or when we blithely decide not to bother educating boys on the entirety of female reproductive processes, claiming that they “don’t need to know all that”.

I’m sorry – they don’t need to know about one of the most fundamental biological processes affecting humankind, which will almost certainly become an everyday feature of their adult lives? Well, I suppose… Just so long as Jimmy knows cos sin tan. That should help him not to make a giant ass of himself in 50% of his social encounters.

It’s this segregation of knowledge that creates such a rift between men and women in the first place. These were the walls that I mentioned in the introduction; culture and expectation shaping our institutions to encourage us into the belief that there is female knowledge and there is male knowledge, and never the twain shall meet – because, y’know, you couldn’t possibly understand. Sort of sounds like when they were saying that women couldn’t possibly understand politics. In addition to being plainly incorrect, this thinking suggests that there is actually something wrong with seeking to be educated in matters that do not necessarily, immediately or directly concern you. Well, bang goes History class, then. And nearly every other school subject on the curriculum, for that matter.

8) The effect. To gloss over gigantic chunks of human experience by simply waving it away as a temporary hormonal set-back is a treat reserved only for women, and results in quite a spectacular show of sidelining; what happens socially must happen professionally, since despite declarations to the contrary, the two are bound together tighter than two chargers plugged into the same extension lead. I wonder how many women have been overlooked in the world of politics and industry because it was assumed that once a month she would be incapable of rational judgement? When faced with that kind of potential discrimination, you could not fail to be at least a bit concerned when someone (correctly or incorrectly) accuses you as being on your period.

And for the record: to my mind, being really angry because there is no ice cream is not a symptom of irrationality. Quite the opposite.


From → Gender Politics

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