One day at school when I was about twelve or thirteen, I remember being summoned to a mysterious meeting. In the assembly hall, we were told that the timetable for our entire year group was suspended for the afternoon. Ordinarily, this would have been a cause for celebration for the boys, as a learned childhood disgust for girls gave way to rampant hormones and overwhelming crushes. Only, on that particular afternoon we discovered, to our great disappointment, that we were to be segregated.
The girls were to meet with a several female members of staff in the sports hall across the road, while the boys… well, to be honest I can’t remember what we did. Top Trumps? Manly spitting competitions? Standing in a huddle giving word-for-word recitations of last night’s exclusively male panel shows? It could have been any or all of these. Whatever it was, we had absolutely no idea what the girls were up to, nor did any of us think to ask them when they returned.
A few years later, I remember sitting in our sixth form common room talking about “girls in bands”. I was talking with another boy, and at the time I think we came up with three: Debbie Harry, Tina Weymouth, and Suzi Quatro. This boy – let’s call him Jay – was relatively new to the school, and this fresh start had provided him with the opportunity to tell a string of increasingly elaborate stories about his escapades with unnamed girls from “other schools” in “other towns”. Being the impressionable idiots that we were, we never questioned these stories. Naturally, they all turned out later to be fiction, but at the time, Jay was the sixth form’s leading authority on all sexual matters. So when he overheard a nearby group of girls talking about something “down there”, he immediately intervened.
“Ugh, that’s disgusting, don’t talk about that!”, he said, “And why have you got those out here?”, he asked, pointing at the strange white mice that one of the girls had produced from the bottom of her bag. I don’t remember how the question was answered, but the timid little mice soon disappeared, and the girls retreated to a safe space in the toilets.
Jay’s parting shot as they left was “We don’t talk to you about wanking!”, shouted with the kind of confidence that almost made this outright lie seem true, and as if the procedures of masturbation and menstruation were somehow equivalent. It was the mid-noughties, and if Jay had told people that Brick Tamland was correct – that bears really would come rampaging in search of menstrual fluid – they would probably have believed him.
I can’t claim to have been particularly aware of periods as a seventeen-year-old. At that age, I can’t claim to have been aware of anything much, and even though my mum had shelves full of Virago Modern Classics, Doris Lessing, and Simone de Beauvoir, I don’t think I knew what feminism really meant. I don’t remember being offended by what Jay had done, or saying anything to challenge it. I just found it puzzling. Where did Jay’s ideas come from? How could he be affronted by a subject he really knew nothing about? And just where had those mice gone? It was odd to me that Jay felt anything about periods beyond a slightly confused curiosity.
The subject was so well-hidden that I never had to think about it, even though it was affecting so many people around me. Although it was intended to contribute to that cult of secrecy, Jay’s shaming had the opposite effect. I was, for want of a better word, intrigued. I wanted to know more, but at the same time felt completely unable to ask my female friends, for fear of embarrassing them or myself. Of course, it was always possible to read about these things in textbook terms, but I wanted to know (and still want to know) what it was like from an individual perspective. But shame was operating on everyone in every direction, from within as well as from without, and often in subtle ways.
The veil of shame could only be lifted in exceptional circumstances. A few years after leaving school, I remember meeting up with a friend to visit an art gallery. Art was something we both loved, and it seemed like an ideal place for a day out. Unfortunately for my friend, Aunty Euphemism had arrived for her monthly visit, and had prepared her instruments of torture for the occasion.
Oblivious to my friend’s pain, I dragged her past painting after painting, until she finally had to stop and tell me just how much pain she was in, and that she couldn’t carry on. I cringe when I think about it now, and I wish she’d been able to tell me earlier, or that I had known enough to ask her, or that I’d noticed what seemed so obvious afterwards. The fact that she’d made the long journey to meet me, and said nothing all day as we shuffled through the galleries, showed how powerful the silence was around the subject.
Last year I was talking to another friend, who brought up the topic of periods, but prefaced what she wanted to say with “Maybe it’s TMI?”. Channelling my inner Louis Theroux, I told her I was happy to hear more, by saying “It’s all just ‘I’ to me”. This particular friend would normally be unafraid of even the most controversial subject, and later the same day she told me about her own “Me Too” story, without any of the hesitation she’d had earlier.
There’s just something about the body, what it does, and the things it produces, which make us reluctant to speak openly. In the rare instances that we talk publicly about it, we hide the truth with the ubiquitous Blue Liquid™. Maybe it’s easier to talk about products than processes. I once used some random conversation starters with another friend, one of which was “What’s something you resent having to pay for?”, and she responded immediately with “tampons”, without even having to think.
In a slightly different context, I was once in a meeting which was made up of two men and six women. The nature of this particular meeting meant that we were all encouraged to be open and honest about our feelings, but even here the period taboo was present.
When introducing herself, one of the women in the group paused, aware that she was pretending to be less angry than she really was. “It’s my fucking PMT!” she suddenly said, before apologising for mentioning it at all, partly because there were men in the room.
Of course, it’s well known that men are delicate flowers who will faint at the first mention of menses. If we couldn’t talk about difficult feelings here, when we’d been specifically invited to do so, what hope was there for a wider public conversation? I tried to make it clear that I was open to hearing about it, and that I didn’t find it embarrassing, or shameful. Unfortunately I chose my words poorly, saying “it’s not a big deal”, when it clearly is a huge one. However, when I asked her permission to write here about what happened, she told me that she trusted me, so hopefully what I said was helpful.
Finally, yesterday someone told me about being criticised by other women for seeing a male doctor about her period. I don’t really feel qualified to comment on the rights and wrongs of this, but I do know that it feels strange and disappointing to hear.
So why am I telling you these stories? Well, partly because Sophie invited me to respond to her blog. But also because what she wrote sparked off a few memories – but only a few. The occasions I’ve talked about here are the only times I’ve ever had conversations about periods. Each one is easy to remember, because they stand out as exceptions to the overwhelming silence.
Maybe it’s just because I’ve had a fairly isolated life, or a sheltered upbringing. Maybe it’s the fact that I grew up in a 75% male household. Maybe I failed to ask the right questions at the right times, or was too timid to ask, afraid of being seen as prurient. Whatever the reason, we’re not talking enough about something that is common, and important.
It shouldn’t be so easy for men like me to blithely waltz through life without any knowledge of the subject or its impact on people’s lives. I’d like to hear more about individual experiences – otherwise it’s hard to know the right way to use empathy. I’d like to be more sensitive to people’s experiences, and not be reliant on guesswork or occasional glimpses of the truth. And of course, I haven’t even mentioned the menopause so far, which is telling in itself.
I think it was right that those twelve and thirteen year old girls had their own space in the sports hall to hear about what was going to happen to their bodies. But at the same time, I wish it hadn’t been kept entirely out of sight, hidden, and not discussed. Maybe the school could have found something useful for the boys to do – wouldn’t it have been better if we had been educated properly about it too? Maybe then I would have been able to tackle my own ignorance, and that of others, more confidently.
This is a guest response post from speakerjack. Click here to read the original blog post “How to Have a Happy Period: A guide to making the best out of a blood situation”