My sister once told me a story of a substitute teacher she had, a sweet woman with kind eyes and an adorable bob. She arrived at school wearing a black dress dappled with bright, white flower designs. This teacher walked up and down the aisles as my sister’s classmates worked on math problems. She leaned over my sister’s desk to answer a question, and the boy behind her audibly asked what smelled like fish. The girl next to the teacher pointed out that a few of the flowers on the bottom of her dress had turned red. The teacher ran from the room, wordlessly and sobbing, before there was even any reaction from the class. As far as my sister could tell, she never returned to the school.
I think of that story more often than is probably reasonable. I think of it every time I’ve had to teach a class with spilt coffee on my shirt (Could be worse, right?) and every time I smell raw fish (What a gross comparison!). Most often, I think of that poor woman. I became a substitute in that county after college, and I know she likely lost her job for running out and leaving the room unattended — the rulebook spells it out in bold and has an asterisk referencing Columbine. It’s a requirement they don’t bend on. Subs are not to leave the room no matter what, not even in the face of abject humiliation.
I always want to embellish my telling of this story and say that my response to my sister was “Damn, why was she so ashamed?” or “It’s perfectly natural, so there was no reason to run out like that.” I want to claim an innocent, progressive ignorance as sweet as it is false.
Around age eleven, when my sister told me that story, I was already treating the female reproductive cycle with fearful distance and odd fascination — much the same way that I unceremoniously approached road kill. After a stilted round of preliminary Sex Ed in school, I had a vague notion of how it sort-of worked. I had trouble with the terms uterus and womb and when to use which; I wondered who the Dr. Fallopian was who discovered those tubes (16th century Italian anatomist Gabriele Falloppio, if you wanted to know); I found the word “ovulation” arousing to an almost inappropriate degree — still do, actually. But I got the basics.
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What followed that educational experience was a strange mental game resembling the movie They Live. I eyed the girls in my class and the women in my life with so many questions about their insides: I wondered how it felt to carry eggs, and whether they could feel them, and how they could deal with menstruation, especially the ones who were astronauts and athletes and had no access to Winn Dixies like the one my sister regularly sent me to for tampons and Midol. They told us that girls could start menstruating as young as ten, and I looked at my peers and tried to discern how similar the smell of their used pads might be to my mother’s tampons — which I had begun to dig out of the trash and study.
I thought and did and studied all of this in secret. I knew enough about social nuance to understand that menstruation wasn’t a polite topic to bring up or ask about. I got that you don’t mention periods with just anybody. It was supposed to be gross and too personal. Dudes were supposed to think menstrual blood was disgusting. Girls were supposed to hide it at all costs.
For a long time, I’ve tried to figure out why that particular point stuck. I have always been terrible at understanding what is and is not an okay topic. I had a date once that dissolved into awkward silence after I gave an excited lecture — complete with pictures — on how spider venom can split skin after infection. I often judge the quality of my friendships on how people react to casual remarks on Israel/Palestine. I’m not good at nuance. I did, however, figure out that menstruation is to be viewed through a lens of shame and so, my childish interest waned into an adult-ish calm.
One of my favorite guilty pleasure films (not exclusively because of my slight crush on Michael Cera) is Superbad, a movie that features Jonah Hill awkwardly dancing at a party with a short-skirted drunk girl who subsequently leaves a menstrual stain on his pants. The mark is how her jealous fiancé pinpoints whom to assault. (He has one as well.) That stain is ridiculed by the other partygoers, a moment in which Hill’s character feels the humiliation of a dark circle of red on his body.
When I saw the movie in theaters, that scene got audible groans of disgust from the dude-bro audience surrounding me. I’ve watched it on DVD and had male friends ask me to fast-forward the scene. On TV, it’s often cut out completely. All of those responses are expected, but not because our vulgar-yet-lovable protagonist is Mark of Cain’d with a little uterine-lining. It’s expected because of hack writing that plays to the fact that we’re so damn conditioned to treat an ordinary biological process like a moment of mutilation — even castration, in this particular instance.
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I want to be clear: It is not enlightenment that allows me, as a cis-male, to not buy into the narrative of menstruation as something to be loathed. It’s also not any kind of fetish. Though menophiliacs, also referred to as “Blood Hounds” who get off on sex with menstruating individuals, are certainly a thriving and visible sector in the fetish community, I don’t happen to be one of them. I’m just a weird obsessive who has trouble getting what I can and cannot consider taboo. The shamefulness here was apparent and institutionally ingrained enough that I understood its existence, even if I was always too “weird” to give it credence.
In my activism work, I’ve facilitated some workshops discussing sexual education and sexual positivity. When I’ve spoken about being okay with cunnilingus or sex during my partner’s period, it inevitably comes with some groans of disgust. This is despite study after study detailing how sex can ease cramps, how the state of the nervous system during menstruation can intensify orgasm, and how the liquids involved act as a fantastic additional lubricant. This is a space where I am literally preaching to the converted, and still I can’t get past that insistence of grossness.
I don’t need to iterate the societal implications of this struggle. I grew up hearing stories about menstrual huts in some cultures, scriptural precedence in certain faiths of how men shouldn’t even sit on the same chairs that menstruating women have used, and stupid comedian after stupid comedian contributing to rape culture with their own hack jokes of women having werewolf-esque transformations once a month.
The only stories I should need to tell to shift this culture should be that of my sister’s substitute teacher. A sweet, intelligent woman has a perfectly normal bodily experience, and her environment recontextualizes it into a betrayal of her own biology.
I may be the weird kid who dug tampons out of my mother’s garbage, but even I can tell that what happened to my sister’s teacher isn’t right.
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[Feature image: The photograph features a hand with bright, pink nails holding a green tampon.]