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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