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Why can't we talk about periods more honestly?

Having an open discussion is vital to our reproductive health, says Kat Lister

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By Kat Lister on

Let me tell you about the last time I chatted about periods with a male friend. “Kaaaaat?” a cautious voice trembled as we slurped our wine. “Can I ask you a question?” Sure, I answered, what’s up? “It’s about tampons,” he emphasised, waiting for the green light to proceed. A nod was duly given. I answered his question about tampon sizes and menstrual flow. He listened intently. I joked about the time a friend’s boyfriend asked her if she’d ever felt sexually aroused inserting one. We laughed; he thanked me – and then we went back to drinking our Pinot.

I was reminded of this conversation when ActionAid UK got in touch with me about World Menstrual Hygiene Day – an annual awareness day that aims to break taboos and shine a light on the importance of menstrual hygiene. Charities like ActionAid are raising awareness about the millions of women and girls around the world who don’t have access to clean and safe sanitary products. Girls like 13-year-old Wesal, who was forced to abandon her home in Syria and fled across the Jordanian border. When Wesal and her sisters have their periods, Wesal’s grandmother faces a heart-wrenching choice: buy sanitary towels or food for the family. They can’t afford both.

Open dialogues matter, especially when it comes to raising awareness about girls like Wesal who can’t access the sanitary products they need. In order to ignite a conversation about periods this year, ActionAid commissioned a YouGov poll to explore our attitudes towards menstruation here in the UK. The results are surprising. Not only did the charity discover that a quarter of women in the UK (aged between 16 and 39) don’t actually understand their menstrual cycle, the research also flagged just how uncomfortable many women still feel about discussing periods – especially with the opposite sex.

In fact, 37 per cent of women said they felt uncomfortable discussing their periods with male friends, Yet, only 17 per cent of men who were surveyed said they’d feel uncomfortable discussing their female friends’ menstrual cycle. Ditto for dads: nearly half (47 per cent) of women surveyed said they would feel uncomfortable discussing periods with their dads – but conversely only 9 per cent of men said they would feel uncomfortable discussing periods with their daughters.

Attitudes may well be changing, but until 100 per cent of men feel comfortable hearing about menstruation, there will always be a significant percentage of women who feel uncomfortable talking about it

So, what’s going on here? When I sat down to analyse this gender discrepancy, I roped in my husband as well. We discussed how open I’ve always been about my periods and he reminded me of the time (quite early on in our relationship) blood leaked onto the bed sheets during the night. The next morning, I simply shrugged, expressed some annoyance and shoved the linen in the washing machine. Like the tampon chat over wine I had with my male friend, I’ve never felt weird talking about this stuff. As a consequence, my husband’s never felt embarrassed engaging with it. But, here’s the thing: I’ve never had a bad or awkward experience conversing with men about periods. Many women have. I wonder whether this stonewalls confidence when it comes to being open about a perfectly natural process that occurs every month.

When I asked friends, this seemed to sum up a general consensus. Many women shared baffling anecdotes: from boyfriends who freaked out over a drop of blood on the bedspread (“It must have been the size of, maybe, a 5p?” my friend shared. “And he said: "THIS MUST NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN"), to awkward teen relationships (“I had a boyfriend when I was sixteen who was terrified of the string on tampons,” another friend told me. When he finally saw one in action – shall we say, “hanging out” – hilarity ensued: “He literally jumped out the bath screaming, like a proper phobia”). 

Last year, Penny Lancaster revealed that she ties red cotton round her wrist to alert her husband Rod Stewart when she’s menstruating. Speaking on ITV's Loose Women, she explained that she came up with the idea so that she didn’t have to keep explaining she was on her period to her husband. “'It was just like 'how can I raise that red flag, emergency emergency',” she said. Her husband wasn’t listening.

Attitudes may well be changing, but until 100 per cent of men feel comfortable hearing about menstruation, there will always be a significant percentage of women who feel uncomfortable talking about it. No woman should be socially conditioned to expect potential embarrassment, outrage or disregard as a byproduct of her period. Not all of us have the strength and patience to play Russian Roulette every time we mention it.

We owe it to girls like Wesal to speak up and listen, without defaulting to slang words, red faces, code bracelets and euphemisms. A woman’s development should never be hampered due to stigmas or taboos surrounding menstruation. Periods are a natural part of life – for both women and men. They should be venerated, not shamed into silent submission.


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