What do men know about periods?
Periods are having a big moment. Grassroots campaigns are getting the masses interested in period poverty, the UN recently declared menstruation a matter of human rights, and a new wave of products is finally offering us more choice than the age-old tampon or pad dilemma.
Clearly it’s great that women are coming together to dismantle the period taboo. But what about men? When it comes to periods, is the average cismale becoming more enlightened, or are they still left in the dark? We asked five men of diverse ages and backgrounds just how much they understand about life with periods.
At first glance there’s reason to be optimistic. A Europe-wide study by Teva Pharmaceuticals of 5,000 straight men in relationships found that many understood plenty about their partner’s periods, including how long they last and the main symptoms, such as mood swings and pelvic pain. And yet we’ve all encountered male misconceptions about periods in our lives.
From vagueness about what periods are actually for to squeamishness at the sight of blood, anecdotal evidence would suggest that plenty of confusion still exists. A writer for Mamma Mia in Australia tells of how her boyfriend was visibly shocked to see blood in the toilet bowl after she’d been to the loo. She reassured him that she wasn’t terribly injured, it was just that she had her period. “But – it comes out when you wee?!” he asked, baffled by the mechanics of it.
Similarly in the Atlantic, Cari Romm tells of a friend who thought people could choose to menstruate when they felt like it, just like using the toilet.
“Something about an egg being released”
The five men we interviewed were – hand clap – way more clued up than that, although there was still some doubt over the biological mechanics.
Danny Vieira, 20, a second year English Literature student at Westminster University, had a pretty good idea of how periods work. “When a woman first gets a period she is physically ready for childbearing – but I suppose it’s to get rid of old eggs,” he says. “To prepare for childbirth and perhaps prepare her body for the process of having a baby in the future.”
Dave Abini, a 34-year-old PE teacher from Worcester, sounded slightly less confident. “The linings of the wall fall apart, [then]… something about an egg being released…” he trails off.
If men aren’t entirely clear on the realities of periods as adults, you can imagine the confusion they felt as kids. Peter Pacey, a 70-year-old actor from London, remembers making a baffling discovery as a 10-year-old schoolboy. “I found in the gutter a fresh packet of what turned out to be sanitary pads, with bits of elastic dangling from them,” he chuckles. “I thought, ‘I can see this is medical so must be important,’ and carried them to the police station. I had no idea what they were for.”
Nearly 30 years later, the experience of 42-year-old Rick from Surrey was slightly more informed, if not exactly enlightened. “I found out about periods aged about eight, in the playground,” he remembers. “‘Period’ was something boys used to say to each other in a tone of disgust. If you wanted to insult someone then you used the word period.”
I don’t think we boys knew anything whatsoever about the existence of periods
It’s not surprising that confusion and negativity abound when boys aren’t being taught the facts. Several of the men we interviewed say they had no education at all about menstruation. Peter spent his formative years in 1950s Brighton and recalls no mention of periods during his upbringing, either at home or school: “I don’t think we boys knew anything whatsoever about the existence of periods,” he says.
Institutional investor Adnan Al-Araby, 37, grew up in Kuwait, in a muslim household where, again, periods weren’t discussed. He didn’t even know they existed until he was a teenager and started dating. “I have to say, at that age, not understanding periods, I was a bit grossed out,” he says.
Danny can’t remember when he first heard about menstruation but he does know that “the second time was when I read Carrie. I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie, but, well. I was 11 and I thought, this must be terrifying – when they get their first period – my god.”
A big bloody taboo
It’s clear from talking to these men that there’s no lack of willingness to learn about periods, yet a general taboo surrounding menstruation has followed them through life. Even as adults, it’s hard for them to find out more. “For most of a man’s life, it’s left to his imagination,” says Rick. “You merely catch glimpses of it, quickly hidden.”
I’d like to be let in because I want to know what to say on this sensitive subject
Dave grew up in a Christian household and, again, his Ghanaian mother never mentioned periods. He now encounters the period taboo in his work as a PE teacher, when girls have occasionally missed lessons because of cycle-related symptoms. “At my school, the girls have wellbeing sessions, which as a male teacher I’m excluded from. I’d like to be let in because I want to know what to say on this sensitive subject… If someone came to me for advice, I could talk to them emotionally but I couldn’t fully back what I am saying because I don’t know much about it.”
Luckily Danny was more clued up before he had to provide exactly this kind of support for his little sister, who got her first ever period while they were out shopping together. “She suddenly said, ‘oh my god, what do I do?’” he remembers. “I said, ‘okay, don’t panic’. I took her to Superdrug, and then we found a public toilet. She was fine. Now I’m the person she talks to about periods, and all the other stuff like school.” This event seems to have fostered empathy in Danny, who says, “I have thought about what it must be like, wondering about your period coming every month, and not quite knowing exactly when… and the pain, too.”
I have thought about what it must be like, wondering about your period coming every month
Rick went one step further than this, actually figuring out his wife’s cycle and marking it in his diary so that he could be more understanding when her behaviour changed each month, rather than resenting it. “It is probably shameful how little I thought of it as anything else other than an inconvenience to me before,” he admits.
Taking a stand
It’s great to hear that men are thinking about the personal experience of having periods, but what about the bigger issues? Amika George’s #FreePeriods campaign is working to make free femcare products available in schools and workplaces. Are the men aware of the campaign and do they support it?
Young girls shouldn’t have to worry about protecting themselves when they should be thinking about schoolwork
“I’ve been aware for a while that there are many men and women saying tampons should be free, because young girls shouldn’t have to worry about protecting themselves when they should be thinking about schoolwork,” says Danny. “I completely agree with this. Just like you can get free condoms from clinics or buy them for yourself, femcare products should be the same. At the end of the day, periods serve the vital function of allowing women to carry children, so women and girls should be facilitated as much as possible with that.”
The others are aware of the issues but many were unclear on the finer detail of period poverty and the tampon tax. “If I’m honest I don’t know where that is, if it’s actually happening,” says Dave, “I think the last thing I can recall is something to do with Europe, the VAT thing.”
From boys to dads
Parents play an important role in making sure that attitudes towards periods change for the better. Rick, Dave and Adnan all have young daughters.
“I mean, there’s nothing wrong with menstruation,” he says. “It isn’t bad or dirty or wrong”
Adnan hopes his daughter we feel able to be open about periods. “I mean, there’s nothing wrong with menstruation,” he says. “It isn’t bad or dirty or wrong, it’s a normal process, and I wouldn’t want her to feel she couldn’t talk to me about it. The most important thing is for her to be confident.”
Rick feels similarly. “I would like my kids to live in a world of total gender equality in every sense,” he says. “I don’t actively look forward to [my daughters] getting their periods, and I don’t know what it will mean. It will be an important moment for them.”
Dave is less confident still. “I could just imagine me talking to a 13 year old daughter about periods and her saying: ‘Dad, you’re grossing me out!’ I think it needs to be a discussion, not just a ‘here, watch this’.”
Where do we go from here?
Judging by the differences between the generations, from 70-year-old Peter’s total lack of education to 20-year-old Danny’s relative savviness, conversations are becoming much more open. But many men parenting young girls now are still feeling the legacy of an 80s education that left too much to the imagination.
Despite this, there’s plenty of motivation to change things. Rick feels men have a definite part to play in busting the taboo. “I want to normalise periods, but I haven’t worked out how I might do that,” he says. Perhaps the same can be said for many of us, but at least the conversation has begun.
3 ways to get the ball rolling
1) People with periods: talk to your nearest and dearest about the experience. Whether it’s normalising periods for your kids or making sure your partner understands the day-to-day realities of your cycle, openness is the only way we’ll break that ages-old taboo
2) People without periods: ask questions! Not sure how or when the blood comes out exactly? Don’t know the difference between a pantyliner and a pad? Just ask! Your loved ones are unlikely to judge you for taking an interest in their lives – they’ll probably be pleased
3) Everyone: educate yourselves as much as possible. From apps like Clue that help you get in sync with your (or your loved one’s) cycle to the #FreePeriods hashtag, which you can now follow with a single click, there’s no longer any excuse for not knowing the score