The mystery shrouding female anatomy is so looming that many women don’t even dare explore below their own waistline. According to a 2014 study by British charity group The Eve Appeal, only half of women aged 26 to 35 could identify the vagina on a diagram. The following year, they did another study where 83 percent of women reported never having discussed female sexual anatomy with their parents.
Men’s understanding of female sexual anatomy is even less informed. Ask a man what he knows about menstruation. He may know that a woman has a monthly cycle or how she gets pregnant (thanks, middle school health class), but the topic may also leave men scratching their heads.
For International Tampon Alert Day in 2015, Huffington Post published a video in which they quizzed men on the use of pads, tampons, and menstrual cups. With red faces and several apologies, the participants’ discomfort is evident, as most of them couldn’t even figure out how to remove a tampon from its applicator.
This is just one example of how little education men receive around the most natural of bodily processes. And while it’s easy to blame them, we also need to look critically at how we treat conversations about menstruation around men. Do we quietly whisper to our girlfriends for a tampon so no men hear us? Do we tell our male friends they might want to leave the room when someone starts talking about periods?
What constitutes “relevant”?
Discomfort around period talk is not helped by the fact that the topic is often kept hush-hush. We are taught to be discreet about our period symptoms and to avoid public (and often private) conversations about it. Men are often excused from the conversation entirely. According to a 2016 global survey, of the 90,000 women interviewed, the majority of them did not feel comfortable talking about their period with the men in their lives. To highlight how early this starts, it’s important to understand how sexual education is taught in schools.
As of January 1, 2017, Guttmacher Institute reports that only 24 states, plus the District of Columbia, mandate sex education and only 13 states require that the curriculum be medically accurate. Even further, many schools make the choice to separate boys and girls during instruction and teach them the “relevant” content, according to their sex.
Girls and boys should learn about menstruation together
Puberty: The Wonder Years, a curriculum for fourth to sixth graders, lists out some of the cons of teaching boys and girls sex education separately:
- Instructing boys and girls separately can perpetuate the aura of stigma and add to the mystery of the topic
- Boys and girls miss the opportunity to practice communicating with each other about sensitive topics as they will need to if and when they develop intimate relationships in the future
- Boys and girls miss the opportunity to learn about topics from each other’s perspectives when they don’t discuss topics together
- Students are less likely to develop empathy for the changes and challenges experienced by the other sex
Ultimately, the creators of the curriculum suggest that boys and girls are taught the same content and that the majority of the sessions be co-ed. It also suggests to “offer one or two sessions with gender-segregated classes to allow students to discuss topics that are unique to their sex, such as menstruation and nocturnal emissions (optional),” but as we’ve discussed, it is just as important for boys to learn about menstruation as well.
The larger impact of menstruation education
Teaching boys about menstruation and other facts related to female sexual health promotes communication, lessens stigma, and creates more empathy. Not having these conversations between boys and girls at an early age can have a large impact on the world.
Consider the tampon tax, the sales tax you pay when you purchase pads, tampons, and other feminine hygiene products. This tax exists because most states believe feminine hygiene products are a luxury or, at the very least, not a necessity. According to Fusion, only five states in the U.S. have made the deliberate decision not to tax tampons. It also points out that since sales tax varies from state to state, all 50 states would have to agree if the U.S. wanted to ban the tampon tax. If the men making these decisions in government roles had a better context and understanding for women’s health, these kinds of issues may not even exist.
Bringing men into the fight to end period shaming
There are tons of organizations fighting to destigmatize periods. One great example, The Periods Are Not An Insult campaign was created after President Trump made a remark about a female journalist back in 2015. Most campaigns that are working to bring menstrual conversations to the mainstream are run by women but some boys are getting in on the action by helping provide feminine hygiene products to their female peers.
One organization put it perfectly: “It’s time to put the word ‘men’ into “menstrual hygiene.” Last year for Father’s Day, Dignity Period made a list of the ways men can stand alongside women and support their menstrual health:
- Provide support at home or school when a girl faces her first period, or a woman has an embarrassing or difficult experience.
- As a community member who can challenge taboos, social norms, and stigma, men have the power to influence the attitudes of others (both male and female).
- As teachers or employers, men can ensure that the school or work environment makes it easy for girls and women to manage menstruation with dignity.
- Men who are professional engineers, social development specialists, managers, or medical professionals can support programs for improving the menstrual hygiene context for girls and women.
To help end the stigma around women’s periods, a natural part of women’s sexual health, start to live with transparency and start conversations with the men in your life—your sons, brothers, partners, friends, and peers.
Ask them what they know about menstruation (the process, symptoms, and products), what they learned in school, and if they have any questions. Be vocal about when you are on your period and if you’re not feeling well because of it. Conversation is a catalyst to change and the more we desensitize men to talking about menstruation, the easier it will be to get them onboard with dismantling the societal stigma around it.