Periods Are Not A Social Construct
Updated: May 31, 2021
The impact books have on our lives is not limited to the words written between the covers. Some books inspire new thoughts and send us to unexpected places. Follow me Down the Rabbit Hole in this recurring segment.
Last week in The Revolutionary Idea of Normalizing Normal I wrote about how segregating sex education content according to gender perpetuates the stigma surrounding menstrual periods. It does more than that, though. Having separate girl and boy classes completely disregards everyone else, namely transgendered, intersex, and non-binary students. In her book Seeing Red author Kirsten Karchmer introduced me to a term that I am a little embarrassed I hadn’t come across before: people with periods (PWP). Because of course, women aren’t the only people who menstruate. Just as not all women menstruate.
Some might find this confusing particularly if they are unfamiliar with the difference between sex and gender. Sex refers to biological differences such as chromosomes and reproductive organs, while gender is a social construct that can differ between cultures and change over time. In lay terms, humans made-up gender. Conveniently (or inconveniently, depending on who you are), those in power were able to define gender characteristics that benefitted them, such as the idea that women are naturally subservient and men are naturally promiscuous. Gender stereotyping divides people along a binary into weak/strong, emotional/rational, follower/leader, to name a few. A problem arises since humans are much more complicated than all that, which is why gender is now widely accepted as a spectrum, and a person’s sex is not predictive of their gender. This is an important point in understanding that the word “woman” doesn’t encompass all people with periods.
For those of you that have never considered this before or have been too embarrassed to ask, lets take a quick minute to look at the language of gender beyond the binary man/woman. A quick disclaimer: I’m not an expert, and there is some nuance involved, as would be expected for anything that falls on a spectrum. Consider this an introductory crash course—a jumping off point.
Gender identity is about how a person experiences their gender internally. It’s about feeling male, female, neither, or somewhere in between. Gender expression is about external or public presentation of gender, and relies on cultural context since gender is a social construct. This includes things like preferred pronouns. Cis indicates that a person’s gender identity corresponds with the sex they were assigned at birth, while trans indicates their gender differs from their sex assigned at birth. Nonbinary and gender queer are two of many terms that describe a person that does not identify as exclusively male or female. Gender nonconforming is exactly what it sounds like—it means someone doesn’t conform to gender norms. Non-gendered refers to someone without gender. Transsexual refers to someone who has physically transitioned to a gender other than that assigned at birth. This can include hormone replacement or surgery. Not all transgendered people are transsexual, meaning physical transition is not a prerequisite for being transgendered. It’s all very personal. That’s another way of saying it’s private. Which is another way of saying, it’s rude to ask someone about their genitals. Endosex describes when a persons reproductive and sexual anatomy matches typical definitions of either male or female. Intersexis a general term that describes when reproductive and sexual anatomy varies from the typical definitions of male and female. Intersex people are much more common than I realized. The Intersex Society of North America estimates that while 1 in 1500 to 1 in 2000 people are born with noticeably atypical genitalia at birth, the number of people whose anatomy doesn’t neatly fit into “male” or “female” is closer to 1 in 100.
Let that sink in for a minute. At 1 in 100, people with intersex anatomy are more common than identical twins (1 in 250). In all likelihood, we all know someone who is intersex without realizing it. In fact, some people don’t discover they are intersex until puberty, and some never find out.
Now that we’re equipped with a little more vocabulary beyond man and woman, let’s get back to the term people with periods and consider the question: who menstruates? It’s not simple enough to say women do, because some don’t. Some proportion of people who identify as: cis-women, trans-men, nonbinary, non-gender, endosex females, and intersex people with uteruses. It’s possible that I missed some, too. The point is, endosex cis-women do not own menstruation. Personally, I think it’s a strange thing to try and ‘own’ especially since many people with periods suffer while menstruating.
Keeping all that in mind, consider once again what I talked about last week in The Revolutionary Idea of Normalizing Normal. Teaching all children about menstruation could reduce so much suffering, particularly for marginalized people with periods. Consider a trans-boy getting his period for the first time away from home. Period products are not typically available in men’s rest rooms, where as most women’s rest rooms have coin operated vending machines that dispense tampons or pads. Now consider this story of a boy discovering he is intersex only after getting his first period. Menstrual education for “girls only” leaves some young people behind. The last thing young people need when they’re menstruating is somebody telling them their experience doesn’t count.
Inclusive language tells us that inclusivity is important. The language of everyday life contributes to the stories we tell and the world we construct. Supporting the promotion of menstrual health without including everyone who menstruates is not feminism. Feminism is about equality, and excluding certain people with periods from the conversation inadvertently supports the same social construct that made menstrual health a shameful subject in the first place. Equality is a destination we all must arrive at together.
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