Maria asks… ‘Why are periods such a taboo?’

One of the reasons for creating this blog was for us to discuss issues relating to gender and sexuality. As well as reporting on our meetings, we would like for this blog to be a platform on which we and you can write on the subject of gender and sexuality. If you would like to write for us, please let us know.  

Below is the first in what we hope is a number of articles that will be posted on this site on gender and sexuality related topics. The author of this article is our co-organiser Maria Tomlinson who asks… ‘Why are periods such a taboo?’ The opinions held in the article below and completely hers (bar the theorists etc. to whom she refers) and she hopes you find it insightful yet entertaining. 

You may remember in March the controversy over a certain photo on Instagram. Photographer Rupi Kaur posted a photo of a girl lying in bed wearing pyjamas with a menstrual bloodstain on both her tracksuit bottoms and on the sheets. Instagram removed this photo twice as the powers that be deemed it to be offensive and too graphic. When one in two of us in the world have to live with periods every month, and it is a completely natural biological process, why did Istagram try to forbid the user from displaying this photo? More importantly, why did many of the people who viewed this photo react to it with disgust? (Even I myself felt a slight repulsion towards it).

Well, in Western society the idea that periods are polluting, contagious, and should be kept out of sight goes all the way back to biblical times. In the Bible the menstrual taboo manifests itself in Leviticus. In this book, it is suggested that women be ‘put apart for seven days’ (Leviticus 15:1) when they are menstruating and that their husbands must not approach them for sexual activity during this time. It even states in Leviticus that if a man ‘lies with a woman’ on her period they should both ‘be put apart among their people.’ (Leviticus 20:18) Therefore, according to the Bible, a menstruating woman is taboo to her husband especially because going near her may lead to both of them being banished from the community – a pretty serious punishment! This menstrual taboo also exists in other religious texts such as the Qur’an, which forbids a menstruating woman from praying, fasting, and entering a mosque, and also in various Hindu scriptures, which insist that a menstruating woman must not handle food that others will be eating or even do housework (this may be a nice break perhaps). All of these restrictions reinforce sexual difference and women’s subordinate position in society.

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Translation “I am Menstruating” “Graffiti Ljubljana 82” by MZaplotnik

Some feminists think that the idea of PMS is a patriarchal construct devised by medics in order to keep women in their places by painting the female body as deviant. The thinking behind this line of argument is that men feel threated by women (why wouldn’t they, we are pretty awe-inspiring) and want the inconvenience of menstruation to stop them from advancing in their work place. I don’t agree completely with this view point, but I am sympathetic to Dale Spender’s declaration that menstruation ‘would have been the locus for glorification had it been the experience of men.’ (See ‘Defining reality: a powerful tool’ in Language and Power, eds. Mureil Schulz et al) The Bible states that semen is only polluting for one day, yet menstrual blood is polluting for seven days. Of course, there is no explanation as to why. Perhaps if women had written the Bible, it would have been the other way round. It is unsurprising, then, if we bear in mind the religious traditions upon which our societies are built, that we treat periods and their representation with such aversion and despondency. We fear contamination and pollution, and therefore images such as that which appeared on Istagram provoke in us a sense of horror as if our mere gazing upon the menstrual blood of another may infect us.

 In fact, our reaction to this blood is what feminist and post-structuralist theorist Kristeva would call ‘abject’. Kristeva mentions periods as one of the many bodily discharges, such as excrement or pus, which incites an abject reaction in those who witness it. According to Kristeva, the reason why menstrual blood revolts us is that it reminds us of the fleshy boundaries of our bodies and by association our mortality. Because of our disgust for anything that reminds us of our animalistic nature, we try hard to not think about the materiality of blood and try extremely hard to hide the fact that we are bleeding. This is evident when we contemplate that girls are taught about menstruation at school in terms of hygiene and how to conceal their menstrual flow from others. Menstruation is rarely described in a positive light (e.g. “It means you are fertile – hurray!”). Often a mothers only gives her daughter information after the onset of her first period, but again this is usually only about how to remain clean and how to disguise the fact that she is menstruating (“Don’t let any boys see you with sanitary equipment”). Adverts are also a testament to the fact that we view periods as abject because adverts also emphasise concealment. Furthermore, when commercials show you how absorbent their tampons or sanitary towels are (you are probably slightly perturbed when reading me clearly mention such things – oh the horror) they use a blue rather than a more representative red liquid. Perhaps this is more to do with society’s fear of blood or its association with death, but it also represents our discomfort when thinking about the reality of our bleeding. Another evidence of our refusal to think about the reality of monthly bleeds is our reluctance to speaking directly about menstruation, we feel the need to refer to it euphemistically as our ‘time of the month’, ‘having the painters in’ or ‘the communists are coming’ (perhaps some wish they were after the Conservatives were re-elected) etc.

So that is a brief look at why in this day and age when we are becoming more and more open about sex (less so if you are British maybe), yet we still feel ashamed to talk about such a natural and not at all scandalous biological process that many of us experience. So women, stop beating about the bush when you need a feminine hygiene product because aunt Rose is visiting. Let’s stop feeling ashamed about the fact that we menstruate, use the word ‘period’ in front of other females and males (they’ll get used to it eventually too), and educate our children about the wonders of being a woman (bleeding and all). Then maybe just maybe one day the taboo will finally be completely broken. Happy Menstruating!

The Androgynous Female Body: Video Clips

Kirsty Lee Russell - My Identity

For those of you who were interested in Jennifer Stokes’ talk on the androgynous female body that was postponed, we would like to inform you that we are hoping to be able to arrange for her to speak again in the next academic year on another aspect of her research. In the meantime, she has kindly sent us some of her video work. These clips were going to be used as a springboard to investigate the rise in androgyny in women within mainstream culture.  In place of the proposed talk, Jennifer now invites you to watch, make a mental note of your thoughts when watching and reflect on some of the issues that the videos raise on the subject of gender and sexuality.

The pictures used in this post are stills from Jennifer’s work. To see her videos please click the links in this post.ID=Y Promotional Photograph 3 If you would like to see more of her work check out her website:

http://jenniferchristinestokes.co.uk/

Feel free to comment below!

‘Unseemly woman in a seeming man!’ 30th April

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Thank to everyone who came to our meeting today in the graduate school. Thanks especially to Yasmin Bell from the Department of Film, Theatre, and Television studies for her fascinating presentation on the gendered representation of suicide in British Tragedy. The paper sparked an interesting debate on gender roles in society during which we discussed how these are defined and constructed. We also compared how suicide was portrayed in Shakespearean tragedy with how it is depicted in the press today. Finally, we discussed the term ‘monstrous woman’ and why society portrays femininity as monstrous.

We wish Yasmin the very best for her MRes dissertation!

We really enjoyed Yasmin’s paper and we hope to see you all again for the next meeting in May which will be advertised here very shortly.

Concerning Violence: Film screening and Panel

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On Monday 23rd March around 20 PhD students gathered in the Graduate School to watch a screening of the film ‘Concerning Violence’ written and directed by Göran Olsson. After the film there was a panel discussion. The members of the panel included the chair Carl Gibson, and other panelists Yanos Soubieski, Joshua Wells and myself (Maria Tomlinson). We spoke not only about the film but also about Fanon’s work itself. We questioned whether violence was necessary and what its effects were upon the colonised subject. After this there was a lively debate on the issues raised by the panel.

As I am the co-organiser of the Gender and Sexuality Research Network, alongside Sophie Payne who we thank for her technical support, I spoke about the relationship between decolonisation and gender. Here is a summary of the issues I raised in my presentation:

I noted that Fanon barely alludes to women in The Wretched of the Earth. He speaks only of the colonised man. Fanon writes that this colonised man learns from the coloniser that he needs to express himself as an individual. I asked, ‘And the colonised woman? What about her need to express herself?’ She is doubly oppressed by colonialism and patriarchy. I noted that the film ‘Concerning Violence’ did question the lack of women in Fanon’s work by bringing women back into the picture. We see and hear from Mozambiquan women who fight in guerrilla armies for the liberation of Mozambique. These women appear hopeful for a future of equality because they have performed exactly the same duties as men during the war. We know, however, that this emancipation did not occur. As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak says in the preface of the film, when the new postcolonial state emerges women will once again be oppressed by gender structures.

I then11059401_10153183094534664_8413445246905505417_n went on, with reference to theorists such as Ann McClintock and T. Deanen Sharpley Whiting, to discuss a text in which Fanon does consider the role of women in the war, Algeria Unveiled. In this text he looks at how veiling was used during the Algerian War of Independence. He writes that Algerian women initially removed their veils and walked around in Western clothing when passing on messages or carrying weapons in order to not arouse the suspicion of the colonisers. Later, women re-donned the veil in order to conceal weapons. Fanon seems to see this as the women having agency, and using their bodies in order to liberate their country and themselves. He believes that because women fought bravely alongside men in this war they would be rewarded with emancipation afterwards. Of course, he has been proven incorrect, not only about the existence of female equality and agency after the war of liberation but also during it. In fact, Fanon’s description of a woman as a hidden resource undermines the idea of female agency he is trying to evoke, as his patriarchal language objectifies these women and identifies them as simply another weapon in the war effort. The Algerian woman is an object, as are the bombs and guns that are used against the enemy.

Finally, I concluded that Fanon may be correct in saying that the only way to achieve decolonisation is through violence. The violence of the Algerian war did lead to an independent state and indeed women played a huge part in this success. However, violence appears very much the arena of men, it brought little benefit to those Algerian women who fought bravely alongside them hoping for an emancipated future. These women are now trying to forge a path towards liberation through their voices and writing… But are the voice and pen really more powerful than the sword? This remains to be seen.

Thanks again to everyone who came and Carl for organising everything! I really enjoyed offering my perspective on the question of gender and violence, and furthermore listening to everyone’s opinions on the matter.

Please comment below if you would like to continue the debate!

13th March Meeting CANCELLATION

Unfortunately we had have to postpone our meeting on the 13th March (this Friday). We plan to organise the next meeting for the week beginning the 20th of April, the first week back of Summer Term, but we will send out more details soon.

Sorry for any inconvenience this may cause, we know that this was going to be a popular talk. Hopefully we will see you all at the next meeting!

Next Meeting: The Androgynous Female Body, 13th March

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Photo by Daniel Furlong Romo

The Gender and Sexuality Research Network at Reading is delighted to announce our next meeting on Friday 13th March from 1-2pm in G09 at the Graduate School. We hope you can join us and look forward to seeing you there for what looks to be a very interactive and interesting meeting.

Our session will be centred around Jennifer Stokes’ presentation on the androgynous female body which she has entitled:
The Androgynous Female Body: What Does This Say About Sexuality in 2015?

Jennifer will be showing us some related video clips and investigating the rise in androgyny in women within mainstream culture. She will discuss the following questions:
* Is androgyny in mainstream culture making it more acceptable to be androgynous in today’s society or is there already an acceptance?
* Who are the androgynous in 2015 and what does it mean?
* Is engaging in an androgynous lifestyle an indicator of your gender, sexuality or both?

Some more information about our speaker:
Jennifer Christine Stokes is a South East based Freelance Artist with a Dance and Technology specialism, originally from Liverpool, North West England. She has a proven interest in representing a UK reality of both the masculine and feminine within the biologically, female body through the medium of video installation. When creating material for her video installations, she selects self-identified androgynous women to explore their identity through a series of given creative tasks; enabling participants to make a contribution for the video installation and/or performance. The specifics of their contributions are then applied to the film editing process; resulting in the participants’ having full creative control. 

Welcome to the Gender and Sexuality Research Network!

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Hello everybody!

So this is our first post. Firstly, we would like to say how happy we were to see so many of you at our first meeting on the 5th February. Thank you so much for coming and we look forward to seeing you again next time. Maria really appreciated the comments you made on her paper and has enjoyed reading some of the texts you suggested.

For those of you who were not there, or who would like to know more, check out our ‘About’ page to find out who we are, how you can become involved, and when we meet. If you want to read about what happened check out our ‘Previous Meetings’ page.

In the meantime, if any of you are interested in presenting a paper at one of our future meetings please let us know. We welcome papers on any topic relating to gender and sexuality.

Looking forward to seeing you at the next meeting!

Sophie and Maria