#ifmenhadperiods popped up on my twitter dash today – primarily through tweeters pointing out that there is in fact a large category of men who may indeed menstruate: trans men. Casual cissexism aside, the most popular tweets on this hashtag seem to be expressing a general frustration with the patriarchal status quo. Kraken Syllabub gets to the heart of this in a series of eloquent tweets that frame the problem not as “what if men had periods”, but “what if bodies that menstruated were – and had always been – socially privileged?”:
Cis (white, heterosexual) men have historically been very good at othering pretty much anyone who isn’t a man who performs masculinity in a narrowly proscribed set of ways. Which has meant women, trans people, gay people… And people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds to their own. Which got me thinking about late medieval/early modern myths of the menstruating Jewish man.
Jewish people in medieval Europe were regularly stigmatised, ghettoised, penalised and made victims of violence. While Willis Johnson has convincingly problematised the earlier scholarly conviction that medieval people routinely believed that Jewish men menstruated, by the thirteenth century Jewish people – men and women – were believed to suffer from an annual disabling bloody flux in gruesome commemoration of the crucifixion of Christ. This seems to have originated in the traditional understanding of the death of Judas; while the Vulgate states that “his middle burst and all his guts poured out”, medieval commentators came to the conclusion that his bowels came out through his anus. This grisly form of death also became associated with heretics, such as Arius, who according to the early Christian author Arator used a public toilet, down which all his intestines suddenly flowed.
Sudden, uncontrollable, bloody, defecatory death was associated with the worst sort of traitors – heretics and Jews, who had betrayed Christ. By the fourteenth century, the belief that Jewish men regularly bled from their anuses was an accepted enough part of the medical canon that it was discussed seriously at the University of Paris, where it was concluded that Jewish men had cold, wet humours, resulting in a superfluity of gross blood. Of course, medieval humoral theory also posited that women were dominated by cool, wet humours (men were as a broad category hot and dry). Now, this excessive Jewish blood was articulated as being passed through haemorrhoids – but medieval medical writers also considered a cause of haemorrhoids in women to be excessive menstrual blood. We can see that there are not too many steps between thinking Jewish men regularly bled, to thinking Jewish men had feminised bodies, to thinking that Jewish men menstruated. It was used later in the middle ages and throughout the early modern period as a reason for seeing Jewish men as essentially unmanly, grotesque and fundamentally wicked.
So in answer to the question #whatifmenhadperiods, the answer is – if they were white Christian heterosexual men, yes, tampons would probably be free and you’d get stickers to collect in every pack of your favourite menstruating heroes. But if men who are outside the norm are perceived as having menstruating bodies, that is likely to be used as another stick to beat them with: they are grotesque because they are menstruating men; they are grotesque because menstruation means they are not men. Transphobia and antisemitism, like many other oppressions, enjoy pinning their victims between a rock and a hard place.
As always a thought provoking post!
I feel as if I should agree with so much of this, but I find it hard. You write as if ‘cis’ women all have periods, and as if to presume periods are a normative aspect of being a woman is ‘cissexist’.
But the phrase ‘if men menstruated …’ is not a simple biological speculation, as you’re implying. It is a shorthand to indicate that the physical needs of the category of people society recognises as superior (which rarely includes transmen, who are often discriminated against) are accommodated. It is an attack on the way in which society renders physical disadvantage necessary only in those individuals not already recognised as part of the dominant class.
A lot of cis women do not, and cannot, have evidence of a regular menstrual cycle. And yet, society presumes that ‘women’ have periods. A woman who does not menstruate is liable to be read as a defective women, whether that’s because she is a transwoman, or because she is not as fertile (because of age, because of innate physical issues, because of the way her body has been treated). But that woman won’t escape the assumption that it is ‘women’ who have periods. That women won’t be excluded from the assumption she’s irrational because it’s ‘the time of the month’, or left out of a debate on whether or not she’s fertile. Those women should be entitled to observe the gendered paradigms that hurt them. Calling them ‘cissexist’ is really appalling.
I do find it telling that you have just shared a post about pregnancy as the root cause of oppression of ‘women’. Apparently, that is acceptable. So why is this situation different?
Sorry, I feel I’ve put that so combatively – but I was struggling to phase it. What bothers me is: why is it that experiences such as pregnancy are worthy of being discussed as an issue for ‘women,’ whereas issues such as menstruation are policed in this way? Surely, there will be many people who have much to say about pregnancy as a positive experience, and there will be hugely greater numbers of people who will have much to say about menstruation, miscarriage and similar as negative experiences. So why only police the speech of those in the latter category?
I don’t think I’m policing anyone’s speech, Lucy! I’m actually unsure what it is in my post that makes you think I’m doing that? I’m quite confused by these comments, which don’t really seem to be engaging with my post – which doesn’t in any way say that women’s reproductive capacity (one physical product of which its menstruation) is not a central root of their historic oppression. Because it is, and I’ve spoken and written about that on many occasions. But it is innately cissexist to assume that there is no category of men that can menstruate, given I know several men who do. These two points don’t cancel each other out. It’s entirely possible to recognise that menstruation – having a gestational body – is a primary reason for the oppression of women globally, and acknowledging that not all gestational bodies are women’s bodies. That latter acknowledgement doesn’t undermine the struggle of women to have their reproductive health valued, for instance.
It seems to me that you are mostly reacting negatively to my use of the word cissexist , rather than the rest of the content of my post, as I didn’t call anybody in particular cissexist or identify any specific tweets in that way. I’m not sure who exactly I’m supposed to have done this to: “Those women should be entitled to observe the gendered paradigms that hurt them. Calling them ‘cissexist’ is really appalling”.
I don’t quite understand the response of Jeanne de Montbaston, who appears to be taking Meny Snoweballes to task, whilst actually taking issue with a position which neither this piece – nor the tweets from which it takes its lead – adopts. The above seems to me an intriguing historical vignette with thought-provoking implications – as the final paragraph demonstrates – for our understanding of the complexity of ‘othering’. I don’t see any advocacy for speech policing.
Thanks, Richard. I do hope I never try to police anybody’s speech – but that I do try to consider ways our historic patriarchal legacy is visible, sometimes in quite new forms, today.
I apologise if I am misunderstanding – and, I did say, I found this quite hard to articulate.
But, my issue was with you calling the ‘if men had periods’ meme ‘classic cissexism’.
I don’t follow how it is. And it seems to me that, if you call that ‘cissexism,’ but simultaneously post about pregnancy being a root cause of ‘women’s’ oppression, you’re encouraging a double standard, in which it’s ok for us to discuss pregnancy as an issue for women, but not for us to discuss periods as an issue for women.
The ‘if men had periods’ meme is not presuming that there is no category of men who have periods, is it? It’s attacking the social assumption that having periods is a feminine issue, something that a certain category of the population should just put up with. If you are a person who has periods but doesn’t identify as a woman, or a person who doesn’t have periods but identifies as a woman, you are liable to find this quite upsetting – but you can’t simply waive the structural oppression behind that social assumption.
So, it seems to me, if you read that meme as ‘cissexist,’ you surely are policing speech? You’re refusing to acknowledge any non-cissexist way of interpreting that meme. You cannot reasonably use that term, and then say that you didn’t intend it to apply to anyone.
And it seems to me that, if you call that ‘cissexism,’ but simultaneously post about pregnancy being a root cause of ‘women’s’ oppression, you’re encouraging a double standard, in which it’s ok for us to discuss pregnancy as an issue for women, but not for us to discuss periods as an issue for women.
But… I never said that we can’t discuss periods as an issue for women? Periods definitely are an issue for women. Indeed, I’ve talked very frequently about the difficulties women have in obtaining assistance with menstrual health problems, largely as a result of systemic sexism. It is an issue that has affected me personally – 23 years of problematic, painful menstruation and poor quality medical care built on sexist assumptions (e.g. “you’ll have better periods after you’ve had a baby!” “You just have to put up with it, sorry”) has definitely made me alive to the inherent sexism of women’s health treatment and the popular perception of the menstruating body.
But saying periods are ONLY an issue for women IS cissexist. The stuff I posted about pregnancy never said that pregnancy is only an issue for women, either, because I also know men and nonbinary people for whom pregnancy has been a lived reality. It is *primarily* a women’s issue, but simple hashtags like #ifmenhadperiods make the assumption that sex and gender are binaries that result in binary experiences. None of this negates the experience of women. The sad thing about patriarchy is that it crushes women, but it also crushes basically anyone who isn’t a masculine heterosexual man.
But that meme isn’t say periods are only an issue for women. The hashtag is a really important one for a lot of women – I don’t think it’s fair or true to say it makes any assumptions.
Isn’t this like ‘NAMLT’? If you prevent people from making a statement about the generalisations that harm them – generalisations made by the patriarchy and enforced upon them – you are robbing them of a way to understand structural oppression.
If I make the statement ‘violence is male-dominated,’ someone can always reply ‘oh, no, women are violent too’. Ok, maybe that is just a little annoying in a conversation. But what about if you cannot get your necessary study into domestic violence funded, because the statement ‘violence is male-dominated’ is unsayable? What if you can’t develop your necessary interventions, because that statement is unsayable? And so on.
The hashtag ‘if men had periods …’ is necessary because it opens up a space where people can recognise that this is a gendered oppression, rooted in a fiction of the way women’s bodies *should* be.
I do believe that this approach does negate women’s experiences – it acts as if biology is the most important thing (do you, and individual, bleed or not?), and as if patriarchy will respect that. It won’t.
Patriarchy also – often less visibly – crushes some heterosexual males, who are deeply uncomfortable with many of the attendant expectations. I know this is not disallowed either by the letter or spirit of your observations, but your careful nuancing of the discussion suggests that it may be helpful to avoid unequivocally othering the otherer.
And I’m a little uncomfortable with the statement “patriarchy… crushes basically anyone who isn’t a heterosexual male” for another reason: many who are not heterosexual males would dispute it. Which raises the bogey of false consciousness and all of the intellectual condescension that goes with it. I’d prefer to say that patriarchy structures society in ways which tend overwhelmingly to privilege heterosexual males – economically, culturally, socially, etc. – and thereby systematically limits the choices available to others. Some of those others, I presume, live happily within those limitations and I’d not want to tell them that they are ‘crushed’.
And btw, your argument appears to be more one of style than substance (if I may be permitted to say so). You might agree on the legitimacy of the hashtag ‘If more men had periods’ (sorry I don’t tweet and can’t find the damned hashtag on my keyboard). But a) it would probably open up a rather different debate to the intended one; and b) it doesn’t have the rhetorical power of ‘If men had periods’. Lucy, it seems to me, wants the rhetorical (and, by extension, political) power of generalisation. Rachel presses for the nuances of a more defensible position. Both are necessary, but they have different purposes.
I’m probably in regions where angels fear to tread.