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It’s Time To Expand The Menstruation Conversation

flickr/Hey Paul Studios

Gender segregation in sex ed only breeds misinformation.

I want to clarify that “middle school” is not a topic that I willingly return to. For me, middle school was a time of bubblegum caught in braces, hormone-charged crushes, and embarrassing growths of every variety. It was also a time when my school first began tackling that universally blush-worthy topic: the human body. I recently spoke to a few of my male friends about their middle school sex education. And honestly, what the hell were they learning?

At my school, the boys were segregated from the girls when the time came to broach the puberty talk. I asked my male friends about sex education because I wanted to know what went on in their separate room. In the “girls room,” we talked about menstruation and were given little period packs filled with tampons and illustrated pamphlets. According to them, the boys had discussed puberty, sexual feelings, and morning erections. The school tailored the talks to the students’ anatomy. In the same way that I didn’t learn about penises and what happens to them in the morning, the boys didn’t learn about vaginas and what happens to them every month.

There were other differences, too. In the room I was in, unlike in the “boys room,” we didn’t talk about the normalization of sexuality, as if the absence of erections cancelled out the possibility of sexual feelings. I, and the girls in the room with me, didn’t talk about sex or dating in a classroom setting until three years later, when all eighth graders had to take a mandatory health class.

At the time, I didn’t think much about the gender separation, and it made sense that we were put in different rooms to discuss the issues that affected us. Like most everyone, I’d been taught from a young age that periods happen to girls and boners happen to boys—a reductive, cisnormative view that, among other issues, erases and stigmatizes the experiences of transgender children. Associating menstruation exclusively with girls can be particularly damaging to trans boys, who may already feel uncomfortable with their periods.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to understand other ways, too, in which this enforced segregation can have negative impacts. For instance,I was embarrassed buying tampons when my cashier was male. I didn’t like talking about my period around guys — although I would shamelessly use “period cramps” as an excuse not to participate in gym class (you could almost see my male gym teacher visibly shudder when the word “period” was mentioned). I internalized that periods didn’t just happen to girls, they were not to be acknowledged around men.

My discomfort discussing my period around men hinted at a broader question: Would I still be embarrassed if boys had been present in the room when I learned about menstruation?

I internalized that periods were not to be acknowledged around men. Click To Tweet

I believe that the answer is no. Segregating boys and girls during sex education sessions contributes to a culture in which periods are seen as taboo to talk about with men, or indeed in public at all. During my middle school experience, the physical separation of the girls and boys created the impression that periods are a topic to be discussed solely among women. It is this physical separation which directly contributes to a culture of stigmatization around the topic of menstruation.

The concept of separation leading to stigmatization also works in reverse: Stigmatization leads to separation. In certain communities, cisgender girls and women are required to live in a hut outside of their villages while they are menstruating. In India, for instance, the Gond and Madiya ethnic groups banish menstruating women outside the boundaries of the village for the duration of their periods (Kaur, “Banished for menstruating: the Indian women isolated while they bleed”). Last year, in Nepal, an 18-year old girl died of a snakebite that she sustained while isolated in a “menstruation hut” (Bhandari and Nashar, “Shunned During Her Period, Nepali Woman Dies of Snakebite”). In India and Nepal, women are placed into dangerous situations because of menstruation’s stigmatization.

The shame associated with menstruation also plays a part in religion. In traditional Jewish and evangelical Christian communities, a woman who is on her period is untouchable. According to Chapters 15 to 18 of Leviticus, if you touch a menstruating woman, you become “tum’ah,” or “impure.” The notion that menstruation is impure highlights its stigma. The enforced, unseen boundaries of menstruating women from those around them transforms internal stigma into physical separation.

How Sex Education Fails Queer And Trans Kids

The twinned relationship between separation and stigmatization exists because of cisgender male aversion to menstruation. From a young age, boys’ lack of education about the topic leads to discomfort and even prejudice. In 1986, when Dr. J. Brooks-Gunn and Dr. Diane Ruble analyzed the reactions of college-age cisgender men and women to menstruation, they found that men, who had an inferential understanding of menstruation rather than an experiential understanding, believed that periods were more debilitating than women did. The male participants also believed that periods affected women’s “moodiness” more than the female participants. These viewpoints feed into misogynistic tropes about women: they’re moody or “hysterical;” they won’t work as hard as a man on the job because of their “debilitating” periods.

Since the 1980s, there have been a host of other studies that have confirmed that the way men and women perceive menstruation is different, and that men see periods more negatively. In 2016, three decades after the study conducted by Brooks-Gunn and Ruble, Tamara Peranovic and Brenda Bentley found that when male respondents were growing up, they saw periods as “taboo,” and shrouded in secrecy. This impacted their openness to discussing periods as adults, and led them to believe that periods were a “woman’s problem.” Similarly, Brooks-Gunn and Ruble’s study posits that the difference between how cis women and men see periods is due to information asymmetry. Interestingly, certain male respondents in the Peranovic and Bentley study were “dissatisfied with the education they received” about periods.

From a young age, boys’ lack of education about the topic of menstruation leads to discomfort and even prejudice. Click To Tweet

From my own experience as a teenager, I gathered that periods are seen as “dirty,” and are considered a “dirty” topic to talk to men about — my gym teacher’s wince was enough to teach me that men don’t like to think about menstruation. But why should that be the case? Menstruation is a natural function that affects half of the world’s population on a regular basis.

The way that sex education is organized depends on the state. Each state decides on its own sex education policy, and bills concerning sex education have to pass the state legislature. Currently, 24 states and the District of Columbia require public schools to teach sex education, and 33 states and the District of Columbia require students to receive instruction about HIV/AIDS. Decisions on how to actually approach sex ed, however, are mostly left up to individual school districts. It’s difficult to ascertain how many schools segregate puberty talks, or whether schools are even offering puberty talks.

Despite this, parsing the psychological literature about male and female attitudes towards menstruation demonstrates that men and women usually do not receive the same information or education about menstruation. Negative male attitudes towards periods, therefore, are largely down to information asymmetry or lack of male education on the topic.

It’s time to de-segregate sex education so that cis women no longer feel embarrassed about a natural, biological process. What’s more, de-segregating the sex education space should work both ways. Girls should learn about sexual feelings and male puberty in the same ways that boys do. That way, natural cis male experiences, such as voice drops during puberty, are less likely to be ridiculed by those who do not understand the biological underpinnings of the phenomenon. Demystifying the human body contributes to an open culture in which questions are encouraged and bodies are no longer seen as a source of shame or embarrassment.

Those who favor gender segregation during sex education claim children will feel more comfortable asking questions about their bodies if they’re separated from children of the opposite sex. This viewpoint, however, not only enforces the idea that one should only be comfortable talking about one’s body around those of the same gender, but excludes the experience of transgender and nonbinary students. Educating children about sexual education in the same space ensures that nobody feels misplaced or excluded.

For those who feel this is sure to cause embarrassment, there are strategies. Some schools offer an anonymous question service where students have the opportunity to write their questions on a slip of paper for teachers to answer at the end of the sex education session. Sex ed teachers can hold office hours for students to ask questions they may not feel comfortable sharing with a group. Using these strategies, nobody has to feel embarrassed asking a question, and students of all genders can hear the answers.

The conversations we have with children affect the adults they become. Periods are nothing to be embarrassed about, and if students of all genders were taught about menstruation at the same time, women might not be so uncomfortable discussing their periods in front of their male counterparts — and men might not be so uncomfortable hearing about it.

So, when teaching students about sex education, let’s tackle the body’s processes in a more inclusive way. That way, middle schoolers can focus on the truly embarrassing things in life, like pimples and parents.