Period Stigmas Have a Sticky History: A Sex Therapist Shares Her Thoughts (Exclusive)

"I love that the media is changing some representations of menstruation and sex on a period," Dr. Juliana Hauser, Ph.D., says.

Bianca Piazza - Author

Mar. 22 2024, Published 12:17 p.m. ET

Sissy Spacek on the set of "Carrie," drenched in blood.
Source: Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Sissy Spacek on the set of "Carrie," drenched in blood.

Whether Stephen King is writing about menstruation's connection to original sin in 1974's Carrie, marathon runner Kiran Gandhi is making headlines for free bleeding in 2015, or Succession's tortured jester Roman Roy is using his sister's period as the butt of a joke in 2019, period stigmas have been used against women for this natural human function for far too long. So, why is the shedding of the uterine lining considered so taboo? What's so scandalous about jelly-like blood dripping from a womb?

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Though menstruating individuals are often made to feel weak, shameful, even hysterical for their biology — "It must be that time of the month" and "Are you PMSing?" jokes have become clichés — society is thankfully seeing a shift.

In fact, 2023 films like Fair Play and Saltburn have featured period sex scenes, challenging historic (even evolutionary) stigmas surrounding menstrual blood in relation to sexuality.

Aerial view of woman sitting with underwear pulled down, revealing a used sanitary napkin
Source: iStock
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Hoping to get to the bottom of the crimson tide pushback, we spoke with sex therapist Dr. Juliana Hauser, Ph.D., who works with menopause-focused sexual wellness brand Kindra.

"There are still many strong held cultural and religious beliefs surrounding menstruation, seeing menstrual blood and the menstruating woman as impure, unclean, and dirty," she exclusively tells Green Matters via email.

The long history of period stigmas is cemented in several religious scriptures.

Satirical masterpieces like 2009's horror comedy Jennifer's Body and cringe comedy series Pen15 gleefully poke fun at period stereotypes and shame. Art and media offer countless examples of long-standing beliefs, either upholding or challenging said beliefs. But where does it stem from?

"Menstruation has been associated with many misconceptions leading to menstruating women to be separated from peers, banned from religious ceremonies, and seen as something to be ashamed of and hidden," Dr. Hauser says.

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To really show how far back this stigma goes, period tracker app Clue posted text from the first Latin encyclopedia circa 73 A.D.:

“Contact with [menstrual blood] turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, grafts die, seed in gardens are dried up, the fruit of trees fall off, the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory are dulled, hives of bees die, even bronze and iron are at once seized by rust, and a horrible smell fills the air; to taste it drives dogs mad and infects their bites with an incurable poison."

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This kind of ostracization has religious ties, as menstruating women have long been "othered" in various religious communities.

Catholic dogma says that physical agony associated with menstruation and childbirth is a symptom of original sin.

As mentioned by the University of Dayton, the Book of Leviticus, specifically Leviticus 15, speaks of impurity with reference to a woman's release of menses, declaring that "she shall be in her impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening."

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Menstruating Hindus are typically prohibited from praying and touching holy books, and menstruating Muslims are typically prohibited from praying and fasting. And in some branches of orthodox Judaism, men are forbidden to have sex with their menstruating wives, only to resume activities when she purifies herself in a mikveh bath, as per Verywell Mind.

Dr. Juliana Hauser, Ph.D., credits "poor sexual education" with fueling period shame.

To this day, some parents worry tampons will break their teen daughter's precious hymen. If this hit a nerve, then you know Dr. Hauser's words to be true. Clearly, it's crucial that older generations and non-menstruators join the conversation.

"Many people do not fully understand menstruation and feel embarrassment and discomfort around the topic ... Women will still report feeling embarrassed to buy menstrual aid products," Dr. Hauser explains. "We’ve just been taught it is taboo and keep perpetuating the hidden nature of it."

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What's so uncomfortable about sanitary product shopping? (The 2023 film Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. features an adorable scene depicting embarrassed teens doing so for the first time.) Misogynistic stereotypes have led people to believe that menstruating individuals are overly emotional and irrational (often impacting the workplace and politics), as detailed by a 2022 study published in PLOS Global Public Health.

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In fact, the 2022 study cited a 2008 psychological experiment that saw women hint they were menstruating by dropping a tampon in front of other people. These women were "ranked less competent and less likable than someone who dropped an object perceived as neutral, such as a hair pin."

Several of our entertainment examples offer satirical, tongue-in-cheek jokes, but perhaps others add to this deeply flawed, patriarchal ideology.

"There is a known disparity of women’s access to and experience within sexual wellness and health care in general. Especially within women of color," Dr. Hauser says. "Gender inequality and cultural norms impact the taboo nature of menstruation and media reflects this dynamic and often perpetuates it."

Whether it concerns the effects of period poverty in America or extreme exclusion in Nepal, perhaps some level of period stigma will always remain.

All in all, Dr. Hauser feels that we can only address menstrual blood and period sex stigmas via "comprehensive education, open dialogue, and challenging cultural and societal norms that perpetuate shame and secrecy."

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