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  • Writer's pictureSarah Foley

TSS - 021 ~ sex + the menstruating body

content warning: mention of body trauma

"Historically and cross-culturally, menstrual blood has been seen as both poisonous and magical" - Janet Lee, 1994.

For so many people that menstruate, periods can be a dicey time. Depending on your cycle, there is a mysteriously unreliable amount of liquid leaking out of you at for days at a time, plus a number of other weird side effects that feel like you've taken drugs when you explicitly know your body fucking hates drugs. I can only speak for my experiences, but day one of my period is a literal day of survival: get through, don't ruin any nice undies, don't forget to sleep on a towel!! There's a whole host of complicated things happening in my body: my stomach is pissed at something, twisting and queasy, often I'm sniffling for some unknown reason, I feel sick, and like I can't make any sudden movements without disrupting the sleeping bloody beast. But... come day three I'm a whole new, lighter, person and sex is The change in hormone levels + cervix position when we menstruate means that for some people, it's a super sexual time. Which makes way more sense than my early theories that I just wanted it so much because I was being told I couldn't have it. An early, wonderful boyfriend told me that period sex was gross and that he would never ever do that under any circumstances. In accepting that I was a total novice and he was more experienced, I figured that that was normal and that it had already been universally decided that periods are gross. The first period I got after we had penetrative sex meant I had to finally face my fears... giving oral sex. But after a while, with added insatiability, I dreaded my period because it meant no sex. I was on the oral contraceptive pill at the time so just skipped it as frequently as possible. A while later, I was seeing someone new and was similarly constantly horny, but no longer skipping my period. I bashfully told him one day in the caravan in the back of his mum's house, that we couldn't have sex because I had my period. He replied shockingly that if I was comfortable, he didn't mind. My 18 year old mind was blown. I subtly removed a tampon (fuck knows where I put it?) and proceeded to have lovely sex, fall asleep, and wake up in in a state of sheer panic at the no tampon situation in someone else's bed. Sheets were stained, but I was giddy that maybe I didn't have to lose five days of sexing a month!

I stopped caring as much about it after that point, and began to see that mostly the men I had sex with cared about it way less than I did. In fact, it was a mark of pride to a lot of them that they didn't care, they were feminists after all. As I moved to Melbourne and began sleeping with classic inner north boys, it started to feel almost edgy to have period sex, these left-leaning Brunswick boys determined to show me that they weren't afraid of periods and in fact were attracted to my bleeding body if I wanted them to be. I'll never forget watching American Honey at Nova in 2015 and seeing the non-menstruating character pull out a tampon, throw it in the artsy American long gross and have delish sex. While I never saw it, it is my understanding that a similar but non-consensual scene is played out in 50 Shades of Grey wherein the deeply problematic Christian rips a tampon (without permission) from Anastasia, and flushes it down the toilet (that misdemeanour alone is a turn off to me). As I hit my early twenties bubble of oft sex positivity, period sex represented a subversion of the misogynistic ideas of the sexual body, and awarded certain points for progressive thinking that was actually a major turn on. My most recent incredible partner unworriedly offered oral sex throughout my period and we exalted in knowing I wasn't (I mean very unlikely) going to get pregnant without using any contraception, heaven. Unknowingly to him, the ability to see and meet my body at that time, created more vulnerability in me, so shocked I was by his care and love. In reality, at no point in all of this was I really considering if I particularly liked or disliked period sex. I judged the sexuality of my body on how it was perceived by the people I wanted to sleep with, if they wanted me, that was all I needed to know. The years of disembodiment meant that I had next to no opinion about how I felt, but a lot of opinions about how the men around me felt. While I became more and more comfortable with my menstruating body, my relationship to period sex was only as positive as the person I wanted to share that with. While this might be reasonable if my hesitations were about how I felt in my own body, maybe that the pain was off-putting, or the potential stains on my Bed Threads outweighed my desire, in reality, my hesitations have always been linked to feeling less desirable when I'm bleeding and not wanting to offer a sexuality that I saw as flawed. How fucked up. In saying that, the older I've gotten, the more I feel that it's up to the menstruating person how they feel about it, not the other (obviously both parties consenting though). If someone I was sleeping with now told me they weren't into it, I'd be curious about why, but probably kind of pissed honestly. Where I had philosophically deemed period sex feminist, I think it's closer now towards a quite basic respect of the complexity of my body. As I work harder on genuine embodiment, and in settling into the body I live in, I am trying to see the sexuality/sensuality of my body as constant, bleeding or not. As I untangle my own deeply cemented ideas of sexual value in bodies, and look towards imperfection as perfection, I am opening space for a genuinely positive sexual relationship with my menstruating body beyond just loving that someone can ejaculate inside me with minimal risk of pregnancy (obviously STDs are still a risk let's not be silly!).

Asides from our own personal experiences, culturally, there are some very engrained reasons why people might think period sex is a bit icky. This piece is completely written from my personal experience as a white, cis-gendered female who can connect safely with her menstruating body. I imagine the complexity of other bodily experiences offer a different intersectionality with bleeding, and know that menstruating for some, is a regular reminder of someone's physiology: a potentially confronting and discombobulating experience. I also think it's important to note that I am in a comfortable and privileged space where I can safely have period sex because I have access to tampons/pads/menstrual cups and constant clean water so there's a level of important safety in the way I can look after my body before and after said period sex. Menstrual hygiene is a total privilege. Some other things that consciously or unconsciously influence our relationship to period sex include:

  • The very real mess. When I asked people how they felt about period sex, this came up so frequently, towel or no towel, it can be extra messy and sometimes this just isn't it

  • Blood has historically been linked to disease, sickness, and particularly since the rise of HIV, contagious disease. While menstrual blood, looks and feels like blood, it isn't the same thing. Considering the complete lack of sex/body education in our schooling system, it is unsurprising that generations of people have been raised barely understanding periods, and thinking that they are indeed, blood. Even if a person might know logically that periods are not the same thing as bleeding, the unconscious response linking the two is going to send off major alarm bells at the prospect of such close contact with what looks like a bleeding body. This is definitely something that you could work through though with professional help, if so desired.

  • Trauma related to blood. I can understand that for some, there is an autonomous body response to seeing what looks like blood, that could be linked to previous experiences with bleeding and/or sexual/birth/pregnancy trauma. Again, this could be worked through, but might have a big impact on your desire in the meantime, tread lightly here.

  • Pain. Whether you're the person menstruating or not. If you experience period pain, sex might be the best or worst thing you can do. Sex + orgasms specifically offer massive amounts of muscular relief and can (supposedly) maybe even help lessen the length of your period, win win! But, I know when I am in pain on day one, penetration sounds like hell, no thank you. For partners that reasonably so link blood with pain, fear that you might be actually hurt someone, even if not necessarily true, could rip any desire out of you.

  • The idea that bleeding bodies are actually just gross (both from menstruators and non-menstruators). This one is the most pervasive in my own experience: the idea that we aren't 'clean', our smell might change, we have weird tummy things happening, bloat city. Back in my Gender Studies days, I wrote an essay about period sex and found a heap of studies asking young people about their attitudes to period sex... wild, terrifying, misogynistic stuff (I'll put a reference below if you're interested, although I'm sure there's more up to date research now!)

In reality, period sex, like all sex, is totally personal and in my opinion, influenced by a lot more than desire. It would be ignorant to pretend that outside (and even sometimes inside) my Melbourne inner north bubble, there weren't still prevailing patriarchal ideas about a bleeding body. It's really only been in recent years that people have spoken about their periods on tv/ in advertising, beyond ridiculous euphemisms, so we for sure have a long way to go in normalising menstruating bodies. We also all come to sex with years of experiences of existing in bodies so heavily managed by our consumerist, pornified society. It is so extraordinary to me that we work to meet our partners and selves with vulnerability in spite of our hesitations, flaws, challenges, fears, traumas, and offer what we can. What a gift to give. What's your relationship like with period sex? Does any of this resonate with you?

<3 <3 <3 "Sexual Activity During Menstruation: A Qualitative Study." Allen, K., and Goldberg, A, 2009. (I'm not at uni so I'm not doing proper referencing, you can't make me)

Image at top of post by Carlota Guerrero (@carlota_guerrero)

Second image by Hanna Panchenko (@hanna_panchenko)

Third image by @pleasurepositivityproject



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