Why we love it:
We think everyone should talk about periods and we mean everyone. Although only half the population menstruates we believe talking about periods with men is equally important. Opening up the conversation about periods to the men in our lives including our fathers, brothers, partners and friends means that women won't have to feel 'embarrassed' about their periods. That's why we love this episode of the Flow Down. Jess and Steph sit down with David Linton to talk about attitudes towards periods that come from men throughout history as well as how we can involve men in the conversation. This episode is a great conversation starter with any of the men in your life if you want to start the period talk.
We're sure you'll love this episode just as much as we do so make sure to give it a lesson below and subscribe to The Flow Down on your favourite podcast app.
Listen & Learn:
Hey there. Thank you for tuning into today's episode. If you've been enjoying The Flow Down, please don't forget to hop over to iTunes and leave us a rating and review on our show page. We appreciate it.
Welcome to The Flow Down, a podcast all about periods. I'm Steph, a women's health coach.
And I'm just Jess, a journalist. This is Episode 16, and we have got a man on the show today.
Yep, our very first man. We hope you enjoy.
So Steph, this is pretty epic. We've wanted to have a man on The Flow Down since the beginning, and well, we finally do.
We do, and it's not just any man. Jess, you found us one of the most informed men out there, David Linton. Tell us a little bit about our special guest today.
Yes, David really is special. He is a professor emeritus at Marymount Manhattan College, where for many years he taught a course called the Social construction and images of menstruation. He also serves on the board of the Society for menstrual cycle research and is a poet of menstrual themed poetry.
You'll even get to hear a few of his poems today.
Yep. I am really excited to share this. It was such a treat. David not only has so much knowledge on the topic of menstruation and how we create meaning around it, but he's also so incredibly easy to talk to and down to earth.
Yeah, he really helps us think about the way that men have contributed to our thoughts and feelings and judgments around menstruation, and you really dive into some fascinating stuff in the interview, like periods and the Bible to periods on TV and period sex. And just the comfort level that you and David have together, it's just such a great example of how it can and, I think, how it should feel when talking to men about periods. So thank you. Thank you, Jess.
I'm so glad you feel that way, Steph.
Yeah, it really was comfortable to talk to him about it. And I can't wait to share this with our listeners. So should we go for it and play the interview?
Yeah. And before we do, just a quick heads up, especially if you've got kids around. David and Jess do talk about sex during the episode. Okay, let's play it.
Welcome to today's guest on The Flow Down, David Linton. David, welcome.
Thank you very much. I'm delighted to be joining you.
I wanted to start by asking you to tell us a little bit about your background when it comes to researching, studying, teaching about the topic of menstruation.
Sure. I have been a professor at Marymount Manhattan college for 28 years. I'm retired now, but I'm an emeritus professor, and I still have a relationship with the college. And I was in the Communications department, Communications and Media Studies. My graduate work was at New York University in a field that was called Media ecology. And we use the word "Ecology" to mean the way systems interact and the various components to shape an outcome, just like the natural ecology is a discussion of the environment, the plants, the geography, the human interventions that take place. So it's a systems-integrated notion of how to study stuff.
For eight years, I taught a course at the college. There was an elective course at the upper level called the Social construction and images of menstruation. Over the course of time, I taught that course 16 different semesters, it became a very popular course at the college, was always fully enrolled. We looked at the way media representations of menstruation shape and reflect certain values and stigmas and attitudes about menstruation. We'd look at film, we'd look at television, we'd look at advertising, we'd look at different cultures.
So it was a very interdisciplinary approach to the study of the subject, and that's how I became sort of enmeshed in this and came to rely upon, to some extent, my students' input in guiding me to understand the topic better. It's a wonderful experience because years and years later, I still get contacted by the students every once in a while who were in that class, who will say, "Hey, did you see this," and they'll be talking about some reference on television or a movie or a book they read. Of all the other things that I taught over my career, there's nothing that has made that kind of bond between the personal and the academic, so that became sort of my identity at the college. Students came to call it the "Period class."
Some people might think, "Well, okay, menstruation is an inherently women's issue, or it's an issue that affects those who menstruate," which we know it's not just women who menstruate. But I know that you would argue otherwise, that you'd argue that the meaning of menstruation is actually formed not just by those who menstruate, but by those who don't, as well. Is that about right?
That's well put. Yes, that's exactly the way I see it. The fact of the matter is that in any patriarchal society and just about every society over the history of societies has been patriarchal, men decide what stuff means, even the stuff that they don't do. So while men don't menstruate, they play a significant role in deciding what its social meaning is, not its biological meaning, not its personal meaning, because they're not menstruators. But it becomes a transaction because what happens is men and women engage with physical realities of all kinds. And so, they say, "What's going on here? What's the meaning of this phenomenon?" And frankly, menstruation is perhaps the biggest puzzle to men. It is the most unfamiliar phenomenon for men.
In fact, there is not even a good biological model for men to understand this phenomenon because, contrary to what a lot of people think, very, very, very few other animals, almost no mammals menstruate like humans do. People commonly think their dog, for instance, gets a period, "Oh, Fifi has her period," because there's some fluid coming from her. But the fact is, that's not menstruation, that's what we call estrus, it's the opposite of menstruation. It means the dog is fertile, is ovulating. When a woman has her period, it means she's not ovulating. It's the opposite, it's her lowest likelihood of becoming pregnant.
For an animal, like a dog, a sheep, a cow, a pig, a horse, a deer, if it has any kind of sign of engorgement or fluid coming from its genitals, it means it is fertile, it is ovulating, it is ready to conceive. Men have been confused by this, I presume, forever, and therefore they have to make up a meaning for it to explain it and understand it. And that's where the superstitions, the taboos and, frankly, even the fear comes from. There's an old joke, a bad joke, that showed up recently or a few years ago on South Park, for instance, where men say, "Don't trust anything that can bleed for seven days and not die." That dumb joke expresses male confusion because for men bleeding is scary and it means the possibility of death.
And in fact, the first poem that I wrote on this topic is about that caveman experience, when he first witnesses this happening and he doesn't understand because to a man, if you're bleeding, it means you might die. And to survive bleeding is a sign of great power. So the fact that men sometimes attribute frightening power to women, as in that joke, is an indication of their confusion. As I said, although men do not get a period, they participate in a very active way, deciding what it means in a social way. I can't have any idea what it means to have a period from a personal point of view, but as a communications and media scholar, I can engage with the question of what does it mean, socially.
Is that one of the poems that you would be willing to share with us?
I'd love to. Thank you for the invitation, I'd love to. This is a poem that I sort of imagine taking place about 12,000 years ago, maybe on a Wednesday. It's called His first period.
Returning to the cave, arm gashed by claw of tiger, back scarred by the spear of foe, noting first the scent, then adjusting to the dark, the small red spots across the rubble, and then the rivulets down her leg, dried in the hair of her calf, glistening maroon, reflecting dimly the light of the smouldering fire. "Blood, blood!" Clutching his club and bending to grasp a stone, his eyes dark and nostrils flare to find the intruder that had caused this flow before and beasts standing or crawling on two legs or four a head drawn life's fluid from his cave mates growing. No sound of scurrying feet to a padded paw, no smell of body or of the musky pelt, no furtive move or change of shadows shapes while she fresh fluid flowing, still, detecting his concern, bared her teeth and lowered eyes and gestures of welcome and ease.
Hair still on and nostrils twitching, breath coming short, the club slowly lowered and rock dropped to the floor, he neared her by the fire, knelt to sniff the odour and reach to touch the maddened nest of hair, pulling back his red smeared fingers. He held them to his nose, touched them to his tongue, stared at the thick crimson, familiar and yet strange. It did not clot and close the wound, but seemed to make it pout with berry coloured whiteness, unlike his that oft turn yellow and seeped foul stench, nor did she seem to ache or fear a loss, the kind of ebb that brought down antler the giant, snarling beast or timid runner in the brush, the kind of ebb that slowed the pace or brought to end, the holder of the spear, the builder of the fire, the hunter of all prey.
In an unaccustomed calm, they huddled near the heat, their hairy shoulders touch, their narrowed fingers felt each other's grasp. Blood dried, but mysteries remained.
Thank you for sharing that, absolutely fascinating to imagine.
Well, that's my notion of the mystery. In a funny way, things are slow to change. So that's that's my notion of how it started and to some extent will we still are.
So your new book Men and Menstruation a Social Transaction is absolutely fascinating. It explores menstruation through this concept that you just introduced to us, that you call the "Menstrual transaction," which is essentially an encounter usually between a man and a woman or between men and women or somehow involving a man that creates a sense of meaning around menstruation.
You got it.
And your book traces these transactions back all the way to the Bible. You point out that menstrual transactions appear in both the Old and the New Testament. I wanted to start with the story of Rachel and her love Jacob in the Book of Genesis. Can you tell us about that one?
There are only three women in the Bible who were ever described as having a period, and all three of them are in the context of male reactions and male encounters with menstrual cycles. The story is simply that Rachel's father was a guy named Laban. He was a lousy guy, he was a really bad guy. Jacob came along, and he put him to work. He made him work for years and years and years, in order to finally win the hand of Rachel. Finally, they were disgusted with him, and they decided to leave while Laban was away in the hills taking care of the sheep. Jacob packed up all of his stuff, and Rachel and her sister, who he is also married to, and their children. Before they left, Rachel snuck into her father's tent while he was away and stole his household gods, they're called "Teraphim," his little statuary, that where things he worshipped were part of his notion of God. She stole them. I mean, it's an amazing thing that she did a defiant thing.
Well, Laban came back from the hills and found this family gone, but also was missing his stuff. And so he set out and caught them and charged Jacob with stealing these things. Jacob said, "No, no, no, we wouldn't do that. Go ahead and search, and if you find the person who stole them this day they will die." He didn't know he was condemning his wife, the woman he loved and he devoted his life to. Well, it's like a good movie. He searches, searches throughout the entire encampment. And of course, like in a good movie, he gets to her tent last. She has these gods hidden under her camel saddle in the blankets, and she's sitting on the saddle as he comes in. He searches everywhere. He looks at her, she looks at him. He looks at the blankets underneath her saddle, and it's the only place he hasn't searched.
He's about to step toward her, and she says to him, "Father, forgive me that I do not stand in your presence, but the way of a woman is upon me." All of the taboos that are all codified and written down in the Book of Leviticus say that if a man touches anything that a woman is sitting on or lying on or wearing, while she has her period, he will be contaminated. He will have to go out and bathe, and he'll be contaminated. And the stuff she's got is useless to him. Well, if his gods are under there, and she does have her period, they're contaminated and useless to him. But what if she's lying? He does, "No," he looks at her, he looks down, he looks at her. He turns, walks out of the tent, turns his back on her and never sees her again. It's the first time in history, recorded history, that a woman has used the menstrual cycle, used her period to defend herself and to defy male authority.
Now I think this is a remarkable story on the face of it. But what makes it even much more remarkable is that the analysis and discussion that I've just outlined is never, ever taught in Sunday school or in temple. I mean, after all, we all have met people named Rachel and Jacob, these are major characters. But this story, it's clear that it's about her use of her period to save her life, to control her father, to defy the patriarchy. But it's never taught when kids are studying. If this is the time of year, they're studying for their Bat mitzvah or their Bar mitzvah, and they study these chapters in Genesis. They know the story about them escaping, but that one little verse, "Father, forgive me that I do not rise in your presence, for the way of women is upon me," is not ever really discussed. It's true not only in Jewish practice but in Christian practice, as well, when people are studying these chapters of the Bible.
And in fact, any menstrual activist should be modelling themselves after Rachel. It's like menstrual jujitsu. She figured out how to turn it around, to take the taboo, the restrictions and the power, the incredible power of the taboo and turn it around and use it against the man, against the patriarchy. And he is quite literally the patriarch because he's her father.
My new hero.
Yes, yes, she's a hero, she is.
So then, in the New Testament, there's a kind of a spin, and we have actually a man emerge as a menstrual hero, and that's actually Jesus. So can you tell us about that story, that's really on kind of the opposite end of the spectrum here?
The one in the Bible, in the New Testament, with Jesus requires just a small leap of interpretation. The story appears in three of the four Gospels; the most clear is in the Book of Luke. It's a story of Jesus when he's pretty much at the peak of his power. He's a famous guy who's travelling around the countryside, healing people and performing miracles. And he's got the disciples following around after him. And everybody knows about him, he draws a crowd wherever he goes, he's a rock star. And word has gone out that he's coming to town, and people are gathering. There's a man whose daughter has a serious illness and may be dying, and he wants Jesus to come to his home.
So Jesus comes into town with this big crowd and with the disciples and Peter leading the pack, he's the chief disciple. And there's a woman in town. We don't even know her name, she's so obscure. The only reference is she's called a woman who had an issue of blood for 12 years that no one could heal. Now, what would be wrong with her? First of all, if she's been bleeding for 12 years and she's still alive and able to walk around, it indicates that it's not something that's life-threatening. It could be a blood clotting disorder, like Von Willebrand's disease. But the fact that she's also kind of taboo character, she's a pariah, she's forbidden to have contact with anybody indicates that her blood flow is probably genital, it's probably menstrual related. She probably has something that we would call "Menorrhagia," an irregular unpredictable flow of menstrual blood.
What it really comes down to is she has a really irregular period, she never knows when she's likely to have some kind of menstrual flow. So as a result, because of the severe and strict rules, she's not allowed to have contact with anybody because any day, any moment, there might be this blood presence, which is a contaminant. But she hears Jesus is coming, and he's famous by now, as somebody who heals stuff, so she sneaks up behind them in the middle of the crowd, sneaks on her hands and knees through the crowd and reaches out and grabs the hem of his garment and tugs on it a little bit. And Jesus stops, he feels it. And he turns, and he says, "Who touched me?" Peter looks down and sees the woman. He knows she's contaminated and that anybody in her condition, who touches a man, has contaminated the man. And the rules say the man has to go off and get cleansed before he can go and do anything else
Peter, like a good lackey, a good flack says, "No, nobody, Jesus, nobody touched you. It's crowded. It's the crowd pushing in upon you." Jesus says, "No, I felt someone touch me. I felt the power go out of me." She looks up at him and says, "I just wanted to touch the hem of your garment." Jesus looks at her and says, "Daughter, thy faith has made you holy." Just by having contact with Jesus, but not just the contact, contact based upon the belief that contact with Jesus could heal you, belief in him as a miracle worker and this idea that if you have enough faith you can be healed is an essential component of major branches of Christianity. So he says, "Okay, that's it." And he goes about the next job. He goes to the guy's house, and then he heals this guy's daughter.
But this is an amazing story because it has a sequel about, say, eight centuries later. By the time that Christianity has taken hold, and they've got popes in Rome, and they're sending out their missionaries, Pope Gregory sent a missionary up to France and then over to Britain, to convert the Heathens there and bring them into Christianity. Unlike the cultural practices in Southern and Eastern Europe and in the Middle East, where they were deeply familiar with the traditions of the Abrahamic faiths, Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths, the folks up there in Britain knew none of this stuff and didn't have any of those beliefs. They weren't familiar with the Book of Leviticus, for instance, or any of the other Bible books in the Old Testament, which were pretty much known by and governing of the people in the other half of the so-called civilization.
So this missionary Saint, he writes a letter back to Pope Gregory and says, "I'm trying to educate these people into our belief." Of course, I'm paraphrasing here, "And people are asking if it's okay if a woman has her period if she's menstruating, is it okay for her to attend services?" Gregory writes back and says, "Well, it's not their fault. It just happens to them. It's an illness, and it's something bad, but it's not their fault that they got this thing." And then he refers to that story of Jesus. And he says, "Well, if it was okay with Jesus for this woman in this condition to have contact, then I guess it's okay for them to attend services and to go to confession and participate in the rituals of the church." This is an amazing difference that took place.
But here's what's interesting about it. Just like when people study the Bible, when kids and Sunday schools study the Bible, and their Sunday school teachers and their Bible teachers and their various kinds of religious instruction, just like they don't study that little detail about Rachel, they don't study deeply the possible implications of the story of Jesus and the woman who, again, it's only, the translation is, she had an issue of blood for 12 years. They don't study that as a menstrual story.
Okay. So we've begun to really lay out how some of these biblical stories sit on the spectrum of menstrual transactions. We've got fear and disgust, Laban's fear and disgust, then we've got Jesus's indifference or his acceptance. So this spectrum is really reflected throughout history in books and films and music, in all the ways that we create meaning in our society. So I want to dig into some of these examples and sort of overview some of the main themes that come up in the menstrual transactions that you document. One category that I'll just say I found to be especially interesting is related to periods and sex and how they go together, or more accurately, don't usually show up together in our social construction of menstruation. Do you want to talk about that?
The rarest of all categories of menstrual transaction is the sexual encounter. What do people do? How do people manage their sex lives in the presence of the period? In fact, one of the ways I first got interested in this was when I discovered, of all people, that Alfred Kinsey, the giant, the leader, the founder, you might say, of sexual behaviour research skipped dealing with how men and women modify and adjust their sexual practices around the presence of menstruation. It was really a surprise to me when I first got interested in this and I looked at the index of both of Kinsey's volumes, these important books, where he interviewed thousands of men and thousands of women and produced two huge volumes, Sexual behaviour in the human male, and then Sexual behaviour in the human female; he doesn't really delve into how the presence of menstruation affects the sexual behaviour of the subjects he was talking to.
One of the few things he mentions is how women sometimes make their wedding plans and their honeymoon plans around what they know to be their cycle. That's about the only thing that Kinsey had to say. Eventually, I was doing research out at the Kinsey Institute in Indiana, which is this incredible research facility, and I was at an event talking to the directors and the curators and the archivists at the programme.. I mentioned what I was working on, and I said, "You know that I got interested in this because Kinsey skipped it." And the guy looked at me, that I was speaking to, with surprise, "Say what?" He was the archivist. I say, "Yeah, I couldn't find anything in the Kinsey volumes." He went and examined in more depth their holdings of Kinsey's research, and he came back to me and said, "You're right, and we never noticed."
Oh, my gosh.
It was that encounter that made me even more confident that I had a topic here that was rich and deep. But as I said, sexual experience, sexual relations is very rare. It's only in terms of my knowledge, only within the last couple of years, that anything very explicit has shown up on television series, and that's largely because of the rise of Internet-based programming which has no censorship, except for self-censorship, of course. So programmes, for instance, on Netflix or on Amazon to, in particular ... There's a TV series, only ran one season, called "I love Dick," a joke, of course, on a character's name, whose name was Dick, and it's about a woman who has a crush on him. And at the very last episode of the show, there's a moment of encounter that has to do with sex, and it's about this man and woman finally, after a long series of maybes, maybes and maybes, getting it on, they're clutching one another and pawing at one another.
What is fascinating is what emerges, reference to the two indicators of sexual arousal. The indication for sexual arousal in men is erection, is hard-on. The equivalent indicator in women is lubrication. So it's hard and wet. Hard and wet are the two big terms, the big indicators. So they've got their hands in one another's pants, and he is saying, "You make me so hard," and she says, "I make you hard." Then he's got his hand in her pants, and he's saying, "I make you wet." She says, "Yes, you make me wet." But he brings his hand out of her pants, and it's covered with blood.
And suddenly, they're confronted with the difference between good wet and bad wet. He looks at his hands and she says, "What? What? What is that? What?" She's confused and said, "Wait a minute, what day is it," because she knows her cycle. He walks away from her, goes into the bathroom and closes the door. The last we see of him, he's standing at the sink, scrubbing his hands. She's left outside in the living room and finally walks out of the house and walks down a long country road with a red streak running down her leg.
The other is on an episode of The Deuce, a very big and popular, important show about prostitutes in the 60s on 42nd Street in New York City. There's a really great scene, where the women prostitutes are sitting around in the diner with their pimp, and they're discussing how they cope with menstrual sex in their work life, that is to say in their work as prostitutes. And there's this hilarious weird scene where they're talking about what they do, what their alternatives are, how they staunch their periods and how it freaks out the pimp who's sitting there listening to them, and he has to get up and leave the table because he can't bear to hear the way these women are talking about menstrual management.
So this idea of fear and confusion is one of the themes that runs through it, goes from the Bible, in the very earliest fear references, to these current television programmes. So you have both a theme of fear and the theme of avoidance and also of segregation, of separation, that you've got to go away. And this shows up in popular books like The Red Tent, where isolation is the practice.
But on the other hand, there's another theme that has to do with women's empowerment and the fact that they can use menstruation as a way of expressing power, and it starts in the Bible with Rachel and her playing the menstrual card against her hated and feared father, and it shows all the way up to contemporary shows like Clueless, where the girl comes into her class and her English teacher is scolding her for being late. And she says, "Well, I was riding the cotton pony." And he blanches and pulls back, as he's not going to go there. "Oh, well, oh, you mean lady business."
And she, what I always referred to is: she plays the menstrual card. So this is another example of, again, what I call a "Social transaction," a menstrual encounter, or what I sometimes jokingly call "A close encounter of the menstrual kind."
The "I love Dick" example also, I think, falls under the category of another theme, which is this repulsion, you know?
The need to protect men from being contaminated and this emphasis on hygiene and that the period's dirty.
Yes, that's exactly right. Of course, that has been the ongoing theme through much of the history of menstrual product advertising, in particular. The word "Hygiene" is not used so commonly today, but in the 30s and 40s, it was one of the most frequently used words. As a matter of fact, still today, the menstrual empowerment movement still uses the word "Hygiene." There's part of the movement that celebrates what they call "Menstrual hygiene day." And there's been a lot of debate in activist circles about the use of the word "Hygiene," because it implies a health or sanitation issue. Some prefer to talk about menstrual management, rather than menstrual hygiene, but that's part of the controversy that is taking place. So this idea of filth or even disgust and shame and power, they all integrate and relate to one another.
Okay, great. So I want to jump now to the 70s, which you describe in your book as being a time that really kind of marked a shift in the way that these menstrual transactions appeared more frequently and in different ways, in different types of media. And that happened for a number of reasons. At the time, birth control was becoming more widely used, and there were big changes in sexual practices. One of the main menstrual transactions that came out of this time period was in 1976, thanks to a man, Stephen King. That was the very famous horror movie Carrie, which was based on his book. Tell us about this transaction and its significance.
I think it's safe to say that Carrie is probably the first movie that ever actually showed a girl with menstrual blood. Now, of course, we know it's a special effect. It's not real blood, but in the shower, there she is, the opening scene of the movie. She's in the shower, we see blood on the floor of the shower, we see blood on her hand as she reaches to touch herself. That's amazing, that menstrual blood would make a prominent appearance in a movie. And in fact, she rushes to grasp the gym teacher, who comes in her white tennis shorts, and she gets menstrual blood on her skirt.
And then, when they take her to the assistant principal's office because she's freaked out, the principal sees her walking around the gym teacher with this bloodstain, and he's freaked out. And he doesn't know how to talk to the girl because it's something he's never had to deal with. The gym teacher is quite calm, "Yeah, she got her first period, and she doesn't know anything," and he's freaked out. I mean, this movie had some incredible impact. It's been remade a number of times into a musical, into a Broadway play, into an off-Broadway play and into several sequels.
Yeah, you even call Carrie Hollywood's cinematic Menarche or Hollywood's menstrual coming of age, which I found to be a fascinating concept. It's just so interesting that that happened because of a man. We have our coming of age with Stephen King. Okay, so now I know that there was a menstrual transaction that had a huge impact on you and your research, that had to do with Prince Charles. I really loved reading about this one because I was only 10 when it happened, and I think I just completely missed it. But basically, in 1993 a rumour emerged about Prince Charles saying he wanted to be a tampon, so he could live inside his girlfriend Camilla. The whole thing sounded pretty wild. Can you tell us about this transaction, David?
It's one of the very first things that prompted me to start getting curious about how men and women actually do deal with menstruation in their lives. This is also the first example of the Murdoch news company using phone hacking to make a big news story. This is even before Internet hacking. They hack this private phone call between Camilla and Charles, where they were doing a little middle-aged phone sex, they were horny, there were a couple of horny, middle-aged adults who hadn't been together for a while, so they missed each other. And the actual transcript is fascinating. They're talking away and about how much they miss each other. And Camilla says, "Oh, I just want you inside me. I just want you inside me." And he says, "Oh? Maybe I could come back to live in your trousers." She says, "Oh? You want to be my knickers?" "Knickers" is British talk for "Panties." And he says, "No, with my luck, God forbid, I'd be a Tampax doomed to swirl around in the bowl until the next one comes along."
And she says, "Oh darling, maybe you could come back as a box." He says, "A box of what?" She says, "A box of Tampax, then you could come and go." It's a hilariously weird story. The story became huge. When this first occurred, this Charles and Camilla story, they weren't allowed to publish it in England because you can't publish stories, it's against the law to publish stories that defame or belittle the royal family.
But it was first published by Murdoch's company in Australia, in one of his sort of supermarket tabloids. They published the story there with the transcript of the phone call, which had been recorded. So then, it got back to England, and it was published in his publications in England, but it was not published as a story about Charles. It was published as a story about a news story that was published someplace else, so that you could publish stories about the royal family if they were already covered in other countries, and therefore you were just reporting on what somebody else was reporting.
So then it went from there to ... there's big coverage in Hong Kong because Hong Kong was still a British colony at the time. It's published in Canada, the publications in Texas, in Chicago, in New York and all over the place, so that it becomes an excuse. It's just like when somebody else uses a dirty word, you can report that they used a dirty word, and it's your way of using the dirty word. But you're not using the dirty word, you're quoting somebody else's using the dirty word. And it's all very titillating, but it captures the titillation of talking about menstruation. So that's kind of, again, what I'm fascinated by. It's not just the story itself, but how the story got told and changed in the retelling.
Well, that is a great segue because I want to talk about a man who forced us to talk about menstruation in 2015, and that was our current President Donald Trump. So Trump put menstruation at the top of the headlines for quite a long time in 2015, when he said that fox host Megyn Kelly had "Blood coming out of her, wherever." What did Trump's words and the attention that it garnered ... what did that signify to you?
Well, again, the fact that it garnered so much attention, so much discussion, in a way reflects so many different things. I mean, one, there's a hidden secret desire to talk about hidden secret things. He entitled media coverage to think about this and to politicise the period, it was a very interesting sort of test case. Will the American public vote for a guy who makes derogatory nasty comments about a woman who might have her period? The answer was, "Yes, they will." Enough of them will to get elected. So it's a nice test case kind of model of these current state of affairs that people are still willing to elect a man who has this negative value and will make a slurring insulting comment that is clearly menstrual linked, and it's okay, you know?
And it's tightly linked to the other recording of his that is getting played again now, where he was talking about grabbing women's genitals. Is this not a disqualifier?
This is the question. Is making a menstrual slur or talking boastfully about grabbing women's genitals a disqualifier? Well, it's not, not yet. But it's not the first and it will probably not be the last time some man in a position of power will make that kind of reference as a way of diminishing women; we're far from past that.
The patriarchy is still intact.
Yeah. There is no simpler way for men to disqualify women than to make a period reference. I mean, it's like in that Woody Allen movie Annie Hall, where he arrives at the movie theatre, she's waiting in line, and she scolds him for being late, and he says, "What's the matter? You got your period?" Boom. You know?
There it is. And Trump is simply playing the same card.
Yeah. Okay, so as we begin to wrap up, I do want to just close on a more positive note. There have been so many transactions recently that we might consider much more exciting than Trump, in terms of constructing new meanings around menstruation. And I know on The Flow Down, we feel like we're part of a movement to redefine some of the social constructions that have been created. You actually write in your book that we're entering a new era of menstrual relations, which you call a "Post-menstrual age." And you say that this will, "Challenge all of the social practices that have been layered upon the biology of the menstrual cycle." So I wanted to see if you could share maybe just one recent transaction from the book that you think signifies this new menstrual era that we are in.
The one that I'm fascinated by, the most recent one that I noted and it's at the end of the book, is The New York Times crossword puzzle, of all places. I mean, the New York Times, of course, is this conventional, it is the safe place. But the crossword puzzle, of all places, just last October, included a clue for a six letter word, 62 down. The clue was "Pad alternative, pad alternative." Now some years ago, no one would have thought to put that clue in, and no one would have answered it correctly, because, they would have, "What's a pad? Okay. Pad? Like, that's where you live? Oh, the answer is six letters, must be 'studio.'" And they would have come up with something else.
Nobody would have thought to say, "Oh, the answer to that is ..." I'm not even going to say it, because I'm going to let your listeners [crosstalk 00:43:18]. But it's funny, the little places where an example, a detail, something can show up. That's how you know things are changing. I wrote a poem that sort of brings the story full circle from that guy in the cave, with his confusion and puzzlement over the period, to what a modern man might see. Do you want to hear the poem?
Oh, I would love to. Let's hear it.
Okay. Remember the first one was called "His first period?" This is called "The last first." Lying on the couch, TV murmuring, his head in her lap. She absently strokes his hair, comfort, ease, intimate familiarity achieved, the accumulation of a long list of firsts. First, that became seconds, thirds and many, firsts that became frequence. First, that became matters of fact. First date and dinner. The first kiss and furtive fondle. The first zipper pooled and bra unhooked. First lowered head and taste of secret secretions. First passed gas, broken wind that broke the sound barrier of privacy with hasty giggles, excuse me and hands fanned in effort to dispel this tension wave away another way they pretended to be separate private beings. First time to pee with an open bathroom door. The yellow stream echoing its splash and unabashed animal vigour. The first, "Yes, yes, yes." The first, "Oh my god." The first, "Can't wait to see you again."
Now no longer keeping count nor fearing secrets, he guides her hand to rest atop the hardness beneath the denim. "You know I have my period?" "So?" "Just thought you'd want to know." Smiling, squeezing, unbuckling his belt, then, "I'll be right back." "Wait, let me do it." "Oh? No, I'll be right back." "Please. It's okay. Let me do it." "Are you sure? It's messy?" "It's part of you. Let me." "Okay, but let me get a towel." Leaning back against the couch, skirt raised, panties dropped to the floor, legs slowly parted. Kneeling before her, he stares at the braided white string. Stark, in contrast to the curls of dark hair, framing its disappearance between pouting lips, a white string tethering a free-flying kite held in place by the winds of the convention, soaring into dark clouds, puffy and mysterious.
A white string, a leash to hold in check a treasured pet, a white string, a fishing line set with cotton bait to snare the hungry prey. A white string, grasping the line, twixt thumb and finger, a tug meets resistance. Lips closed, holding on to secrets, not willing to share the gossip of her gender. A stronger pull, the string taught, labia loosen their grip. The white tip appears, then the blood-soaked cotton plug, rich with the redlining of life swings free, a scarlet pendulum, a magic mesmerizing amulet, hypnotic spell casting, a glimpse into unknown worlds, distant lands, foreign soil, places and persons he can never fully grasp. But he can try. Folding tiny red pearl gently within a tissue and laying it aside, he shuffles forward on bended knees to take its place.
So that's a poem for the post-menstrual age.
David, your book is so interesting, and there's so much more that we could discuss. I do have one final question. I was interviewed by a man on public radio a few months ago, and he asked me why I think men should be involved in this conversation, why it's important for men to listen to The Flow Down or other period related media and why men should be able to be more comfortable talking about this. So I wanted to ask that question of you. Why do you think men should get involved in the menstrual movement?
Oh, that'll make them better men. You become a better man, a better human being, if you understand others, the same reason why people who have no disability should have a consciousness and awareness of people who do have disabilities. It's the same reason why people of one race should have an awareness of how race shapes our perceptions and realities. It makes you a more fully conscious human being. Here is this phenomenon that these other people experience, that is incredibly important in shaping their own sense of identity, and therefore shaping your sense of identity because it's what you don't do. It makes you a more fully developed human being to understand what other human beings are doing and experiencing.
Fantastic. Well, David, this has been so enlightening and so much fun, and it just leaves us with so much to think about. Would you like to tell our listeners where they can learn more and find your book?
Well, it's always a good opportunity to make a plug for the book Men and Menstruation. There's a website, it's just menandmenstruation.com, that you can go to and look at a little more information. There is a reduced price for the book up until the middle of August. I'm getting out there, trying to promote it and share the experience with people. I'll be writing more poetry with the menstrual theme and doing some conferences and things like that. But I'd be happy to respond to questions and suggestions. But the most important thing I have to say is: Thank you so much. This has been a wonderful conversation, you are asking thoughtful questions and giving me an opportunity to explore this work. And I deeply appreciate it.
Well, thank you again, David, so much for coming on The Flow Down. David Linton is a professor emeritus at Marymount Manhattan College and the author of the new book Men and Menstruation a Social Transaction. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share it with your friends, including your male friends, colleagues and family members. And don't forget to leave us that rating and even a short review. We love hearing your feedback, and it also helps our show reach more people and make progress towards menstrual equity.
Our theme song is Crimson Wave performed by Tacocat, courtesy of Hardly Art Records, and this episode was produced and edited by Jessica Weiss.
We'll be back soon with another episode of The Flow Down. Thanks for joining us.
We tend to think of menstruation as a “women’s issue.” But from movies to books to the media, men play a big role in inventing the meaning of menstruation, too. Communications scholar David Linton joins us to discuss his new book exploring the way men have helped shape the meaning of menstruation throughout history - from the Bible to the New York Times crossword puzzle. And he even delights us with some menstrual poems!
Resources + links
Men and Menstruation and more about David
David’s posts on “Menstruation Matters,” the blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research
Jess’ interview on WLRN with host Luis Hernandez