Guest Blogger Elysia: Evo Psych and Icky Girls

Friend of Shapely Prose Elysia (who writes the blog Born That Way) is an evolutionary biologist, and she had some choice words for the latest dude to use evolutionary psychology as an explanation for why he believes seriously douchey things about women. Please give Elysia a warm welcome. — Kate

My friend Sweet Machine brought a recent post by Amanda Hess to my attention.  In her essay, Ms. Hess discusses a blog entry on the Scientific American Mind website, written by one Dr. Jesse Bering. Once you’ve read her post, come back here to see me talk about how good (and bad) science can be totally skewed by reporters.  Even scientists.  Just so we start on the same page: Dr. Bering discussed the concept of menstruation as shameful or dirty.  He presented some good evidence for the social context of menstruation as having a huge impact on the way women experience/remember first menses (although he also seemed to be saying that Western feminism was wrong in concluding the same thing).

Dr. Bering is described as an evolutionary psychologist – a title which always makes me uneasy, because as “just” an evolutionary biologist (actually, I’m a population and evolutionary geneticist), I have seen very little thus far from the field of evo psych that actually gets the evolution part right.  (I’m always willing to give it a try, though, in hopes that someone will prove me wrong about the field.)  Let’s start out with the premise: a male researcher is curious about women’s first menses, and the psychological context and consquences thereof.  Fair enough.  What else does Dr. Bering have to say?

“Without a doubt, the best studies on the subject of menarche are those that have attempted to reconcile individual differences in age of female pubertal onset with various evolutionarily relevant variables in girls’ social environments.”

The best studies?  Not my field, so I can’t judge, although “without a doubt” with respect to a set of studies on a very general topic being the “best” of anything is a standard not often met in science. However – evolutionarily relevant is my field.  So the question becomes: has evolution, of either culture or biology, shaped human psychological response to first menstruation?  There follows in Dr. Bering’s essay a series of anecdotes and studies grounded in 20th-century data.  From a strictly biological viewpoint, this is hardly even the blink of an eye, and evolution simply cannot have occurred and been detected.  Let me repeat: citing only data from the last 100 years, approximately five generations, is insufficient to demonstrate that biological evolution has occurred.

“[G]irls growing up in homes where the biological father is absent but the stepfather is present tend to mature faster than those living under the same roof as their biological fathers (their bodies are essentially competing with their mothers for the attention of this genetically unrelated male …)”

I’ve spent a fair amount of time studying and discussing mammalian reproduction during my graduate work and professional life.  My response to the quoted passage: Wait, what?  The last time I talked about this type of interaction was during a lab meeting, in the context of mouse mating behavior.  Female mice experience an acceleration in sexual development because they are being influenced by an adult male’s presence, via hormones he produces – they’re not competing with their mothers for matings, but experiencing a side effect of cohabiting with non-parental males.  (Read more here and here.)  My evolutionary just-so story, err, hypothetical explanation for this observation is that some male mouse had a different body chemistry that could induce sexual maturation in any female nearby, which would mean he’d have more babies than other males because he’d be, you know, there when the females matured.  His sons might have that same capability, and if this provided enough of an advantage relative to other males (and survives a number of other conditions, including pressure by female biology working against it), you could end up with males generally affecting female sexual development – regardless of any relationship between the male and nearby females.  Please note that a juvenile female mouse’s mom does not appear in this model.  The implication of your phrasing – “their bodies are essentially competing with their mothers” – does hint at the lack of volition in this situation (the idea that girls’ bodies are simply reacting to a biological stimulus) but sets up a mother-daughter rivalry where none exists.  Mom has nothing to do with this, except having gotten remarried.  Not to mention, there’s no accounting in your summary for siblings, stepsiblings, the role of stress…it’s a fascinating observation, but there’s a lot of careful dissection of the situation that has to be done before it’s appropriate to flag this as mother-daughter competition.  (If such detail exists in the professional scientific literature, please, someone let me know!)

“reminds me of that shower scene in Steven King’s Carrie (you know the one).”

Excuse me, sir, your preconceptions are showing.  (Really?  A horror flick?  Really? Let me guess – you also consider menstrual blood to be dirty.  This and other word choice throughout the essay is consistent with that position – is that what you meant to convey?)

“[The Head Teacher] suggested that ‘nobody would want to talk about it’ and that there would be ‘hell to pay’ from his many ‘conservative parents’ if he put his name to the research.”

Sooo…because some parents might have been unhappy, this means that the girls themselves were necessarily ashamed?  Because that’s sort of how that reads.  The research study was challenging because of – oh wait! – a larger societal attitude that might or might not have accurately reflected the girls’ own feelings.

“Such anecdotes would appear to pose some serious problems for traditional feminist theories, which tend to argue that Western negative attitudes toward everything from menstruation to vaginas at large are simply the result of cultural constructions.”

When you follow this sentence by a paragraph of examples of how women in different cultures experience different responses to the onset of menstruation, it…doesn’t sit well with a lot of readers.  Especially when you go on to say:

“According to most Western females, however, nothing could be more nightmarish than the prospect of “leaking” in public, and so perhaps it’s not too surprising that so many teenagers say that, in retrospect, their preparation for womanhood amounted to little more than a how-to guide for hiding their menstrual blood from all other eyes.”

As a layperson in psychology and sociology, I can only say that this doesn’t surprise me, given how much Western culture seems to prize cleanliness in…everything, to the point where it seems to be backfiring.  (Hygiene hypothesis, anyone?)  Seriously, it seems like a viable alternative hypothesis is just that cleanliness is so highly valued that any and all sexuality gets shoved into the shadows.  How often do we talk about men remembering the first time they ejaculated?  Popular humor about boys suddenly doing their own laundry seems on its face to be consistent with the same “cleanliness above all” hypothesis.  I’d love to know if anyone has studied the influence of Puritans and other Protestant groups that largely shaped early American culture, the evidence of which we still see today, and how their feelings about cleanliness and purity have contributed to this. (Sweet Machine, editor/human extraordinaire, suggests the work of Mary Douglas for further information.)

In fact, Dr. Bering, you allude to something like this when you discuss Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s work.

Oh, and I’m not the local expert on this, but I hear there’s this thing out there – this idea that men have, for many years, tried to control female sexuality.  Wouldn’t propagandizing menstruation be a convenient way to do that?

” When the researchers asked 157 white, middle-class ninth-grade girls what advice and information they would give to younger girls about menarche, [...] one lone teenage girl of this entire group of 157 participants—ever linked menstruation to reproduction …”

Do you really think that this shows “clearly that, in the minds of these newly fertile adolescents, reproductive biology—that is to say, the actual purpose of periods—was a complete afterthought in their thinking”?  Or could it be that those girls were trying to pass on practical information to their peers, since they were asked what advice they would give?  Trust me, my public school sex ed made it abundantly clear that menstruation was part of reproductive biology.  But that’s not much comfort when you’re not ready to reproduce, and it’s not helpful in understanding the logistics of being a pubescent girl.

“I’m sure many of my straight male friends are indeed praising Allah for the invention of Kotex.”

If you have a daughter or a wife or girlfriend or sister – please understand that she may hear you say things like this and not want to discuss menstruation with you.

” … here comes my British accent—bloody companies and their concern with the bottom dollar.”

Your (public) Facebook page tells me that you hail from Ohio.  That doesn’t rule out a British accent, but I am rather curious.  Also, in making puns of the word “bloody,” you are actually engaging in a joke based on slang, not accent.  To perpetuate a quote I rather like, words mean things (link goes to an OT explanation).   And distorting those meanings as you do here gives me pause; were I grading this, I would become suspicious that you were attempting to sound smart so I wouldn’t notice any problems with your work.

“In fact, I’ve often wondered if the tremendous reservation that most parents have in communicating with their children about sex has the ironic consequence of making their children more curious about it—a curiosity that translates into earlier and more frequent sexual activity.”

Trust me, you’re not the first.  In fact, I’m willing to wager that the vast majority of people at or past their teens in Western society have pursued various “illicit” exploits because their parents forbade them or refused to talk about them.  (Also, have you ever studied Prohibition?)

“And that makes me wonder if there weren’t (and aren’t) perhaps some natural selection pressures at work here, forces favoring parental modesty over candor in the sex education of children.”

Seriously?  Your hypothesis is that modest parents will have higher fitness (i.e., in the long run, will have a reproductive advantage) than immodest parents (and the word “modest” is so subjective that I feel this is already a difficult hypothesis to argue).  That means that the children of modest parents must in turn be modest parents to their own children, or you simply have a fluctuation with a period of a generation, right?  My very own parents decried their parents’ modesty and had fairly frank discussions with me, as appropriate.  And while there’s such a thing as temporally-varying selection..this doesn’t seem to be such a case.  (By way of explanation: temporally-varying selection.  Put simply, sometimes the force that makes a particular feature favorable can itself change over time.  Say you have dandelions in your yard – the features of a dandelion plant that grows well in rainy March that let the plant have more babies may not do a lick of good for that plant’s offspring when dry July comes around.  Here, well, you can imagine that modesty might be bad if we were facing certain kinds of famine, as it would mean fewer babies and a higher chance that they’d survive, but it’s unlikely that every single generation – or every few generations – we’d alternate between stark feast and famine.  Even if it were true, biological evolution in humans takes thousands of years, so it would be extremely hard for me to come up with a plausible mathematical model in which relatively recent social mores affect biological fitness.)

No offense, but this is a poor reflection of the basic components of evolutionary biology.  No, strike that – I hope to offend you enough to get you to stop and think, because as an evolutionary biologist and instructor, I am left to deal with the aftermath of students who come in to my classroom with serious biases about a field they’ve only ever seen misrepresented.   Partly because essays like yours get into the lay media.  It’s especially infuriating to see sloppy or inaccurate science used to justify positions from the mildly offensive to the abhorrent.  Please don’t let the entire field of evolutionary psychology devolve into a mere shadow of the science it could be – I’d rather it be “based on” rather than “inspired by” evolution.

Yes, it’s important to realize that cultural constructs influence the way biological events are experienced and recalled.  It’s important to link biological and cultural evolution, and to remember that we humans are animals.  And as a male ape, you are well within your rights to wonder how female apes differ from you; just please remember while you call elderly women apes that you are one, yourself.  More importantly, it’s great for you as a human man to want to understand the human woman’s experience, and I encourage you to reframe your language to make it clear that you understand that distinction. Because your personal discomfort with my menstruation – or my feminism – does not a sound scientific discussion make, and dismissing my humanity when you examine my biology ill befits a doctor of psychology.

For the record: I make no claim to perfect impartiality here – this is just me, a professionally trained scientist and a self-identified feminist talking about why a particular piece of popular science writing raised my personal and professional hackles.  Like any good scientist, when I’m working, I try to minimize the impact of my own bias on my research, but you know what?  I’m human, and biased, and the best I can do is own those biases and be honest about them with friends, students, and colleagues.

62 thoughts on “Guest Blogger Elysia: Evo Psych and Icky Girls

  1. Looks like a problem with the html tagging. I see quotation marks at the end of each link when I scroll over.

  2. I have no intelligent comment to make. I am just going to bow down at the feet of Elysia, for she is a goddess.

    Oh, OK, I DO have one comment: the other day I saw an ad for one of the many PMS “relief” pills on the market, this one directed at teens. It’s a plain background with extreme closeups of 3 conventionally attractive (of course) young women all talking about their “symptoms,” and that they “can feel IT coming.” A tsunami? Hurricane? No, “My PERIOD!!!!!!” Then the background is filled with the sparkly neon colors of the packaging of the pills, the girls’ wardrobe, and the bright, shiny teeth of the now smiling, happy young ladies who no longer have to deal with the awful symptoms of this monthly plague!
    Of course, they still have to deal with the side effects of the pills but, hey, at east their dads, stepdads, brothers, boyfriends, etc. won’t have to put up with the bitchiness, and that’s all that matters, right? Well, that and never having to lay eyes on a single drop of menstrual blood or even a tampon. Yay us!

  3. Just want to add, this is not to take away from women who have severe PMS or mood swings, or even mild, inconvenient PMS. It’s just that the entire industry seems focused on making life better not for us, but for the people around us who have to “suffer” through our cycles. Does that make sense?

  4. Oh, I lurve the ads that Google put at the bottom of this for me (I’ve removed the URLs):

    What Men Are Attracted To
    Learn the “Secret Psychology” That Makes Your Man Fall In Love

    Drop 4 Stone in 3 Months? Find Out the Shocking Truth Behind Britain’s Newest Diet Craze!

    Social Science courses
    Want a professional qualification? Come to our drop-in event

    Buy Regaine Discounted Cheapest Online. Full Range. Fast UK Delivery

    Other than that (which I realise is not your fault!) – great article!

  5. When did the blog’s skin change? It looks really pretty, but I find the grey letters very hard to read. I’ve had to cut and paste the whole text on a text document so I could read in in black on white.

    It’s an excellent article, by the way. I’d love to see more biologists pulling evo psych apart!

  6. @Nia
    I use a bookmarklet that will automatically change any website (or at least all the ones I’ve tried it on!) into black text on white blackground.
    If you copy/paste this into the place where you’d usually type a website’s address, it will change whatever page you’d been looking at into the black on white format. Hope it works for you, too!

    javascript:(function(){var%20newSS,%20styles=’*%20{%20background:%20white%20!%20important;%20color:%20black%20!important%20}%20:link,%20:link%20*%20{%20color:%20#0000EE%20!important%20}%20:visited,%20:visited%20*%20{%20color:%20#551A8B%20!important%20}’;%20if(document.createStyleSheet)%20{%20document.createStyleSheet(%22javascript:’%22+styles+%22′%22);%20}%20else%20{%20newSS=document.createElement(‘link’);%20newSS.rel=’stylesheet’;%20newSS.href=’data:text/css,’+escape(styles);%20document.getElementsByTagName(%22head%22)[0].appendChild(newSS);%20}%20})();

    Sorry for the derail!

  7. Mandrake, it doesn’t work, but thanks. I’ll ask someone else when I can.

    I like the template, the dotted background looks nice. I just can’t read grey on white :(

  8. @Nia, depending on what browser you are using, you could try View->Page Style->No Style – that’s for Firefox, there’s a similar option in IE.

  9. Elysia, Bravo! Well said. I’ve often wondered what real evolutionary scientists think of these evo psych dbags. Your response is all that I could have hoped for.

  10. I’m uncomfortable that the only “nonchalant” menstrual culture Bering mentions is, guess what, a TRIBE! With quaint term for it and everything! It sets off my appeal-to-primitivism red flags, and makes me wonder about the quality of the anthropological research there. Are the Kayapo similarly nonchalant about menstrual complications like endometriosis (which affects 10% of women) or menorrhagia? Or did the researchers just trip over the naturalistic fallacy and assume that such problems don’t exist in quote-unquote primitive cultures? I’m no anthropologist, but I find it difficult to believe that any culture can treat menstruation in a truly neutral fashion when many of that culture’s members experience it as anything but neutral.

  11. This whole thing, though, is part of the reason I’m fully on Kotex’s new campaign. http://www.ubykotex.com Textspeak aside, it’s a good idea, and I’m hoping that they make this their entire focus!

    Maybe it’s just because I do have endometriosis, but the Kotex campaign pisses me off only slightly less than does Always. (Have a happy period, my left big toe. I want to have an appropriately-medicated period, thankyouverymuch.) Why do we HAVE to make periods cool and hip, when for a lot of us they’re just really miserable experiences at a level which no tampon packaging will improve?

    At least the old-school period talk didn’t try to disappear the legimitately unpleasant aspects of menstruation. The new campaigns are still all about framing menstruation as “natural and normal”, when for many women it’s anything but.

  12. I remember when I heard about those pills that can make a woman have only 4 periods a year, and I asked my gyno about it. She said you didn’t need a special pill but could double up the ones I was already taking, sort of just start one pack right after the last, no sugar pills, no break. But she also warned that it might not work for me, since not all female bodies, even with special pills, can break the period cycle.

    Well, I tried it, and sure enough, my body was resistant to the idea of not having a period. It came late, and it had massive spotting issues for the rest of the month. Needless to say, I didn’t try the experiment again.

    But as I think about it, I wonder why we try so hard to get rid of our periods. No, they aren’t convenient, but with all the stuff we have not, they aren’t as inconvenient as they once were. But there is a bias against them, that they are bad, or get in the way, or make us feel dirty (see “odor control panty liners”).

    I’ve been trying to self-monitor my own attitudes about my period, and about my hormones in general. Stop immediately saying that my emotions or moods are the result of my hormones and not, say, because something is actually upsetting me (and also not dismissing negative emotions and moods as something I’m not supposed to have).

    I would love to read the evolutionary biology take on PMS anyway. Was there a point when becoming more moody or easily agitated was a good thing?

  13. TheHobo said: I would love to read the evolutionary biology take on PMS anyway. Was there a point when becoming more moody or easily agitated was a good thing?

    Not every phenomenon that is observed in most/all of a group is beneficial! :-) Evolution can happen in a couple of ways, and natural selection (= “spreading of an advantageous change”) is just one of those ways, even if it’s a favorite study subject of many evolutionary biologists.

    That said: if moodiness is “just” triggered by hormone levels, and if those same hormones can get you to have lots and lots of sex, well, several thousand years ago, that would probably have led to more babies, and from an evolutionary standpoint, that’s “good.” I know that I’m not the only woman who can get almost uncomfortably aroused during menstruation, which is really just a continuation of the rest of the month. But beware the anecdata and all. ;-) It would be awesome to see a more rigorous study of PMS!

  14. I just forced myself to read that Bering guy’s article and I have to say he is a complete tool. Elysia, on the other hand, is awesome.

    And what was all that praise Allah stuff about?

  15. The colour contrast is theoretically quite easy to fix. The Firebug plugin for Firefox allows you to edit stylesheets on the fly and see what the effect is. I changed the rule body{color:#7A7A7A;} to body{color:#000;} and all the text went black (except the blockquotes).

    To fix the blockquotes, set the rule .entry blockquote{color:#666;} to .entry blockquote{color:#111;}.

    Unfortunately, it appears that Kate isn’t hosting the stylesheet herself: it’s at http://s0.wp.com/wp-content/themes/pub/bueno/style.css, which means she won’t be able to edit it. I don’t know what do do about that. I’ve tweaked a WordPress theme myself, but that was on a separately hosted site.

    There are things which can be done on the client side, instead of the server side, but that depends on your browser.

    ***

    Back on the topic of the article: The idea that “modest” parents are more sexually fit is giving me a bit of a headache. Does not compute.

    TRiG.

  16. Elysia, I bow to you. I am also an evolutionary biologist. and evo psych gets me so mad I can’t even consider it coherently, much less write detailed take-downs of them.

  17. @Emma B., actually the OLD old school belief was that PMS was only in our minds, and that the symptoms were made up by a bunch of hysterical females. It wasn’t until the 80′s that it was acknowledged as actually, physically existing. Still, there was that idiot, whose name I have erased from my mind, who 6 years ago said that women suffering from PMS should read the bible. He was a nominee for surgeon general!
    (Although if I could hit him over the head repeatedly with a hardcover copy of the Old Testament, that’d make ME feel better!)

  18. Fabulous post. The idea of maturing earlier due to being in the presence of a stepfather sounds about as silly as growing a bigger head in eager anticipation of your mother’s great hat collection. Also, I personally always feared spontaneous combustion as a teenager far more than “leaking”. There are very few panty liners out there that will mop up spontaneous combustion, even the ones with wings.

    (Also – hello Sweetmachine!)

  19. I feared having a period far more than other people finding out I was having a period. One of the nice things about pregnancy for me is skipping 9 or 10 periods each time.

  20. @Alyssa, yes, I’m really talking more about the stuff I remember from my preteen years in the mid-80s, mainly lots of talk about cramps and zits and bloating. However, in the earlier “hysteria” years, I don’t have the sense that people expected periods to be an enjoyable experience. Women were expected to suck it up and deal with the unpleasantness, and those who couldn’t were belittled, but it was still “the curse”.

    Current marketing swings so far the other way that it’s depicted as Awesome Natural Special Woman Time, which still carries the implication that there’s something wrong with YOU if it’s Go Fetal and Take Drugs Woman Time instead. (This intersects with food orthodoxy, too, because if you just don’t eat meat/caffeine/dairy/wheat/sugar, your endo will totally go away! Trufax!)

    Attitudes toward childbirth have followed a similar path — it used to be a trial that women should endure stoically without medication, and nowadays it’s supposed to be an amazing empowering experience that women should endure happily without medication. It’s still all well and good for the ones who conform to others’ expectations, and not so good for those who don’t.

    In some ways, I think woman-blaming is even worse than in the Old Days, because we’ve come to view health as completely controllable. Instead of being expected to suffer gracefully, we’re now expected to make the right outcome happen.

  21. Well!

    I can think of any number of things I did/do fear more than leaking during my period. Nuclear holocaust and forgetting my phone number are but two.

    Also, I started to read Dr. Bering’s article as if it were something for Anthropology of Sex and Gender and then I stopped because I don’t have sanity points enough to imaginary-comment usefully.

    Let us just say, it bugs me, a wooly soft scientist, as much as it bugs our awesome hard science population geneticist author. So… he fails both ways. Nice job, Dr. Evo You Have To Be Kidding Me.

  22. The idea of maturing earlier due to being in the presence of a stepfather sounds about as silly as growing a bigger head in eager anticipation of your mother’s great hat collection.

    Wait, you mean I’m the only one who did this? Damn.

    (Hi paintmonkey!)

  23. Paintmonkey: The idea of maturing earlier due to being in the presence of a stepfather sounds about as silly as growing a bigger head in eager anticipation of your mother’s great hat collection.

    Sweet Machine: Wait, you mean I’m the only one who did this? Damn.

    Personally, I grew bigger feet in eager anticipation of my mother’s shoe collection. Unfortunately, I overshot.

  24. <3 <3 <3

    As an anthropologist who also did a BA in biology, take downs of evo psych warm the cockles of my heart.

  25. …That makes it sound like worrying about leaking during your period is totally unreasonable, silly girl! I had undiagnosed PCOS and endometriosis as a teen (extremely heavy periods that could start any time without warning and last for a day or six weeks), and also an hour-long bus trip to school with no toilet access. Two super tampons, two large pads and a pair of plastic underpants weren’t enough on more than one occasion (at least my winter school uniform skirt was red!) What did help was proper diagnosis and medication, not dismissal that I was dirty and careless and unreasonable.

  26. I think I’d have feared leaking more if it hadn’t been so debilitating. Passers-by who happened to be there when my periods started generally assumed I was having a miscarriage, which is its own problem when you’re a teenager in holey catlick Ireland…

  27. This is delightful. My husband and I (he’s a population geneticist, too, Elysia) we were recently listening to a radio show that employed evo psych to make some pretty shaky claims about sexuality. This stuff pisses us both off to no end. I can’t wait to send him this piece; thanks, Elysia!

  28. lilacsgirl, ailbhe:

    No no no. Your feelings are UNREASONABLE because you’re LAYDEEZ! It is EVOLUTION THAT SAYS SO.

    Gawd.

    /sarcasm

    These comments make me a) love Shapelings and b) want to yell at Dr. Bering.

  29. Ugh. I hate reading someone who is both wrong and thinks he’s funny when he isn’t. Menstrual blood jokes, really? You are what kind of scientist again?

    I thoroughly enjoyed this takedown.

  30. It’s just that the entire industry seems focused on making life better not for us, but for the people around us who have to “suffer” through our cycles. Does that make sense?

    Alyssa, my best friend used to say that the hormones that came with your period were the same thing as truth serum and we know we can’t have women speaking the truth!

    And for our sisters that suffer horribly, that’s just because they don’t know how to manage pain and suffering like the big boys do. They just need to man up! /snark

  31. oh good lord. 1)I remember reading Anne Frank’s diary in 8th grade, she had a bit where she talked about getting her period. It was very positive, and that always stuck with me. It may not have with someone else. There are people that can come from the same freaking culture and time and have different viewpoints on their period. Because everyone is different. I get he’s a scientist, and even if he wasn’t a creeper, he wouldn’t necessarily be coming at it from the emotional viewpoint that I am. But even guys have different reactions. Why are some guys totally cool with periods, excited at the prospect if the girl is hormonal at the time, or just all in all isn’t phased by the subject(listening to Red Hot Chili Peppers Purple Stain right now) and others when you say you have to get pads leave your side at the grocery store? There are also different reactions of guys to the subject too. And this is all in my American cultural experience, everyone is different. (which I have to say Elysia represented my feeling there by saying that there was a culural mindset but the girls interviewed in the study may or may not feel that way…)

    2)I didn’t even have my period yet when I first read that Anne Frank quote. I was a late bloomer because I have Turner Syndrome, and it took some additional hormone before I got my period (and they delayed giving it to me as long as possible because it stunts growth and another result of Turner Syndrome is being short…)Having Turner Syndrome meant for me that I knew I couldn’t have kids since I was 8 years old. Lesbians and Trans folks may have a different view of their biologies from an early age, too. They probably know at 13 even if they don’t want to talk or tell anyone that they know they aren’t going to be having any babies. So he made a pretty big assumption there too when he said people didn’t talk about it meaning having kids. That’s a big deal to some, but there are many reasons why it may not be a big deal to others.

  32. @ TheHobo:

    But as I think about it, I wonder why we try so hard to get rid of our periods. No, they aren’t convenient, but with all the stuff we have not, they aren’t as inconvenient as they once were. But there is a bias against them, that they are bad, or get in the way, or make us feel dirty (see “odor control panty liners”).

    Please be sensitive to the fact that your personal experiences with menstruation are not universal. What may be only an “inconvenience” to you can be very heavy, last for many days, be incredibly painful and even debilitating for another woman. Not all women (not even most, I’d say) try hard to “get rid” of their periods, either.

  33. In terms of the headmaster’s dismissal of a researcher interviewing pubescent girls about their periods, I would have been totally freaked as a twelve year old to have some adult come into my school and ask me personal questions about my body. And my parents (who are good liberal academic types) would have been irritated at the prospect of their daughter both missing instructional time for someone else’s academic agenda and being used as a research subject without their consent. How many boys would be thrilled to be interviewed about nocturnal emissions?

    Also, as a twelve-year-old getting her period in 20th century America, even though I knew on a scientific level exactly how menstuation was linked to reproduction that had no bearing on my own experience of the phenomenon because I was, you know, twelve and did not find the idea of sex particularly appealing and (thank goodness) was not culturally expected to marry and begin my reproductive life any time soon.

    This wholesale mixture of piecemeal cultural analysis, bad biology, and the author’s own (very strange) personal hang-ups reminds me of the recent and very racist NYT piece about the creepy model scout searching for skinny thirteen-year-olds with European looks in remote areas of Brazil.

  34. @ShelbW I didn’t mean to universalize my experience — which is actually heavy, lasts many days, and can be quite painful. But the universal experience portrayed in commercials for products and particularly those pills is that, at worse, a period is an inconvenience for women, something that gets in the way. They never mention, as you did, what other women go through. In fact, no product commercial seems to deal with those types of cases.

    Part of the issue is that because it’s not talked about, it’s hard to know what other women go through. I knew about endometriosis thanks to my stepmother having it, but I had no idea the percentage of women who suffered from it was so high, or how many women had such varying degrees of intensity of PMS symptoms or heavy bleeding, etc. I only knew about my family members (to a certain extent) and some of my friends, but even among my friends, it’s not really something we talk about.

    But the general attitude that I encounter with the women I know (regardless of the intensity they deal with) is that they wish they didn’t have to deal with their periods. And that is the attitude those types of pills and products are marketing toward. It is that attitude that I was questioning–why do women who don’t have more intense and possibly debilitating periods feel this same annoyance toward menstruation and want to get rid of it? Is it that menstruation is inherently bothersome, or is it an outside influence changing the way we see our periods?

    My point is that I’m often sitting here complaining about what I go through during “that time of the month”, and no, it’s not pleasant, but what I find myself saying often sounds a lot like self hate, or hatred of my body and a natural process it goes through. I’m not saying cramps will ever be enjoyable, but I question the general negative view of periods across the board.

  35. It is that attitude that I was questioning–why do women who don’t have more intense and possibly debilitating periods feel this same annoyance toward menstruation and want to get rid of it?

    I think @TheHobo’s definitely onto something with the get-rid-of-it impulse.

    I had hypothalamic amenorrhea for a while (lack of periods due to excessive dieting/exercise), and the universal response was “You’re so lucky!” Since I was actually trying to get pregnant at the time, and the amenorrhea meant I needed infertility treatment to pull that off, my general response to that one was FLAMES, FLAMES ON THE SIDE OF MY FACE. Still, it’s interesting how many people said that to me.

    Now that I have endometriosis to deal with, I’ve actually gotten a lot of pushback from doctors because I don’t want to control my period via BCP/Mirena/Depo Provera/Lupron/hysterectomy. The universal assumption is that if you have painful periods, don’t treat the pain adequately or remove the endometriosis surgically, just make the period go away instead. I’m not willing to do that for a variety of reasons, but nobody (even my husband) seems to understand why, given that my family is complete. After all, and I have had doctors say this to me, surely no woman WANTS to have even non-awful periods when she can make them go away entirely, unless she’s trying to get pregnant.

    It makes me so very angry.

  36. TheHobo said: It is that attitude that I was questioning–why do women who don’t have more intense and possibly debilitating periods feel this same annoyance toward menstruation and want to get rid of it? Is it that menstruation is inherently bothersome, or is it an outside influence changing the way we see our periods?

    I rather suspect it’s nearly all marketing/society, especially given some of the points other commenters have raised here. American society feels just so obsessed with life being clean and irritation free, from fast food value meals to fast hair dyes to antibiotic everything. Blood doesn’t mix well with that, and neither does body hair, although both are natural and important components of the body’s system to protect/clean itself. Hell, look at the marketing for anti-perspirants – it has gone from cleanliness to sex appeal. If it were really true that menstruation were just bothersome, I suspect we’d see similar attitudes or patterns of behavior across all cultures, as there’s no biological reason I can think of to expect menstruation to be significantly different between any two women from anywhere on the planet.

    It could also be true that a majority of uncomfortable menstrual cycles. Or end up with exacerbated discomforts because of physical societal influences. *shrug* I don’t know of any data on that, although I can dig later, when my own labwork isn’t so pressing!

  37. @Older Than Dirt (lol on the name, btw!), I’ve often thought that if men had to go through menstruation, the human race would have gone the way of the Dodo bird. It cracks me up when guys talk about their ultra-intense workouts, and the pain they suffered, yada yada yada. I’m like “Yeah? Try giving birth, pal! Try bleeding out of your crotch every month!”

    @Emma B. You are SO right, this woman-on-woman bashing is RIDICULOUS! I felt it A LOT during my pregnancies, when complete strangers would demand to know whether I was planning on having a natural home birth with a doula and then breastfeeding. Many refused to have anything to do with me when they found out I would be giving birth in a hospital. (Entitlement, much? Seriously, if I’d have asked my HMO for a home birth with a doula they would have laughed REALLY hard, then handed me a plastic kiddie pool and a hose.)

  38. Bloody well said Elysia!
    (And hello! I’m a evolutionary / population geneticist too! Might we know each other off-blog?)

    Thanks for taking the time to dissect this so meticulously. It’s always tempting not to bother, and simply link to PhysioProf’s concise yet sweary post on the topic. Which is great, but the reasoned, step-by-step thing is also hugely valuable.

  39. Part of the issue is that because it’s not talked about, it’s hard to know what other women go through.

    When I was diagnosed with endometriosis five years ago, I was ASTONISHED by how many women I knew well had it but had never spoken about it to me or to their other close friends.

    I also suddenly got a lot of questions from friends who were having horrendously painful periods but who had assumed that was just “normal” (in one case because when she went to see her GP about it, he told her to get over it because “periods hurt”). Talking about periods more would stop people from thinking that nearly fainting on the first day of every period is normal, and hopefully it would do something about the shocking statistic that in the UK the average time from experience of first symptoms to diagnosis of endometriosis is eight years.

    Emma B – Now that I have endometriosis to deal with, I’ve actually gotten a lot of pushback from doctors because I don’t want to control my period via BCP/Mirena/Depo Provera/Lupron/hysterectomy. The universal assumption is that if you have painful periods, don’t treat the pain adequately or remove the endometriosis surgically, just make the period go away instead.
    I’m sorry to hear that you’re not getting the support you need from your doctors to find a treatment that works for you. I was lucky enough to have good ones in dealing with my endo, but I know many other women who weren’t as lucky.

    I have had two diathermy laparoscopies, followed by a course of Zoladex (which gave me a six-month chemical menopause, so my mother and I were having hot flashes at the same time!) and have been – touch wood – symptom-free for four years. Post-surgery my doctor told me that it would be a good idea to try to avoid having periods or at least reduce their heaviness as it stops the endo doing too much damage if it flares up again. I was happy to do this. BUT this should be absolutely your decision! If you don’t want to take the drugs or have major surgery such as a hysterectomy, you shouldn’t be pushed towards it by your doctor.

    As I also have fibroids, when I have periods naturally they are very heavy – so much so that I have now gone back on the mini-pill to stop them altogether. I had a horrific experience with flooding at a work meeting with a very big software company, where I had to leave because it had soaked through my two jumbo tampons, nighttime towel and black trousers. I was literally standing in this other company’s office with blood dripping down my legs, making my excuses so I could run out before it dripped on to the floor and forced me to explain what was going on to this very senior person I only know in a professional context. *shudder* I swore it wasn’t going to happen to me again.

  40. OOoo, can we have a “let’s talk about period weirdness” thread? :)

    I tend to be non-period-having when my weight is over a certain point, but once last year suddenly started bleeding and didn’t stop for several months straight. I’ve been paranoid ever since, because right before it started I had just discovered this absolutely delicious chocolate which contains an ingredient which in high quantities is linked to blood-thinning so I worry that it might have somehow triggered me to bleed like a stuck pig, and haven’t touched the chocolate since… but it was delicious! *pout* Anyone know if my fears are likely to have any grounding in reality whatsoever?

  41. @thegirlfrommarz, it’s actually kind of complicated — I had no endo symptoms for many years, until an inadequately-treated uterine infection after my second childbirth turned into ongoing pelvic pain. An exploratory lap/tubal ligation three months after the birth found a chronic fallopian tube and patches of endometriosis, which was removed at the time. There’s some evidence that I might have adenomyosis in my uterine scar, and there are probably some adhesions to deal with at this point, according to my doctors.

    I am incredibly anti-hormone these days, mostly because I found infertility treatment to be such a physically miserable experience, and have had trouble with BCP side effects in the past. I’m also very skeptical that any hormonal treatments are likely to actually help in my case, due to some of the very specific circumstances (such as how quickly the endo came back postpartum). I absolutely agree that hormonal endo treatments are very helpful for many women, but I do not think they are right for *me*.

    Plus, and this is the part I can’t seem to explain to everyone else, it actually makes me happy that I’m having regular cycles, because of all the complicated emotional fallout from the infertility. There are certainly some major problems with this line of thought (like the positioning of regular periods as “normal”, and the idea that the way to work through my emotional issues is to resolve the physical problem), so I’m not going to pretend it’s the best approach — but it’s where I am in working through all my own damage.

    So that’s the tradeoff I’m making for myself right now, and it just pisses me off that everyone else seems to think I’m making the “wrong” choices, because those choices don’t always suit THEM.

  42. I also suddenly got a lot of questions from friends who were having horrendously painful periods but who had assumed that was just “normal” (in one case because when she went to see her GP about it, he told her to get over it because “periods hurt”). Talking about periods more would stop people from thinking that nearly fainting on the first day of every period is normal, and hopefully it would do something about the shocking statistic that in the UK the average time from experience of first symptoms to diagnosis of endometriosis is eight years.

    Oh gosh, yes, thegirlfrommarz. I had absolutely horrendous period pain as a teen (not helped at all by my sadist gym teacher, who decided that the chunky girl was just lazy for not wanting to do circuit training, as opposed to nearly keeling over with cramps). Mother and teachers told me it was ‘just one of those things a woman has to go through’, and because of that I didn’t dare talk to my doctor about it. Went on Logynon at age 19, and discovered that no, it wasn’t; the cramps stopped, just like that (and I’ve been off the Pill for nearly fifteen years now and they never came back). Still don’t know if it was endo, but I’ve heard of other women who’ve had this same experience.

    As for attitudes at home, I was told nothing about periods – I just about worked out what they were from the then very coy articles in Jackie. And when I did start, I was warned in stern terms never, ever to leave towels lying around where my dad might find them – with a whole subtext of ‘there are certain things about your female body that are so disgusting that no man should ever be allowed to know about them’. I’d like to think girls get educated these days in somewhat healthier terms.

  43. Hello, MissPrism! I’ve been a visitor at your blog – I’m not sure I know you in the real world, but I know I’d like to! :-)

    Takver: woo pop gen! Cheers to your husband!

    Hi, AnthroK8! (I think I owe you an email from a long time ago – sorry!) I’m glad you showed up here – I think that as an anthropologist, you’re also in an awesome position to challenge the not-good parts of evo psych, since your field does combine cultural studies and biological studies. If you’re still reading, do you happen to know of any studies about menstruation? :-)

  44. @EmmaB, I’m so sorry you are going through all of this! It’s amazing that with all the medical breakthroughs over the past century, many doctors still treat us not only like we’re hysterical females who need smelling salts, but as if our brains stopped working the second we hit puberty.
    It’s incredible how we are STILL expected to make EVERYONE ELSE’S lives easier, even those we don’t know, and even when we are in pain.

  45. Hello Elysia:

    I would start here:

    Blood Magic

    Examining cultures as diverse as long-house dwellers in North Borneo, African farmers, Welsh housewives, and postindustrial American workers, this volume dramatically redefines the anthropological study of menstrual customs. It challenges the widespread image of a universal “menstrual taboo” as well as the common assumption of universal female subordination which underlies it. Contributing important new material and perspectives to our understanding of comparative gender politics and symbolism, it is of particular importance to those interested in anthropology, women’s studies, religion, and comparative health systems.

    It looks like that’s the most appropriate thing Professor Google has to offer us. I’m sure there has to be more out there, but this seems to be The Book To Begin With.

  46. Also: that whole “modesty and fitness” thing just simply doesn’t work in a cross-cultural setting. It just doesn’t. (Well, it doesn’t work in Western American cultural settings either, as you point out.)

    There are societies where women have no access whatsoever to men to whom they are not related until they are married. And discussions of fertility and menstruation in those societies are not linked to curiosity in pursuing sexual activity, because there is no pursuit of it for girls, at least.

    And there are some where knowledge of sexuality and pursuit of it are, while perhaps not as nonchalant as sneezing, aren’t that kind of restrictive.

    So whatever biological imperative towards modesty might exist, has to exist in a social structure within which modesty is culturally defined. And in these matters, culture is overriding biology in individuals by a long shot and wide margin.

    Our imperative to impart knowledge of sexuality (such as it is), is heavily culturally mediated.

    Unless he’s saying as a population, societies wherein individuals do not transmit knowledge of sex are more biologically fit than societies where they do?

    And how, in this messed up bio-cultural mashup, do we identify an objective definition of “modest” since “more” and “less” modest individuals (and societies, I guess) are relative to one other?

    This makes ZERO sense to me.

  47. @Emmy – blood thinners can make your period be runnier (which is good for me, because I’m a heavy clotter) and a bit heavier, but they won’t make your period last for months. They won’t even keep making your period runnier and heavier if you stop taking them.

    Weight-related amenorrhea accompanied by long, random periods can also be related to PCOS (they were for me) so it might be worth checking out if you have the option and are so inclined.

  48. It is that attitude that I was questioning–why do women who don’t have more intense and possibly debilitating periods feel this same annoyance toward menstruation and want to get rid of it? Is it that menstruation is inherently bothersome, or is it an outside influence changing the way we see our periods?

    Consider bodily functions in general. We as a population go to some effort to learn to control urination and defecation, to make the experience more convenient, less intrusive upon the rest of our lives, and in the case of defecation this can include reducing the frequency, or regularising the time (the well-known phenomenon of the person who disappears to the lavatory with a newspaper every morning at 8 o’clock sharp). For a person with no relevant medical problems, defecation is not normally debilitating or painful, and yet we still seek to minimise its impact on our lives. And indeed companies making products associated with it, whilst they don’t yet have grown men leaping through the meadows celebrating their daily shit, very much play up the “make something a bit embarrassing lovely and flowery and associated with cuddly animals” theme.

    Obviously menstruation (like ejaculation) is different in that it is something only certain groups do, so there are additional cultural issues attached to it. But it isn’t uniquely subject to shame, perception of inconvenience, or the fact that people’s unwillingness to talk about problems with it can lead to severe health problems.

  49. I just want to say how relieving it is to hear other women talk about bleeding through multiple tampons, dripping on the floor in important meetings, etc. It often feels like I’m the only one leaking all over the furniture. And it drives me up a wall. I can’t wait for menopause.

  50. Emma B – it really sucks that you’re being made to feel like your choices are wrong. My blood pressure went up steadily on the combined pill, to the point where I started getting migraines for the first time ever and my GP hurriedly took me off it, so I completely understand why you don’t want to take hormones – they can be great for some people and shitty for others, depending on how your body reacts to them.

    You’re doing the right thing for you, and that’s all that should matter. Endo is one of those illnesses where often there’s no good option and you just have to manage it depending on what you feel most able to cope with at the time – you get the pain, or the hormone side-effects, or you have major surgery. None of those a barrel of laughs, and doctors shouldn’t try to force you into one to try to “cure” you because they don’t want to spend time helping you manage a chronic illness.

    Rebecca V – apparently the fibroids are the cause of the heavy bleeding for me. Unfortunately there’s nothing you can do about fibroids without surgery (and an associated risk of being less likely to be able to carry a pregnancy to term). My GP did suggest the Mirena coil, but I haven’t tried it yet.

  51. Good call on Sweet Machine for suggesting Mary Douglas.

    “I’ve often wondered if the tremendous reservation that most parents have in communicating with their children about sex has the ironic consequence of making their children more curious about it.”

    So did Michel Foucault- about thirty years ago. You might want to check out the History of Sexuality Vol 1, Mr Science.

  52. The whole mindset about periods being icky is just ridiculous. It’s a bodily function. No, it’s not the most pleasant body function, but it’s a body function nontheless, and it is NOT a bad thing.

  53. “Still, there was that idiot, whose name I have erased from my mind, who 6 years ago said that women suffering from PMS should read the bible”.

    That would be one W. David Hager. He helped sink the Plan B on the first go around to make it OTC. His wife also accused him of sodomizing her for a couple of decades each night while she slept. His second wife also made similar accusations.

    And he still practices ob/gyn is my beloved city.

  54. Alyssa,

    “I’ve often thought that if men had to go through menstruation, the human race would have gone the way of the Dodo bird. It cracks me up when guys talk about their ultra-intense workouts, and the pain they suffered, yada yada yada. I’m like ‘Yeah? Try giving birth, pal! Try bleeding out of your crotch every month!’”

    I had a period every month for 16 years, until I started testosterone therapy. I also personally know several men who have given birth. Please don’t erase trans men just for the sake of a Guys Are Really Big Wusses crack.

    Also, although my relationship with menstruation was surely different than that of cis women, I too had unbelievably painful periods. I actually fainted a few times from the pain. And like a few others here, I DID have bleed-through problems … so you have my empathy! It was very, very not fun.

    On the plus side, I can report that getting my period was treated as a natural, no-big-deal thing in my family. My father was even the one to buy me my first set of pads (my mother was out of town at the time), and he was very matter-of-fact about it.

Comments are closed.