Fourteen million Americans can’t be wrong

Katha Pollitt

  • The Curse: Confronting the Last Taboo, Menstruation by Karen Houppert
    Profile, 261 pp, £6.99, April 2000, ISBN 1 86197 212 1

At the end of her lively, well-researched and wide-ranging inquiry into the ‘hush’ she believes surrounds the subject of menstruation in America, Karen Houppert thinks about her reluctance to discuss the subject of her book with the men she knows. ‘I tell them I’m writing a book. If they pursue the matter, I tell them that I’m working on a book about menstruation – never “periods”, because “menstruation” at least sounds slightly clinical and scientific and weighty.’ My first response to this confession was surprise – Houppert’s writing is not at all euphemistic, but straightforward, bold and funny – followed, I’m sorry to admit, by disapproval: what sort of Village Voice staff reporter is ashamed to say the word ‘period’ in front of men? But the truth is I know just how she felt. My first response on being offered The Curse for review was ‘Oh no, is that what comes to editors’ minds when they cast about for a book for me? Blood, cramps, mess?’ That both feminist writer and feminist reviewer confess to an ill-defined unease about their topic – it’s trivial, it’s embarrassing, it marks a woman as too irreducibly her body, as just too female – suggests that Houppert is on to something when she says that menstruation is the last taboo.

In taking on the subject, Houppert violates the central tenet of what she calls ‘menstrual etiquette’, the complex code of female behaviour intended to spare others, i.e. men, the awareness that women have periods, let alone, heaven forfend, that a particular woman is having her period right now – as, at any moment, about one in four females between the ages of roughly twelve and fifty is doing. Menstrual etiquette explains why, as Germaine Greer pointed out in the 1970s, a woman in a restaurant takes her entire handbag with her to the ladies’ room, instead of simply carrying a tampon in her hand: something, it has just occurred to me, I have still not seen a woman do in mixed company, three decades after The Female Eunuch. One doesn’t want to offend, of course, but whom would it offend, and why? When you think of the openness, even glee, with which once unmentionable body parts and functions are now regarded in the United States – whether it’s the elder President Bush’s celebrated up-chuck in the lap of the Prime Minister of Japan, or the supposed peculiarities of President Clinton’s penis, let alone the exhibitionist fiestas of reality TV and the Web – it seems curious that women still strive to keep secret something that, in a general way, everyone already knows is happening, something that is, moreover, a sign of fertility, good health and youth. As if it were too awful even to be mocked, menstruation is largely absent from dirty jokes or crude humour: have you ever seen a fake used tampon in those party stores that offer plastic turds, puddles of vomit, severed fingers as props for practical jokes? Bob Dole pitches Viagra, and various superannuated movie stars can be seen on American TV promoting adult diapers, but in 1997 when Johnson & Johnson went looking for a celebrity spokesmodel for Stayfree, its new line of menstrual pad, it had a hard time finding anyone willing to be identified with the product. Even the Spice Girls turned them down – so much for girl power. But then, Johnson & Johnson, best known for baby powder and No More Tears shampoo, didn’t even want its own name used in Stayfree advertising.

Americans may no longer believe, as they once did, that menstruating women can spoil meat, but they still see menstruation in a generally negative light. In a way, that’s not surprising, since there’s isn’t much research on healthy menstruation in normal women. (The US Government’s interest is mostly focused on the question that occupied Newt Gingrich: does menstruation render women unfit for combat?) When the experts focus their attention on menstruation, it’s usually to emphasise its pathology: studies on angry, depressed and unreasonable women fill the pages of professional journals. Houppert was able to find only one poll measuring ordinary American attitudes – a 1981 telephone survey conducted for Tampax (now Tambrands). According to this poll, men and women had similar ‘negative’ and ‘confused’ ideas.

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