men, masculinities and gender politics

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What’s the big deal about a little blood? (On men’s fear of menstruation.)

Sometimes when I am doing mundane things around the house, I like to turn on the television to watch programs that feature other people who are also doing that are pretty mundane.  Things like slowly driving trucks on Canada’s “ice roads.”  Like picking through other people’s garages and basements looking for antiques.  Like running a pawn shop in Las Vegas.  Like selling cars.  But somehow the producers of those t.v. shows manage to make these activities look interesting – or at least a lot more interesting than whatever it is that I am up to!

So the other day as I was cleaning up, I flipped to a show called “American Restoration.”  In this program, people bring old, run-down things to a guy named Rick.  Rick owns a small business that restores these items back to their original condition. 

 
“Remember back in the day when things were made by hand and people took pride in their work?” Rick’s voice asks in a voiceover at the beginning of the show. 
 
(I am not sure just how much truth there actually is in that little bit of nostalgia, but it does a nice job of setting the tone.)
 
“Every restoration has its own set of challenges,” Rick continues.  “There’s no owner’s manual for what we do, but there’s no job we can’t handle.”
 
Male menophobia. 
 
Menophobia: (noun) fear of the menstrual cycle.  
 
While there may be no job that Rick and his crew can’t handle, the other night one job came pretty darn close.  Kelly, who is Rick’s fiancée, and the lone woman on Rick’s crew, wanted the shop to restore something that they could then donate for a fundraiser for breast cancer awareness.  So she brought in an old coin-operated Kotex vending machine that during its working life had dispensed sanitary napkins in a public washroom somewhere.  It was sorely in need of restoration.
 
Rick could not contain his shock and horror.
 
“You gotta be kidding me!” he declared, “My guys won’t touch this!”
 
It turns out that no matter how macho they may be, a lot of men find all things menstrual to be like kryptonite is to Superman – inexplicably and totally debilitating.  Just like Clark Kent encountering the toxic mineral from his home planet, these menophobic men, when seeing pads, tampons (or – gasp! – actual menstrual blood!) want nothing more than to flee in the opposite direction.
 
“I’ve done a lot of vending machines in my day,” Rick says.  “But this thing, it’s the first – and hopefully the last – feminine napkin dispenser we ever have to do… [It’s] like a candy machine, although it’s quite unlike a candy machine.  Nothing good comes from out of it.”
 
So there you have it.  In Rick’s mind not only is menstruation bad, but even the items that women use to manage menstruation are bad, too!
 
It is left up to Kelly – the lone woman on the show – to also be the lone adult in this situation.
 
“Hey!” she says, no doubt tired of her fiancé’s inanity.  “These are needed, okay? Don’t be shy, don’t be embarrassed.”
 
But Rick’s son Tyler is no better than his father is around this stuff:
 
“I’m not touching that!” he declares, staring in horror at the Kotex dispenser.
 
And “Kowboy,” a gruff-looking man who works in the shop and who looks like nothing would much trouble him, is troubled nonetheless even being around this period piece.
 
“No way!” Kowboy announces.  “I’ll never hear the end of it rest of my life.  ‘Kowboy and his frickin’ Kotex machine…’ Oh hell no! I ain’t touching this Kotex machine!  Kelly is out of her mind!"
 
But of course Kowboy is forced to assist.  (Otherwise the show wouldn’t have been very “entertaining,” now would it?)
 
“If I’m not going to get out of tearing this down,” Kowboy says grumpily, “I’m gonna get it over with as soon as possible!  I need to get the hell out of this room before anybody finds out I helped Kelly with this one!”
 
(Gosh, Kowboy, you know you’re on t.v., right?  Do you really think that no one will ever find out that you worked on – gasp! – a Kotex machine?)
 
Now when I think of cowboys (or Kowboys), I tend to think of rough guys who ride the range.  Self-reliant guys.  Rugged guys.  Fearless guys.  Guys who go on cattle drives.  Guys who deal with all sorts of nasty things.  Scorpions!  Tarantulas!  Cattle rustlers!  Bandits!  Bad guys!  Bullets!
 
But when it comes to dealing with tampons and other menstrual supplies, it seems Kowboy would rather be bitten by a rattlesnake.
 
Women’s biology:  Oh! The horror!
 
Tyler is no better.  As Kowboy is helping to strip down the machine, Tyler gets sent to the store to buy feminine hygiene supplies for it. 
 
“I hate my life!”  he declares as he walks the aisles of the store, daunted by complexity of it all.  “‘Heavy flow’?  What the fuck does that mean?  I had no idea there were so many options!  This is horrible!  I swear, I’m gonna have the word ‘protection’ in my nightmares for months  For some reason my Dad sent me to the store to get feminine napkins.  I don’t know what could be more embarrassing than this.  Oh wait.  Nothing.  No-thing!”
 
While watching this episode of the show, I understood that it was intended to be funny.  But to me it really wasn’t.  To me it was just stupid.  And offensive.  And I kept hearing Kelly’s words go through my head:   
 
“These are needed, okay? Don’t be shy, don’t be embarrassed.”
 
And don’t be so damn stupid.
 
 “Can you double bag those?”  Tyler asks the clerk, as if the brand-new, tightly packaged menstrual supplies he is buying are themselves somehow contaminated.  
 
“My dad sent me to the drugstore where I learned way too much about feminine products,” he says.  “I swear, I’m scarred for life!”  
 
Poor baby.  My heart absolutely bleeds for you.
 
Not.
 
Meanwhile back at the shop…
 
As the project nears completion, Rick describes the process of restoring the Kotex machine.
 
“This thing may be small but it definitely wasn’t easy.  I got a shop full of guys, and getting them to work on something specifically for women was like pulling teeth.  But they all came together to make this happen.”
 
(What heroes.  Maybe someone should give them a freaking medal.)
 
Rick and Kelly then take the machine to the breast cancer fundraiser where it is auctioned off for $400.  The buyer is an older woman who purchases it for her own daughter, who happens to be a radiologist who helps women battle cancer.
 
But in the end, perhaps the most disturbing element of the episode is that the Kotex machine is only a sideshow.  The main event of the program occurs when a man brings in an old horse-drawn oil wagon with a metal tank on it.  He wants it all restored so that it can be used as a display item outside of his oil business.  Restoring the wagon and tank will take 318 man hours and cost $10,000 – which the customer thinks is well worth it.
 
I guess fundraising for breast cancer will always take a backseat to advertising budgets.
 
At the end of the show, Rick’s son Tyler is assigned the boring task of cleaning the shop’s tools.  Eager to get out of this drudgery, he agrees to run an errand for his father, only to discover that the errand involves having to return the extra sanitary pads to the store. 
 
“Oh my God!” he cries out.  Really? With the Kotex again?  I hate my job!”
 
Menophobia as life denial.
 
Watching this episode – which was so bad that I had to drop what I was doing and give it my full attention, much like I would if I saw a car wreck – I found myself wondering what the hell was wrong with all of these guys.  Why were they so disgusted by menstruation?  Why were they so horrified? 
 
Maybe it’s the fact that menstruation is “dirty”?  Nah.  It is true that menstruation – the process of a woman’s body actually cleansing itself – is not always an entirely clean process.  But it is not as if most of us guys are afraid of a little dirt!  And these guys who work in Rick’s shop certainly aren’t.  And many guys are hardly known for our cleanliness!  (Especially when compared to women!)  So it is not dirt that we fear.
 
So maybe it’s the blood?  Menstrual fluid does include some blood – and many people wrongly think it is entirely composed of blood.  Regardless, all in all the menstrual flow of each period is on average only 4-6 tablespoons of liquid.  That’s only 2 to 3 fluid ounces.  Total flow.  That’s the equivalent of a moderate swig of beer.   And it’s excreted over 3 to 5 days.  That is not a lot of liquid.  And most men are hardly squeamish when it comes to blood.  Many of us cheer on football.  Rugby.  Hockey fights.  Boxing matches.  Ultimate fighting.  All of those sports can involve a heck of a lot of blood… especially ultimate fighting, with its participants’ noses and lips spurting frothy blood everywhere.  Now there’s a disgusting red torrent! 
 
So it’s not that it’s dirty or that it’s bloody.  No, I think men’s disgust is largely cultural.  Most major religions hold that women who are menstruating are unclean, and women are often prevented from participating in sacred rituals at that time.  And there is also a lot of erroneous cultural folklore about how the presence of a menstruating woman will spoil dairy products, baked goods, or wine.  So the dominant cultural message is pretty clear: menstruating women = bad.
 
But for every tale of how a woman’s period spoils everything, there are counter stories and historic cultural practices that totally recognize the connection between menstruation and fertility.  For instance, in medieval Europe, menstrual blood was sometimes used for medicinal and curative purposes, and seeds were sometimes carried in rags stained by menstrual blood so that they too might be fertile.
 
(For a longer discussion of cultural attitudes and traditions around menstruation, see: http://members.efn.org/~finnpo/indigenia/Menstrual%20Blood%20-%20Walker.html
 
Menstruation is necessary for fertility.  For the bringing of new life.  For the very survival of humanity.  And many human societies have known – and celebrated – this fact since ancient times. 
 
To be utterly disgusted by menstruation is to demean women’s miraculous ability to give life. 
 
To be menophobic is to disdain life itself.
 
Menophobia as misogyny. 
 
And, of course, male supremacy plays a huge role here.  As the classic and humorous essay by Gloria Steinem, If Men Could Menstruate, points out, women are not oppressed because they menstruate.  No, in fact the reverse is true: menstruation itself is demeaned because it is only women who do it.
 
“So what would happen if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not?”  Steinem asks.  “Clearly, menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event.
 
The essay does a brilliant job of describing how misogyny works to demean everything female and elevate everything male, regardless of what that thing is – even menstruation.  If you have never read the essay, I urge you to read it here: http://www.haverford.edu/psych/ddavis/p109g/steinem.menstruate.html
 
I also urge you to read it because, unlike that recent episode of “American Restoration,” the essay is actually really funny, and it serves as enduring proof that despite what all the sexist defenders of patriarchy erroneously claim, feminists do in fact have a sense of humor. 
 
And Gloria Steinem is one hilarious feminist.