There's typically at least one kid in any class who thinks they can shock or embarrass you. Flashback to a kid I shall be professional and change the name of:
Fred: "When the red river runs, take her up the dirt path." What does that mean, sir? Me: You'll find out when you grow up. If you grow up. Maybe by then it won't seem like such a big deal.
Later I got to thinking about this. 'If' was definitely the better choice of word. Not only because someone may get around to prematurely ending the existence of the brat in question, but because many people never do grow out of juvenile taboos about menstruation. In fact, I'll lay odds there's a few people who switched off as they got to the end of that sentence. "He made a good point about juvenile taboos—I knew what he was talking about, but why did he have to say menstruation?" Christ on a bike, it's not as if I linked in a pic of a used tampon. Though perhaps I should have; a surprisingly large number of people have—if their reactions are to be believed—never seen nor been near one.
Which is rubbish: the vast majority of people have been very near to very many of them. Unless they live in monasteries. They've just never really registered the fact that women they know menstruate. Whose fault is this? Why all of the sniggering, jokes and embarrassment? Ignorance. Ignorance reinforced by media and fed by adults as we got older. "It's not a 'nice' subject." / "Don't talk about that, you'll embarrass [name of friend or relative]." /"It's a curse." Ideas can be embedded at a very early age.
I'd like to take a moment to dwell on that last stock response. Schools are supposed to be sympathetic towards parental lines, including those feeding daughters the notion that God is punishing them for their gender. Why the hell should anyone show 'sympathy' for bigoted indoctrination straight from the Dark Ages? Feeding children self-hate bullshit screws them up for life. It is abuse. "Wah! I have the religious freedom to teach my kids their bodies are evil and vessels of sin!" Come closer ma'am; I too have an oiled shotgun, and this round has your name and denomination on it. It is cast from silver and we will bury you at a crossroads.
Of course, in practice, part of the reason basic sex education is given in primary schools in this country is to intercept parents who can't or won't broach the subject of periods themselves, or those whose message is (even inadvertently) one of shame and brimstone. At least it goes some way towards sparing some kids the misery of encountering one of the most visible effects of puberty entirely alone or at the mercy of other kids' venomed gossip. Often there's room for improvement, but schools can be relatively cunning about scheduling talks at the last minute so that parents don't have opportunity to turn their offspring into pariahs amongst their peers and to deny them information.
Meanwhile, boys get a different talk and have no access this basic information. Yes, we glimpsed the leaflets and complimentary sanitary towel or tampon, because someone always leaves the bag they've been given in the classroom (looking back, you can only hope it was through disinterest, not fear of parental retribution.) We didn't understand them. Questions directed towards adults were, with luck, not completely dismissed. Our local education authority was actually very dedicated—in the first year of secondary school there was another talk for girls, in case anyone had missed the primary school one. Some probably had, as at least one of the feeder primaries for our secondary was a church school. Again, boys were fobbed off... indeed, as I recall, we were given an extended or extra break and the hall curtains were drawn for a private video showing. A member of staff was posted to keep boys away and the doors at the back shut.
Charitably, this can be explained as staff wanting to avoid embarrassment for the girls. It failed, of course. Instead of delivering accurate information to all, conversation for the next few days reflected an increase in rumours and immaturity. The veil of secrecy remained intact, at the most opportune moment to have deflated playground stories and shape our burgeoning awareness of differences. So what happened was that most girls resented being given a reiteration and the boys getting more break, and boys got the clear message that periods were something to be furtively kept from them.
I've used the term 'sex education'. It is, to my mind, inaccurate—and reflects the overwhelming trend to link periods with sex. Yes, I realise menstrual cycles are linked as closely as anything to reproductive biology. Sex is not something indivisibly linked with reproduction, though. (Anyone thinks it is, that shotgun has another barrel for you.) By the time biology lessons get around to technical explanations, there's already been a short lifetime of gossip, misconceptions and exposure to porn. Somehow, in the midst of this, no-one has ever taken a couple of minutes to state: "for a few days every month or so, girls and women above a certain age bleed from their vaginas. This is the most natural thing in the world and something which is the case for almost all mammals. It isn't a wound, and it has no connection to the excretion topic you did last week. The body builds up a certain amount of blood cells so that, if a woman were having sex, she could get pregnant. As she isn't pregnant, those cells aren't needed and the body lets them go. If I hear you behaving immaturely about any of this, I'll smack you around the head."
Further to this theme, the following quote is excerpted from a letter to a magazine editor expressing disappointment that a knitting pattern for a tampon bag got lumped into a section with an 'adults-only' disclaimer:
Sarah, aside from sharing my tendency to write long sentences, neatly encapsulates a lot of stances and concerns in the space of a paragraph. And indirectly raises a point I'll come back to: that I would know very little about various subjects were it not for the internet. Even as adults, most people are wilfully ignorant about women's bodies. Childhood lessons are either hard to shake off or people would rather reserve the subject for porn and stand-up comedy. I know more about contraception, gynocological procedures and anatomy than far too many people I know. That isn't a "worship me, I know stuff" statement—I'm worried. The first many women know about smear tests and screening for cervical cancer is when enrolling with a new GP at university. I've heard too many first-hand accounts of mothers who muttered about Biblical curses, women whose first period involved patronising and/or negative school staff and from those who were never give any help getting access to sanitary products.
"One of the biggest barriers to decent menstrual research and positive attitudes about menstruation is the fact that periods are treated not just as messy or inconvenient, but as embarrassing, obscene, and worth hiding behind black covers with disclaimers. Fundamentally, that's a gender thing (men don't menstruate), but it often plays out as a sex thing (as you note, it happens in the same orifice… but that's no reason to declare that one week out of four is women's shameful secret, is it?) It might not seem like a big deal, but period shame is most of what makes tampon manufacturers so cavalier about safety and value, it seems to be a large part of why girls are prone to serious depression in the 2 years after they start bleeding, and it ensures that women stay the abnormal Other for a lot of men and even a lot of women."
Things are in ways improved now. In 1995 the web was in its infancy; Cosmopolitan and teen magazines weren't as forward with their advice and adverts (although media is still a cause for concern, as is the commoditisation of menstruation. Blue liquids and mountain-biking in white shorts clinicalise rather than promoting understanding and acceptance.) It's certainly no reason for complacency, but much of our generation is a lot less accepting of taboos and lot more willing to discuss openly and maturely. There has been progress, for some. Now let's see if we can share the enlightenment. With cudgels, if necessary.
Winding down... where does the open source come in? Well, www.myvag.net is written under a Creative Commons license—something I should really look into, because I don't mind people using things on this site I've written. Their licenses operate under similar philosophies to open source software: derivative works are permitted and even encouraged, with minimal requirements or restrictions. Free exchange and availability of information in general is something I have strong feelings about. But that's a broader tangent, for another blog.
If you're a bloke who I suckered into reading this by mentioning taboos and open source, and who feels he's learnt something or been made to think, pat yourself on the back for getting this far. Really. I doubt the education system or others have gone out of their way to make information available to you or even talk about much of this stuff. If you're a bloke who feels guilty for things you said as a teenager—don't. Learn from mistakes and try to avoid repeating them. This includes not blaming any behaviour you see as aberrant in your partner/friends/co-workers on PMT.
And a final word of advice: orgasms are a natural painkiller, good for relieving cramps.