A Review of FLOW: A Cultural History of Menstruation

Bianca I. Laureano

The authors of FLOW: A Cultural History of Menstruation recognize the need for different approaches to discussing Femcare, but don't go far enough in using those approaches themselves. 

Growing up with hippie parents I was exposed to books such as Our Bodies, Ourselves and The Joy of Sex at a very young age. I’d like to think that my parents owning these books helped shape the sex-positive ideologies I embrace today. When my homegirl Nilki contacted me about an upcoming book focusing on U.S. women’s bodies, menstruation, marketing, and myths I was instantly sold and eager to read the book. FLOW: A Cultural History of Menstruation arrived at my home for review and I was instantly impressed.

A hardcover sturdy book with a pin-up image on the cover appealed to the femme in me. The pages are glossy and bright and almost every page had an image of some sort to break up the text on the page. My initial thought was that the book was accessible, which is always pleasant for books of this sort. At the same time, when I read the title I had some assumptions. As a child of immigrants, and a woman of color, the term “cultural” triggers many images/ideas for me. Basically, I expected to see myself represented at some point in the text. As an interdisciplinary professor, I know the term “culture” and “cultural” have various definitions, yet I still immediately think in an inclusive way with the term.

I noticed that with the exception of one image on page 96, that all of the images in the book were of racially White women and written in English. A majority of the images are of marketing ads geared towards women regarding tampons, sanitary napkins, and “cleansing” products. I found, and still find it, extremely odd that images in the early 80s to the present were not included to represent women of Color. After all Serena Williams is the latest spokesperson for Tampons®, and there is what I would consider a “racially ambiguous” woman on the Moon Cup advertisements. Neither of these are included.

I often joke that my time in graduate school made me too critical of research and theories, as that is how we are trained when engaging with various texts. Yet, I’ve tried to get out of that graduate school mode and understand that not every book can do every thing. Sometimes this is difficult to remember, especially when there are huge gaps in a narrative. Yet, we still live in a society where creating a text that is supposed to be inclusive of all women really isn’t and this is a problem. One of the ways I’ve appreciated some authors approach this issue is to say explicitly in their introduction what their text does, who it includes, how they know their scope is limited. I often admire when authors are aware of how this can help prepare readers for their text.

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One of the many soapboxes I have is that the bodies of women of Color are not valued in the same way the bodies of other women are in this country. The text clearly showed how color-free and exclusive early marketing was for menstrual products. I wondered how the “flow” out of the bodies of women of Color were stigmatized, celebrated, seen as a rite of passage and those perspectives were not present in the text. Actually, I can recall two specific instances when they were presented, but they were done so in a way that “Othered” them/us. The examples were of women outside the US, especially in Africa, and how “primitive” the experiences of young women can be challenging in such “oppressive” environments.

This continues when the authors, Elissa Stein and Susan Kim, mention international women of Color in examples as they discuss their text. For example, in their interview on The View Susan Kim discusses various terms and phrases people have used to reference and name their menstrual cycle. See a short clip below here.

Watching this short clip made me very uncomfortable (and not because I’m menstruating and can’t joke about some things). There’s also something about these examples in the clip that strike me as a form of name-calling that is inappropriate and perpetuates stereotypes. “Walking like an Egyptian,” was that really necessary? And to evoke that Egyptian people walk differently just makes me want to give them a reading list of texts by Nawal El Saadawwi. Was I surprised to hear this from the authors after reading the book? Not really, especially when there are sentences such as these in the text:

“…unless you belong to some kind of cult, chances are you are not bearing and breast-feeding babies every second of your entire reproductive life” (page XXII).

“(And we’re sorry no matter what any 15 yo tells you, vulgarity alone does not count as honest discourse)” (page 2).

“In a small study of women in New York City, 61 percent said they had had a period when they weren’t expecting it…and we bet the others were lying” (page 188).

As someone who has a belief system that is not part of an organized religion, which has been called a “cult” this wording really turned me off because it was extremely offensive. It clearly isolates women who do not fall into a specific value and/or belief system, women outside the US, women with a different perspective on their spiritual connection with various deities/spaces/texts/etc. The statement about youth and vulgarity really irks me. As one of my favorite bloggers, cripchick, once said (and I’m paraphrasing): “language is one of the only things youth have” to express themselves and we, as adults, often take that away from them.

Now, I know that my opinion and cripchick’s may be unpopular, however I find that things such as graffiti writing, use of slang, and fashion are forms of media that youth create. They are media makers and when we attempt to censor them it’s not the most effective way to build and gain their trust. It also reeks of class and age discrimination. On the age tip, there were also quotes by women discussing their experiences with their cycles, and the youngest was 37 years old. I wondered why women younger than 37 were not quoted in the text. Were we even included?

To be clear I’m not advocating that youth are not introduced to and learn the scientific or what others may call “proper” terminology for our body parts and genitals. I think this is important, I just don’t think because a young person is more comfortable code switching that they are not capable of being engaged in “honest discourse.” Positive youth development is essential. So is affirming identities. Language has power and I’m not comfortable debunking the power in the language young people use to express themselves.

Then the idea that the authors will “bet” that some women in a small study were lying if they did not remember or recall experiencing an unexpected period; defeats the entire purpose of the book which I read as: trust women. There is also the issue that “women” only refers to cisgender women. There is no discussion of trans communities. At all. In the discussion regarding how menstruation is constructed in US society, there is nothing regarding how transgender men may experience their menstrual cycle, and this may not always be something that is celebrated. At the same time, there is no discussion about how conversations and values of menstruation exclude transgender women. How does menstruation confirm rigid ideas of gender and gender identity? I thought this type of discussion could have fit nicely in the list of questions the authors identify on page XXIII. Even to simply ask the questions is a sign that they recognize the term “woman” and “women” are often used in an exclusive context.

Finally, the book is an interesting, yet color-free and limited history of menstruation in the U.S. I was intrigued by chapter two “Where Are We Today” with discussions of menstruation and connections to current and future birth control methods. People of Color are mentioned in chapter seven which focuses on religion. Unfortunately, almost all of the examples from a religious space are negative. “Scent of A Woman” is the title for chapter nine and the advertisements focusing on scent and menstruation are overwhelmingly heterosexist. Almost all of them discuss pleasing a husband, which I found very interesting and troubling. Chapter 10 has the most discussion of rites of passages among women outside the U.S. and specifically in Africa and the Philippines, yet these examples are one’s I learned about over 15 years ago when I took an introduction to Anthropology course.

The list of resources and bibliography at the end of the text was not what I expected and were a pleasant surprise. There were limited citations on some of the research that was presented (except for the Kinsey Reports and such) and a majority of the citations were online. I see the author’s inclusion of these resources as useful and important from a historical perspective. They are also great examples on how to reference a website, which surprisingly not too many students know how to do these days. I’m saddened that there was no reference to some of the amazing forms of art that have been created regarding menstruation, contributions to popular culture if you will. Sandra Cisneros’ poem “Down There” in her book Loose Women Poems comes to mind, Ani DeFranco’s song “Blood In The Boardroom.” I agree with Cisneros, “I find the subject charming,” and hope that there is a second part to this text that will be more inclusive to the “culture” aspects the authors implied in the book.

At the end of the day, I expected to see myself in this text, have my experiences affirmed, and my community represented. This did not occur, however, to be fair this rarely occurs in books that come out in the field of sexuality and reproductive health unless the text is specifically devoted to communities of Color. As they said in their text “Femcare has been so long monopolized by manufacturing, medicine, advertising, and religion that any fresh, individual voices seem like cool water in a blazing desert” (p. 251). That’s right, fresh, individual voices. Klein and Kim started the work and there is still a lot more to complete.

Commentary Sexuality

Black Trans Liberation Tuesday Must Become an Annual Observance

Raquel Willis

As long as trans people—many of them Black trans women—continue to be murdered, there will be a need to commemorate their lives, work to prevent more deaths, and uplift Black trans activism.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

This week marks one year since Black transgender activists in the United States organized Black Trans Liberation Tuesday. Held on Tuesday, August 25, the national day of action publicized Black trans experiences and memorialized 18 trans women, predominantly trans women of color, who had been murdered by this time last year.

In conjunction with the Black Lives Matter network, the effort built upon an earlier Trans Liberation Tuesday observance created by Bay Area organizations TGI Justice Project and Taja’s Coalition to recognize the fatal stabbing of 36-year-old trans Latina woman Taja DeJesus in February 2015.

Black Trans Liberation Tuesday should become an annual observance because transphobic violence and discrimination aren’t going to dissipate with one-off occurrences. I propose that Black Trans Liberation Tuesday fall on the fourth Tuesday of August to coincide with the first observance and also the August 24 birthday of the late Black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson.

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There is a continuing need to pay specific attention to Black transgender issues, and the larger Black community must be pushed to stand in solidarity with us. Last year, Black trans activists, the Black Lives Matter network, and GetEQUAL collaborated on a blueprint of what collective support looks like, discussions that led to Black Trans Liberation Tuesday.

“Patrisse Cullors [a co-founder of Black Lives Matter] had been in talks on ways to support Black trans women who had been organizing around various murders,” said Black Lives Matter Organizing Coordinator Elle Hearns of Washington, D.C. “At that time, Black trans folks had been experiencing erasure from the movement and a lack of support from cis people that we’d been in solidarity with who hadn’t reciprocated that support.”

This erasure speaks to a long history of Black LGBTQ activism going underrecognized in both the civil rights and early LGBTQ liberation movements. Many civil rights leaders bought into the idea that influential Black gay activist Bayard Rustin was unfit to be a leader simply because he had relationships with men, though he organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Johnson, who is often credited with kicking off the 1969 Stonewall riots with other trans and gender-nonconforming people of color, fought tirelessly for LGBTQ rights. She and other trans activists of color lived in poverty and danger (Johnson was found dead under suspicious circumstances in July 1992), while the white mainstream gay elite were able to demand acceptance from society. Just last year, Stonewall, a movie chronicling the riots, was released with a whitewashed retelling that centered a white, cisgender gay male protagonist.

The Black Lives Matter network has made an intentional effort to avoid the pitfalls of those earlier movements.

“Our movement has been intersectional in ways that help all people gain liberation whether they see it or not. It became a major element of the network vision and how it was seeing itself in the Black liberation movement,” Hearns said. “There was no way to discuss police brutality without discussing structural violence affecting Black lives, in general”—and that includes Black trans lives.

Despite a greater mainstream visibility for LGBTQ issues in general, Black LGBTQ issues have not taken the forefront in Black freedom struggles. When a Black cisgender heterosexual man is killed, his name trends on social media feeds and is in the headlines, but Black trans women don’t see the same importance placed on their lives.

According to a 2015 report by the Anti-Violence Project, a group dedicated to ending anti-LGBTQ and HIV-affected community violence, trans women of color account for 54 percent of all anti-LGBTQ homicides. Despite increased awareness, with at least 20 transgender people murdered since the beginning of this year, it seems things haven’t really changed at all since Black Trans Liberation Tuesday.

“There are many issues at hand when talking about Black trans issues, particularly in the South. There’s a lack of infrastructure and support in the nonprofit sector, but also within health care and other systems. Staffs at LGBTQ organizations are underfunded when it comes to explicitly reaching the trans community,” said Micky Bradford, the Atlanta-based regional organizer for TLC@SONG. “The space between towns can harbor isolation from each other, making it more difficult to build up community organizing, coalitions, and culture.”

The marginalization that Black trans people face comes from both the broader society and the Black community. Fighting white supremacy is a full-time job, and some activists within the Black Lives Matter movement see homophobia and transphobia as muddying the fight for Black liberation.

“I think we have a very special relationship with gender and gender violence to all Black people,” said Aaryn Lang, a New York City-based Black trans activist. “There’s a special type of trauma that Black people inflict on Black trans people because of how strict the box of gender and space of gender expression has been to move in for Black people. In the future of the movement, I see more people trusting that trans folks have a vision that’s as diverse as blackness is.”

But even within that diversity, Black trans people are often overlooked in movement spaces due to anti-Blackness in mainstream LGBTQ circles and transphobia in Black circles. Further, many Black trans people aren’t in the position to put energy into movement work because they are simply trying to survive and find basic resources. This can create a disconnect between various sections of the Black trans community.

Janetta Johnson, executive director of TGI Justice Project in San Francisco, thinks the solution is twofold: increased Black trans involvement and leadership in activism spaces, and more facilitated conversations between Black cis and trans people.

“I think a certain part of the transgender community kind of blocks all of this stuff out. We are saying we need you to come through this process and see how we can create strength in numbers. We need to bring in other trans people not involved in the movement,” she said. “We need to create a space where we can share views and strategies and experiences.”

Those conversations must be an ongoing process until the killings of Black trans women like Rae’Lynn Thomas, Dee Whigham, and Skye Mockabee stop.

“As we commemorate this year, we remember who and why we organized Black Trans Liberation Tuesday last year. It’s important we realize that Black trans lives are still being affected in ways that everyday people don’t realize,” Hearns said. “We must understand why movements exist and why people take extreme action to continuously interrupt the system that will gladly forget them.”

Culture & Conversation Family

‘Abortion and Parenting Needs Can Coexist’: A Q&A With Parker Dockray

Carole Joffe

"Why should someone have to go to one place for abortion care or funding, and to another place—one that is often anti-abortion—to get diapers and parenting resources? Why can’t they find that support all in one place?"

In May 2015, the longstanding and well-regarded pregnancy support talkline Backline launched a new venture. The Oakland-based organization opened All-Options Pregnancy Resource Center, a Bloomington, Indiana, drop-in center that offers adoption information, abortion referrals, and parenting support. Its mission: to break down silos and show that it is possible to support all options and all families under one roof—even in red-state Indiana, where Republican vice presidential candidate Gov. Mike Pence signed one of the country’s most restrictive anti-abortion laws.

To be sure, All-Options is hardly the first organization to point out the overlap between women terminating pregnancies and those continuing them. For years, the reproductive justice movement has insisted that the defense of abortion must be linked to a larger human rights framework that assures that all women have the right to have children and supportive conditions in which to parent them. More than 20 years ago, Rachel Atkins, then the director of the Vermont Women’s Center, famously described for a New York Times reporter the women in the center’s waiting room: “The country really suffers from thinking that there are two different kinds of women—women who have abortions and women who have babies. They’re the same women at different times.”

While this concept of linking the needs of all pregnant women—not just those seeking an abortion—is not new, there are actually remarkably few agencies that have put this insight into practice. So, more than a year after All-Options’ opening, Rewire checked in with Backline Executive Director Parker Dockray about the All-Options philosophy, the center’s local impact, and what others might consider if they are interested in creating similar programs.

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Rewire: What led you and Shelly Dodson (All-Options’ on-site director and an Indiana native) to create this organization?

PD: In both politics and practice, abortion is so often isolated and separated from other reproductive experiences. It’s incredibly hard to find organizations that provide parenting or pregnancy loss support, for example, and are also comfortable and competent in supporting people around abortion.

On the flip side, many abortion or family planning organizations don’t provide much support for women who want to continue a pregnancy or parents who are struggling to make ends meet. And yet we know that 60 percent of women having an abortion already have at least one child; in our daily lives, these issues are fundamentally connected. So why should someone have to go to one place for abortion care or funding, and to another place—one that is often anti-abortion—to get diapers and parenting resources? Why can’t they find that support all in one place? That’s what All-Options is about.

We see the All-Options model as a game-changer not only for clients, but also for volunteers and community supporters. All-Options allows us to transcend the stale pro-choice/pro-life debate and invites people to be curious and compassionate about how abortion and parenting needs can coexist .… Our hope is that All-Options can be a catalyst for reproductive justice and help to build a movement that truly supports people in all their options and experiences.

Rewire: What has been the experience of your first year of operations?

PD: We’ve been blown away with the response from clients, volunteers, donors, and partner organizations …. In the past year, we’ve seen close to 600 people for 2,400 total visits. Most people initially come to All-Options—and keep coming back—for diapers and other parenting support. But we’ve also provided hundreds of free pregnancy tests, thousands of condoms, and more than $20,000 in abortion funding.

Our Hoosier Abortion Fund is the only community-based, statewide fund in Indiana and the first to join the National Network of Abortion Funds. So far, we’ve been able to support 60 people in accessing abortion care in Indiana or neighboring states by contributing to their medical care or transportation expenses.

Rewire: Explain some more about the centrality of diaper giveaways in your program.

PD: Diaper need is one of the most prevalent yet invisible forms of poverty. Even though we knew that in theory, seeing so many families who are struggling to provide adequate diapers for their children has been heartbreaking. Many people are surprised to learn that federal programs like [the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children or WIC] and food stamps can’t be used to pay for diapers. And most places that distribute diapers, including crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), only give out five to ten diapers per week.

All-Options follows the recommendation of the National Diaper Bank Network in giving families a full pack of diapers each week. We’ve given out more than 4,000 packs (150,000 diapers) this year—and we still have 80 families on our waiting list! Trying to address this overwhelming need in a sustainable way is one of our biggest challenges.

Rewire: What kind of reception has All-Options had in the community? Have there been negative encounters with anti-choice groups?

PD: Diapers and abortion funding are the two pillars of our work. But diapers have been a critical entry point for us. We’ve gotten support and donations from local restaurants, elected officials, and sororities at Indiana University. We’ve been covered in the local press. Even the local CPC refers people to us for diapers! So it’s been an important way to build trust and visibility in the community because we are meeting a concrete need for local families.

While All-Options hasn’t necessarily become allies with places that are actively anti-abortion, we do get lots of referrals from places I might describe as “abortion-agnostic”—food banks, domestic violence agencies, or homeless shelters that do not have a position on abortion per se, but they want their clients to get nonjudgmental support for all their options and needs.

As we gain visibility and expand to new places, we know we may see more opposition. A few of our clients have expressed disapproval about our support of abortion, but more often they are surprised and curious. It’s just so unusual to find a place that offers you free diapers, baby clothes, condoms, and abortion referrals.

Rewire: What advice would you give to others who are interested in opening such an “all-options” venture in a conservative state?

PD: We are in a planning process right now to figure out how to best replicate and expand the centers starting in 2017. We know we want to open another center or two (or three), but a big part of our plan will be providing a toolkit and other resources to help people use the all-options approach.

The best advice we have is to start where you are. Who else is already doing this work locally, and how can you work together? If you are an abortion fund or clinic, how can you also support the parenting needs of the women you serve? Is there a diaper bank in your area that you could refer to or partner with? Could you give out new baby packages for people who are continuing a pregnancy or have a WIC eligibility worker on-site once a month? If you are involved with a childbirth or parenting organization, can you build a relationship with your local abortion fund?

How can you make it known that you are a safe space to discuss all options and experiences? How can you and your organization show up in your community for diaper need and abortion coverage and a living wage?

Help people connect the dots. That’s how we start to change the conversation and create support.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify the spelling of Shelly Dodson’s name.

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