Why we need inclusive language when talking about periods
Some facts of life: there are women who menstruate and women who don’t. There are men who menstruate and men who don’t. There are people who neither define as women nor men who menstruate and those who don’t. This is diversity in the 21st century, so shouldn’t the language we use when talking about menstruation reflect this?
Well it is beginning to, at least. Menstruator is now the acceptable term to describe someone who lives with a monthly blood flow from between their legs. Menstruators can be men, women or ‘other’, he/she/they. There are trans men who menstruate, trans women who do not, intersex people who may or may not and many cis women who for health or anatomical reasons do not menstruate. Menstruator, rather then be seen as nullifying the category of women, should be seen as a term that can help us understand that menstruating is not inherent to a specific gender. It also avoids reducing the experience of women to this one biological function. It challenges the assumption that if you don’t menstruate you are not a real woman.
I have to admit that as cis woman writing a blog largely about gynaechology and reproductive rights it is often been a challenge to write using inclusive language. I have come to realise how ingrained binary terms are in our imagination: women menstruate, women get pregnant, women have abortions. I often have to remind myself that people menstruate, get pregnant and have abortions. When it comes to discussing anatomy, the language we use to talk about our bodies is even more loaded: ‘male reproductive organs’ or ‘female reproductive organs’. Its striking how with three little words you can assign a gender to body part and reduce it to it’s ‘accepted’ social function: reproduction. What about using terminolgy that is more descriptive such as ‘uterine system’ and ‘prostate system’. Or perhaps a name that reflect of what they are actually used for most of the time, pleasure, as opposed to reproduction, for example, our ‘pleasure organs’?
What about Fem-Care?
Lunapads point out that the term Fem care or feminine hygiene is in itself exclusionary; its orgins also rather dubious. The fem-care or feminine hygiene industry continues to reproduce antiquated, and frankly offensive, stereotypes when it comes to addressing menstruation. We still have ads that emphasis the fact that the best feature about specific brand of tampon or sanitary towel is that it’s ‘discrete’. God forbid anybody would actually realise you are menstruating! The persistance of the sanitised blue liquid that pads are so good at absorbing rather alluding to the reality that it is blood that flows from our vaginas. The use of women in publicity to the exclusion of all other genders. The insistence of using package, messaging and product placement that emphasise traditional ideas of femininity. This all adds to the experience of exclusion and discrimination that queer, trans and non-binary folks experience on a daily basis.
“Feminine hygiene (…) It’s rooted in outdated, binary assumptions about sex and gender that uphold cisnormativity by centering cis bodies as natural, while simultaneously classifying cis women + trans and nonbinary people who menstruate as unnatural or inherently flawed. That’s like quadruple the patriarchy.” Lunapads
Some elements in the industry are beginning to catch up. The pioneers for inclusivity in the menstrual hygiene industry are, unsurprisingly, independent companies that bring safe, ecological, gender neutral menstrual care alternatives to the market. Lunapads, in particular, have long been ahead of the game. They actively promote inclusivity and understanding of the need for gender neutral language, products, packaging and adverstising. The fact that their products can be ordered online and are reusable has meant that menstruators who don’t identify as women no longer have to undergo the monthly trip to the ‘fem care’ aisle in the supermarket or pharmacy. Who knows how long it will take for the likes of Tampax and Always will to realise that menstruation is not something that should be hidden and that menstruators are not all women?
Learning and reflecting and learning and reflecting…
So it’s a been learning curve for me, as a cis-gender, straight woman, who writes about sexual health. Trans feminism is a relatively recent phenomenon that pushes the boundries of sex and gender way beyond what most second wave feminists could have imagined and many of us are still running to catch up. Our lexicon often does not reflect the diversity and complexity of the human experience nor forms of being and ways of living that fall outside the neat binary boxes of male/female. Rather than see this as a threat to the category of ‘woman’ as a political subject, trans feminism, according to Julia Serrano, invites us to adopt an intersectional approach to challenging sexism and oppression and challenge the fact that anyone who “fails to conform to the gender binary—whether an intersex child, a tomboyish girl, a gay man, a transgender person, etc.—is marginalized by society, albeit in different ways.”
Part of the beauty of trans feminism is in the stretching, adapting and transforming of a language through which we can frame our ever evolving understanding of the sex/gender axis. Adopting the terms Menstruator and menstrual hygiene/care is only the beginning.
To find out more about how trans men and intersex people have lived with menstruation you can check out the following links:
- Cosmopolitan: Sex Talk Realness: What It’s Like to Be Intersex
- Rewire: Reproductive Health of the Transgendered: One Man’s Story
- Everyday Feminism: My Period and Me: A Trans Guy’s Guide to Menstruation
To learn more about inclusion in the menstrual hygiene industry you can check out Lunapads website. And for some of the basics on understanding trans feminism check out this article from Ms. Magazine and this video from my fave youtuber Laci Green: