Don't trust anything that bleeds for 5 days and doesn't die.
-Men's rest room, Murphy's, Champaign,IL

It's an old joke, and not particularly funny, but it's been running through my head ever since NatchLucid circulated the survey that was the groundwork for her excellent writeup under menstruation. A number of female noders, myself included, participated in the survey, and I was extremely impressed with the methodology and results.

Answering the sometimes very personal questions was a lot of fun. My particular favorite was "Do you have a special name for your menstrual period (ie: monthly friend, the curse, etc.)?" It was a surprisingly thought-provoking experience. I mean, "the curse"? Why have countless women from time immemorial considered such a life-affirming process a source of shame and fear?

For that matter, why have I?

After NatchLucid's survey results were noded, I sat down and wrote a long journal entry concerning my feelings about bleeding. My own private survey, so to speak.

It was time well spent.

As the firstborn of three girls, I was the family trailblazer. No one ever sat down to have "the talk" with me. As a matter of fact, I have yet to meet a single woman whose mother or aunt ever sat her down for the talk at an appropriate age. I wasn't utterly unprepared for my menarche (though I certainly didn't know that word). I had Judy Blume and her fictional Margaret in my corner, but I didn't really relate to the religiously conflicted Margaret and her horrendous clique of breast-size-obsessed friends. I was an advanced reader, and I remember going to a book fair with my mother when I was about seven and picking up a copy of Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.. I didn't know what the book was about, but I had already blown through Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and liked the look of the cover. My mother didn't so much as raise an eyebrow as she tossed the book onto the growing stack in our shopping basket. The only reason I even remember the purchase was the hysterical reaction of the matronly lady at the checkout:

cashier to my mother, stage whisper: "M'am, do you know what this book is about?"

Mom (confused, Sotto voce): "Is there a problem? It was in the children's section..."

cashier: "Actually, it's in the adolescent section. You see, it's about...(looks around furtively, lowers voice to a volume discernable only by owls)...menstruation."

Mom (exasperated, her hand tightening on mine): "Lady, that is without a doubt the stupidest thing I've ever heard. She's a girl, isn't she?"

cashier (glancing at me, her voice becoming more strangled): "Well, yes...but..."

Mom: "Just give us the book. In a brown paper bag, if you must."

Obviously, my mother had no profound hangups with menstruation as a concept, but I still never got the talk.

I skipped eighth grade, which was the year my small private school's entire class was divided between giggling girls and confused boys for the institutionalized version of the much-whispered-about "Sex Talk". I imagine parents all over our town signing the requisite permission slips and breathing a collective sigh of relief that they were off the hook and could leave the messy stuff to the gym teachers. But I was already a freshman in high school, not yet thirteen and relatively clueless. I had fallen through the cracks. Most of my friends were still underclassmen, and from what I heard I missed little more than a filmstrip (circa 1962, copyright Kimberly-Clark) and a packet containing a couple of sanitary napkins (one meant to be worn with a belt, which was outmoded even back in the day, one with a strip of adhesive, both distressingly diaper-like), a mystifying booklet with some godawful title ("You're Becoming A Woman!"), a number of coupons for Kimberly-Clark products, and the ultimate prize - a pink, flowered-plastic "purse carrying case" full of five tampons.

(It was whispered on the slumber party circuit that not only did Lisa Holliman have the biggest boobs in the entire lower school, she also had started her period when she was only TEN. To top that breathlessly repeated piece of juicy gossip, one girl insisted that Lisa's mother allowed Lisa to use tampons. This was intensely scandalous and titillating to us, her flat-chested and envious classmates. We would have given anything to actually need the bras we had with scarlet faces and cottony tongues begged our mothers to buy, but none of us could imagine asking our mothers to buy tampons for us.)

Maybe it was the mass embarassment of the Great Grand Sex Talk that made me and my friends ashamed of our periods. The guys teased us mercilessly - Walter Goldsby, a freshman wise to the upcoming Sex Talk, even managed to sneak into the coach's office and get his fat, sweaty hands on an entire box (tantalizingly marked "FOR GIRLS HYGIENE TALK") full of the packets. It was excruciating for my friends to walk into the lower school girls' restroom the morning of The Talk to find their sanctum sanctorum desecrated by dozens of pads and tampons strewn and stuck on the porcelain, the stalls, the ceiling ... spattered with red paint and ketchup.

Twelve-year-old girls are very sensitive about these things.

But I can't blame Walter and his ilk, much as I'd like to. Before the boys had discovered that our worries about our developing bodies were an endless source of amusement, we had spent countless hours at late-night sleepovers talking about what "IT" would be like. Some of us had older sisters, but teenage girls generally looked at us with vague contempt when they deigned to look at us at all. They were no help, and neither were the Teen Beat-style magazines we were quickly outgrowing. None of my circle of friends had any real idea what "IT" would be like, only a vague sense that it would be excruciatingly painful and that it wasn't ever, under any circumstance, to be discussed in public (meaning anywhere the conversation might be overheard by adults or boys). Shame was implicit in our whispered conversations about cramps, tampons, and - most dreaded of all - the "accident". We were just beginning to dabble in angst, and we found rich fuel for its fires in worst-case scenarios and urban legends about unfortunate girls who were rendered untouchables by wearing white on the wrong day.

I had the mechanics of menstruation down pretty well. It wasn't very mysterious in and of itself, and it didn't require much more than a basic understanding of biology. But what I needed, what I craved, was anecdotal experience. This was years before the internet made such information easy to obtain, and I didn't even have an older sister to pester. I wasn't about to ask my mother, and as my friends and I got older and slumber parties became passe, I grew increasingly desperate. My friends who started their periods before I did were at first maddeningly silent on the topic, then quickly grew blase and dismissive. "It's nothing," one friend yawned, "just a pain." Nothing to YOU, I thought, you know from experience. I knew I would bleed, but how much? What would it feel like? Did tampons hurt, and would using them be tantamount to losing my virginity? How much did cramps REALLY hurt, and were they debilitating? And what about toxic shock syndrome, which had only recently been documented and was causing a major public panic?

What did it feel like to bleed?

I found out soon after I turned thirteen. A group from my class was going to the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee. We were to take a bus from Charleston, South Carolina, and I had to get up at three am to be ready to leave the school at four. I stumbled to the bathroom and checked my underwear hopefully, as was my usual habit. I was jolted awake by the rust-colored stain on the white cotton crotch of my panties. A thrill coursed through me as I realized - this is IT! Almost immediately, another sort of feeling overwhelmed me, and this time it was shame, not excitement. I had Soiled Myself. It was as though potty training had come back in all its technicolor horror.

begin mild rant
It didn't occur to me until I was writing in my journal about the link between the shame that all too often accompanies toilet training and the shame of menstruation. We're taught from such a young age about the solemn importance of being clean "down there", of the "filthiness" of our bodily functions, that it's no wonder women (and men) are often intensely squeamish about bleeding (see above "joke"). Even if parents don't shame their children, little girls are not as a rule encouraged to touch or explore their genitals with anything approaching the freedom little boys are allowed. I wasn't subjected to a campaign of shame in my home, but I still felt like a pariah. No recorded culture has escaped taboos about menstuation or menstrual blood, and the sight of it on my formerly pristine panties was a little overwhelming.
/end mild rant

I didn't get all the answers that week (it was several months before I worked up the courage to use tampons), but I learned a few things. Since a lot of you on E2 are men, and therefore must be curious about what it feels like to have a period, I'll do my best to give you an idea. Here's what it feels like to bleed - for me. This is subjective. (Any female noders: if you have other significantly different experiences, /msg me and I'll add to this list.)

  • It's not a lot of blood - an average of five tablespoons (80 ml) lost in five to seven days. But it's not insignificant, and it feels like a lot more, particularly the first couple of days. Also, it isn't just blood, it's tissue - the uterine lining is sloughing off and renewing itself, so the blood is thicker and richer than the blood that comes from a skinned knee. It is full of clots and can be quite thick by itself. For the first two or three days, the flow can be quite heavy and the blood is a brighter red color, much like the blood you'd see from a wound, but as the cycle winds down and the flow diminishes, the blood is more brownish in color and tends to have a stronger scent - not "fishy" (if a woman's vagina smells like fish, it's not menstruation, it's an infection) but definitely stronger, more musky. I can generally get away with a panty liner on the last day or so of the cycle, but I use tampons exclusively during the daytime until then. Part of the reason I don't like to use pads is that they just can't adequately absorb all the blood, and the tissue and clots stay on top of the pad's surface. This causes an unpleasant slimy sensation. Also, since I like to swim and play outside a lot,
  • I find pads to be incredibly inconvenient - no matter how thin, they bunch up (wings or not) and wind up feeling like a plastic diaper. They also chafe. I have, however, known a lot of women who refuse to use tampons, and I use pads at night to minimize the risk of TSS. Tampons are impossible to feel unless they are inserted at a bad angle. Most have applicators; a few, like ob, are meant to be inserted with a finger. I like the ones with applicators; I find them to be easier to place.
  • The use of tampons is not tantamount to losing one's virginity. I am stifling a giggle. The fact that these two things involve the same orifice is incidental at best. As far as I know, my hymen was intact until the day (years after I began using tampons) I decided I didn't want it intact anymore. Tampons are of negligible diameter, and a hymen is actually just a ring of blood-rich tissue. Lots of women lose them playing sports or horseback riding. Tampons do not hurt, they do not generally budge, and as long as they are changed every two to four hours, they do not smell, either. Regularly changing tampons makes the possibility of toxic shock syndrome practically nonexistent. And the myth of menstrual blood smelling particularly bad is just that - a myth. It CAN begin to smell bad - sort of rancid, like meat that's left out - if the tampon/pad isn't changed regularly (or if the trash isn't taken out often - cf Suppafly's writeup under Adventures in the women's bathroom : A male perspective). Generally it just smells like blood, especially on the first couple of days when the flow is very heavy. Blood is organic matter, tasty breeding grounds for bacteria, and starts to stink if proper hygeine isn't followed. (I usually end up taking more showers during my period than is probably warranted, but I blame that on those damn douche commercials by which women were all terrorized. Oh, the horror of not feeling fresh.) Tampons also don't "get lost up there". It's pretty difficult to get anything past the cervix, anyway, and tampon strings are knotted very tightly.
  • Cramps. Ugh. I've known a few women who claim never to have cramps. I envy them the same way I envy natural blondes with ultra-shiny hair and perfect skin. In my case, the first year I had my period was a honeymoon. Once I got over being a little ashamed of bleeding, I started to think that it was kind of cool. I mean, it confirmed that I could have babies, that on some level I was a grownup, a woman instead of a little girl. But then it got bad, really bad. When I turned fourteen, I began to have excruciating cramps. These weren't like regular stomach cramps, though, the kind you might associate with food poisoning or diarrhea. All of us have had those. This was different. The pain was sometimes sharp, more often dull and continuous, but it was accompanied by nausea and migraines, and it resisted all forms of over-the counter treatment. Advil? These cramps snickered at advil. Tylenol was a joke as well, and regular asprin is a blood thinner, not recommended for menstrual cramps. My family doctor cautiously perscribed Darvocet, which left me hazy but got me out of the fetal position by the toilet, which had become my regular spot for two days out of every month. It wasn't until I got a clue and went to a sympathetic gynecologist at age fifteen that I started to take oral contraceptives and found relief. The pills made me gain about ten pounds, but it was worth it for the relief. I'm off the pill now, and I have cramps again, but nothing approaching the mind-numbing pain I used to have every month. My gynecologist says that most women outgrow the really bad cramps, and that most women who have given birth never experience cramps like that again.
  • Public accidents. A few pairs of underwear have been ruined over the years, but thanks to my use of tampons I've never had a big ol' red spot on the back of a sundress. My friends and I were all freaked out for no good reason.
  • But how does it feel? This is a hard question to answer. Imagine a woman asking you what it's like to have a penis. You don't really know; you've always had a penis. But you try. So, with that in mind: aside from cramps, it feels about like you'd expect it to feel. It's blood, so it's wet and warm. On the rare occasions I wear a pad, if I've been sitting down a while and I suddenly stand up, it flows in a rush and reminds me that it's there. It can be uncomfortable the way wearing a wet bathing suit is uncomfortable. Most of the time, though, it's eminently ignorable, especially when I have a tampon in. Emotionally, I'm noticeably more prone to a good crying jag in the days just prior to my period, but I don't suffer from anything resembling an actual syndrome. I know from syndrome, and for me, a bad case of the munchies and a little grumpiness is about all I find myself battling in the two to seven days just before I begin to bleed. This is not the case for all women. I attended a women's boarding school, a women's college, and have two sisters. PMS is real and varies greatly from woman to woman. I'm definitely one of the lucky ones there. Now that my cramps are cured, I really don't mind it.

    It's not a curse. As a matter of fact, I think it's a blessing.

It's hard to properly imagine an uncomfortable, aggravating biological condition that affects organs you simply don't have. It's probably as hard for your average guy to imagine what it would be like to menstruate as it is for the average gal to imagine what it's like to suffer from a fractured penis.

Pain is part of the human condition, and we can all relate to plain ol' pain. It's the particulars that get real fuzzy real quick, especially for something that creates such a complicated and variable set of symptoms as menstruation.

So. We'll have to use the organs at hand for this descriptive exercise. If you have a penis, and want to know what menstruation might be like for your girlfriend, sister, or mom, read on!

Start by imagining that your urethra is quite a bit larger than it is now. Now, imagine that you have a magical prostate gland that holds back urine but does nothing to hold back blood and tissue.

Yes, that's right, boys, you're going to be bleeding through your dick for the next several days! This is fun already, isn't it?

Now, imagine that, overnight, a mass roughly the size of a ping-pong ball or a hen's egg has grown inside your bladder. This mass is free-floating, and has a hard surface much like that of a cheese grater. On the third day or so, your hormones will work another feat of magic and the mass will rapidly shrink down to a size you can easily pass.

Because this mass has taken up 1/4 to 1/2 the normal volume of your bladder, you have to pee more often than usual. Sometimes, a lot more than usual. And while it's bouncing around in there, it starts to grate off the inner lining of your bladder. Painful!

So when you're not having to run to the bathroom to pee, you're bleeding. You have to wear a pad, sometimes two if you're bleeding quite a lot. They chafe the inside of your thighs and your balls, and sometimes your pubic hair gets caught in the adhesive backing.

You decide that pads suck, so you stick a cotton wad in your urethra to stop the blood. It can chafe quite a lot if there's not much blood flowing when you put it in, and if often chafes coming back out if you have to remove it to pee.

If you're lucky, you can't feel the wad in there, even if you get an erection, but if you have a smaller penis, you almost always feel it. It doesn't hurt exactly, but when you sit down you're aware that you've got a foreign object lodged in your dick, and it's not an awesome sensation. Also, it seems to make the cramping from the little landmine in your bladder worse.

And when you pull it out, there's sometimes a lovely little backlog of tissue in there. Clots of blood and reamed-off bladder lining come slithering out of you like warm slugs. In that moment, you so love your body, and just feel ever-so-sexy.

Your girlfriend, if she deals well with blood, is quite keen to have sex with you, since you're infertile while all this bleeding is going on. Otherwise, she's avoiding intimate contact with you on the grounds that you smell weird or you'll get blood all over her sheets. If you're especially unlucky, your girlfriend will be totally unsympathetic to your situation: You go through this every month, John, I'd have thought you'd have learned to deal with it by now. It's only a little pain, go take some Advil and be a man about it!

Meanwhile, you feel run-down and mostly want to sleep, the inside of your dick is chafed, two pairs of your drawers are stained with blood, the inside of one of your internal organs is peeling off, and sometimes the pain meds just don't do the job.

And that, my friends, is what it can be like to menstruate.

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