Cycles of Shame: Menstrual Shame, Body Shame, and Sexual Decision-Making

Article excerpt

Although menstruation is a natural, reproductive process, it bears a strong cultural taboo that commands that it not be seen, discussed, or in most ways, acknowledged (Kissling, 1996a; Roberts, 2004). This desire to keep menstruation secret is often paired with an attitude that menstruation is dirty and disgusting (Martin, 1996; Roberts). Many girls report shame about being seen with a menstrual product or, worse yet, about bleeding through clothing, and some adolescent girls report that they are embarrassed simply by the fact that they menstruate (Lee & Sasser-Coen, 1996; Kissling, 1996b; Roberts). These feelings are likely compounded by media portrayals of menstruation as a hygienic crisis (Havens & Swenson, 1988; Raftos, Jackson, & Mannix, 1988; Simes & Berg, 2000).

Shame about menstruation is often extended to the vagina and its surrounding areas, which are considered by many women to be unspeakable and upleasant (Braun & Wilkinson, 2001; Lee & Sasser-Coen, 1996; Reinholtz & Muehlenhard, 1995). Participants in Lee and Sasser-Coen's (1996) qualitative study spoke of menarche as an experience that "contaminated" their bodies, and their genitals in particular. Despite recent attempts to celebrate the form and function of women's anatomy, such as Eve Ensler's "Vagina Monologues," and the growing comfort some women have with their bodies, it is still common for women to feel shame about their bodies, to use euphemisms so as to avoid naming their genitals (Braun & Kitzinger, 2001), or to experience confusion about the makeup of their external genitalia (Kirby, 1998). What are the implications of feeling shame about menstruation and the body? Conversely, might women's comfort with menstruation promote well-being in other areas of their lives?

This study considers how shame about menstruation is related to sexual decision-making. Because menstruation and sexual activity often share the same intimate location on women's bodies, shame regarding menstruation might influence a woman's general approach to her sexuality. Furthermore, girls are often socialized to connect menstruation with sexuality. Many girls first learn about menstruation in sex education classes, where both menstruation and sex are presented as means to the end of procreation (Martin, 1987). At the same time, much of early mother-daughter communication about sex focuses on menstruation (e.g., O'Sullivan, Meyer-Bahlburg, & Watkins, 2001), and likewise, much early communication about menstruation and menarche focuses on the emerging sexual potential inherent in a developing woman's body (Lee & Sasser-Coen, 1996). Because of these connections, girls' and women's attitudes about menstruation might shape their developing beliefs about sexuality and the sexual decisions they make, even when they are not menstruating.

Despite these conceptual connections, little research has explored connections between sex and menstruation. Previous research linking these phenomena found that girls who reach menarche early are more sexually active and sexually risky than girls who mature later; however, this finding is generally attributed to a tendency for early maturers to socialize in older peer circles (Flannery, Rowe, & Gulley, 1993; Marin et al., 2000; Mezzich et al., 1997). Recent work has found a specific link between menstrual attitudes and both sexual attitudes and sexual behavior (Rempel & Baumgartner, 2003; Schooler, 2001). In one study, undergraduate women who reported more comfort with menstruation also reported more comfort with sexuality and were more likely to engage in intercourse while menstruating (Rempel & Baumgartner, 2003). In a second study, undergraduate women who reported more shame about menstruation also reported engaging in less sexual activity overall and, if sexually active, reported engaging in more sexual risk-taking (Schooler, 2001). Evidence also indicates that undergraduate women who perceived their genitals as dirty, smelly, and shameful reported lower levels of participation in and enjoyment of sexual activity (Reinholtz & Muehlenhard, 1995). …