Sexual Activity during Menstruation: A Qualitative Study
Allen, Katherine R., Goldberg, Abbie E., The Journal of Sex Research
In this study, we examined young adults' descriptions of and their experiences with sexuality during menstruation as a way to analyze the gendered relationship between sexuality and power (Lee, 1994; Risman & Schwartz, 2002; Wood, Koch, & Mansfield, 2006). On the threshold of adulthood, women have experienced the physical and emotional effects of, and internalized the contradictory societal messages about, menstruation and their developing bodies. These messages acknowledge women's sexual and reproductive potential, as well as remind them that they live in a society where women are devalued (Lee, 2008). They now face the challenge of negotiating how to handle having a period in their sexual relationships. In what ways, if any, do women assert agency and empowerment within this complex sexual environment? A feminist perspective allows us to focus dialectically on developmental events and their reconstruction within personal and social contexts as sites of power, control, and agency (Baber, 2000; Diamond, 2006; Lee, 2008).
The Intersection Between Menstruation and Sexual Relationships
By mid-adolescence, the primary cultural message about menstruation in Western society is that having a period is a necessary inconvenience that women simply must accept (Brownmiller, 1984; Fingerson, 2005; Lee, 1994; Martin, 1996; Roberts, Goldenberg, Power, & Pyszczynski, 2002). Until recently, when more positive portrayals have emerged through the media and parental socialization (Lee, 2008), menstruation has been treated as an unpleasant rite of passage (Fingerson, 2005), or worse, as a dirty, disgusting mess that must be hidden and controlled (Costos, Ackerman, & Paradis, 2002). Menstruation has been referred to as "the curse" or "being on the rag" (Delaney, Lupton, & Toth, 1988; Lee, 1994), and a menstruating woman is routinely called a "bitch," "evil," "smelly," or "fishy" (Cooper & Koch, 2007). In-depth interviews with adult women revealed that menstrual management involves hiding the evidence of leaking or bloody "sanitary" products to avoid shame (Martin, 1987). In qualitative interviews with 138 women aged 26 to 60 years, Costos et al. (2002) found that 64% reported that their mothers gave them negative messages (e.g., "grin and bear it") about menstruation and sexuality, and only 15% reported a positive experience with menstruation during their teenage years. The 17 African American women (aged 18-50) in Cooper and Koch's (2007) study wanted more explicit communication and accurate information about menstruation from their mothers, teachers, and other women.
Menstruation signifies women's emerging sexual availability and reproductive potential at the same time that it inserts women into the "hierarchical ordering of the sexual" (Lee, 1994, p. 344). As they approach sexual maturity, girls, more than boys, describe the competing images they confront of female bodies as both life-giving and contaminated (Lee & Sasser-Coen, 1996; Martin, 1996; Roberts et al., 2002). As girls mature, their sense of sexual subjectivity and potential for establishing agency is more compromised than boys'. Girls' pubertal experiences cause them "to dislike their bodies, objectify their own bodies, and act on (rather than in) their own bodies" (Martin, 1996, p. 15). Young women worry about the sexual double standard: whereas men are rewarded for engaging in sexual behaviors, women may be punished for engaging in the identical behaviors (Milhausen & Herold, 1999). As Risman and Schwartz (2002) observed, the sexual revolution has been integrated more successfully into social relationships than the gender revolution. Girls come of age in a cultural context that simultaneously expects them to become sexual objects and judges them for their sexual availability and their own desire (Tolman, 2002). In her study of 55 adolescent girls and boys, aged 14 to 19, Martin (1996) found that girls lacked the kind of subjective knowledge about their bodies that is practical and rooted in personal experience. …