Making menstruation personal again

Have you read Joan Jacob Brumberg’s The Body Project?  If you have not, put down your computer and run – literally RUN! – to the nearest bookstore/library, get yourself a copy, and start reading.

Okay, so maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration.  But it is truly worth a read for the historical context and insight it gives to how we teach girls and children about menstruation in the United States.  This is really relevant because menstruation is one of the first parts of teaching young women about sex and sexuality.  And the trajectory that Brumberg explained about education of menstruation seems to parallel the trajectory on education about far more sexual topics than just menstruation.

Here’s a vastly oversimplified version: Mothers use to teach their daughters about menstruation.  It was a family event, not at all abnormal, and everyone shared the same rags and washed them together.  Over time, doctors became interested in women’s menstruation patterns for a variety of reasons, and started telling mothers that they (the doctors) should be the ones to teach young girls about menstruation.  About the same time, corporations started making menstruation products – pads – and marketing them to young women.  So in a relatively short period of time (no pun intended), young girls went from learning about menstruation and attending to their menstruation needs along side their mothers to learning about menstruation from their doctors and using boughten products alone.  Menstruation was de-personalized and commercialized.

Education about sexuality has also become de-personalized and commercialized.  While we may give lip-service to sexuality education in schools (HA!), and there are parents work to do it as much as possible in the home, and some churches try and step up to the plate, the fact remains that the majority of sexuality education in the United States comes in a de-personalized manner from television, advertisements, movies, the Internet, billboards, magazines, and occasionally friends.  Acting on sexual urges has also been pretty separated from the family unit.  Most US teenagers don’t feel comfortable talking with their parents about their sexual interests or activities and would feel even less comfortable acting on those interests with their parents’ knowledge.

But as parents, it is our goal to help our children learn how to navigate many processes – we teach them over time how to wash clothes, cook, and manage money so that they are not suddenly dropped into adulthood with no prior experience in these matters.  As parents, we must do the same with sexuality.  It is a vast dereliction of our parental duty to raise fully aware and capable young adults if we ignore this central aspect of our children’s humanity.

As with clothes (pinkish-red sock, anyone?), food (burnt crispy chicken for dinner?), and money (um, where’s my change?), our teenagers will make mistakes.  This is the essential nature of learning – we often do not do a new thing right when we do it for the first time.

There may be some of you rolling your eyes about now – as parents we are not interested in our child’s sexual skill, and nor should we be.  But we are very interested in their skill at making choices in partners, making and keeping sexual boundaries and comfort levels, and ensuring their own sexual safety.

Yes, they might be better at all of these things if they wait until they’re 20 before they start.  But on the other hand, it may be better for them to learn a lesson about relationships and human nature by kissing the wrong person at 13 rather than learning that same lesson by having sex with the wrong person at 21.

Which is all to say that our kids need us talking about sex and kissing and relationships with them.  We cannot leave it up to the dominant culture or to their friends or teachers or even to their whims about talking to us.  We have to reverse this trend of de-personalization and commercialization.  It will probably be uncomfortable when you get started – particularly if you’re getting started late in the game rather than when your children are pre-adolescent – but holding the conversations and sitting through your discomfort will bare you good fruit in the end.  That is to say, it will be supportive of your children’s healthy sexual development and decision making through adolescence and into young adulthood, even if they do make the occasional mistake.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. Hooray for a wonderful post. My fear is that parents of boys might not read it because it has the ‘M’ word in the title and surely they don’t need any information about the ‘m’ word, right?

    You make such a good case for inhome, parental willingness to discuss and provide information on all these subjects, that all must be covered by any comprehensive sexuality education.

    I’m so glad you do this work – THANKS!

  2. I guess I’ve got a head start since I’m already washing my menstrual pads with my daughter’s diapers, right? What a daunting task it is to raise a person!

  3. I find the “medicalization” of menstruation abhorrent, but I disagree that “menstruation is one of the first parts of teaching young women about sex and sexuality.” Of course sex ed is really important, but I think explanations about periods should be separate from it. I understand that menarche is part of puberty, but menstruation is not a sexual event and is not part of one’s sexuality. Getting your period is a normal bodily function and I think it does people a disservice to link it to sex.

  4. Thank you for weighing in, femmes. But I disagree with you on what sex ed encompasses, or should encompass. Sex ed must include information about our sexual and reproductive organs and faculties, because they are so closely tied. Menstruation is not directly related to sex, agreed, but it is a major influence on women’s sexuality – including when, where, and how we have sex. Sex and menstruation cannot be uncoupled.

  5. […] we link sex and menstruation Yesterday someone commented on an earlier post called Making menstruation personal again.  Here is what she (or he) said: I find the “medicalization” of menstruation abhorrent, but I […]

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