Why We Must Stop Calling Menstruation A ‘Women’s Issue’
By V. Tanner
When we talk, write, and yes, even sing about menstruation, it is typically discussed from the perspective of cis women. And on the surface? That makes a lot of sense. Cis women are the majority when it comes to the demographic affected by this much-maligned shedding of uterine lining.
However, the fact is that many cis women’s consistent framing of this biological phenomenon as a “women’s issue” does a lot more harm than many know. We interviewed several non-binary people who menstruate, as well as some trans men, about how this sustained exclusion is damaging, as well as how the process of menstruation affects them in general. We also interviewed a few trans women about the dominant narrative of menstruation as a “women’s issue” — which also erodes their sense of identity — but in very different ways. In truth, there were so many interviewees and so many perspectives, we had to cull it all down for the sake of internet brevity and streamlined brilliance.
Together, those interviewed paint a picture of how menstruation affects trans people exclusively, but we also recognize that these answers only apply to each individual and their singular experiences; they do not represent the trans community writ large.
On Dysphoria Caused By Menstruation
Ame: Menstruating does cause me dysphoria. I feel extremely uneasy in the days leading up to my period, and it gets even worse during my period. I counteract this dysphoria by taking a contraceptive pill. I take it in a way that allows me to skip all my periods so I don’t have to deal with them, however sometimes I accidentally forget to take a pill, and end up having my period for the month. When this occurs, I opt for using tampons as I find that I’m less dysphoric with them as opposed to pads. It’s kind of like an “out of sight, out of mind,” deal.
Teddy: It certainly plays a part in my dysphoria, not so much the fact that I have periods, but the feeling that I’m not the gender I am because it’s not seen as a “thing” guys have. That and the fact that my breasts tend to get quite sore during my period. They’re a massive source of dysphoria for me as it is. The pain usually makes it impossible to wear my binder, and so I’m left with a body that doesn’t feel like mine, and it can be really hard to get through the day.
E.M.: It does, but in a way that it just reminds me I have a body that is gendered by my reproductive organs that I really wish I didn’t have. Trying to counteract it, I usually dress in a manner that’s a little frumpy. I try to hide my body as much as possible under layers of clothing so I don’t have to think too much about having a body.
Lia: I don’t think it necessarily causes me dysphoria to be honest. The reason I don’t feel dysphoria due to menstruation alone is that it’s impossible to say that we all have “default bodies.” I feel like people want to be able to say “Nonbinary people have xyz genitalia,” or that they all look a certain way. They want to discuss us the way they always have, using binary genders and make us into a one-size-fits-all third option instead of a full spectrum. For this reason I don’t experience dysphoria when it comes to menstruation. I know my body is my own and that it is non-binary in its own way, not anything else.
On Regulation’s Potential To Combat This Dysphoria
Jess: Yes, I would take medication to regulate or rid myself of my cycle. I would even get a hysterectomy to do so. I know that taking birth control continually can stop your menstruating, and that there are several on-the-market pills that spread out your period instead. I do not currently take medicine that could suppress my period, because pap smears are a prerequisite to getting a birth control prescription, and having a pap smear heavily triggers that dysphoria, so I’m at an impasse.
Ame: As mentioned above, I already take the contraceptive pill to stop my menstrual cycle, and it helps me immensely. I’m definitely more secure in my gender when I know that I won’t have to deal with menstruation each month, and it’s been valuable in easing some of my gender dysphoria.
Sapphire: I once took birth control, but it ended up doing more harm than good. I plan on eventually getting a hysterectomy.
Teddy: I’ve been on the pill before, to help lessen my periods, which helped a little, but dysphoria has ways of creeping in even when I try and do my best to counteract it. Stopping my periods altogether would be great, but I have other health issues that mean I can’t at the moment.
Sparky: I take birth control continuously for this purpose. I have withdrawal bleeds once every three months, and they are lighter and less physically painful than my regular periods were. I worried initially that taking more estrogen would feminize me further, but that didn’t happen; instead, my hormonal balance is more regulated, and I don’t deal with the same mood swings that I used to, which makes me feel closer to my true neutral self.
On Discussions Of Menstruation Indirectly Excluding Many
Ame: I do feel as though I, nonbinary trans people and trans men as a whole, face exclusion from such topics. People often refer to “women’s” bodies when discussing menstruation and reproductive rights, yet these are issues that I deal with and I am not a woman. It makes me feel invalid, and those discussions alone provoke my dysphoria. Hearing these topics spoken about in terms of “women’s issues” associates me with being a woman when I am not.
Sapphire: Yes, I feel excluded, because the discourse is still highly cissexist and binary. I am read as a cis woman even though I am agender, and I wish they could expand their horizons to include women-aligned nonbinary individuals like myself.
Teddy: I have noticed that since I came out, people talk about these things around me a lot less than they ever did before. Which I think stems from the way the education system, and society in general, works. I think kids of all genders being taught about these things is the way forward, because it leads to educated adults who can have these conversations, and a better understanding. Having to yell into the void repeatedly that trans guys have periods too, and that just because I’m a guy I’m not somehow any less important, gets really boring after a while.
E.M.: Yes and no. I have noticed a trend of people being more inclusive when it comes to talk of menstruation which helps. But obviously not everyone is that inclusive and that feels quite othering. It’s a bit frustrating dealing with topics like this, because access to health care and the things one needs in regards to menstrual health are super important and everyone that’s affected by menstruation needs better access to it. It’s something I definitely need although it’s something I wish I didn’t need. The frustration comes from not having the best access to things I wish I didn’t have to deal with in the first place.
Lia: I do feel excluded because people commonly link menstruation, vaginas, and reproductive rights exclusively to cis women. It’s bothersome because I feel like if I associate myself with these things, I’m giving up being nonbinary. Too commonly people are only taking about cis women even though menstruating people of other identities are standing right there. It makes me feel like if I even mention I have these issues too that I’m somehow no longer “actually nonbinary.”
Sparky: I’m absolutely excluded. Since I’m asexual as well as agender, the assumption that I desire both a) sexual activity and b) reproduction, and that these are fundamental human needs, can be very alienating. I often feel that if I want access to adequate health care, I have to pretend I’m a cis woman because it’s less exhausting than appearing trans — for me that’s a masculine presentation — and cis people are taken much more seriously in the medical world than trans people are.
On How To Be More Inclusive In Discussions About Menstruation
Jess: In general, any time anyone points out a microaggression — listen, take note of it, and remember it for the future. Remove restrictions on hormonal medications. Make them over-the-counter, or at least doctor prescribed without invasive tests. Offer options for hormonal contraception in packs with and without the monthly week-skip pills. Lastly, be supportive of more bathroom options for people. Right now, men’s restrooms tend to sell condoms while women’s restrooms tend to sell menstrual products. If we normalized unisex bathrooms we’d finally have dispensers that sell both!
Ame: People can be more inclusive of trans people who also experience menstruation by talking about the topic in a non-gendered way. Realizing that bodies and body parts are not gendered would help to normalize the idea that you do not have to be a woman in order to menstruate, and also that not all women are capable of menstruating. A simple change in language, such as saying “people who menstruate” rather than “women” goes a long way in terms of having inclusive discussions, rather than discussions which isolate certain subgroups of people.
Sapphire: Stop the whole “lady parts” cis feminist discourse.
Teddy: I think better education, and more accessible resources online is going to be the way forward; I think magazines aimed at “men” and “women” should make people aware of health conditions that affect all body types, about health issues in general, and how to deal with them. There would likely be some pushback, but removing strict gendering of health issues is important. There needs to be a breaking down of barriers, not just about how people act when they have their periods, but about gender itself.
E.M.: Inclusive language is a big step obviously. If you don’t have inclusive language you automatically alienate a great deal of people and will likely trigger dysphoria for them in regards to their body. People also need to consider the differences in access people have to information and the care they need. Living in poverty and being disabled really impacts me in regards to trying to get the care I need. Things like disability can really make things around menstruation hard for me, because I don’t have many options to manage it, as my health issues seriously limit what I can and can’t do. Keeping those experiences in mind is very important.
Sparky: Market menstrual products in a less gendered way. Don’t make menstruation a taboo, but recognize that not everyone who menstruates is comfortable with the fact that they do so, and that it doesn’t make them sexist or misogynist. Allow conversations to happen about periods being weird and gross, and raise awareness that options to regulate, lessen, or eliminate them do in fact exist — they aren’t something one necessarily needs to suffer through.
On How These Discussions Affect Trans Women
Emily: Menstruation discussion do make me feel excluded in a way. But, it’s not really excluding me in a way that says, “trans women aren’t real women,” but more in a, “women who can’t menstruate or get pregnant aren’t real women,” sense. Even if you ignore intersex and trans women, there’s something around 10% of cis women who have troubles conceiving and carrying a child to term — among those troubles is not ovulating and menstruating at all. It doesn’t make me feel like less of a woman, but more that I’m pushed into this whole branch of women that are for whatever reason considered lesser because they can’t have children. Every single time I’ve talked with one of my cis women friends about periods and menstruation, they’ve mentioned how I’m “lucky” that I don’t have to go through that. And while I’m not wild about the idea of experiencing something painful, I personally don’t consider it lucky at all that I’m othered in such a way, especially as a woman who would love to carry children someday and can’t unless scientific progress gets a lot better very quickly.
My suggestion is as simple as changing your language to “issues that affect people who menstruate,” rather than inherently gendering the act.
Tolvo: Mainstream discussion of menstruation does make me feel excluded. When a cissexist approach is not taken I do not feel excluded, but in terms of how we tend to talk about women as people who have periods I often feel like there is an experience I do not have that is essential to womanhood — in order to ever be a “real woman.” I realize this isn’t correct, but it’s drilled into my head and causes me to feel doubts and insecurities about my own womanhood.
You can talk about periods pretty easily without being exclusive. You don’t even have to do what is common, tagging a lot on and making it longer to be all encompassing. For instance, a lot of fear of periods and the culture around periods is rooted in misogyny. This is true. It is a simple way to explain it without saying it is a “women only issue.” Because the treatment of a lot of people who do not menstruate or who are not cis women, are also often rooted in misogyny, among other forms of ignorance and systemic prejudice.
Is it so hard to say, “People with periods” anyway? If one of the main focuses is to make it acceptable to talk about periods then why is everyone too timid to just say people with periods when discussing issues surrounding them. Cis women as a whole don’t all experience menstruation anyway. You can also talk about things in a relative nature. While talking about, for example, cis women and the expectations they must live up to, talk about trans people and the expectations they also are faced with.
Sioban: It isn’t the discussion that makes me feel excluded, it’s the way the topic is approached by the people in the discussion. I’ve been included in many discussions on this topic. The problems come when I’m told I can’t be a part of it. This is part of why calling it a “women’s issue” is harmful not only to me, but to trans men and nonbinary trans people as well. It equates womanhood with a single biological process and is simply a scientifically inaccurate understanding. It has the effect of othering anyone who doesn’t fit that narrow criteria. It contributes to a mindset that there are tests one must pass to determine your womanhood.
Stop gendering people and things automatically. Menstruation isn’t a “women’s issue,” it is an issue for people who menstruate. We have a tendency to try and guess gender from the moment we talk to or about someone and it adds vast assumptions the second that guess is made. In everything from honorifics to bathrooms to relationships, assumptions about a person’s gender brings in assumptions about who they are and what they do. It is inherently harmful to place these roles on people. I’m a woman and I’m trans, but these are hardly my only defining qualities or ones from which the rest of me can be derived.
A Final Note On What We’d Like To See From Cis People
Jess: I really loved the brand Thinx’s “Underwear for people with periods” campaign, but when I went to their main site, I was disappointed to find that the page mentioning “people with periods” was buried and basically inaccessible from their main page. You could only reach it if you had directly known about it and were searching for it. Meanwhile, “Modern women with periods” was everywhere on their main site. Having their “people with periods” page so segregated from the rest of the site felt like such a queerbaiting tactic that I lost interest in the product. I would have loved to have seen Thinx actually embrace supporting “people with periods.” My advice? Make things like that genuinely accessible.
Ame: The main thing that cis people need to do is actively change their language when talking about topics which they wrongly assume only affect women. They need to listen to trans people, recognize what we’re saying, and actively make the changes needed to include us in their discussions, as well as letting us start our own discussions.
Teddy: Cis people, listen when trans people speak up. We are aware it is all new to you, it’s all new to a lot of us too. Trans guys aren’t any lesser because they have periods, so please don’t treat us like they are.
E.M.: If you want to take on a stance of being an educator or advocate for these kinds of issues, be aware of how people relate to these issues and the varying intersections of their identity that will impact those experiences. Consider people of color, trans people, the poor, and the disabled, in everything you do, since there are so many things that can co-mingle and effect how you deal with and experience things.