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Why We Have to Stop Associating Periods with Cis-Women

Originally published in 2020 on The Women's Network blog.

Let’s talk about periods. The it-which-shall-not-be-named of human anatomy, perpetually referred to as anything except for what it really is. Aunt Flo. Time of the Month. Red Sea. Red Wedding. Crimson Tide. Monthly Friend. Moon Time. Code Red. Bloody Mary. Shark Week. 

Sure, the inventive euphemisms are amusing. But this stigmatization––this avoidance of discussing periods as the natural physiological occurrence they are––the avoidance of discussing periods at all, has also led to non-inclusive and misrepresentative labels. Think: Lady Business and Girl Flu.

In 1978, Gloria Steinem wrote:

But, of course, men can menstruate.

While Steinem’s essay was published at a time when trans and non-binary awareness was even lower than it is now, and though we can assume she is referring to cis-men, menstruation is not exclusive to cis-women. 

As periods are associated with femininity and female identity, they can be a source of gender dysphoria for intersex, trans, and non-binary people. For example, trans men may struggle with the presence of menstruation. As writer Sam Dylan Finch says:

Meanwhile, trans women may struggle with the lack of menstruation. Tech policy worker, Aurelia, says:

Though menstruation transgresses the binary between masculine and feminine, our society does not treat it this way. Instead, it is considered the undisputable dividing line between male and female. Consider how heteronormative bathroom segregation confines periods to a female-only sphere. Or how taxation of period products frees the male-dominant government from having to openly acknowledge and provide for periods. Or how such products are sometimes accessible in women’s restrooms, but never in men’s restrooms; the same can be said for prisons, and single-sexed homeless shelters. Rather than a natural, acceptable process that can happen to bodies of all identities, menstruation is framed as the private business of cis-women. 

This desire to isolate periods to a certain realm reflects society’s disgust over the phenomenon. Periods are “culturally defined as a limit of the female body, associated with pregnancy but also contagion and disorder.” Due to its uncontrollability, menstruation is grouped in with blood from infections and wounds. It is a process with the capacity to stain what it touches. And so, it has been stigmatized. 

Period-centric dialogue is avoided in “scripts, regular interactions, and public spaces.” Until periods are discussed openly, we cannot take the necessary action to allow all those who menstruate to do so with comfort, pride, and dignity. 

Periods are expensive. 30 states still tax menstrual products, and the average woman (unspecified whether exclusively cis or not) menstruates for 2,535 days of her life. That’s almost seven years. She’ll spend nearly $2,000 on tampons during that time. This is likely in addition to birth control which, unlike Viagra, is not universally covered by health insurance, and can cost about $1,200 per year, depending on the contraceptive method. 

There is little to no data on how members of the LGBTQIA+ community are affected by menstruation and its cost, likely because many trans and non-binary people “experience deeply negative sentiments and discomfort about their menstruation and [feel] that menstrual management can be a source of stress, anxiety, and dysphoria.” 

What we did learn from a U.S. survey of low-income, city-dwelling women is that approximately two-thirds were unable to afford menstrual products in the previous year. It is unclear whether they were cis or not, and what race they were. We do know, however, that Women of Color tend to be “hit hardest by poverty and economic insecurity,” and so are vulnerable to the burdens of the pink tax. The same survey found that fifty-percent of women had to choose between food and period products. 

It is clear then that periods are a financial strain. This is especially true for trans people, who, due to brutal discrimination and transphobia, “are three times as likely to be unemployed and more than twice as likely to be living in poverty as the general population.” There is little to no data on Trans People of Color, but it is not unjustified to assume their burdens are heightened by their intersectional existence as Black, trans, and potentially poor

No person should have to choose between starvation and using rags as pads. No person should face uncertainty over whether they can afford pills or heat pads to alleviate painful cramps. No person should have to risk bleeding through their clothes (an experience that might be especially painful for trans men, intersex or non-binary people).

No person should have to call out of work or school due to a lack of products. This can become a significant barrier to educational or professional success if it occurs monthly. It can mean missing out on paydays. It can arouse questions from peers and teachers, coworkers or employers, which may be difficult and distressing to answer.

Period products must be accepted as a universal need and concern, rather than a cis-women-only matter. Even those who do not menstruate may require such products after vaginoplasty or through estrogen treatments. Should the tax on periods be abolished, and should we start talking about them like the natural, genderless bodily function they are, perhaps we could sufficiently reduce the stigma around them. And perhaps––noting that every individual’s experience is different––we’d reach a point where those who do not identify as women may feel less shame or pain purchasing said products.

But to make this a reality, periods must be separated from femininity. Those without periods can be feminine. And those with periods can be masculine, queer or non-conforming.

Periods aren’t Lady Business or Girl Flu. (Shark Week on the other hand? Yes, kind of). They’re just periods. Some people have them. Some people don’t. So, to do all people justice, and to protect their physical and mental health, we have to talk about them. Period.

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