– BY HILARY WEBB –
More and more, people who have periods are being encouraged to consider menstruation not as dirty, but as empowering, sexy even. The taboos around menstruation are beginning to dwindle, partly thanks to Femtech and social media. Apps ask their ambassadors to share period sex stories and explore how lesbian relationships experience menstrual cycles, while products like soft cups and menstrual discs make intercourse on your period a little less messy. At the other end of the spectrum though, female novelists have been fighting the corner for period sex for much longer.
Doris Lessing perhaps started the conversation in 1962. In her revolutionary novel The Golden Notebook, her character Anna describes how much she hates the smell of menstrual blood, and how men don’t want to hear about it. Anna concludes that silence over menstruation is not ‘a literary problem’, but that the world resents having romantic images, primarily those of women, ‘made less romantic’ by allusions of defecation or menstruation. For Lessing’s character, periods are not sexy, but she challenges preconceived ideas about them.
‘What do women want? A man who’ll go down on you when you have your period?’ (from Fear of Flying, 1973)
In 1973 however, talk of menstruation in literature begins to get positive. Erica Jong published her first novel, Fear of Flying – a novel that influenced a generation of women to explore their sexuality. Protagonist Isadora Wing talks about periods, quite a lot actually. Sometimes she gets very real, describing the punishment she faced when she misused sanitary towels during her first ever period. Or when she describes menstruation as one of the ‘absurdities our bodies subject us to’ while she is ‘devising a sort of sanitary napkin for myself with layers of toilet paper’.
What’s more though, Isadora dares to consider the possibility that menstruation is sexy. Finally appreciating her body, Isadora bathes and considers a tampon as an extension of her body when she admires the ‘Tampax string fishing the water like a Hemingway hero’. During a rant about Freud and the existential crisis-inducing question ‘what do women want?’, Isadora proposes that the answer might be ‘a man who’ll go down on you when you have your period’.
Written on the Body (1992) sexualises the menstrual period
Many years later, in 1992, Jeanette Winterson published Written on the Body. We’re unaware of the narrator’s gender, but we know whoever they are, they’re madly in love with Louise. Louise is cheating on her dull, doctor husband with our narrator. Trying to prove their increased worth over Louise’s husband, the narrator reminds Louise ‘when you were bleeding, when you were sick, again and again I made you come’. Not only does Winterson directly praise period sex, she also sexualises and laments Louise’s menstrual period. The narrator explores how ‘when she bleeds the smells I know change colour. There is iron in her soul on those days. She smells like a gun’. In this last passage, Winterson manages to give menstruation glory, potency, lethality and sexuality.
Fifty Shades of Grey: finally combining periods and penetrative sex
Penetrative sex and periods, though, are finally combined in Fifty Shades of Grey. E L James’ cultural phenomenon features a period sex scene. When Christian is visiting Anastasia, he ‘gently takes my tampon out and tosses it into the nearby toilet’ before he penetrates her. There are two ways to look at this moment. One is to say that Christian’s act of discarding the tampon in the toilet is yet another reinforcement of the idea that menstrual blood is dirty and disgusting. But, if it is so dirty, why would Christian let his precious penis dare come into contact with the blood by having sex with Anastasia? It’s one of the few truly progressive moments in the book, in my opinion, and it’s a shame it was cut from the film.
The future of literature: more period sex stories
If, like me, you’re surrounded by period positivity on social media, it can come as a surprise that a menstrual revolution has been going on for much longer on the pages of books. It is still happening of course, with references to menstruation in more and more contemporary and current novels. The practicalities of menarche are touched upon in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and Rachel Klein’s The Moth Diaries is fascinated by menstruation. Perhaps what makes these discussions revolutionary is that while some of them sexualise menstruation, they’re nearly all accompanied by negative period stories too – indicating the antagonistic feelings so many people feel towards menstruation. With all the sex-positive and period-positive energy in the air lately, I suspect we can expect more period sex stories in literature soon.
About the author
The British Hilary Webb holds a first class honours degree in English Literature and French and lives near London. A writer, blogger and social media enthusiast, she particularly enjoys writing about female health, Femtech and literature. Follow Hilary on Twitter.
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