I don’t remember when I first learned that menstruation was something shameful. Certainly it was before I bled for the first time at the age of 13. Periods were imbued with the mystery of the adult world – a strange and slightly frightening thing which I both wanted to experience and was a little horrified by.
I remember being about 9 or 10 years old and being at my friend Vanessa’s house the first time I found out what periods were. Her mum had bought her a book and we were reading it together. I distinctly remember saying, “You bleed from THERE?! It would be bad enough if it was from your thumb or something!” A week later my own mum bought me a book – it was called “Have You Started Yet?” and she had picked it up in the sale section at the library. The book itself was quite old fashioned, illustrated with bad pop art and containing references to the type of sanitary pad you had to clip onto a belt. I remember the awkward conversation which started with the words, “Have you heard any of the other girls at school talking about periods?” and my mortified silence. It was not my mother who instilled this shame in me, but somehow I already knew that this mysterious blood which would start coming out of me one day was something a little disgusting.
I remember being on a hillwalking trip with the Guides – I must have been about 12 – and, in the dorm of the basic SYHA hostel where we stayed, the slightly older girls talking about periods. One of the girls had unexpectedly got her period (although not her first) and Captain had had to take her to the chemist to get pads and painkillers. These girls, just a year or two older than I was, seemed part of an adult world which I was a little jealous of, but also a little scared. Their talk of cramps and pains and blood was alien to me, and while I was at that age where I so badly wanted to grow up, this whole business of being a woman sounded difficult.
When my own first period came, I didn’t tell my mum. I knew where she kept the pads and I knew how to use them, so I just put one on and went about my day. Strangely, I don’t really remember how it made me feel. Embarrassed, I think. I have often felt a little guilty about the fact I didn’t tell my mum right away, wondered if it made her sad that I didn’t tell her. I was always a child who didn’t like to cause a fuss. I remember even as a very young child not wanting to bother people with things, being kind of embarrassed to admit personal things about myself. I don’t know where that comes from. I have always been in some ways an anxious sort of person, who would rather sort things out for herself than ask for help.
I have always been quite lucky that my periods are not much of a trial. They were fairly predictable, from the days in my teens when I used to mark the dates in my diary with crosses, to this day when I record them in an app on my phone (aside: The app I use is called Clue and I love it – it lets you record all sorts of different data from your moods to the heaviness of your bleeding, and it doesn’t come in a twee pink colour scheme full of flowers and other dubious visual metaphors for vaginas. And it’s free!) My cramps have never been debilitating, or my bleeding inconveniently heavy. So although menstruation was something I, like most women, was a bit secretive about, a little ashamed of, at least my period wasn’t something I approached with dread each month. The dirty womanliness of it was something society taught me to hide, but at least the experience itself wasn’t too awful. I know that makes me lucky.
Period sex wasn’t something that really became a part of my life until I was an adult. Although I lost my virginity at 16, I never had a steady boyfriend as a teenager and had only had sex a handful of sporadic times until I went to uni. At 18 I went on the pill for the first time, and it gave me spotting for the first 28 days and then settled down into a clockwork-regular cycle. I’ve always liked this aspect of the pill; I find the bleed comforting. I have friends on forms of contraception which – in their cases at least – stop their periods entirely and they love it, but I’ve never liked that idea. I find something reassuring in the bleeding. Firstly, of course, was always the comforting knowledge that there was no foetus growing inside me. But I think it also just feels natural. Somehow it wouldn’t feel right to me not to bleed, even if it’s the artificial bleed during my break each month.
At 20 I got my first properly serious boyfriend. I was still awkward about the idea of period sex at this point, not because of any particular experience but just because of the idea that people found it disgusting. It has never been that I was disgusted by the idea myself, more the fear that the man I was with would be grossed out. As I’ve got older, I’ve realised they mostly don’t particularly care, but I’ll come to that more in a bit.
When I was with this first boyfriend, I decided to get the contraceptive implant. It seemed convenient – no pills to remember, for years. So I had it put in, watching in fascination as the doctor shoved the huge needle into my anaesthetised arm (I have never been squeamish about this stuff and I always like to watch when they take blood or give me a jag – weird, I know).
The implant made me bleed every day. Not a lot – it was like the very last day of my period, every day. The doctor had said it could take up to six months to settle down with my body, so I kept it in to see if anything would change. But it didn’t. For months and months, I didn’t have a proper period but had spotting every day. And I hated it. It felt so unnatural. I had the implant taken out, watching again as this time they sliced my arm open and pulled out this tiny wee stick which had had such an effect on my body. Having proper periods again was a relief, and I went on the pill again for contraceptive purposes. I could bleed every month again, in the way that felt right for me.
So, period sex. I said as I’ve got older I’ve found that men don’t care much, and that’s pretty much true. But it’s only half true. Every time I’ve got into a sexual situation with a new man for the first time on my period, there’s this awkward moment where I feel the need to say, “Just so you know, I have my period, and that doesn’t bother me, but I thought I should let you know…” And it really doesn’t bother me. I’m not grossed out by my period. I have enjoyed non-menstrual bloodplay during sex in the past, so the blood aspect is actually kind of sexy. There’s something extra animalistic about the blood smeared across sweaty skin, about being so caught up in the pleasure of sex that you don’t give a fuck about the mess. So I’m more than happy not just to fuck on my period, but for them to go down on me, to kiss them after, to taste my own blood on their lips. It’s sexy in and of itself, but it’s also sexy because they have embraced my body in all its bloody glory.
I’ve found that, while most men are happy to fuck you while you’re on your period, most aren’t as enthusiastic about oral sex, even those who normally love it. And I’d never want a sexual partner to do something they weren’t comfortable with so I would never force it, but I wonder where that comes from. Men are socialised with the same disgust of menstruation as women, but stronger because they don’t usually have to live the reality of it in their own bodies. So I understand, but I wish more of them would be prepared to give it a go.
The first time I was with a man who truly didn’t give a fuck about it, it was a revelation. When I told him I was bleeding, and he still put his face between my legs – and I mean fully, joyously, not a genteel dipping of the tongue – and came up with my blood all over him, it was one of the sexiest things I’d ever experienced. He didn’t find this disgusting. He found it sexy and dirty and erotic, and he embraced this aspect of my womanhood. He didn’t just deign to put his dick in me even though I was bleeding; he fully immersed himself in sex as he would have at any other time of the month. I was 23 by this point and I genuinely hadn’t thought that was possible. It remains an example of what I expect from a truly fulfilling sex life with future partners.
At the moment I don’t have a steady sexual partner, and I decided to stop taking the pill. It had been years that I’d been on it and, not needing it for contraception, I thought I’d see what it was like without it. My first real period after stopping felt great. It was heavier and more painful than my bleeds on the pill, but – in a way I hadn’t expected – I enjoyed the feeling of my body actively doing that, not just letting down blood because of how my hormones were being regulated. I liked the sensation that this was all me.
Don’t get me wrong – I think hormonal contraception is one of the greatest inventions of all time. Giving women the power to control conception is probably the single biggest factor in allowing us all the other freedoms we have in the West today compared with even 50 years ago. I am so incredibly grateful to have the range of contraceptive choices that is available to me as a woman in Scotland in 2016. But I have also enjoyed not being on the pill any more. I’ve found my sex drive has increased (actually kind of an inconvenience sometimes when you’re single…) and I still like the feeling that a “real” period gives me. A sort of comforting feeling that all is as it should be.
I’m not sure what I’ll do the next time I’m in a sexual relationship where we’re going to stop using condoms. I know the implant isn’t for me, and I have doubts about the injection for the same reasons. I have realised that I think I prefer not being on hormonal contraception, but I don’t love condoms so if I’m in an exclusive relationship I prefer something else. I’ve been considering the coil, but a lot of women say it makes their periods more painful. I’m not sure how that would change my relationship to an aspect of my body which I’ve always quite enjoyed. But I’m happy to make compromises to not have to deal with an unwanted pregnancy, which would be the biggest of all possible inconveniences. So I suppose I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it and make whatever decision feels like the right one at that stage of my relationship with my body.
I think perhaps that is the thing I’ve always liked about my period – that it makes me feel a connection to my body. It makes me think of my body and consider what it will feel about something. It can make me present in my body. And the older I get, the more I try not to be ashamed of it. I try not to be coy about it. I try to present the fact confidently to men I’m about to have sex with. Because I don’t think it’s disgusting or shameful, so I shouldn’t bow to the fear that others will.
by Hannah, age 27