Menstruation in Reinforcing Gender Binaries

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Eleni Lazarou - University of Michigan
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How pubescent boys learn about menstruation: experiences of sex education, puberty, and media create unpleasant and taboo views on menstruation which reinforce gender binaries.


How do boys learn about menstruation and how does this reinforce gender binaries? How does it influence the way they see girl’s bodies, and eventually women’s bodies? Does location, religion and cultural tradition affect the way boys learn about menstruation?

There is currently little research available to answer these questions, meanwhile the issue of inadequate sex education prevails in India, as it does in many places around the globe. The stigma imposed on the female body, as I argue in this paper, is critical in the process in which sex education, particularly surrounding how girls and boys are educated about menstruation, reinforces gender binaries. Female bodies become the foundation on which further social oppressions, restrictions and normative behaviors are placed; by shedding light on the importance that menstruation education plays in these phenomena, I hope to emphasize the necessity of re-envisioning the roles of sex education in society.

Menstruation is often considered part of a natural biological process understood through factual and scientific evidence; but how does the way that sex and the menstrual cycle are taught affect how boys and girls grow into gendered beings? Does a factual representation, or what appears to be so, of menstruation influence boys and girls and conform to pre-existing taboos and stigmas influencing menstruation culture?

This presentation is designed as an interdisciplinary assessment of the interconnected fields of Sex Education, puberty, and the social construction of female monthly cycles in relation to learning gender and reinforcing strict binaries between men and women. Examining the negative attitudes and associations surrounding menstruation, I shall present a theoretical engagement with the concept and practice of sex education as part of a larger process of socialization, through which young people gain perceptions of female reproductive cycles (as negative, taboo, and disgusting) and how this affects the way gendered bodies are produced. Menstruation is highly stigmatized across cultures and this reinforces divisions between genders.

How does this contribute to contemporary and persevering gender inequalities in India and globally? I will review how the menstruating female body is made visible and invisible, and through what language it is discussed or silenced. Research focusing on boys in relation to menstruation find that many boys feel they have received inadequate education about menstruation, often leading to confused and negative attitudes towards it and reinforcing the idea that women are ‘other’. I will emphasize on how emerging research regarding menstruation culture focuses on girls experiences, perceptions and narratives on menstruation and leaves boys out of the conversation. Efforts to create a positive and healthy cultural atmosphere on the subject of monthly female cycles require the understanding of how boys and men come to understand and view menstruation and how this affects their interactions with women.

To close my presentation I will discuss projects and initiatives that are being introduced to address the negative representation of menstruation as well as engage children and teens in discussion about sex and gender. We review the work of some education programs and company advertisements. Can we find a vocabulary that positively identifies women’s biological processes? How can an NGO or a school be effective? This will involve searching for an educational agenda that seeks to work in an interventionist way.

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