Saturday, May 26, 2007

Menstruation, Fake Periods, and Womanhood

It's been very interesting to read all the male speculation on the emotional benefits (or not) of menstruation, musings prompted by the FDA's approval of Lybrel, the birth control pill that purportedly eliminates periods (although it is more accurate to say that, unlike traditional pill regimens, it does not induce gratuitous monthly, non-menstrual bleeding -- more on that below).  William Saletan (see yesterday's post) says he'll "stay out of the fight over womanhood."  Eugene Volokh, though, leaps right in, devoting a whole post to the issue, first laying out his assumption that most women must hate their periods but then seeking input from "people who have actually menstruated."

Some female bloggers (see here and here) have found the speculation offensive, or at least condescending.

At this post, KipEsquire asks, "How soon before radical feminists, neo-hippies and other professional anti-progress malcontents decry Lybrel and praise menstruation as a noble, to-be-celebrated part of the "female experience"?"  Hmm... why so sarcastic?  I guess he knows better than any "radical feminist" what the "female experience" is really all about.

I suppose I fall into the "radical feminist" camp, but my own reaction to all the uproar over suppressed menstruation can't be summarized quite that neatly.  In debating the benefits and drawbacks of periods in the context of Lybrel, most people seem to miss what to me is the most important point: that any "period" that occurs when a woman is on the pill isn't a period at all.  I personally felt snookered when I learned years ago that the (male) inventors of the birth control pill, Gregory Pincus and John Rock, had no medical reason for including a week of placebo sugar pills to induce a fake "period," but instead did so because they assumed that women (and the public) would more readily accept the pill if women appeared to continue to menstruate every month. 

While I can imagine that some women, for a variety of reasons, might welcome a biological period, it's hard for me to understand why they would welcome a male-invented, apparently medically unnecessary, pretend period.  Being on the pill interferes with a woman's reproductive cycle by stopping ovulation (and, along with it, all real menstruation).  Given the numbers of women who take the pill, people seem comfortable with that, so I'm puzzled at how introducing a monthly week of gratuitous bleeding makes the situation any more "natural."  I worry that the decades in which women (and men) have become accustomed to these fake, monthly periods have shaped perceptions about what is beneficial or normal for women. Or maybe for many women it's just that they've been misinformed or misled about what is really happening when they continue to bleed every month while on the pill.

For more on this, see The Well-Timed Period (Lybrel Approved and I Offer Marketing Advice to Wyeth Via a NYT Critique), which also has a helpful post explaining the difference between menstruation and the "withdrawal bleeding" induced by placebo pills (or a week without taking pills) in ordinary birth control regimens.

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Well, it's certainly been a while since I had to respond to the "I'm rubber, you're glue" reasoning you've engaged in.

Basically you're thesis is that a (female) paternalist (maternalist?) can reasonably declare menstruation a good thing for all women in all circumstances, but a (male) libertarian should not dare suggest that such a generalization would be inappropriate to the point of silly?


Posted by: KipEsquire | May 27, 2007 4:40:44 AM

Well, I'm not so sure this is a good idea. This article at explains the process. (Note that you can embed this article - or any others - onto your site from TheNewsRoom if you want.)

The FDA won't even consider a male birth control pill until they figure out how to control fertility without side-effects. In the article, one doctor hints that stopping periods is not a natural state. Regardless of the fact that a period on the pill isn't natural either, the fact remains that we're taking a serious drug that sometimes adversely affects our health. Why is the FDA so willing to tamper with women's bodies regardless of what it might do to us when they won't do the same with men? This is most likely one more disaster waiting to happen - just like the Patch was for so many women.

Posted by: NicoleS | May 27, 2007 10:32:15 AM

Thanks for your comment, Nicole. My post was addressing the idea of Lybrel vs. other pill regimens, not Lybrel vs. no hormonal contraception, and focusing on the fact that there's nothing really that new about Lybrel when it comes to its effects on menstruation. I agree that safety should be a foremost concern, and it bothers me too that the research into effective contraception has been so skewed toward female-only methods.

I don't know whether stopping periods is or is not "natural" or safe. Certainly, in this age of more effective contraception and smaller families, women have more periods than they had in the past, and that in itself may not be healthy.

But even assuming a monthly period is healthy, it's funny that suddenly this debate is raging in the context of Lybrel, when women have gone without periods for decades. If there are indeed health benefits to regular menstruation, is there any medical evidence that the withdrawal bleeding occasioned by the most common pill regimens is a substitute for that?

Posted by: Caitlin Borgmann | May 27, 2007 12:36:30 PM

To Kip: No wonder you are puzzled by my argument: you seem to have completely missed the point. I never said it was OK for anyone to declare whether menstruation is good or bad for all women. I said I could understand if "some women ... might welcome a biological period," not that I would sympathize with anyone who declared periods to be universally beneficial. I just thought it was funny that you would ascribe a view to "radical feminists" (one that seems not to accord with the views of many feminists, including myself), and then imply that you know better, having never yourself (I assume) had a period.

There is clearly a diversity of views among women, including feminists, as to the emotional and physical significance of a period. I don't think anyone should make the judgment for anyone else. My post was meant to focus on what I see as a much more interesting and troubling issue -- namely the fact that the gratuituos "period" induced by other contraceptive pills isn't really a period at all, and was deliberately created by men in part for paternalistic reasons about what women would find comforting. And all the while, people are debating Lybrel as if it's the first time women are going to go without a real period. I welcome any thoughts you might have on that issue.

Posted by: Caitlin Borgmann | May 27, 2007 12:58:22 PM

I don't know whether stopping periods is or is not "natural" or safe.

I can answer that. In healthy women, there's no known medical reason to have a period (other than planning a pregnancy, of course). Also, having a monthly period is not *natural*. It's *normal* [for contemporary women, who live in an industrialized society].

Posted by: ema | May 31, 2007 6:39:28 PM

This is a controversial topic. And in my opinion, I would have to agree with Ema that menstruation is a normal and I must say a natural thing for women. It is the female reproductive system's way of cleaning our body from toxins and unclean and unhealthy blood. Needless to say that it helps in the circulation of healthy blood from our body. I get that menstruation has its downside with the cramps and hassle of changing your pads and tampons every so often and being conscious about blood stain on their dresses but it is something that we need to regulate our body.

Posted by: My daughter, puberty and me. | Jan 23, 2009 12:28:26 AM

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