Menstruation and Sex: Challenging a Taboo

Menstruation and a woman's menstrual cycle play a very large part in her life. If you consider the average woman starts to menstruate at the age of twelve and continues to do so until she is about fifty years of age, experiences a menstrual period five days in length every twenty-eight days, she spends an average of seven years of her life menstruating. In addition, some aspect of her menstrual cycle may play a part in her daily life for thirty or more years. As a result a woman's menstrual cycle plays a major part in her and her partner's sex life.

Illustration by Patsy

In modern society there appears to be an almost universal aversion to menstruating women and symbols of menstruation. Why do people associate menstruation with bad things? We often fear what we do not understand. The idea that a woman could "bleed" on a regular schedule, in phase with the moon, and with no signs of illness is frightening to some, especially the uneducated. To the best of my knowledge we still do not know exactly how and why a woman's body works in this manner. The scent of blood can attract the attention of hungry carnivores so a menstruating woman could possibly put a group of people at risk of attack; an unproven concept. Perhaps as a result, menstruating women have often been excluded from group activities. Menstrual blood, menses, is often seen as having a magical quality and as a result has been included in magical potions. Who uses magical potions? Usually witches, women with mysterious powers. Some speculate men are envious of women so they have condemned something they can never experience. Despite the common stereotypes that are associated with menstruating women, menstruation should be seen as a normal and healthy part of men and women's lives.

Here are some curious facts concerning menstruation. In the absence of man-made light a woman's menstrual cycle will synchronize with the phases of the moon. When this happens ovulation occurs when the moon is full and menstruation starts with the start of a new moon. Women who live together experience a synchronization of menstrual cycles as a result of being exposed to chemicals contained in their sweat. A study found that if the sweat of one woman was placed under the nose of another woman on a regular bases their periods would synchronize within three months, even if the women did not physically meet or come near each other. When a woman ovulates her sense of sight and smell improve and she has a better sense of well being. During menstruation women are more prone to skin conditions like acne and herpes. They are also more susceptible to vaginal infections at this time. During menstruation the breath of some women smells a bit like onions and is referred to as "menses breath." While we may be able to see the interesting end results we do not fully understand all aspects of menstruation and a woman's menstrual cycle.

In some cultures men engage in symbolic menstruation by cutting their genitals causing blood to flow from them. Australian aboriginal males cut open their urethra along the full length of their penis forming symbolic labia and causing a symbolic menstrual period, perhaps cutting on more than one occasion. The fact that men are willing to do this demonstrates that there must be some perceived benefit to menstruation that men want to be apart of, that they do not want women alone to poses.

What is menses? The menstrual discharge is comprised mostly of blood, about two thirds. The remaining one third is cervical mucous, fragments of uterine lining, and cells from the vaginal lining. The blood of menstruation is different from the blood circulating through a woman's body in that it contains more lime and does not have the ability to clot, since it must pass through the cervix and flow out of the body without coagulating. I believe the lime would cause the menses to decompose faster once it left the body, as would be desirable. There can also be microorganisms contained within menses that could infect a woman's body if they were not expelled from the uterus. Some of the microorganisms appear to originate in male ejaculate. We must keep in mind that prior to leaving a woman's body menses was the future nourishment and protection for a newly conceived fetus and as such represents life. Menstruation and menses are positive symbols of a woman's ability to bring new live into our world.

The only negative aspects of menstruation come about as a result of this life giving quality. Since menses, blood, contains the ingredients to support life, most living organisms can use it to sustain its life and reproduction. This means potentially harmful pathogens can grow and reproduce in menses, as with all forms of blood. Some bacteria while not necessarily harmful produce a distinctive odor when they become abundant. For pathogens to develop and odor to occur they need time, warmth, moisture, and nourishment. Take these things away and pathogens cannot pose a danger to us.

If menses exits the body uninhibited and is allowed to either fall free of the body or dries out and is later brushed away, odor and the reproduction of pathogens cannot occur. If menses comes in contact with a woman's skin, or her partner's, and dries out it does not pose much of a health risk to either. (See discussion of health risks below.) The same is true if it drips onto a towel or bed linen and the moisture evaporates away. This cannot be said when menses collects in a tampon inserted into the warm moist environment of the vagina or collects in a plastic lined pad placed against the warm moist environment of the vulva for several hours at a time. The female body works best when it functions naturally.

If a woman is to accept the idea of having sex, solo and with a partner, during her menstrual period she must feel it is acceptable to be "messy." Women are not usually permitted by our society to do anything they know will cause them to get dirty and menstrual fluid, menses, is seen as unclean. They should not stain their clothing or put their body fluids on public display. Women should be neat, clean, and free of body fluids, always. Boys and men are dirty and messy, not girls and women. Something that is drilled into our brains several times a night on American television is that a woman must hide all her body fluids or face the consequences, public humiliation. As a result, no woman in her right mind would consider engaging in a sexual activity during her menstrual period, or so we are led to believe. It takes a lot of courage on a woman's part to engage in sexual activities during a time when societies says she should be in hiding, or at least hiding the fact she is menstruating. Despite these unwritten social mores 30% of women in a survey on our website admit to engaging in sexual activities when menstrual blood was present.

It takes a lot personal strength on a woman's part, and during partner sex, her partner's, to confront her body fluids. It takes even more effort to ignore them. If a woman is to not only participate in but also enjoy sex during her menstrual period she must be willing to make a "mess" and get "dirty," and more importantly, not concern herself with it. She must be able to discard her precious sanitary napkin or tampon, which has been her "savor" up to this point, and "ruin" a perfectly good towel or set of bed linen. She must be willing to allow her body fluids to come in contact with the things around her, including her partner. A woman and her partner must also not fear coming in contact with her body fluids. As a result of all this she needs to realize that having done these things life goes on as it normally would and the world does not come to an end as some claim it would have.

For many women sexual activities during their period is necessary and beneficial. Many women have found experiencing orgasm(s) during their menstrual period relieves menstrual cramps. This is because the uterine contractions of orgasm helps expel the menstrual fluid and relieves some of the muscular tension in the muscles of the uterus, caused by the hormone prostaglandin. Many of these women rely on masturbation to produce their orgasm(s), feeling they are or should be unattractive to their partner at this time. Others just are not in the mood for partner sex, in an active role, but know the benefits of orgasm. Some women experience a marked increase in their libido during their menstrual period and as a result crave partnered sex. While some postpone sex until after their period others aggressively seek out a partner. This increased sex drive is the result of hormonal changes and perhaps because a woman knows she is not pregnant, and is much less likely to become pregnant during her period. A sexual free for all. Some men and women are attracted to menstrual blood and desire their partner the most when they are menstruating; a possible vampire fetish. For these reasons sex and menstruation must coexist.

I've seen a few women, and teens, ask whether masturbating during their period is okay. They also want to know what to do, the "mess" factor. Masturbating during your period should not be viewed any differently than it is during the rest of your menstrual cycle. If you want to then just do it. If you are experiencing menstrual cramps grab your trusty vibrator and find a quiet place to masturbate to orgasm. While a vibrator is not necessary, if you are experiencing menstrual cramps you may not be in the mood to manually masturbate to orgasm, or just need a quick release from the pain and discomfort. In any event masturbating during your period is normal and healthy, if not a necessity.

If you use pads or just want to allow your menses to flow naturally, masturbating in a shower or tub will result in the least amount of "mess" as everything just washes away. The other option is to buy or designate some soft towels as your "menstrual towels*." If you buy them, buy brown or multicolored ones so any resulting blood stains wont be as obvious, if this bothers you. Obviously white towels will work just as well. If you do not have access to these towels or cannot afford to buy them any absorbent material will work. Take a couple menstrual towels and lay them out on your bed, couch, or chair, and masturbate as you normally would. The extra wetness may actually help out. When you are done masturbating do not jump up and "clean," take a nap, go to sleep, watch a movie on TV, or eat dinner.

If you feel you have to go wash and clean up right away then the emotional benefits of not using "protection" are lost. In addition you are doing something that is not necessary. When you need to wash, hold a towel against your vulva as you walk to the bathroom or a sink. With a little water, everything washes off your body. Throw the towel(s) in the laundry or soak it in some cold water, perhaps with a little bleach or disinfectant added. If you cannot wash them, hang them so they can dry out. Once you get use to this different way of coexisting with your menstrual period you will likely feel more comfortable with your body and how it works.

I know teens and women who use tampons will say, "Why bother with the mess," but that is the point, do not let the "mess" be a bother. Psychologically, and even sociologically, masturbating with a tampon inserted is not the same as masturbating when your menses is flowing freely. By using a tampon, even though it is certainly functional, you are doing what societies requires of you, versus doing what is natural. You will likely feel better about yourself and menstruation if you do not see yourself as making a mess or doing something you should not. It is better that you are not concerned with whether or not menses is getting on your body and surroundings than with the simplicity of using a tampon. The benefits of masturbating with your menses flowing freely are perhaps subtle and maybe even a bit obscure, but they are real. This definitely does not mean you should never use a tampon while masturbating, some women do like a quickie in public places after all.

Having sex with your partner during your period can initially be a significant challenge to conquer. This is because there is the possibility that both partners may feel sex and menstruation do not go together, or that their partner feels this way. This could result in neither partner bringing the subject up for discussion. Many women feel they have something to keep hidden from their partner and that their partner should naturally find them undesirable at this time. This is what society has told her her whole life. It is sometimes hard to overcome these feelings and discuss the idea of having sex during a woman's period.

A woman's partner may have had no past experiences with menstruation, it has been forbidden them, and so they know little or nothing about it. This goes for female as well as male partners, a woman may know her own menstruation but she may have never explored another's. We are naturally a bit fearful of what we do not understand because it poses unknown risks. Men are not supposed to show fear so they will sometimes use the subject of menstruation to degrade women and menstruation, as a result they end up acting like immature little boys. While women may not be as vocal or demonstrative, their reaction to the subject of menstruation may not be any better. This all works to create a barrier to sexual intimacy during a woman's menstrual period.

Sometimes there are no barriers in a couple's relationship to intimacy during a woman's menstrual period. Since menstruation occurs so frequently, sex and menstruation will cross paths sooner or later. While many women are a bit fearful of this event, many are surprised by how insignificant it actually is. Women should be careful not to assume there will be some major incident when it does occur, and as a result stray away from intimacy during their period. There are many men and women who do not have negative feelings towards menstruation in American society today and as a result are not the least bit concerned about whether their partner is menstruating. Sometimes they do not permit menstruation to be a barrier for selfish reasons, they simply will not allow a little blood to get in the way of them having sex. Other than social attitudes, which are not always shared by everyone in that society, there is no reason why couples should not engage in sex and intercourse during a woman's period.

Sex during a woman's menstrual period may just happen or a couple may need to address the subject in a more direct manner. This can be done simply by asking questions and showing a sincere concern. When a woman's partner does ask questions, she should answer them in an appropriate manner even if they were not asked appropriately. If a woman's partner expresses an interest in her menstruation by asking her about it she will be less inclined to feel she should hide it from them. While men can broach the subject, women are perhaps in the best position to take action and lead the way since it is their menstrual period. This is another situation where it is sometimes best to treat a man like a curious little boy. The key thing is for neither partner to assume they know how their partner feels about this or any other subject.

A couple can bring about sex during menstruation by their everyday actions. If menstruation is a natural part of their daily lives, it is much more likely to be a natural part of their sex lives. A couple does this by acknowledging menstruation is already a part of their daily lives. A woman can do this by casually mentioning she is taking a hot shower to relieve menstrual cramps, or that she needs to find a place to change her pad or tampon, instead of saying she needs to "go to the bathroom" when she is out in public. A woman can place a new pad or tampon on the bathroom counter when her partner is present, if they remain in the room, she can change her pad or tampon in their presence. A woman can ask her partner to hand her a new pad or tampon if they are closer to them. A couple can shop for and buy tampons and pads together, the woman explaining her reason for choosing the ones she does. Either partner can suggest a shower or bath during her period as then there is little concern about making a "mess." If this occurs a woman can ask her partner to bathe her vulva, thus giving her partner the opportunity to explore her menses. If her partner has just bathed her vulva and knows it is "clean," their mouth may naturally find its way to her vulva. A woman who uses a tampon can allow the removal string to be visible when she walks about naked instead of tucking it between her labia as some women feel they should, a woman who uses a pad can wear a snug pair of translucent panties that clearly shows the pad off. A couple's attitude towards menstruation during everyday activities will have a direct impact on their attitude towards sex and menstruation.

Preparing an area for partner sex during your period is no different than preparing a place for masturbation. You simply need to lay out enough menstrual towels for two people to lie on instead of just one. Some couples may choose to place a mattress liner or pad on the bed and designated some bed linen as menstrual sheets. There are also available hospital bed pads that are made of an absorbent material with a plastic lining. Whatever you choose should allow you to have sex without the need to clean and wash-up immediately afterwards. You should be able to snuggle and fall asleep without feeling the need to do anything else.

I would not recommend allowing menstrual fluid to collect in a mattress as there will be enough moisture from your perspiration and warmth from your body to allow bacteria to develop. If blood does get on the mattress, wash it out with cold water and perhaps some bleach or disinfectant.

The form of partner sex that couples might have the greatest aversion to during a woman's period is oral sex, cunnilingus. Many people do not have positive feelings towards oral stimulation of a woman's genitals even when a woman is not menstruating, because her genitals are thought to be unclean. Add in the negative feelings many people have to menstruation and cunnilingus may sound even more unappealing. Since there is the presence of menses, oral stimulation of a woman's vulva during her period cannot be viewed as being the same as it is during the remainder of her menstrual cycle. This is because the scent and taste of her vulva will be different. Menses does have a scent and taste all its own. In addition, a woman's menses may not have a watery consistency. As a result, even if a woman's partner enjoys performing cunnilingus when she is not menstruating, they may very well not enjoy it when she is because of the change in taste, smell, and consistency of the body fluids present. Some people do have an aversion to blood in any form after all. While performing cunnilingus during a woman's period is perfectly okay, I would not expect every couple to feel comfortable engaging in this activity.

A couple can certainly explore the idea of cunnilingus during a woman's period. The way to do this is to explore menses in a little less personal manner first. When a woman is menstruating she and her partner can get some menses on their fingers and then examine it, smell it, and even taste it. If a couple finds they are comfortable with these aspects of menses then they will be more open to the idea of cunnilingus when menses is present. If a couple is comfortable getting menses on their body, they will be less apt to feel uncomfortable with idea of it getting on their lips and in their mouths. If a woman has positive feelings towards her menses, her partner is likely to have or develop the same feelings. It does after all take a very positive attitude for a couple to kiss mouth to mouth when ones mouth and face are covered with menses and other female body fluids.

While it is perfectly okay for two healthy people to engage in sexual activities during a woman's period, everyone is not as healthy as they may appear. There are dangerous and deadly pathogens that are transferred from one person to another when bodily fluids are exchanged. The exchange of blood can pose the greatest risk as blood can sustain the life of harmful pathogens. As a result diseases like hepatitis and AIDS are more easily transmitted when the blood of one person comes in contact the body and particularly the blood stream of another. If the blood of one partner comes in contact with an open cut or wound on another, the transfer of these harmful pathogens is more likely to occur. We cannot take this lightly since the resulting infection caused by these pathogens do kill and cause severe health problems. These are real risks with severe consequences.

As a result it is not wise for all couples to engage in all forms of sexual activity during a woman's period. Couples engaged in a short-term relationship, such as dating, should not exchange body fluids. In a casual dating relationship the only safe form of sex during a woman's period, or anytime, is mutual masturbation, since no physical contact takes place there is no exchange of body fluids. If a couple is not already exchanging body fluids then barriers need to be used to prevent this from occurring. This can be accomplished by using condoms, dental dams, and plastic wrap. Even if they are, menses may be pretty hard to contain. If a couple is exchanging body fluids, menses still increases the chances that pathogens are transferred from one partner to the other. Keep in mind that during most normal sexual activities minor injuries and bleeding occur and as a result there is always some risk involved when body fluids are exchanged. Sexual activity during a woman's period just increases that risk.

Parents of daughters who menstruate should be open to the ideas presented here and consider how they may make life better for her. Your daughter likely masturbates and may do so during her period. She may desire to do so even if she does not. She may not want to wear a "diaper" to bed and having menstrual towels available to her will open up other possibilities. Teens also experience menstrual cramps so a trip to your local department store to buy her some menstrual towels and a vibrating muscles massager may be appropriate. (A penis shaped vibrator is not necessary and probably would not be appropriate, and may be illegal in some areas, unless she specifically asks for one like that.) If a teen knows her parents have seen her menstrual towels, when washing them, she is less likely to feel embarrassed when menses stains her clothing or bed linen. If a girl's parents have a positive attitude towards menstruation she will likely share their attitude. The more positive your attitude towards menstruation, the less of a "problem" it is for you and your daughter.

* To help prevent confusion over what is meant by "menstrual towels," I am referring to what are generally called "bath towels" here in the US. They are used to dry yourself after bathing. They are made of soft cotton and are highly absorbent of moisture. They can be washed and used repeatedly as "menstrual towels," decreasing the need for disposable tampons and sanitary napkins which are not beneficial to the environment.