naomi hutchings

Period Stigma and Taboo: a Sexologist's Perspective

By Rachel Ettridge

16 December 2019

5  minute read

I stumbled across a post from Twitter this week, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it.

smuggling tampons tweet

Humour aside, just think about this for a second.

We have to hide pads, tampons, and the sounds of their wrappers (chip packets, right?) due to the humiliation of having a period.

What?

Why are periods awkward, but having a bloody nose and asking for a tissue is just a usual day? At what point did we get this all so wrong? When did the female body stop being celebrated and start being shamed and hidden? Was it ever celebrated, or has this always been taboo? This simple Twitter post reminded me just how deeply rooted period stigma is in society, and how deeply it affects us all.

I wanted to reach out to someone with a wealth of knowledge about the female body, someone who studies, understands and respects every part of it and how it interacts with the world. Who better than a sexologist?

Enter Naomi Hutchings

naomi hutchings

Let me introduce you to Naomi (AKA Nay), an incredible, thoughtful and passionate woman from Meanjin (Brisbane). Naomi is many things; a mother, a fiancé, a Libran, and a clinical sexologist. I had a chat with Naomi about period stigma and what’s perpetuating it.

It you take anything from this interview, it should be that the human body must be celebrated and adored, not shamed and hidden.

Firstly, how did you get into the sexology industry – what sparked your interest?

“I have been in this field for over 15 years. I was initially drawn to this work out of a strong desire to improve what I determined to be an inadequate sexual health education and relationship curriculum in Australia. I did an undergraduate degree in Women’s Studies [at The University of Adelaide], which is what they called it back then, and soon became passionate about the rights of all people to be able to experience the joys of inclusive and positive sexuality, sexual health & wellbeing.”

(Note: Naomi also completed a Masters in Sexual Health at The University of Sydney in 2010.)

There’s no doubt that the perception of menstruation has changed. Why do you think periods can be such a sensitive topic and how has period taboo changed over time?

“We still have a culture of silence around sexuality and bodies. It is improving in some spaces, yet it still lingers. Many cultural beliefs, misinformation and myths, and stereotypes all continue to perpetuate this stigma.

I think cultural beliefs and the patriarchy have all contributed to the misinformation and stigma regarding menstruation. Many myths were created out of the absence of facts.

In some communities people who are bleeding are expected to sleep outdoors, away from the home until they stop bleeding. In other cultures people were told not to wash their hair or bathe. Other cultures took this as a sign of “womanhood” therefore, despite being a child, they were expected to marry and bare children. This has huge physical and mental health impacts. This blood was, and still is in many places, considered dirty. For many years most advertising of pads would only show yellow or blue liquid instead of red, despite band-aid adverts consistently showing depictions of blood.”

On top of those stereotypes, what specific cultural norms are detrimental to shaming the female body?

“[The cultural norms] that shame bleeding people and make them spend time alone and banish them from the house.

That narrative that pads / tampons are something to be hidden, when in fact it is not unlike needing toilet paper. Most bodies with a uterus need them. I also struggle with the idea that it means the person is ready to be married or be a mother. Periods ARE NOT consent for sex, marriage or babies!”

Absolutely. And you’ve alluded to an important point that women are not the only ones who can experience periods, hence why we refer instead to ‘people with uteruses’.

With regards to the gender divide, what do you think are the biggest challenges when breaking down the stigma and encouraging conversation?

“I think all people of all genders should learn about periods, even if they don’t have a body that will get one, this way everyone is informed and can therefore be open and supportive of those around them. This will assist in breaking down the stigma, leading to a better understanding and defeating negative stereotypes.”

And with regards to defeating stereotypes, do you think euphemisms are hindering this process? For example: rags, Aunty Flo, or shark week. Are these ways of avoiding the ‘awkward talk’, and are they potentially harmful?

“I think it is okay if people want to use these terms just as long as they know the real language as well. I also like to unpack with people why they use a word, what does it mean, is it harmful, etc. etc. It would be great if we could use the actual language and it not be seen as taboo, therefore normalising what happens to people with uteruses. I also understand that society has a tendency not to do this when its topics are considered taboo – think about all the words for genitals!”

What are your thoughts on celebrating periods? Do we need to do more to celebrate the female body? Should the start of a period be celebrated like a birthday, christening or any other big celebration?

“Firstly, have you seen this video – click here. I giggled when I saw it years ago and often used that in training. I think we need to be sure we don’t make it all doom and gloom (a bit like we do about menopause). The silence around menstruation perpetuates this. It doesn’t have to be that way.”

I completely agree – silence is never the answer, and I love that video so much! Do you have any final words?

“I am hoping that the next generation, of all genders, who I honestly think are kicking big goals right now, will continue to do this important work towards ending the myths and stigma surrounding menstruation.

I hope that everyone who has a uterus can have access to clean and affordable products and be free of the shame regarding periods. P.S. did you know there is a period emoji? How fabulous! Check it out on your phone now.” 🩸

A huge thank you to Naomi for sharing her insights with us. If you want to stay up to date with her journey (and hilarious memes), check her out on Instagram.

Let’s start a conversation around periods. Let’s challenge the stigma around period taboo, and let’s end period shame together. As I said at the start, periods are something to be celebrated, not shamed or silenced.

So, grab your chocolate, hot packs, or whatever gets you through, and have a happy holiday everyone!

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