The period is still a taboo sub­ject all over the world. But why is there actu­ally a taboo of men­stru­ation? How did it start? And what can we do about it – and for a nor­mal­iz­a­tion of the period? Sophia looked into the his­tory of the taboo and found the ori­gins in reli­gions, witch burn­ings and pat­ri­archal doctors:

Taboo of men­stru­ation – Where does the word taboo come from?

The word taboo (in Ger­man Tabu) comes from Poly­ne­sia and is made up of the words “ta” and “bu”. “Ta” means “to mark” some­thing. “Bu”, on the other hand, stands for intens­ity. In gen­eral, the word taboo means “thor­oughly or intens­ively marked”. Basic­ally, mark­ing has neither pos­it­ive nor neg­at­ive connotations. 

One could speak in the same way about men­stru­ation. It has always been “thor­oughly marked”. But why is it so neg­at­ively marked in our soci­ety? How did this taboo develop? His­tor­ic­ally, our soci­ety is per­meated by pat­ri­archal struc­tures that taboo the bio­lo­gic­ally female body pro­cesses in a neg­at­ive sense. The old-world reli­gions such as Juda­ism and Chris­tian­ity have also con­trib­uted sig­ni­fic­antly to the taboo­ing of menstruation: 

Pat­ri­archal reli­gions and their con­tri­bu­tion to the taboo of menstruation

One would think that blood as a sub­stance is con­sidered “puri­fy­ing” in many reli­gions. Blood sac­ri­fices cleansed sins and were offered as gifts to the gods. The blood of women, how­ever, was marked with exactly the oppos­ite. To this day, Chris­tian­ity speaks of the “vir­gin” Mary and her “immacu­late” con­cep­tion. All female sexu­al­ity is con­sidered “defiled” and “impure” in Chris­tian­ity. This also applies to the bio­lo­gic­ally female bod­ily pro­cesses such as birth, ovu­la­tion, and men­stru­ation. In the Bible, men­stru­ation is seen as a “curse” imposed on all women as pun­ish­ment for Eve’s sexual seduction. 

Thus, it is writ­ten in the Old Test­a­ment: “When a woman has her flow of blood, she shall be coun­ted unclean for seven days. Who­ever touches her shall be unclean until even­ing. And everything on which she lies while she has her period shall be unclean, and everything on which she sits shall be unclean” (Deu­ter­o­nomy 15 19-20).

The reli­gious taboo on men­stru­ation goes so far that in Ortho­dox Juda­ism women are for­bid­den to have sex dur­ing their period. They are also con­sidered “unclean” dur­ing the fol­low­ing six days 

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The taboo of men­stru­ation through the Enlight­en­ment and human’s turn­ing away from the body

At the time of the Enlight­en­ment and the rise of cap­it­al­ism, the way men­stru­ation was tabooed changed. Even before the indus­trial age, men­stru­ation was con­sidered toxic, threat­en­ing, and impure, but at that time it was still con­sidered a power­ful force that was both feared and respec­ted. Men­strual blood was used, among other things, as a love potion, but it was also used to inflict a desired suf­fer­ing on someone. 

In the early days of indus­tri­al­isa­tion, how­ever, this changed, and the bio­lo­gical female body was reduced to the domestic and its poten­tial repro­duct­ive capa­city was brought into focus. From this point on, men­stru­ation was seen as a sign of failed fer­til­isa­tion and was there­fore con­sidered neg­at­ive and use­less. Any mean­ing was writ­ten off and it was declared a “mere excret­ory pro­cess”. In our soci­ety, excret­ory pro­cesses are asso­ci­ated with “dis­gust, shame, stench”. Thus the form of taboo­ing men­stru­ation had changed. Men­stru­at­ors were taught to be ashamed of their bod­ies. They should ignore their men­stru­ation because it was use­less and some­thing “dis­gust­ing” and “unpleas­ant”. 

Until the begin­ning of the 20th cen­tury, men­stru­ation was also the main argu­ment against higher edu­ca­tion for women, as it was assumed that intel­lec­tual work was harm­ful for the “female organ­ism” and that the “female brain” would use too much energy and blood dur­ing learn­ing, which would be needed for the pro­cess of menstruation. 

The Sub­jug­a­tion of the Female Body – Sup­pres­sion of Mid­wives and “Female” Medicine

Until the Middle Ages, the pro­fes­sion of healer and mid­wife was often prac­tised by women. Many women had an enorm­ous know­ledge of their bod­ies, about men­stru­ation, child­birth and “women’s ail­ments” which was passed on from woman to woman. 

The witch tri­als in the 17th cen­tury, which cruelly con­demned thou­sands of inno­cent women and some men to death in the name of the pat­ri­archal Cath­olic Church, denounced mainly women with great med­ical know­ledge. That was one of the reas­ons why women were slowly pushed out of the pro­fes­sional fields. Stu­di­ous men took their place. Mid­wives were declared incom­pet­ent; the male gyn­ae­co­lo­gist took their place …

And so much for the clever male doc­tors: In 1919, the Vien­nese doc­tor Béla Schick observed that the flowers his house­keeper had put in a vase dur­ing her men­stru­ation would wilt par­tic­u­larly quickly. He there­fore thought he had dis­covered that men­strual blood con­tained a toxic sub­stance called meno­toxin, which could also be trans­mit­ted through women’s sweat and blood. It was not until 1958 that new stud­ies were car­ried out and, of course, no toxic sub­stance was found in men­strual blood. For almost 40 years, how­ever, this was con­sidered “sci­en­tific­ally proven”. 

What can we do? 

The his­tory of taboo­ing men­stru­ation is long and cruel. Our soci­ety is riddled with the red threads of miso­gyn­istic and pat­ri­archal struc­tures in which there seems to be no place for a nor­mal and pleas­ant way of deal­ing with men­stru­ation. They can be found in reli­gions, in medi­cine and in the eco­nomic sys­tem. All men­stru­at­ors are affected by these struc­tures that per­sist and must suf­fer from the lack of accept­ance of their bod­ies in this soci­ety. There­fore, we must stand together against this and fight for an open and enlightened soci­ety where there is space for diversity and the body pro­cesses that make up our human­ity and accom­pany us through­out our lives.

You want to read more about the taboo topic of men­stru­ation? Then here are some of my book tips:

Illus­tra­tions by Maya Eck­hardt for Vul­vani

Sophia, Vulvani. Menstruation in der Werbung, menstruation in advertising. Tabuisierung der Menstruation, The taboo of menstruation
Stu­dent & Editor | + posts

Sophia will soon be study­ing for her master's degree in cul­tural anthro­po­logy. Fem­in­ist top­ics are very close to her heart. She wrote her bach­elor thesis on the topic of men­stru­ation and inter­viewed vari­ous men­stru­at­ing people about how they deal with their men­stru­ation. By con­stantly examin­ing her own bod­ily pro­cesses, she has found a beau­ti­ful way to deal with her men­stru­ation and cycle, des­pite monthly period pains. Oth­er­wise she works in the art and cul­ture asso­ci­ation aRaum e.V. and likes to spend time with her friends.