“Having sex on your period is absolutely safe,” reassures OB-GYN and talk-show regular Dr. Laura Berman. Like most sex experts in the past half-century, Berman is ready to demolish old menstrual taboos and usher in a modern period. And like many educators, physicians, and cultural critics who have written about menstruation, she frames her recommendations within a historical narrative: in the old days, religious proscriptions and folk traditions labeled menstruating women as “dirty” or “unclean” and therefore unfit for intercourse; now, in the light of modern science, we know better.
When it comes to menstruation, this sweeping narrative arc can feel persuasive, since ancient attitudes have in fact been strikingly persistent. And yet, the leap from the biblical book of Leviticus to the twenty-first century obscures as much history as it reveals. It turns out, when we listen to a range of voices, from natural philosophers to medical writers, to ordinary women and men discussing their experiences, the history of menstruation and sex is more complex. All of these parties gingerly navigated the shift to the modern period, with results that are perhaps less fully liberatory than advocates like Berman might acknowledge…
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Ask someone to talk about her experiences with menstruation for a couple of hours, and she will usually laugh: “What on earth would I have to say for that long, on that subject?” And then, as it turns out, she will tell story after story. In researching The Modern Period, I interviewed 75 diverse American women and men, old and young, about the role this relatively mundane bodily event had played in their lives. Their stories were funny, and moving, and generously intimate. It was a pleasure to spend years collecting, sifting, interpreting, and weaving together these narratives, because they are revealing in two registers simultaneously: the deeply personal, and the seismically social. A story can be simultaneously about a first, awkward attempt to use a tampon and about how Americans became “modern.” Taken together, the stories I collected show how Americans created their modern identity in the very details of how they cared for and thought about their bodies on a daily basis.
The dentist peered in my child’s mouth, then turned to me. “Hey, Mom, you did a good job, no cavities!” I brought my kids for a check-up recently, and our wonderful pediatric dentist warmly complimented me. But why on earth did he call me that? And why did it irk me?