Period Etiquette: How To Menstruate Politely

Starting around middle school, many of us learn that periods are awkward. They require special behaviors and products, some of which we need to perform or purchase in public, and yet we're supposed to keep them totally private. Also, there is blood everywhere. But never fear — we're here to help you negotiate your time of month with grace and aplomb.

Periods are normal — and so is period anxiety.

I talked to Susan Kim, co-author of Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation, says lots of menstruating women are "scared of anyone noticing even a trace of the process: a tampon falling out of one's handbag, a spot of blood on the toilet seat or on the shower floor, a used pad left in the garbage, even someone glimpsing our unused tampons in the bathroom or a male clerk checking us out when we have to buy a box of pads." This isn't surprising:

[L]ots of things have conspired over many centuries to make us mortified about the process. Since ancient times and around the world, menstruation has been treated as a filthy and shameful thing; it's in the Bible (just check Leviticus), it's part of Islam and orthodox Judaism, and even as recently as the 1950s, scientists from Harvard conducted studies to see whether or not menstrual blood was poisonous (it's totally not, btw). On top of this bedrock of superstition and religious belief, you can add decades of advertising selling products by creating and then playing off fears of staining, leaking, bulging, and smelling. Who wouldn't be stressed out?

So if you sometimes get stressed out about asking somebody for a tampon or telling a date it's your period, you're not alone. However, you don't have to panic, either.

Be frank where appropriate.

Obviously you don't have to go around yelling about your bleeding vadge to whoever will listen (more on this below). But if the situation warrants, your period can be a teachable moment. I talked to Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, author of My Little Red Book, who says,

I like to think of telling guys that I have PMS or am on my period as a chance to teach them what they missed in sixth grade while they were outside playing kickball and we were stuck inside watching a video about tampons with Pat the nurse. So much of the stigma surrounding menstruation is due to lack of knowledge. Talking about your period is a social good!

Adds Kim,

[T]he more you talk about menstruation in a straightforward and unembarrassed way, the less stressful it gets for you and, consequently, for anybody listening. Hey, most guys have females in their lives in a pretty intimate way already — wives, girlfriends, sisters — and chances are they're not as clueless and squeamish as we might think. Many of them actually appreciate a little education about exactly how awful cramps can be (I remember when I told several male co-workers that it felt like I was getting stomped on my pelvis because the pain went all the way through to my back, and they were genuinely surprised), much in the same way I remember grilling a male friend in 7th grade about what it felt like to get accidentally hit in the nuts.

So if a male friend or close coworker asks why you need to make a quick stop at the drugstore on your way to dinner, or why you carried your purse to the bathroom, or why you turned down his invitation to the annual picnic of the Horseback Riding, Trampolining, and Abdominal Crunches Society, go ahead and tell him. Most guys — especially if they're on the young side — are secretly curious about periods. Also, menstruating can be an awesome power. Says Nalebuff,

Not only do I think that it is important to be open and honest with men about your period - especially if it's posing a problem — but frankly I also see it as a free pass when it comes to getting out of a bind. Guys often know so little about menstruation that they assume the absolute worst. Maybe out of a fear of menstruation or, even more likely, a fear of seeming insensitive, guys tend to be incredibly generous when it comes to giving you freedom to tend to your "feminine needs."

Don't overuse this power, though. That one girl in eighth grade who claims it's her "time of month" every day for a whole semester just ruins everything for the rest of us.

Don't overshare.

Your period is not gross or shameful, and if it's relevant, or if somebody asks, it's more than okay to talk about it. And when you're among friends, you can also talk about it just because you feel like it — I know I don't have to tell you this, because you've probably been doing so since you were a kid. However, there are scenarios in which you should dole out your ladyblood info on a need-to-know basis. Says Kim,

[Y]ou have to weigh the situation and your relationships. I think it can be an overly personal and inappropriate thing to share with someone you've just met; for example, mentioning your period on a job interview with a woman can come across like you're trying to force a sisterly intimacy that doesn't actually exist.

It's maybe a good rule of thumb that if you wouldn't talk about peeing with someone, you should not launch into a detailed discussion of menstruation either. Both are worthy topics for many settings, but that doesn't mean your body fluids have to be all over the boardroom.

Need a tampon? Ask a lady in a bathroom.

Even if you're a meticulous calendar-watcher with a preternaturally regular cycle, you'll occasionally be caught unprepared. When that happens, certain places are ideal for tampon and/or pad solicitation. Says Nalebuff:

I'd say it's probably easiest to ask someone for a tampon in a bathroom, a place where everyone shares a pretty common goal and there's thus a sense of solidarity with the strangers around you. The tampon karma in the Grand Central bathroom amazes me. It's like a free tampon dispenser.

Kim adds,

I once had a very funny and smart impromptu conversation in a public bathroom in Washington DC with three strangers, all about tampon brands, applicators, and the environment, after I yelled over my stall, "I'm sorry ... does anyone here have a spare tampon?"

That said, you don't have to be in a bathroom. Most women have been in your situation, and they'll probably feel for you. A friend was once asked for a tampon by her server at a restaurant. She was taken aback — until she realized that a server asking a customer for a tampon must really be desperate. She ended up running down the street to buy the waitress a pack from the drugstore.

When staying with friends, dispose with discretion.

While I firmly believe that menstruation shouldn't be thought of as disgusting ot horrifying, I also think there's no reason your buddies should have to see your blood when they use their own bathroom. Just wrap that shit up in a couple pieces of toilet paper before you put it in the wastebasket. Unless you're real confident about their plumbing, you may also want to avoid flushing your tampon — it can clog the toilet, and then all of a sudden you're in one of those "most embarrassing moments" from Seventeen or whatever. My crush! My period! The toilet! His dad! Abraham Lincoln! You get the idea.

Same goes for cleaning your DivaCup.

A friend recently asked me what the proper etiquette was for washing one's DivaCup at a friend or acquaintance's house. It's a good question — after all, it's not often you're out and about with a rubber cup full of blood. Kim has some guidelines:

I actually spoke with some female friends about this, and here's what we came up with: dump as much out as you can in the toilet. Then wash it out in the sink. Then, very carefully, clean out the sink. Make sure the taps and toilet handle are cleaned off, too. A sink is much easier to clean out than a shower and if someone is going to be skeeved out by your using a sink, chances are the shower ain't gonna be much better. But hey, it's not like you're doing it for fun.

Just be sure to be meticulous. Just because menstruation is a healthy and normal part of life doesn't mean you should be a slob or insensitive to the fact that someone might not like your uterine lining all over the place where she brushes her teeth. I don't think you need to tell your friend unless you need cleaning supplies.

Also, do not leave your cup in someone's sink or shower. Same goes for other used period products. This is gross.

Tell your partner if the need arises.

Hookups present their own period etiquette challenges. When, for instance, do you give your partner a headsup that it's that time of the month? If you've been together a while, this kind of stuff is probably a nonissue. But the first time, it may cause some consernation. Nalebuff's advice:

[I]t doesn't seem necessary to give your partner warning until things look like they are taking a turn down south. If they don't, it's not relevant. Stating that you're on your period before you know where a hookup will lead seems almost presumptuous to me.

If things do head in a southerly direction, a quick "just so you know, I'm on my period" is courteous. Lots of people are down with period sex, but not everyone is, and it's nice to give your partner the relevant information a little bit in advance.

Dudes: be cool.

I'm not saying you have to make tampon tea or anything (please don't). But do us the courtesy of treating our periods like what they are: something many of us deal with every month for much of our lives. Don't act all grossed out if a girl has tampons in her bathroom, or if you can feel a pad in her underwear, or if she tells you it's her period tonight. You're certainly not obligated to have period sex, but you are obligated to refrain from treating menstruating women like they're freaky werewolves or something. Whether or not you're a dude who has sex with ladies, recognizing a lady's period for the eminently normal biological event that it is will make life easier for everybody.

Related: How To Make An Emergency Maxi-Pad


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Flow: The Cultural Story Of Menstruation
My Little Red Book

Image by Blayne Ward.