My school's take on period education was to lead all the girls into a separate room from the boys and pull a monstrously large maxi pad out of a cupboard. The thing was like an absorbent surfboard. My best friend and I looked at each other in horror as it got passed around the room for everyone to see. Once it had done the rounds, our teacher filled an egg cup with red paint and dumped it onto the surfboard.
Since only the girls received this very thorough education, who knows what the boys grew up understanding about periods? The fact that some grown men—and even some women—are still squeamish about them says: not a lot. This week, British charity Plan International UK released the findings of a survey of 1,000 girls aged 14 to 21, which found that almost half are embarrassed by periods. The charity's recommendation was that both sexes should be taught about periods together at school.
A lack of understanding about periods 100 percent feeds into confusion and internalized misogyny for everyone, so, in the spirit of countering that, here—men—is everything you might need to know about periods, presented as answers to the questions real guys aged 18 to 40-something had for me.
"What's the difference between pads and tampons and why would you use a pad?"
Pads are the absorbent surfboards that you stick inside your pants like an extra layer. Tampons are absorbent sticks of material that you put inside your vagina via an applicator. They both do the same thing but are very much down to personal choice.
Pads are useful if you're unfortunate enough to be dealing with a heavy flow, or for nighttime, because if you're getting your eight hours, you don't want to leave a tampon in there; there's a risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome if you do. Some prefer pads because they don't want—or can't physically work with—the invasiveness or penetration of a tampon. On the other hand, lots of women find pads uncomfortable, some compare it to wearing an adult diaper. The benefit of using a tampon is that it's more out of the way. You cruise around, forgetting it's in there. Many use both, while increasing numbers also now use a mooncup, a re-useable plastic tea-cup shaped contraption, which you just wash after every use.
"Do you like it when the tampon goes in?"
The above thought comes from the brains of straight guys who have been conditioned to believe their penis is a magic wand and are genuinely surprised when penetrative sex alone cannot edge us to orgasm. Take your thumb. Put it in your ear. Push it in as far as it'll go. Bit further. There you go. No: we do not take pleasure inserting a dry, gauzy wedge of cotton into our vaginas.
"Do you have sex during your period?"
Yeah, baby, we do. Or, at least, if we want to, we can. It's a bit of blood. If we're heavily on then maybe it's not worth the mess. But there's nothing weird or wrong about doing it.
"Are you most horny on your period?"
Not all women, but seriously, yeah. All the research into hormones says we're most likely to be really horny around day 14, when we ovulate, which is nature's way of making us reproduce when we're at a fertile point. The hormone progesterone—which dampens your libido—is at a low during your period, which could explain it. Other articles suggest that the increased libido could be down to: more lubrication, being released from your PMS state or, most likely, that pressure is being put on your nerve endings in the pelvic basin.
"Is it a lighter shade of red in summer—rose—and a dark red—merlot—in winter?"
Period blood is anything from black-brown to deep pink through every season. Our blood is eternal. It is the rich nectar of the earth and it does not acclimatise itself to the weather.
"Do women get angry on their period?"
NO. If you're going to be sexist and link the emotional state of all women to their reproductive system, at least get the phase of their cycle right.
Here is a tiny PMS primer: not all women have PMS—physical and mood-based symptoms related to their menstrual cycle—and all women react to their hormones differently (if at all). If they're going to get it, it usually happens anytime between ovulation (day 14 of their cycle) to the onset of menstruation. It can last for a few hours or two weeks. PMS can affect up to 75 percent of women at some point in their lifetimes. A rare severe form of PMS is PMDD, which affects about two to eight percent of women.
The idea that women are PMS-ing during their period is incorrect, linked to male fear of periods, and has somehow been passed down in attempts to make women seem biologically unstable.
"Is it true you can't get pregnant when on your period?"
The possibility of conceiving is there—so use contraception, always, unless you want a baby—but low. The fertility window is between day 11 and day 21, which doesn't cover your period.
"Is menstrual synchrony a thing?"
I would argue this is legit because it happened in two of the all-female households I've lived in. But science is mixed on it, with studies showing both positive and negative results, while the most recent study suggests it's a myth. Either way, we do like to think of our uteruses as all-powerful, combining to make a hivewomb. Back in 1999, one study said that 80 percent of women believe periods can sync, and 70 percent said they loved that.
"Have you ever been tempted to taste your blood?"
Have you ever been tempted to lick a cut on your finger to see how metallic it tastes? Yes? Well if you had periods, you'd probably lick a bloody finger to see what it's like, right? Why wouldn't you taste the excretions of your body? Consume it all. While we're here, I just want to say, pretty sure there are plenty of third-wave feminists who had Greer on their reading list at university and got the idea of emancipating themselves this way.
"Does it smell?"
Everything has a smell. Period blood smells like blood. Old period blood smells like dried blood.
"Does it always last for a week? Is it every month?"
The idea of it lasting a week, every month is just a generalization that works. Some people are lucky and their period is short, maybe a day or two. Others last up to a full week. That occurs within a cycle that is about 28 days. Again, some are shorter, others longer.
"Can you permanently stop periods, and if so why don't you?"
You can use back-to-back contraceptive pills to stop your period. This is usually done if you can't be bothered to have it or its medically advised by a doctor as a treatment for bad PMS. I have hormone replacement therapy to suppress my entire cycle and this stops me from having periods due to PMDD. You can also take something called norethisterone that stops it temporarily for things like going on vacation or if you found out that Ryan Gosling is in town. But generally, unless your periods stop due to stress, an eating disorder, weight loss, other illness, or for another reason, you're sort of stuck with them until they stop altogether. And that, friends, is menopause—something you'll have to ask your moms about.
"Can you tell if your period's coming? Do you have 24 hours to know?"
If every woman had an internal alarm for the start of their period, you wouldn't have seen that poor girl at your high school stand up wearing a white skirt with a red stain on her butt. Some women are very regular and have it at the same time on the same day every single month, so they can plan. I used to get the very precise feeling of my revved-up uterus physically starting to pump that blood, which was both delightfully gross and exceedingly helpful because I'd then have an hour or so warning and could get to a toilet. Sometimes it's the onset of cramps serves as a warning. Sometimes it's just intuition. And sometimes you are stuck in the gas station bathroom using wads of toilet tissue because you got an unexpected surprise.
"Does it suddenly stop?"
This changes from person to person. Some people get a slow skid-marked tailing-off into nothingness, and others halt more quickly.
"Is there a status to getting your period first? Are you the lame one if you get it last?"
There was an unwritten social code where the first person to get their period at school would be the queen bee, and the girls quickest to follow the cooler ones. It was a signifier of being older and therefore closer to sex, I suppose. Everyone gets it at different ages, depending on genetics (when your mother and grandmother got theirs) and upbringing (whether you're overweight, hormones in your diet, to name two potentially contributing factors). There are, apparently, sadly, mental and physical risks later in life connected to when you started your period.
All this said, I'm not a 13-year-old girl any more, thank god, so I don't know if the period status still lives.
"Finally, is the whole thing actually only a teaspoon's worth?"
My unscientific answer to this is: this is bullshit. Yes, science says an average of one teaspoon. But some women have hardly anything—a week down and only a little brown stain to show for all your work. Other women have a very heavy flow and have mild anemia and have to take iron supplements.
And that's it. Congratulations, male reader, you now know more than my science teacher with the red paint did 12 years ago.