Menstruation: The View from Anthropology

Fun facts, theories and links on a highly taboo topic

Posted Aug 05, 2013

The helloflo.com ad that recently went viral got people talking about a topic that is highly taboo in our culture–menstruation.

This monthly event is both a biological reality and a cultural rite. And it has a long evolutionary tail, so to speak, separating not only the women from the girls, but the human female from the other primate females.  Non-human primate females experience estrus–a highly visible day-or-two long period when their bottoms swell and become bright red, signaling to males, “Hey, I’m ovulating!” It is during this brief phase that non-human primate females are sexually receptive.

Human females, on the other hand, ovulate without estrus. While we ourselves may know when we are ovulating–women have described increased sexual desire, dilated pupils, and other relatively subtle signs that they are at peak fertility–it’s not something men can decode with ease or absolute certainty. It’s definitely less obvious cluster of clues than a bright red bottom. Loss of estrus is part of the human condition. I say “human” rather than “human female” because the loss of estrus has all kinds of interesting implications for both men and women.

Among other things, loss of estrus means that women are more or less continuously sexually receptive. Add in that humans are mammals with the mammalian trait of internal fertilization, and you can see how things can shape up to confound males. Unlike a male fish, who looks at the eggs he’s fertilizing in the water as he’s doing it, the male mammal has no such proof that he is the one whose sperm are making a direct connect. Mightn’t it be another Joe? Yes, it might. With the exception of paternity tests and episodes of Jerry Springer, a guy just can’t know.

Anthropologists who study these things suggest that the realities of internal fertilization and loss of estrus have allowed women to game fertility to increase male attentiveness and investment in special and important ways. In some non-industrialized foraging societies, for example, a woman has sex with as many men as she can when she first realizes she is pregnant. In this way, she is insuring that a number of men will at least suspect that offspring may be their own, and will help her out. In these cultures, several father may be better than one, predicting better outcomes for mom and baby alike. Indeed, such societies have a culture-wide belief called “partible paternity” that goes hand in hand with her strategy. Partible paternity is the belief that a baby literally has many fathers–the father who provides the sperm for the baby’s hand, the father who provides the sperm for the baby’s leg, and so on.

In other situations, men have basically wrested the power to spread the belief in paternity between many men away from women. Beverly Strassman,  an anthropologist who lived among and studied the Dogon people of Mali and arguably the world’s leading expert on menstruation (how do you like that honorific?) believes menstrual huts serve just such an end there. Unlike the romanticized red tent of Anita Diamont’s novel of the same name–where women gather during their periods in what is essentially a menstrual salon–the menstrual tents of the Dogon serve to circumscribe women’s power in one fundamental sense. If the fact of your wife’s menstruation is public, so is the timing of her ovulation. Anyone who can count backwards knows not only when his own wife but anyone else’s wife as well was fertile. And uncertainty about paternity is all but erased.

Whatever their use, menstrual huts–be they actual or symbolic, such as the aisle of “feminine hygiene products” in a store–are strictly gendered spaces. That’s why the idea of a man there is uncomfortable/hilarious. Check out this genius Kotex commercial which plays with our discomfort about a man in the menstrual hut and his curiosity about what menstruation is.

Menstruation has a “language” in our culture and is represented (or mis-represented or not represented) in very specific ways. This Tampax commercial by two female advertising creatives references that language and our discomfort about the truth of menstruation in funny ways.

Speaking of language and menstruation, anthropologists Camilla Power and Leslie Aiello believe that early hominid females manipulated males into believing the gals were all menstruating at the same time (thereby insuring that one guy was more likely to have only one partner, among other things) with paints and pigment. This, they suggest, was one of the first uses of symbols and may explain how and why we became “the unique symbolic culture-bearing species that we are.”

Why do we menstruate, anyway? For years, the most popular theory among evolutionary biologists and anthropologists was that menstruating removed any sperm-borne pathogens in a uterus. But Strassman (the Menstruation Expert, remember her?) says it’s a question of energy. It “cost” our early female ancestors less to shed their endrometrium every month and build up another than it did to maintain one all the time.

Thanks to Holly Dunsworth for the informative tweet about the work of Power and Aiello. Thanks to Jason Antrosio at livinganthropologically.com for his aggregating and retweeting on the topic.