The Eerie Similarities Between Period-Shaming and Slut-Shaming

Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt personally victimized by period-shaming. Now, raise your hand if you’ve ever been made to feel like a “slut”. Chances are, if you raised your hand to the first, you also raised it to the second. People who have periods have been taught by society that their menstruation is dirty, shameful, and embarrassing. Those who freely enjoy sex – specifically women, or those perceived to be female – are made to feel that their sexuality is something that shouldn’t be proudly displayed, for the same reasons. Nevermind that more often than not, the same people who do the sexualizing are also the ones who do the shaming, but more on that another time. Period-shaming and slut-shaming are deeply intertwined and only a true understanding of how they perpetuate each other will help bring an end to either one.

Period and slut-shaming both demand secrecy

When I was 14, my friend’s older sister had her friend walk me home. He was 18 and before we got to my driveway, he kissed me. This was my first kiss and it didn’t feel right, so I told him to stop. Thankfully, he did. What he also did was tell me not to tell anyone. This request for secrecy made me feel ashamed, dirty even. It’s the same concept with periods. We’re taught by society, by marketers, and sometimes even by our own parents to sneak tampons into our pockets and bury our wrapped up pads in the bottom of the trash can so no one will know that we’re menstruating. We’re told (often not in so many words) that it’s a secret and it should be kept that way. Secrecy of this kind breeds nothing but shame, more secrecy, and sometimes even violence, resulting in a vicious cycle that can keep us stuck in damaging patterns of embarrassment and guilt.

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When I told my parents about the kiss, the reaction perpetuated the cycle even more. I was told I shouldn’t have put myself in a situation where that could happen, that I shouldn’t have led him on, and that they were disappointed in me. This unintentional slut-shaming made me feel like I did something wrong and deterred me from telling my parents of any other sexual encounters throughout my adolescence and even into adulthood. I didn’t go to them for birth control or to tell them I lost my virginity (I’m pretty sure they’re in denial about that, even though I have a 5-year-old) or to ask questions I had about my body. I also didn’t tell my mom when I had my period. I would sneak to the store and buy tampons instead. Why? I was ashamed.

The language used around both are the same

“Ew.” “Gross!” “That’s disgusting.” We’re not supposed to talk about our vaginas in any way – whether it be the monthly blood that flows out of them or the number of people we allow to have access to them. Around the same age that many girls get their periods, they also come to understand in a more comprehensive way what the term “slut” means – and know right away that it’s something they want to avoid being called. A study done at Pennsylvania State University found that, starting in 6th grade, girls who have sex are more likely to lose friends while boys who have sex gain them. It’s this kind of double standard of sexuality that leads to girls (and women) being ashamed of their sexuality – much like they are ashamed of someone finding out that they’re on their period.

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In the same study, researchers found that girls gained peer approval for making out with boys, but lost it for having intercourse, further perpetuating the societal construct that a fine line has to be walked between being not sexual enough and too sexual. The degrading language used around menstruation and sexuality is often very similar and, many times, undue correlations are drawn. For example, If a girl has a late period, she may be called out by her friends for being promiscuous (when in reality, many girls don’t have consistent periods for the first 2 years after starting their periods and late periods can be caused by stress, change in diet or other health factors). This kind of shaming is taught by the media, by parents, and most importantly, by the refusal of society as a whole to allow girls autonomy over their own bodies.

Period-shaming opens the door to slut-shaming

From the time girls first go to the drugstore to stock up on tampons or pads (but seriously, though, ditch the disposables), they instinctively try to hide them under a magazine and hope against all hope that the checkout person isn’t cute, or worse, someone they know. The same goes for securing birth control or condoms – there is this thought process of “What if someone I know sees me? What will they think of me? Why is this old man glaring at me?” and many girls would rather forego the embarrassment of trying to be discreet in the covert operation of acquiring menstrual products or protection that they forego it altogether.

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More often than not, this kind of embarrassment is taught (usually unintentionally) at home. It’s likely that the parents who taught their kids to protect the secret of their period like an FBI agent would guard someone in the witness protection program are the same ones who swatted little hands and fussed about the inappropriateness of playing with one’s vulva. The fathers who joke that their daughters can’t date until they’re 25 are likely the same fathers who are too embarrassed to buy their kids tampons at the local grocery store, lest someone see – and judge – them. The mothers who didn’t give comprehensive period talks are often the same mothers who tell their daughters that they shouldn’t need birth control because they shouldn’t be having sex. I say parents because, in all honesty, period-shaming and slut-shaming both begin in the confines of the home. That’s not to say it’s on purpose. Our parents are most likely just teaching us what they learned from their parents. Media, schools, and friends play a role in furthering the belief that what our bodies do – be it sex or menstruation – is dirty and something to be ashamed of (or, for the comfort of those around you, pretend that you are) but it starts at home.

If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that period-shaming flings the doors to slut-shaming wide open. I can’t help but to believe that had I not been made to feel like my period was a repulsive, horrible secret that happened to my body each month (not to mention being taught that my feelings were less than valid if I was menstruating) that I wouldn’t have been so quick to feel that sex was something I should also hide or that my feelings when I did have sex weren’t as valid because, after all, I asked for it.

Featured Image: Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Your body is a battleground), 1989


cvanruvChristina Vanvuren is a freelance sex & reproductive health writer living vicariously through herself in Atlanta, GA. When she’s not championing for a world free from period and slut-shaming you can find her drinking copious amounts of coffee, traveling, and nurturing her friendships with badass women around the world. You can connect with her on Facebook, her website, or via email at write@christinavanvuren.com

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