WARNING! Long post ahead! 
I was at my aunt’s 70th anniversary party on Sunday, and spontaneously started crying on the mention that my dad died a bit over a year ago1. I was terribly surprised at my reaction, and I just could not stop the tears for the longest time. I blame PMS.
When we were younger and our male friends would share stories of ‘things we had to go through in the army’, us girls came up with a counter strike of talking about menstruation in graphic detail. Men – or boys, rather – find the female periods as something scary and disgusting. Women turn into emotional, unpredictable monsters and most representatives of the opposite sex will often choose to run and hide for the time being. Of course, there are individuals who either by studying or by having personal experience (and probably discussions) with their female friends have a much better understanding of the mechanics behind this behaviour. For simplification purposes, I will not include them in this post, but bear in mind that I fully acknowledge and appreciate their existence. I separate male (man) from human race (Man) with a capital letter, because it’s fucking faster and more readable than constant use of ‘humankind’.
But I just don’t trust anything that bleeds for five days and doesn’t die. [Mr. Garrison, South Park]
The above quote, although satire, really illustrates Man’s greatest failing: fearing the unknown. It has probably served mankind well in the distant past when it was better to be safe than sorry when encountering something new; you never knew if it was something that was going to eat you up.
In man, the shedding of blood is always associated with injury, disease, or death. Only the female half of humanity was seen to have the magical ability to bleed profusely and still rise phoenix-like each month from the gore. [Estelle R. Ramey (1917-2006), endocrinologist2)
Aside from fear and prejudice, the Mankind also devised a handy concept to explain everything they could not comprehend (darkness, death, birth, seasons, weather, disease and so on): gods. Funny enough, there’s no deity of menstruation that I know of; all men seemed to know was that it was best to keep bleeding women separated from the rest of the society and, specifically, from weapons. Having experienced some of the more aggressive reactions to menstruation, this is probably a justifiable reaction…
1I actually mis-corrected my aunt for saying my father died one year ago; I claimed it was two. Maybe I was counting Christmases, but he really passed away about 18 months ago…
2Endocrinology simplified: study of hormones.
Women complain about premenstrual syndrome, but I think of it as the only time of the month that I can be myself. [Roseann Barr, actress & comedian]
The female emancipation movement, or feminism, has been ridiculed since the beginning, and these days it bears the unfortunate stamp of male-hating, penis-cutting ugly lesbian madwomen. It is largely considered an outdated ideology and has a counter-reaction in men’s liberation movement. Most people today agree that the emancipation movement was a necessary step toward an equal society and condone that women are equally capable of holding positions in high offices and such things. Naturally, there are still fringe feminists who hate men, but on the other hand, there are also still men who believe women’s place is in the kitchen, should have long hair and wear red and pink. Equality?
According to Wikipedia, feminists are usually ‘white, middle-class women’ and criticised for ignoring the conditions of black women. (This may be specifically applicable in the US – I don’t know about the conditions in countries such as Finland, where the population’s homogeneity has only changed in the end of the 20th century.)
The other side of the coin, in Western or ”civilised” countries is that women still earn less than men for same jobs, and not too long ago I read headlines about how women with large breasts are taken less seriously in working environment. Perhaps it’s because some people suspect these mammalian glands consume blood meant to be used by brain? But then again, it seems that this applies only in reverse for men with large penises. Hmm, hmm.
My ex long distance love, an American called Michael, would often go on rants about how terrible American women are; that they expect a man to display chivalry and open doors and pay for dinners and such, but do not hold their own part of the bargain by being willing to do the same. I do believe in equality in many things; I find it very hard to let a man pay for everything, I would expect him to do his share of house chores, I open the door for him when I happen to be there first, but while I’m happy to fix things in the house, I expect him to remove spiders and do the heavier lifting, because we’re all individual and have our own strengths and weaknesses. The key expression here is ‘common sense’.
The role of women in Western countries is still pretty good, and the focus should be shifted towards cultures where women still have no other options but to live according to the male regulated traditions and roles. Isabelle Allende, a Chilean novelist and feminist and a spokesperson for passion:
For most Western young women today, being called a feminist is an insult. Feminism has never been sexy […] Feminism is not dead, by any means. It has evolved. […] Although women do two-thirds of the world’s labour,they own less than one percent of the world’s assets. They earn less than men for the same work if they are paid at all, and they remain vulnerable because they have no economic independence, and they are constantly threatened by exploitation, violence and abuse. It is a fact that giving women education, work, the ability to control their own income, inherit and own property, benefits the society. If a woman is empowered, her children and her family will be better off. If families prosper, the village prospers, and eventually so does the whole country. […] The poorest and most backward societies are always those that put women down.
(The speech is very inspirational, and you can watch it at TED website.)
Sexuality and menstruation
For hundreds of years, there was a medical diagnosis, made exclusively in women called hysteria.”Women considered to be suffering from it exhibited a wide array of symptoms including faintness, nervousness, insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness in abdomen, muscle spasm, shortness of breath, irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, and “a tendency to cause trouble”.” [Wikipedia]. This sounds remarkably like pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) to me. Up to the end of 1800’s hysteria was also accredited to women who were sexually eager. Doctors and midwives would treat hysterical women with water spouts and massage to cause an orgasm to put an end to the hysterical behaviour. ”There are many documents about how doctors considered the stimulation of the female genitalia as a repulsive operation” [Kari Heusala: Naisen seksuaalisuus].
Happily, present day medical profession and society no longer believe in this load of nonsense. Focus has been shifted to women’s sexual willingness as a positive thing, although, sadly, where a male might be considered a stud or a playboy, the word for the female gender are easy, slut, man-eater and so on. In private life, a sexually active woman is considered a good catch, whereas the society still bears marks of outdated thinking – and the words and language we use shape the way we think.
I could write about porn and advertising and turning women into objects, but that’s up to everyone to judge by themselves. Personally, I come from a culture where sauna is an everyday occurrence, and when I was a kid, I was used to seeing men and women in all their anatomical glory. It hasn’t traumatised me in any way – I daresay my relationship with the human body and nudity is far healthier than that which can be observed in some other Western countries. Nudity in itself isn’t erotic, and the fact I was exposed to sexual education in school meant that since I was young, I insisted on a condom (kids, pills do not protect you from STDs), and in case I slipped (which didn’t happen till my late twenties), I made sure to get tested for everything afterwards. In fact, reducing sex to a natural act and speaking about it matter-of-factly probably takes away the charm of the forbidden fruit a lot of teenagers are bound to chase.
In my opinion and experience (generalising), when it comes to sex, men are visual creatures compared to women, to whom the sexual act happens mostly in our heads. Where a man might think a sweaty, flushed woman with her legs spread wide is a turn-on, a woman is more likely to focus on the emotions of the moment. There are women who can achieve orgasm simply by focusing on a sexual fantasy and without laying a hand on themselves and there’s been a lot of boasting about the female ability to multiple orgasms. I think the reason why porn is chiefly aimed at males is that it’s so much easier to simply portray the sheer act, strip it of any emotions and focus on the genitalia and the external signs of sexual excitement. This is not to say, of course, that women cannot be turned on by porn.
Biologically, the survival of the species required men to conceive as many offspring as possible, whereas females – while looking for the strongest possible male to make babies with – would look for a more dependable, softer male to support them in the daily life.
So… the scary, disgusting, bloody menstruation: what purpose does it serve, and why does it justify women to turn from purring kittens to roaring maniacs?
PMS, premenstrual syndrome (tch… syndrome?), true to its name, happens before the actual menstruation, contrary the widely held belief that it’s something that is simultaneous to the actual bleeding. Technically, PMS coincides with ovulation, which is when women are most fertile. Ovulation begins as a mature egg is released from the ovary (where women’s eggs grow, silly) and pushed down the fallopian tube to the uterus and is available to be fertilised. The lining of the uterus thickens to prepare for a fertilised egg.
This process is controlled by hypothalamus in the brain, and through the release of certain hormones – which, like the nervous system, operate as a communication channel within in the human body. If the egg is not fertilised, the thickened uteral lining will be shed. This is the part when the body gets rid of the unfertilised egg and the excess uteral wall. Menstruation is therefore a necessary process to keep the body healthy and clean… just like pooping and peeing. The menstrual cycle is counted from the beginning of the bleeding, as this is when a new egg begins to grow in the ovaries.
To understand the reasons behind the emotional reactions to menstruation, it’s necessary to understand the effects of hormones on the human body. I won’t go into technicalities, but it’s understood that hormones affect our moods; during ovulation and menses (as well as pregnancy) hormone levels change and some women react very strongly to the changes. A more severe form of PMS is called Premestrual dysphoric disorder, PMDD, and the symptoms, while similar to PMS are severe enough to interfere with work, social activities and relationships. Naturally, there are women who use PMS as an excuse to behave like bitches and take it on any passing person – most likely the unfortunate people closest to her. Dysphoria is the opposite of euphoria, and simply refers to dark mood, depression, irritability et cetera.
Some consider that it’s strange that women turn irritable and least likely to attract a mate while they’re most fertile. I can explain this on my part, but how true it is for women in general, I can’t say… Biologically, a female would strive to mate with the healthiest possible male with the best genes for reproduction and survival of the species. It’s probably impossible to determine this by conscious effort only, so during ovulation all of the her senses would peak. Imagine spending a week or two with every sound, smell, colour, light, taste heightened to the point where everything feels like someone poking at your incessantly – ”Is this annoying? Is this annoying?”. I know I lost my ability concentrate in noisy environments, and simple things like smells or someone tapping with a pen are enough to drive me up the wall. I don’t do it on purpose, but it sets me on edge and more likely to snap at other people. The extremity of mood swings is also individual – in my case it means I’m sensitive and likely to tear up at the slightest provocation. Unfortunately, the mood swings only seem to go from balance to down, rather than up…
So, please understand, it’s not ‘just‘ PMS. It’s a pain in the ass.
And speaking of pain. Some women experience none, or simply slight discomfort or bloating; some are forced to stay in bed for the pain. Ovary cramps, backache, sore breasts, headaches, fatigue… Some men’s behaviour during a common flu is as though they are dying – some women experience similar every fucking month. I repeat, it’s not ‘just’ PMS. Do I seem on the edge about this? Guess what time of the cycle it is.
I think it’s funny how women who think the current patriarchal society is the reason for the inequality between men and women are described as radical feminists. It’s hard to imagine how thousands of years of male dominated society and the traditions, morals and stigma related to this would not affect the expectations and attitude towards women. Largely, we can point the blame at monotheistic religions. Where polytheists would have deities for all aspects of life, religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam have spent innumerable years demonising the deities and practices of the competition. Some of these naturally included female deities; most common of these if the ‘Mother Earth’ concept, which is evident cross-culturally as it can be linked to fertility and life.
Going back even further, it again probably made sense that duties within a tribe or a community were divided by strengths and weaknesses: pregnant women are slower, clumsier than a healthy male; women have evolved to be more able to handle several things at once – looking after toddlers, cooking, gathering food, tending to things in the house – whereas males probably evolved towards single purposes such as the ability to track prey. It’s often forgotten that this meant a female was often the head of household matters, and men… actually, I don’t know. Men evolved to be physically stronger than females.
In contemporary world none of the above arguments make sense, and if Man claims not to be an animal, and to live in an age of reason, it is obvious that we should also be able to evolve beyond unnecessary cultural burden. Just like losing extra molars or having less body hair, or having a pelvic alignment which favours upright position rather than a quadruped one. I’m not against religion per se, but I consider it both childish and barbarian to stick to beliefs that we appeared mere thousands of years ago as we are today.
Actual gender differences
Men argue against having females on the combat field and the arguments are invariably that men are physically stronger (on average, obviously) than women, and that women are a liability because ”men feel compelled to protect them or to rescue them”, as if this is somehow a failing of the female kind. Again, I claim this as a load of bullshit – a female soldier can lift a gun as well as any male, and physical combat is not a matter of physical strength; speed, flexibility, adaptability are all factors in determining the outcome of a hand-to-hand combat.
There are some things we can’t so easily change. Aside from hormonal workings, and the fact that women are the childbearing gender, there’s a difference between a male and a female brain, as well as the workings of. Male brain is, on average, larger than a female brain; this, however, has no bearing on intelligence, as the brain-to-body weight ratio is the determining factor. When comparing relative gray matter weights between sexes, the differences are nonexistent. The differences lie in the composition of the brain – male brain has a larger percentage of gray matter, which is used for information processing, and female brain consists of a higher percentage of white matter, which makes up the connections between different processing centres [Wikipedia]. No wonder males are said to have one-track minds!
However, “men and women apparently achieve similar IQ results with different brain regions, suggesting that there is no singular underlying neuroanatomical structure to general intelligence and that different types of brain designs may manifest equivalent intellectual performance.” [Wikipedia]. Woman’s average life span is seven to nine years longer than male’s; I wonder if this has to do with the fact that women generally has a faster blood flow to the brain and lose less brain tissue in age than males do?
The stereotype about males being able to be decision makers, while women tend to worry and change their minds more often has also to do with brain functions; given similar tasks, men and women make their decisions in different parts of the brain, men simply ”do the math” whereas women are more likely to consider the outcome, reward, consequences of their decisions. The belief that the former is the better and more trustworthy, and social and emotional intelligence is considered ”softness” and therefore a weakness, is simply another tradition, a concept born in the society in which males are the dominant gender.
Men and women process information differently because of differences in a portion of the brain called the splenium, which is much larger in women than in men, and has more brain-wave activity. Studies have shown that problemsolving tasks in female brains are handled by both hemispheres, while the male brain only uses one hemisphere.
Differences in the ways men and women communicate is also a function of sex-specific areas of the brain. Women seem to have an enhanced awareness of “emotionally relevant details, visual cues, verbal nuances, and hidden meanings,” writes Nadeau. Similarly, while male infants are more interested in objects than in people, female infants respond more readily to the human voice than do male infants. [Frank York: Gender Differences Are Real]
Virtues and values
Males and females tend to have a different view of what is a strength and what is a weakness. Obviously, I think that being able to process more information is better than being able to focus on one thing and not let other factors disturb the judgement. I’m prone to think so because I’m a woman. However, a lot of women in ‘male’ environments learn to make decisions in the manly way, to use elbows and ruthlessness and believe it’s ‘business, not personal’. Some woman said that in order to prove their worth in a ‘man’s world’ a woman has to work twice as hard and to become more manly than the men are. Women in such environments aren’t afforded feminine ”weaknesses”.
I don’t really believe that the world is likely to change in a hurry, but I must wonder what the world would be like if women were in power, or at least in equal power, their voices equally heard as men’s3. Would the world be better? I can’t help but think the answer is ”yes”. Then again, there’s a possibility that we would be technically less advanced, as it has mostly been war, or defence, which has driven industrial innovation. Would literacy have spread as wide and as fast as it did in the West thanks to Christianity; would we have national borders which were the result?
Am I a feminist? I suppose I am. I advocate softer values such as defending the weak, environmental protection, pacifism, equality, knowledge… And I truly believe these are better values than striving for wealth and power, using strength rather than intelligence to advance and prosper, ”ends justify the means”, and so on. I don’t suggest these are the values all women and only women share, or that I would be strictly ‘feminine’ in any sense. But it did take me almost thirty years to accept that it can be a good thing to be equally feminine as it is to be masculine. I’ve accepted that I can be sensitive and kind and strive for selflessness and it doesn’t make me a weak person.
In my most humble opinion, with which I don’t look to offend anyone … but the assholes who enable mutilation of female genitalia, child-prostitution, violence against the weaker, and so on … I advocate changing the world to those softer values. I think it’s worth striving for a better world, even if it’s probably impossible. If there’s a reason you, reader, think this would be a bad thing, please illuminate me. In closing, here’s a final quote from the speech of Isabel Allende:
I think that the time is ripe to make fundamental changes in our civilization. But for real change, we need feminine energy in the management of the world. We need a critical number of women in positions of power, and we need to nurture the feminine energy in men. I’m talking about men with young minds, of course. Old guys are hopeless, we have to wait for them to die off. (Laughter) Yes, I would love to have Sophia Loren’s long legs and legendary breasts. But given a choice, I would rather have the warrior heart of Wangari Maathai, Somaly Mam, Jenny, and Rose Mapendo. I want to make this world good. Not better, but to make it good. Why not? It is possible. Look around in this room — all this knowledge, energy, talent, and technology. Let’s get off our fannies, roll up our sleeves and get to work, passionately, in creating an almost perfect world. Thank you.
3I’m speaking of a hypothetical female who is allowed to develop without acquiring the influence of the patriarchal thinking.
PS: Some male perspective, since I can’t really write for them. :)
[Because I’m lazy: all pictures in this post have been stolen from the internets. Please let me know if you know the author/source. Thanks!]