How did menstruation become a taboo word?
Why don’t we call menstruation by its name but use expressions like 'auntie Flo comes for a visit'? Euphemisms serve a purpose. They give us words to talk about things that are considered culturally taboo.
Menstruation stigma is a form of misogyny. Negative taboos condition us to understand menstrual function as something to be hidden, something shameful. And by not naming a thing, we reinforce the idea that the thing should not be named.
But have periods always needed code words. Where did these words come from, and how did they come about? Were periods always considered a negative experience?
Menstrual euphemisms and taboos are old. But not all societies view menstruation negatively.
Menstrual taboos are found in the holy books like the Quran or the Bible"
“…in her menstrual impurity; she is unclean… whoever touches…shall be unclean and shall wash his clothes and bathe in water and be unclean until evening” Leviticus 15
Taboos on menstruation may have existed before agriculture started or even before languages fully evolved.
Menstruation, after all, far predates language. Our lives as the earliest evolving humans centered around survival, reproduction and biological functions: birth, death, sex, hunting. These elements were central in shaping language, not the other way around. And that’s where anthropologists do their research into menstrual taboo: at the intersections of evolution, behavior, and biology.
Exception on the rule
But while menstrual negative taboos are nearly universal, there are exceptions, and taboos themselves are variable. Certain societies operate with positive menstrual associations and euphemisms. Some modern-day hunter-gatherer societies, for example, hold an understanding of menstruation as being powerful, healing, protective and sacred. These groups are also more likely to have a degree of gender egalitarianism.
Some menstrual customs can act as tools that enhance female autonomy, granting social control and relief from work, among other benefits.
The biggest grass hut of the Mbuti tribe in Zaire is the menstrual hut, where women go when they have their first period, accompanied by other girls and female relatives. There, having a period is considered powerful and blessed by the moon.
In ancient Egyptian medical texts, the word for menstruation, also meant “purification”. Cures for amenorrhea are offered, and menstrual blood is used as an ingredient in ointments.
Where does the taboo come from?
The origin and function of negative menstrual taboo is still debated. Freud said it was our fear of blood.
A female anthropologist theorized in 1972 that taboo was a form of natural population control, limiting sexual contact with “pollution” stigma. [YvdH: this method is nonsensical, as with some rare exceptions when cycles are extremely short, women aren't fertile during this phase of the menstruation cycle, though it is not as crazy as it seems, as a lot of mammals are most fertile when they secrete fluids]
In 2000, the term non-menstrual syndrome or NMS was coined to describe the reproductive envy that led males to stigmatize menstruation, and to socially dominate women as “psychological compensation for what men cannot do biologically”.
All of these theories are indicitave of the time and culture in which they were developed, and many were formed with a presumption of menstrual negativity. Some thought the menstrual taboo was developed because early societies knew of its “toxic, disease-causing effects”. Until mid-50s the view persisted in science that menstrual blood was toxic and experiments were done to discover the so-called menotoxin in menstrual blood. When animals died after injections, it was claimed to be caused by menotoxin, and not from bacterial contamination. Menstrual blood toxicity was finally disproven in the late 1950s when use of antibiotics prevented the animals from getting sick.
One theory holds that menstrual taboos are at the center of the origins of patriarchy.
In 1991 the anthropologist researcher Chris Knight published Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture.
Knight’s theories are controversial but thought-provoking, and speak to the complexity of discerning the historical roots of menstrual stigma.
Knight believes that the original menstrual taboos were born of female-led and female-advantaging behaviors in early humans i.e., that females themselves had good reason to establish menstruation as a time when their bodies could not be touched, creating their own taboo. Only later did this taboo transform into something that compromised female autonomy, rather than enhanced it.
Menstruation synchronised with the new moon
For Knight’s theory to hold, early humans would have had to menstruate in sync with the moon, something for which we have no evidence in modern societies. But, as Knight points out, this doesn’t mean our cycle length has no evolutionary significance. The human species evolved under conditions that favored a menstrual cycle of 29.5 days, the same length of the lunar cycle.
Our close relatives, chimps and bonobos, have menstrual cycles of ~36- and ~40-day cycles respectively. Scientists don’t agree on why the human cycle became so close in length to the lunar cycle, or why the original euphemism for cyclical bleeding is moon-related across many cultures.
The theory is best explained in two parts: the possible origins of female-benefiting practices around menstruation, and how they might have changed so dramatically.
Knight’s theory of menstrual taboo begins with the way our human ancestors hunted.
As our Homo habilis ancestors evolved in Africa around two million years ago, they coexisted with big cats: lions, saber-toothed tigers and other large predators with night vision far superior to our own. Hunting in times of little moonlight would have been more dangerous than hunting when the moon was full, illuminating the surroundings.
Early hunting practices provided little meat for females and their young. When chimpanzees hunt, males gang up around their hunted subject and fight over it as they eat it on the spot. This provides no meat for those back at the camp, who find protein to eat in other ways.
Contrastingly, hunter-gatherer societies in Africa today have rules where hunters return to camp with an entire kill, before it’s taken by the women and shared equally.
In Knight’s model, early females played an important role in shaping this new hunting behavior by acting in ways that promoted safety and ensuring that food from the hunt was shared. Females began to gather in isolation from males for a period of time around the new moon (darkness), something that still happens in hunter-gather societies today.
During this period, sex would be withheld, and male attention would be focused on the upcoming full-moon hunt. Males would believe females to be menstruating together at this time. [YvdH: it is a fact that women who live together in close quarters like in monasteries, prisons often are menstruating in sync, but this is (nowadays at least) not tied to a specific moon phase]
After the hunt, if males returned with food, their behaviors of hunt preparation, participation, and food-sharing would be rewarded. The period of sexual isolation would end, and a time of feasting and sexual activity would begin. It’s this cyclical synergy of moonlight, firelight, nutrition, and behavior, rather than gravity, that Knight suggests is creditable for possible menstrual syncing in our ancestors.
By gathering and signaling “no” females may have established blood as being powerful, creating a strong cultural symbol, and the first menstrual “taboo”, different from the way we think of taboos today. Menstruation would become associated with power, with the success of the hunt and with the blood of game animals. This “taboo” on blood may then have also applied to the blood of the hunted kills, leading males to not eat their own kill until the blood was brought back to camp and removed through cooking. The Ju/’hoansi people in the south of the African continent, for example, tell stories of men who are killed by elephants after not observing menstrual taboos, and how hunting when one’s partner is menstruating can lead to being attacked or losing one’s game.
How a practice that benefited females changed
If the original menstrual taboo was one bolstering female power, why did it change? Knight says it shifted as big game become more scarce. As the population grew and big animals became harder and harder to hunt, a monthly hunt wasn’t enough. Populations began having to rely on small game, tubers, and other gathered foods much more continuously, making the traditional work-play rhythm, and all the behaviors and rituals associated with it, less possible.
The desynchronization of the hunt from the moon would have cost the menstrual cycle its own synchronicity. By this point, Knight explains, the timing of nearly everything would have been governed by these practices. As they became irrelevant, any associated rules of sexual isolation or solidarity would have gotten in the way. As the practices collapsed, female cycles started to stagger again, and communal female solidarity was lost.
At that point, something very strange happened, Knight says. “In many places, in order to prevent the whole system from collapsing, the men start ritualizing their own version of menstruation, by cutting their penises (or, in some places ears, noses, or arms) and bleeding together, shedding enormous amounts of blood.”
Menstrual huts (common spaces where females gathered to menstruate together) were then reassigned for the new, better synced, male bleeding ritual. “They became male huts from which women were excluded, renamed as Men’s Houses or Temples.”
It’s this, Knight believes, that’s at the crux of all the world’s patriarchal religions. “Wherever you find these temples and churches, in Judaism, Christianity, they are men’s huts writ-large, male controlled and dominated.” Even after agriculture began, these male bleeding rituals continued.
This all may have set the stage for the treatment and view of menstruation in extremely patriarchal cultures of the Romans, Greeks, and later religions, which have led us into our modern west.
To clarify, this story began about two million years ago in the time of Homo habilis, the ~600 thousand year stretch of history between “ape-like humans” and homo erectus. Fire use began around 1.5 million years ago, and cooking began less than one million years ago. Big-game scarcity, and the outcomes of it, is in the much more recent period since the last Ice Age.
“At the base of all the world’s religions, we find one fundamental idea. Some things are sacred. And if the body isn’t sacred, nothing is,” says Knight. “Blood was a mark of the sacredness of the body. So the paradox is, that the very thing that benefited women throughout evolution is now made to be, and experienced as, the most disempowering.”
We may never know how, exactly, menstrual taboos were established.
Of course, there are deep controversies around these histories, leaving many elements up to interpretation. Both menstrual synchronicity and asynchronicity may have their adaptive evolutionary advantage. Some research suggests synchrony decreases female–to-female competition for mates and favuors genetic diversity. But the quality of evidence of estrous synchronicity in human and non-human populations is questioned and hotly debated.
Knight’s theory has been referenced by peers as the “most important ever written on the evolution of human social organization”. His is arguably the only theoretical framework for this deep-set history of menstrual taboo to date.
It’s clear that the way we talk about menstruation is slow to change because of how deeply menstrual taboos are ingrained in our cultures, beliefs, and histories. The societies which give us our understanding of our bodies were formed around these taboos. Changing taboos requires the systems to change.
Until then speaking about someone's menstruation cycle will be accompanied with flustered discussion and most women will prefer to remain silent whether they are actually menstruating, even when they are experiencing pain and discomfort.
Whomever wants to know more, can order the book here