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Jan 2012 20

by Yashar Ali

Note to men: if your sense of masculinity depends on avoiding ever having to buy a plastic tube filled with cotton, you’ve got way bigger problems than you realize.

Earlier this year, I was watching a repeat episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show. The guest on particular this episode was Dr. Oz, who was tasked with answering a series of health questions, many of which were related to women’s reproductive health.

After Dr. Oz answered a question about douching, Oprah turned to a gentleman who was sitting in the audience and (with some humor) apologized to him for being stuck listening to all the conversation about “womens’” stuff and being seen in on TV for participating in an episode that dealt with, among other topics, menstruation and menopause issues.

The gentleman turned out to be Major League Baseball player, Jim Thome, who plays for the Chicago Whitesox. He had brought his wife to the Oprah show as a gift (tickets to the Oprah Show were nearly impossible to come by). 

Oprah’s interaction with Jim Thorne left me fuming. Why should we feel bad for him? Why would Oprah feel bad for him? I am an Oprah fan, but her apology was uncharacteristic for someone who spends her life advocating for and helping women.

I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t feel sorry for Jim Thome because he’s a wealthy, famous baseball player. What I am saying is that we shouldn’t feel sorry for him because he’s a man who doesn’t have to deal with the reality of any of the problems addressed on the Oprah show he sat in on. And instead of Oprah offering that Dr. Oz episode to Jim as an opportunity to learn and give him tools with which to be more supportive of his wife and women family members, he was offered an apology for having to sit in on a conversation about an issue that is so central to a woman’s life.

Why is our culture so intent on protecting men from hearing about or discussing a woman’s reproductive health?

I’ve written about this phenomena in some of my previous columns. When some of the women in my life start talking about their menstrual cycles or anything else reproductive related, they stop themselves and warm me to stop listening, “But you don’t want to hear about this…”

Meredith, 25, finds herself handling conversations about her period in a very similar way, “Anytime I talk about my period, I feel the need to begin with, ‘I’m sorry to bring this up…’ or ‘I’m sorry if this grosses you out, but…’ Why do I (and other women) feel the need to apologize for being women?”

So, why are women apologizing for their bodies or hiding their reproductive issues from their male partners or friends? I think this tendency for women to protect men from issues about their body, especially about the reproductive issues, is something that is learned. It’s not inherent. All it takes is your mother or another female relative telling you that no man wants to hear about a woman’s period or PMS issues, to begin a lifelong habit of not sharing anything related to that part of the body. Or, it’s your first boyfriend saying “TMI–gross,” when you dare say out loud that you’re dealing with a problem. It shuts you down for life.

Ultimately, it boils down to one thing: men only want to associate a woman’s vagina with sex. Anything else, despite the reality that a woman’s vagina is not created to simply function as a conduit for sex, is a disgusting inconvenience.

I get it – to a certain extent.

We have conditioned men and women to think about and to handle a woman’s reproductive health is as if it’s a curse. In fact, some women remember a time when it was commonly referred to as “the curse.” So, if men think about the vagina only in the context of sex, the introduction of any other reality involving blood, bodily fluids, or anything “gross” coming from that area of the body is going to push them over the edge. It’s going to cloud their sense of pleasure.

But that’s not an excuse and it doesn’t forgive insensitive behavior.

A woman’s body, especially her reproductively system, is way more complicated than just the sex part. And the “gross parts” aren’t, frankly, gross – they are a natural cyclical reality. A woman’s body is a prominent part of her identity and when men refuse to understand the physical aspects of a woman’s period and any issues related to their reproductive health, they are essentially ignoring a (big) part of who she is.

So where does this leave women? Unsupported. Having a rough time with your period and all the associated symptoms? Too bad – that’s for women to deal with. Going through menopause and it’s come as an absolute shock to you? Get over it.

Laura, 57, saw this type of reaction in her now ex-husband. Anytime she wanted to talk about anything “feminine,” he would respond with this comment, “Just fix it.”

“Like I could take a screwdriver, wrench, or hammer and some nails to ‘fix it.’”

It’s not just the physical aspects of a woman’s reproductive system that are unattractive and disgusting to men. It’s anything remotely related to menstruation or menopause.

Don’t even dare to ask some men to buy tampons. Ally, 29, was holed up in her house with the flu last month and could barely get out of bed. When she asked her boyfriend to get tampons, he scoffed and responded, “Anything but that.”

She was forced to have a (female) friend run out and get them.

Beyond feeling unsupported, the idea that a woman’s reproductive health is “gross” or a topic that should be avoided has a horrible impact on some women – it detaches them from their bodies and makes them ashamed.

Alena*, age 42, is married to a man who does not want to acknowledge that she has any sort of reproductive health cycles. “It does make him uncomfortable, but I’m over trying to make other people feel better at the expense of my own mental health. But it does have a negative effect on me, knowing that he thinks it’s disgusting, because it means that for a week out of the month, I am disgusting.”

I am not attempting to victimize women. This isn’t about encouraging men to sweep in and save the day because women are weak and can’t handle their reproductive health on their own. And for the record, I’m not talking about women who desire privacy when it comes to this matter. For those who do, it’s their business. But there are plenty of women who want the outward support from their male partners, but feel embarrassed to talk about their periods, their menopause experiences, or anything related to their reproductive health.

And frankly, I’m tired of being witness to it.

This column goes back to an issue I’ve addressed my previous writing, where I explore how our culture puts forth women as totally and completely complicated – that what women need from people in their life, in this case, the men, is so complicated that it’s nearly impossible to figure out how to help them and how to talk to them about it.

It’s ridiculous.

I am never one to explain what women want – no one can do that. But I can definitively say what humans want. And every human being wants and needs support. For women, when it comes to the reproductive health department (along with many other departments), because they are humans, are lacking what they need: support.

I have no doubt if men had to deal with menstruation, menopause or anything of the like, not only would the women in their lives be intimately involved, but our armed forces would also be tasked with finding solutions to make it easier.

So the solution is simple in my mind. If women need, want support, it’s time to stop protecting men from what EVERY woman has to deal with. And it’s also time for men to stop believing that a woman’s reproductive health is one part of a her life that can be ignored, bypassed, or forgotten. A segregated support system is no support system at all. It’s time to put “TMI” to bed. There’s no such thing as too much information when it comes to the women we purport to love.

And what if the men in your life keep pushing back?

Jennifer*, 37, finally had her fill with protecting men. “After years and years of men acting like I said something obscene when I dared to mention my period, I came up with a simple policy: I don’t date anyone who gets seriously grossed out talking about basic bodily functions, including my period. It’s frankly immature and a subtle form of misogyny – Oh god, your natural, female body is so gross!”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

***

Yashar Ali is a Los Angeles-based columnist, commentator, and political veteran whose writings about women, gender inequality, political heroism, and society are showcased on his website, The Current Conscience. Please follow him on Twitter and join him on Facebook.

He will be soon releasing our first short e-book, entitled, A Message To Women From A Man: You Are Not Crazy — How We Teach Men That Women Are Crazy and How We Convince Women To Ignore Their Instincts. If you are interested and want to be notified when the book is released, please click here to sign-up.

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