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Guest Article

Going with the flow

by Roberta Carwin

"'It's all kosher, Renee… Bodies and sex and blood. Bloody sex, sexy blood. Relax'."

Renee Himmel, the heroine of Rebecca Goldstein's novel The Mind-Body Problem, likes to seek out new experiences -- ones which weren't allowed by her strict Orthodox Jewish family. She eats forbidden food, studies forbidden subjects, enjoys forbidden sex. But every so often, she finds something hard to stomach. One day, while making out in bed, her boyfriend wants to enter her; she refuses because she has her period.

A leftover religious hangup? he suggests. She thinks back to the ritual mikva: the bath used to cleanse women after menstruation. Maybe, she admits. He persuades her to try.

"I did relax, losing myself in the world of his hand and my body. But I was brought abruptly out of it when he pulled his hand away, bloody. Here it comes, the male revulsion at the state of being female. How could he not be repelled by this uterine debris, the uncleanliness at the heart, or rather the womb, of womanliness?"

Not all of us are trying to shake off religious taboos. Still, it seems some people find sex while menstruating odd, extreme, even freaky. A web search of "period sex" turns up sites boasting such items as "incest, fetish, animal" and "nude tomb raider sex," along with "fetish, tampon, maxi pads."

Come on -- how weird can it be? Is this attitude a remnant of junior high, when to have a tampon fall out of your pocket when a boy was around was the worst disaster that could happen? What are you supposed to do if you are a woman and/or a woman's lover -- give up sex for days every single month? Anyway, that's the last time I want to take a break. I feel great: glad to get rid of my PMS, charged up and creative. And I like my flow. It reminds me that I'm healthy and possibly fertile.

So, for me, the main problems are practical. I don't want to ruin my clothes and sheets. I can't always spend an hour washing up after sex, either. This can be a big issue -- so to speak. Even if your period isn't heavy, sex and orgasm may pump up the volume enough to make it inconvenient.

Before we get into techniques, let's remember that sex while you have the painters in is the same as sex any other time when it comes to safety. You can still get pregnant -- especially if you don't ovulate 100% regularly -- and you still need to protect against STDs with your usual condoms, dental dams or whatever. Also, menstrual fluid isn't all blood -- we just call it that for convenience - - but it contains blood. If you think you may have any condition that spreads through contact with blood, you need to allow carefully for that.

Now, if you're going for boy/girl intercourse or oral sex, the most obvious approach is to have the woman lie on her back with a towel, or something else you can easily wash, underneath. (I use a dark green bath sheet, folded in half.) Most of the "blood" will run down into the towel, often without getting much on your partner.

Maybe you don't like the missionary position, but prefer to do 69 and roll around all over the place. You could cover your furniture with plastic wrap, I suppose. Or you can try a product called "Instead," sold as an alternative to tampons. It looks a bit like a contraceptive diaphragm, but it's not meant for birth control. It blocks your flow long enough to have sex pretty much as if you weren't on your period. I know because I've tried it. Ecologically, it seems a lot of plastic to throw out, say, every day of every period. But if period discharge really bothers you (more on that topic later) this product could be your alternative to abstinence.

Some advise using your actual diaphragm as a blocker. When I had one, my doctor told me to go ahead and put it in place, with my normal spermicide, during periods. That can be tricky, however, if you flow heavily, since you need to keep the contraption in for hours after sex. Also, it's not a good idea to leave anything in the vagina for too long when you're menstruating, since pooling blood seems to be a cause of toxic shock syndrome (TSS). Be sure to ask your doctor about all this, and do more equipment checks than usual!

"Wait a minute!" you may say. "You feel insatiable when you're flowing; I feel awful. Sensitive, heavy, uncomfortable. I can't even imagine putting an Instead thing in there at that time of the month."

Fair enough. Everyone's body functions differently. Of course, I can repeat the adage that (as with working out) the less you feel like having sex to start with, the more you may surprise yourself by enjoying it. The more you need it, even. Physically, there is a point to this: intercourse and orgasms speed your menstrual flow, and you can wind up feeling much better. If you haven't tried working through the icky crampy feeling with orgasm -- even if only by masturbating -- I recommend it.

What if you're physically put off by menstrual flow -- yours or your partner's? If it's just a question of "This is kind of messy and sticky" you can adapt your methods. Bathe immediately before sex; use Instead. By all means, try the shower. A dental dam -- or even a piece of Saran Wrap -- can let one go down without having to taste or smell the period stuff.

Other people are like Renee Himmell: their or their partner's menstruation turns them off psychologically. It seems unclean or reminds them of injury. After all, some of us can't stand so much as squeezing out a drop of blood for a medical test.

A girl I went to school with felt practically phobic about having sex during her period -- because, she finally realized, she'd bled heavily when losing her virginity, at an early age and with a clumsy partner. The association of sex and blood reminded her of that unhappy initiation. Eventually, a partner who made a big point of conquering fears (his own and other people's) persuaded her to try and get past it, kissing and cuddling and finally working up to intercourse after several sessions. Eventually she lost the dislike altogether.

Only you and your partner(s) can decide whether the effort of overcoming an aversion is worth it. In any case, it's important not to hide how you feel. A partner may be very hurt, at some point, to discover you've silently been doing something you dislike. Much better to experiment together, agreeing that you'll stop any time you have difficulty.

As a reward, you may discover a greater sense of intimacy. A male friend tells me he came to enjoy going down on his lover during her heaviest flow although he didn't positively like the smell or taste. It felt erotic that the woman, who was embarrassed at first, would trust him with this.

Testing your boundaries can lead to awkward moments, but it can also be exhilarating. As Renee describes her experience:

"'Relax, relax,' he whispered as he entered me and we began to move through territory that was totally new to me. How to describe the feeling rising in me? It was very intense, joyful, revelatory. A feeling of acceptance. My eyes were oozing tears, my womb blood, and he was embracing it all. And when we finally parted and I saw my blood on his body, I felt clean."

Renee's euphoria is the kind that ought to go with good sex, at least some of the time: that feeling which comes from breaking down physical and emotional barriers. So, if you've been considering a few days each month no-go, why not try to reclaim them? You might discover a new sense of freedom. And I don't just mean the kind of freedom we were supposed to get when they put the wings on maxipads.

©2001 by Roberta Carwin

Reader Comments

Roberta Carwin likes literature, sex, and surfing the Web.


Our readers and staff say: Do it in the shower!

"Personally, I like the shower during this time. Less fuss, less mess. Standing and from behind works well, even if it's a little shower."

"[My lover] doesn't find sex during menstruation repulsive at all. We both sort of avoid looking down though. And afterwards, sometimes he looks like the victim of a mob hit! [I]t is the perfect time to move sex into the shower."

"I thought a male viewpoint might add to the discussion. Sex when your partner is menstruating is fine, when you know in advance. I remember the first time it was such a shock, but I think it was because she didn't expect it to start that day!

I would also add that the vagina feels less comfortable on the penis so have some KY around or do it in the shower..."

Menstruation on the Web

Visit the Museum of Menstruation for loads of fun and facts.

Temple of the Yoni celebrates everything womanly.

Dr. Gardos explains safe menstrual sex.

Read discussions about menstruation and sex.

Excerpted from Phillip Roth's new novel, The Dying Animal

Consuela told me, during one of my interrogations, that there was a boyfriend back in high school who used to want passionately to watch her menstruate. Whenever she started to menstruate, she was to call him, and he would come right over, and she would stand there, and he would watch the blood run down her thighs and onto the floor. "You did this for him?" I asked. "Yes." "And your family, what about your traditional family? You were fifteen years old, you couldn't stay out in the summertime after eight P.M., and yet you did this? Your grandmother a duchess," I said, "in love with her rosary, and yet you did this?" "I wasn't fifteen any longer. I was sixteen by then." "Sixteen. I see. That explains it. And how often did you do this?" "Whenever I had my period. Every month," she told me. "Who was the boy? I thought a boy couldn't even be in your room. Who was he? Who is he?"

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