Gender, Sex and Tech: Continuing the Conversation
Episode Two: Interview with Ana Brito and Lauren Friesen
Transcription by Jennifer Jill Fellows
Jennifer Jill Fellows: Okay everyone, I have a confession: I am a menstruator. I know that’s a really weird way to begin a podcast, right? But it might be worth thinking about why that’s so weird? Why is it so taboo to mention that my body has a monthly cycle? And how does this taboo about menstruation affect the technologies that people who menstruate use to manage their flow?
Jill: Hi everybody, Welcome to another episode of Gender, Sex and Tech: Continuing the Conversation. I’m your host, Jennifer Jill Fellows. And in order to answer some of these questions about menstrual tech and menstrual taboos, I’ve invited Ana Brito and Lauren Friesen to join me today.
Jill: Ana is an undergraduate student at Simon Fraser University who is currently studying sociology. Her work has appeared in The Other Press and in Canadian Dimensions. And it has also a research assistant for the IMPACTS collaboration to address sexual violence, and the project director for the Menstrual Research Group. Lauren is an undergraduate student at Concordia University, currently studying history and gender studies. Her work focuses on the intersections of race, class, and gender in a historical context.
Jill: Hi Ana and Lauren. Welcome to the podcast.
Ana Brito: Hi, Thank you for having us.
Lauren Friesen: Thank you.
Jill: Thank you for being here.
Jill: So, I want to begin by acknowledging that digital space is also physical space. So, as I record Gender Sex and Tech: Continuing the Conversation today, I’m mindful that I am on the unceded land of the Coast Salish people of the Qiqéyt Nation where I live, learn, play, and today I do my work. And Anna, I believe you are also on the unceded territory of the Coast Salish people. Is that correct?
Ana: Yeah, that’s correct.
Jill: Lauren, and where are you today?
Lauren: Thank you for asking. So I am in Montreal, also known as Tiohtiá:ke on the land of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation.
Jill: So, I want to start with a bit of a definition. Your chapter in Gender, Sex and Tech, focuses on menstruation and menstrual equity. So, can we begin there with a definition for our listeners of what menstrual equity is.?
Ana: So, for us, menstrual equity is the chance for every person, every person who menstruates to have access to whatever they use to manage their blood flow, that be pads or tampons, cups or whatever, and you name it. The idea behind this is that every person should have the dignity to manage their own blood flow the best way possible. So, some people may be able to purchase such products and some people might not be able to do so. So, for that people, we believe that they should have access to these products. So, we believe that they should be allowed, and they should be given these products if they can’t if they can’t have them.
Lauren: Yeah, I would just add on by saying it’s about having access to menstrual supplies, but also going further and proactively, making sure that there are systems in place that make sure that these things are easily and readily available. And then also, I believe, education as well. So, making sure that menstruators and non-menstruators alike both, you know, are educated on the subject and feel like they have access to the support and supplies that they need.
Jill: So can each of you tell me a little bit about how it was that you became interested in menstrual equity? So maybe we’ll start with Lauren.
Lauren: Yeah. So, I first got involved in the menstrual equity conversation by working with Dr. Lisa Smith, Dr. Selina Tribe as a student research assistant back in, I believe 2019 at um Douglas College. So, we were working as the Menstrual Research Group along with Ana. So, we had a team of students and professors and we were all conducting research about the accessibility period products on college campuses. From there I began doing some research, a revolving more in a historical context about period products and management. So yeah, just um having connection with Dr. Lisa Smith and getting involved from there, that’s how I started.
Jill: Okay. And Ana how about you?
Ana: So just to like Lauren said, we were working together as research assistants and I was also doing some research technologies on a social media. So, then Lisa told me that the Lauren was working on this historical aspect of menstruation, which was really cool. So, Lisa told me you could, you could do it, you could focus on technologies and apps and all that stuff. And I thought, “Oh, this is really cool.” So, we started talking with Lauren and she’s, she’s amazing. And I read her paper and I was like, Oh gosh, this is so cool, what a great chance to work with her. I was super thrilled. So this is how we got started in the subject.
Lauren: Ana, you’re making me blush. Ditto to you.
Jill: I think that’s lovely. I feel like humanities and social sciences and especially humanities, which history sometimes is included in, there isn’t as much focus on collaborative research. And it can be really, really fruitful. So, I think it’s very cool that you found each other and that you are able to kind of develop this project that looked at menstrual tech, both historically but also kind of how that leads up to or provides a context for the contemporary situation that we’re in. But if I can ask even more specifically, what drew you both into this idea of researching menstruation to begin with?
Ana: So, when, when Lisa told me to join the group, the menstrual research group. It was to me it was a great idea because I always felt that these taboo regarding administration was really stupid because we’re all born, because women, because women menstruate. So because if you menstruate then you have a healthy reproductive system to say right, so if you don’t menstruate, then you might be pregnant. And that’s why we are in the world. So, to me, it’s really stupid, that really silly that we have to go like silently asking for a tampon or things like that. And on top of that, then she told me that we’re going to research about accessibility to these supplies. So, to me it was great. It was studying something really interesting from the sociological point of view, but we will be also able to help people access these supplies. So, for me it was a great combination of theoretical knowledge, but also being able to help real people in real life
Jill: I love that. So it sounds like it was theoretical but also practical and contextual and grounded in not just doing the research, by using the research to make improvements.
Ana: Yeah. Exactly.
Jill: Cool. Lauren what about you?
Lauren: Yeah. So a lot of the same things as Ana I just kind of coming from wanting to know where all this shame, where all this taboo, well, the stigma comes from both and sociological context as well as historical. I had always wondered, I’m sure that at every point a menstruator has Googled like, “how did people deal with periods like 3 thousand years ago?” So, I had always thought about that. And then being in Lisa’s sociology class is also kind of prompted me to think about it from a more contemporary and intersectional point of view. Thinking about why we still have held onto these ideas were so, so long. So, yeah, it’s always just kind of in the back of your mind I feel like as a person who menstruates just wondering how we got here and how all of this happened, right? So I guess just like a general sense of curiosity about the subject. And then in terms of access, I also did volunteer for a while with the Downtown Eastside Women’s Center in Vancouver before I came here to Montreal. So seeing the lack of access for these people and seeing how it was just one of the things that we most desperately needed people to donate. And it’s not something that I think a lot of people think about or consider when they’re thinking about donating supplies to shelters, or centers like that. So just seen the lack of access as well as all the shame and stigma that we still hold on to and just wanting to know more, know how we got here.
Jill: Cool. So, one of the things both of you have said as a reason you got interested in research into menstrual equity, but it’s also something you note in your research itself, is that there has been and continues to be a longstanding stigma regarding menstruation. A stigma that seems, as Ana said, kind of unjustified.
Jill: And and curious, right? How did this happen?
Jill: So maybe I’ll start with Lauren with the background and history. Can you describe some of the historical ways this stigma has appeared? And then we’ll transition to the contemporary of how it’s maintained. So Lauren, what can you tell us?
Lauren: Yeah, well, you can come at the stigma from so many different sides. It manifests itself in pretty much every aspect of menstruating people’s lives. So historically speaking, periods, we’re definitely used as barriers to education. So, stopping, menstruating people from being able to enter post-secondary, and along with many other, obviously sexist reasons and misogyny, et cetera, et cetera. But used as an excuse that when a woman is menstruating, she, all of her brainpower goes down to her ovaries so she can’t think straight. So that has always been a very big part of the conversation. And also we see in so many historical documents and writings, both medical or non-medical belief about menstrual blood and the uterine tissue and how it’s seen as toxic as a dangerous substance, something to be feared. And there are a million wacky beliefs that people had about menstrual blood and what it could do. You know, you couldn’t cook if you’re on your period because you would tarnish the food somehow, you couldn’t have it be in contact with anything in your home because then it would be unclean and not safe to touch. There are so many really quite disturbing ways that we see that reflected in the historical research. And one of the biggest parts also is just the secrecy of it all. So, there are a lot of avenues that we can take to study menstruation in a historical context. But we’re also left without a lot of actual writings by women and for women because it’s just completely discouraged to talk about, let alone write about for those that had the ability to do such things. So, it’s supposed to be secret. It’s not supposed to be talked about out loud. It is dangerous. Of course, this is all the stigma. It’s dangerous and seen as something to be feared. So, I think all of that stigma still exists in different kind of manifestations contemporarily, but it’s definitely still underlying a lot of the ways we see people talk about menstruation and periods today,
Jill: Right. And when we think about contemporary context, we have to remember, it’s not like we’re super cut off from the history, right? The history still absolutely saturates and informs the contemporary. But one other thing he said, I just want to draw out that I think is really interesting is this idea that when we’re looking at, say, the historical record, we don’t have very much in terms of a written record of how menstruating people managed their menstruation. It isn’t something that we used writing technology in the past to preserve. Which means that as a historian studying menstruation, I expect you find a lot of gaps or you have to kind of go about figuring this stuff out in perhaps non-traditional ways because the written record wouldn’t necessarily provide the answers that you’re looking for. And I think that’s really interesting when we think about that as another legacy of the stigma is that there’s a lot that we don’t know or that we don’t know in the same ways we know stuff about other things that happened in history.
Lauren: Yes. Absolutely. There’s a lot of guesswork involved and inferring about how women were deal with this kind of stuff, or how they would talk about it and pass information intergenerationally and between themselves as well.
Jill: Cool. So Ana, can you pick up the thread a little bit and tell us some of the contemporary ways that this stigma manifests itself or whether things are changing. Is there, is there less of a stigma
Ana: I think yes, there’s a little bit less of a stigma. But I think it’s really normal even today to hear people saying, hey, like, what’s “Are in a bad mood? Are you having your period or what?” or something like that? Right? Is like, what like why would you infer that? That’s so mean, right. And if we still think nowadays, when I when I was a kid, when I first had my period on how old I was like 14 or 15. I remember that my sister told me that to keep track of my period, for example, I should draw just like a little flower on my agenda. So no one would realize what it was like. Only, only I would be the only one to decode that. So, I think we still have that. We still see that on ads. We still see that on products that they sell for managing all the blood flow or the cramps or the pain involved around menstruation. So, there are certain apps that if you see the icon, you wouldn’t ever know it’s for managing your menstruation. It will look like a flower or a pink, pink something. Even though it’s, it’s for managing your period, you to use it once a month or you can record like lots of other stuff, right? Like pain or ovulation or intercourse. But if you want to track just your menstruation, you would do that. It still doesn’t, it doesn’t have any, any clue to what is really tracking. And even the devices that they sell, you wouldn’t know. So still nowadays, we are taught on a, we are socialized to hide menstruation. I still have other women asking me for tampon sender just whispering “do you have a tampon?”
Ana: No one no one’s been asking me. . .
Jill: Every menstruator know that. “Do you have a tampon?”
Ana: Yeah. Yeah. Or a text. Like, “Hey, do you have a tampon I’m hiding in the bathroom.” Yeah. Like yeah, I bring you a tampon. But no one would ask me if there’s a boy or a man sitting next to me, like, “Hey I’m menstruating.” And even though like if you see it on a table and you say, “Oh, I’ve menstruating, it’s terrible.” It’s not okay. But if you say, “Oh, I have a headache,” that’s totally fine.
Ana: So certain things are allowed to be said out loud. But menstruation, I think it’s still not.
Jill: Yeah. And you’ve made the point also that even writing it down even today, you were taught not to write down, like, I don’t got day three of my cycle or whatever. Instead, you put a little flower in your calendar. So if someone breaks into your calendar. . .
Jill: They won’t know.
Lauren: Oh No.
Ana: No one will know. I don’t menstruate. No menstruate.
(laughing and cross talk)
Jill: I gotta be honest of all the things I’d be worried about if someone broke into my calendar, in terms of my privacy, I don’t feel that’s the thing. But I know exactly what you’re saying because I was taught very similar things as a young menstruating women right, about how to conceal this bodily function so that nobody knew what was happening.
Jill: And to not refer to it in spoken language, not refer to it written. And so I just wanted to see as a fun exploration, maybe have this stigma. How many euphemisms for menstruation could the three of us come up with?
Lauren: Oh my gosh, countless.
Jill: Maybe we can just shout them out as they occur to us.
Ana: Aunt Flow
Jill: Aunt Flow, yeah.
Lauren: On the rag.
Jill: Oh yeah. I remember that one. That time of the month. I think that’s a common one.
Lauren: Surfing the crimson wave.
Jill: Ah, I love that one.
Lauren: There’s so many, you know, historically people would say that they have their flowers, which I think is really interesting.
Jill: I used to have friends that would call it the Curse.
Lauren: Yeah. That’s common.
Ana: Yeah. Yeah. French as well, right? Isn’t it la malade?
Lauren: I think, yeah. Yeah.
Jill: I’m sure there are more. Listeners, tell us more. And ones in other languages that I wouldn’t know.
Ana: Yeah in Spanish there are plenty. I can think of plenty in Spanish.
Jill: Can you give us a couple in Spanish?
Ana: Oh yeah, for sure. So, in Spanish we have Andres, which is a male name. It’s Andre, but it rhymes with, Andres “Andres el que viene una vez al mes,” it means like, “Andrew, the one that comes once a month. So it rhymes. It’s very silly, but, “are you with Andres?” Yeah. You’re having your period.
Jill: So it’s another kind of pun like Aunt Flow.
Ana: Exactly, just like Aunt Flow. Exactly. And then we have “those days” we call it like those days “Are in those days?” “Yes. I’m in those days.” Then we have, oh, we call it “la campana suena,” like, like “when the bell rings,” “suena,” you ring the bell and it’s silly. Yeah. That’s what my grandmother would say like, “are you sonada,” it’s very silly. There are a lot of euphemsism we have, so no one will really tell that you’re having those days.
Jill: Right? Unless you’re in the know, unless that language means something to you.
Jill: So I think this is really interesting because we’ve talked now about a few different ways that language can play a role in upholding this stigma around menstruation.. Both in terms of what is allowed to be written down, but also in terms of the euphemisms or symbols that we use to point to menstruation without actually saying, I am menstruating. All right, So flowers and pink. And then all of these euphemisms that we’ve come up with. But I wonder if we can, do you think we can also use language to break this stigma? Have you seen any examples of that or do you think it’s possible?
Ana: The problem with, with the words and how we referred to menstruation is that it’s also highly linked to women. And we’re leaving out a lot of other people that also menstruate from the scene. So, if we if we refer to it as an exclusively issue that it happens to women, so it has to be dealt with by women, then we’re in trouble. It also, we leave out a lot of people that menstruate that there don’t, don’t identify as women. Right? So that’s, that’s, that’s a problem and that’s really interesting to me because how, how do the people manage their menstruation if they’re being left out completely off the scene.
Jill: Yeah, So it sounds like you’re thinking of perhaps trans men, non-binary menstruators. And it’s also true on the flip side that there are a number of women that don’t menstruate, either because they’re pregnant or they’re post-menopausal or for a variety of other reasons. So, in your chapter, you said and quoting from, from both of you, “Relegating all information about periods to a distinctly feminine sphere serves to make issues like period poverty seem like an issue that only affects women, and that should therefore be solved by them.” So can you elaborate on this a bit, and particularly on how the theory of intersectionality could help see the flaw in this kind of thinking?
Lauren: A really large part of our discussion in the chapter about how we feminized periods and everything to do with periods. So, from the packaging to the language, to the advertising, it all kind of enforces who is taught to care about menstruation and menstrual equity. So, like Ana said what this serves to do is really alienate anybody who does not identify as cisgender and female from the conversation. So, it’s completely leaving out the experiences of trans, non-binary and otherwise gender nonconforming people who menstruate. And of course, all these people are so important to any discussion that we’re having about menstrual equity. So, when we say that it’s so heavily gendered and we shouldn’t be doing this when we’re thinking about who is supposed to fix the problem, who’s supposed to talk about the problem? And relegating it’s just a female sphere is so limiting and also just factually incorrect and inaccurate. It’s not right at all. So, failing to use an intersectional lens in talking about all menstruators is really just cuts people out of the conversation and invalidates their experience completely. And yeah, it’s just not accurate.
Ana: Yeah, I think also these people might be completely left off because they are geographies of menstruation too. If you think about that in a male bathrooms, there’s probably no place to dispose your menstrual supply. They used menstrual supplies. And if you just have to go to the pharmacy and like, where do they sell? What’s the aisle that has all the tampons and is highly feminized.
Ana: So there’s a big indication to who is buying. This is really targeted towards, towards women and female identifying people and that’s that’s not accurate as Lauren said, it’s leaving out of, it’s alienating a lot of people. And that’s really unfair because it’s not the way supposed to be. We should be as we started talking, it should be, it should, we’re focused on equity. So, everyone should have a positive experience when they’re having their period, right?
Jill: So we’ve talked about equity in terms of affordability and access and that metric, but there’s also equity in terms of access, that doesn’t necessarily come down to affordability. But things like, can you access the spaces where the menstrual supplies are disbursed from or access the spaces where you go to deposit used menstrual supplies, right?
Jill: So for those of our listeners who may not know this, if you’ve never been in a woman’s public washroom, they usually have dispensers that are separate from the garbage cans where you are supposed to dispose of used tampons and used pads. Those usually are in the stalls if you’re looking at a multi-stall bathroom and there are not always, but quite often, menstrual supply dispensers on the walls where you can put in, I don’t know how much it costs, too much, like a dollar or something. And you turn a little bar and you get a pad or a tampon if you need one. So, there’s places to purchase menstrual supplies, and places to dispose of menstrual supplies. And those typically are not in men’s public questions and often aren’t in gender neutral public questions. These are, specifically in female identified spaces. Likewise, Ana, you talked about where you buy menstrual supplies like in the grocery store or a pharmacy. And it’s usually in an aisle marked feminine hygiene. This, this is for feminine people, right? This is that’s who needs this, is the way it’s branded. And also the issue with hygiene. I don’t know if we want to go there.
Jill: We already talked about menstrual blood is being viewed as unclean. And I feel like feminine hygiene kind of is another linguistic way of touching on that. You’ll need this stuff to be clean.
Lauren: Yeah. Absolutely.
Jill: Yeah. So that’s yeah, that’s great. So, we can see how this is continuously marked as being something that is feminine and affects women. And that should be solved by women, which as you’ve said, leaves a lot of people out and really narrows our conversations when it comes to menstrual equity.
Jill: So, one of the main claims you make in this paper is that menstrual supplies, things like pads or tampons, cups, apps, I don’t know if those are supplies, I’m going to call them supplies, these things that we use to manage ministration should more properly be viewed as technology. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Lauren: Yes, so that’s a huge component of our paper. We do argue that menstrual supplies and I would group and apps and other kind of digital things that we use to manage periods in with that, we argue that these supplies should be considered a form of technology because simply just looking at the historical beginnings of menstrual products, you can see the extent of change and development by people who are using these products, using them in different ways and also, you know, inventors like creating these things, patenting them. Yeah, so we can see this shift in their usefulness and their safety and how they’ve changed over time. And menstrual supplies are something that we use in order to aid in bodily function to make our lives easier and better. And, by that definition, I would absolutely consider them a form of technology. You know, we kind of mentioned in our paper that, you know, there are other kind of health technologies like hearing aids, we would consider technology used to a and something that your body does. And so, in that vein, I would say that menstrual supplies are definitely a form of tech. And then also go into how, once we acknowledge that menstrual supplies are a technology, then we can start talking about how there isn’t equal access to this technology and it’s an issue of equity. And who can use these things, who even knows that they exist and where to find them and everything like that.
Jill: Yeah, I really love that. And I think that a lot of listeners might accept that the apps and other digital tools are a form of technology because I think we’re currently living in a climate where we accept a lot of digital tools as a form of technology. But we might not have thought of the physical supplies, things like pads or tampons, cups, or maybe even things like heating pads used to ease cramps or things like that as technology. But just because it’s not digital doesn’t mean it’s not tech. And as you say, there’s, there’s been an evolution, right? In terms of the way in which these supplies work, the materials that they’re constructed out of, all that kind of stuff. So, I think that’s a really interesting claim.
Ana: Yeah, so, what I was thinking is, for example, glasses, glasses have been, for a long, long time with us. And we might not think about them as technology because we’re so used to them. So, we’re used to having them . . .
Ana: But all the process, just like Lauren said, is someone behind it thinking how to make our lives easier, leave our lives better. So it’s just, just, just like glasses. You know, just a way to help manage something that happens every month.
Jill: Yeah. And just like glasses, I think there’s a way in which it’s a tool that we use that kind of augments or alters our embodied experience. And I do think that a lot of menstrual supplies have the ability to do that. I mean, different menstruators have their different go-to favorite supply that works with their body, whether it’s pads or tampons or cups or what have you. Different choices that people make in terms of their different bodily needs, their different activities, all that kind of stuff. And I think that you’re right, that it is very similar to glasses. So, our listeners can’t see this but Ana and I are both wearing glasses. And I think glasses have become really ubiquitous. But if you think about the history of glasses, like this was a huge technological innovation when it happens, glasses were very expensive. Only privileged people would own, probably one pair. I have three pairs now and I don’t even need to wear them all the time. I only wear them to look at computer screens.
Ana: And they were really thick glasses were read. And now their thinner and they’re lighter and there like blue light.
Jill: Yeah, anti-reflective and all that stuff. So with that history of glasses in mind, can we get a bit of a history of menstrual tech? Like, do we know what kind of technology In the Middle Ages say to manage flow?
Lauren: Yeah, so that’s a really good question and the really unsatisfying answer is we don’t really know completely. As for, you know, a lot of the things that specifically pertaining to women throughout history, we just don’t know. We just don’t have that information. It hasn’t been recorded or been recorded from the point of view of people who do not share the experience of being a woman and being socialized that way. So, um going off of that, there are some things we do know about menstrual supplies or what we can infer people would do. The first thing that I would mention is that in the Middle Ages, it was obviously a very different time for women. So, they would spend much greater portion of their lives, either pregnant or breastfeeding. So, the actual amount of cycles that you would have or periods that you would have would be reduced a lot. And also, in terms of malnutrition and just not having as healthy a reproductive system, women would probably have more infrequent periods. They wouldn’t be regular just because their bodies didn’t have as much body fat. So, there’s that to think about. But then you also know that for most of history, it is kind of agreed upon by historians that natural materials would have been used so more recently it would be spare cloth. So that’s actually where we say “on the rag,”
Lauren: That’s where it comes from. So women would use rags the end either depending on your level of income and privilege and stuff like that, you would either scrubbed them clean each month, painstakingly clean these things and or purchase new fabric or rags or anything like that. And then women also, we believe that they might have used sphagnum moss as well, which is a particularly absorbent kind of moss. Either they were the kind of stuff it into cloth to kind of make like a makeshift pad or just put it between the legs and want it to treat blood flow. And, you know, depending on your circumstances, you might simply just not leave your bed during your period. So just stay home, stay bedridden. Not really allow anyone to see you or at least see the blood. So, you would just free bleed within your own home and space. So yeah, a lot of like natural materials, a lot of just free bleeding and petticoats were also read very popularly. So, I don’t know what we can infer from that. That might help a little bit. And then getting more towards the mid 1800s is where we really start to see like actual contraptions and patents. So there’s sanitary aprons that are made of rubber that could be kind of worn in place like a little guard so you wouldn’t get any blood on your outside clothing?
Jill: Oh, okay.
Lauren: Yeah. But most women would have just used rags and bits of sponges, spare cloth, everything like that. And then just wash it monthly. And then we can see this far into the 20th century as well, depending on your circumstance, rags were also a major thing that would be used.
Jill: Okay. So it sounds like kind of the evolution of menstrual tack really starts taking off, maybe the late 18th century, 19th century, we start seeing, as you said, these, these kind of rubber guards that you would wear to protect your clothes. And then we start seeing more deliberate contraptions rather than just using rags. Though there are a number of people still using, rags?
Jill: So as we move into kind of the early 20th century, when do we start seeing the kind of technology that’s perhaps closer to what we’re familiar with today?
Lauren: Yeah, so, mostly towards like the 1920s and 30s, we see a really huge in period tech. So, one of the materials that would be used would be cellucotton. Cellucotton was actually used in World War 1 to absorb blood from battle wounds and it’s particularly absorbent. So, it then found use as the first menstrual pad, which was by Kotex and I believe 1920. But still, you know, when we have these kinds of pads, not everyone has access, right? So, there’s still just a lot of reusing fabric. And then after the 1920s, it’s actually really interesting in my research. I didn’t realize how early the menstrual cup was patented. It was actually patented in the 1930s. Quite early on. Yeah, personally, I thought it before, you know, doing all this research, I thought it was much more about recent invention, but. . .
Jill: I would have guessed it was like a 21st century phenomenon.
Lauren: Right? Yeah, absolutely. But it was patented almost a 100 years ago now, and it’s just interesting to think about the reasons maybe why it wouldn’t have taken off. I’m sure, you know, pricing and stuff like that, but also just an aversion to actually touching the vagina and really getting up in there and being comfortable with your body and everything like that. So that would definitely affect that.
Jill: And with the blood again too, I’d guess.
Jill: This with you in much closer contact with the blood and it’s not a disposable item the way many of the other things that were being made in the early 20th century would have been. And there’s this kind of linkages, linkage between disposability and hygiene again.
Jill: We can definitely go down like an environmental rabbit hole.
Lauren: Yeah. And I mean, there’s so many different ways you can look at. Also like them, moralization of good hygiene and how in the 18 hundreds and 19 hundreds, how having being cleanliness, so linked with like good moral character. And so that’s when we see the development of more disposable products and yeah, and same with tampons or would be developed by Tampax, like closer to the 1930 years and afterwards.
Jill: I also find it really interesting to think about this as an evolution of technology. So here we are in the 21st century. Ana I, can you tell us what are some of the more interesting examples of menstrual technology that are, that are around today, maybe ones that we don’t know about what exists out there?
Ana: Oh, there are plenty of things. So, some of them that I found really interesting where the tampons infused with CBD oil.
Jill: Oh, my goodness.
Ana: That’s really cool because, I never tried those, but in theory they use your menstrual pain.
Ana: Also they absorb your blood. Also there. There’s lots of technology to managing not only blood but the pain itself.. So there’s little machines called Livia is really subtle. It’s small. It’s, it’s, it doesn’t make any noise. And you can plug that on your abs, lower abs in your, in your belly and it helps you ease cramps.
Jill: Oh, okay.
Ana: So that’s really cool. There’s also a menstrual cup that sends a little vibration when it’s full, you can wear that for 12 hours. So when it starts getting full, it vibrates a little bit.
Jill: So it takes the guesswork out of whether or not your cup is full, it just lets you know.
Ana: Exactly, exactly. So when it says when you need to go and change, it lets you know. And there are also lots of devices that collect, collect your information. How much you’re bleeding for, how many days you can input your pain, your level of pain. We don’t know what they do with the data that’s another story. But for sure your phone, whichever for whatever phone you have it, it’s equipped with some kind of technology that lets you track your menstrual cycle.
Jill: Right? And if it isn’t equipped, it can easily be equipped with this technology.
Ana: Yeah, exactly.
Jill: Okay. So I think that’s really interesting. Cups that vibrate wonderful little devices that you wear to manage your, your pain. I mean, there’s a lot now. I feel like it’s not just pads and tampons. That’s what I keep coming back to, but there’s a lot more that’s out there too. And even in terms of pads and tampons, it feels like there’s more variety there too, right? So you mentioned CBD oil infuse tampons. Also. I think cloth pads are making a real resurgence right now. Reusable pads. So yeah, it feels like oh, and we haven’t even talked about period underwear yet. So that’s that’s another one that I feel is relatively new. Perhaps I’m wrong and someone will let me know that. And I feel that that’s another kind of perhaps a call back to older technology. Again, this kind of reusable, washable, but now made new and comes in a variety of different styles and cuts of underwear as well. So, technology and fashion kind of together, which is interesting.
Jill: So we’ve established this idea of menstrual supplies, as tech. And we’ve talked a lot about menstrual tech, the history and the contemporary. But I want to bring back in this issue of stigma around menstruation. And I want to ask you both how you think the stigma around menstruation has affected social views of menstrual supplies like is this the reason we tend to call them perhaps products when we talk about them at all, rather than talking about this as tech and technology that’s developing and changing?
Lauren: Such a big part of that is marketability aspects. You know, having them as products, something to purchase and consume, definitely I think, affects the way that we see them. We see them as things that you have to buy for yourself in the store when you need them, rather than something that is absolutely essential to managing your own body and maintaining dignity and, and a million other things. So yeah, it’s, it’s, it definitely affects how we think about getting these products and how we are supposed to obtain them. And yeah, the stigma has affected the social views in a million different ways. How we see them as hygiene product, as we were talking about before, really implies that periods are something that are messy and that we have to clean up after and are dirty and essentially like not something that’s normal and like yeah, normal to have each month and, you know, I think it’s on average we spend, ten years of your life menstruating and total.
Jill: Like if we put all the weeks of menstruation together, it would be ten years?
Lauren: Yeah, exactly.
Jill: Oh my goodness!
Lauren: Yeah, when you think about that, It’s like this huge chunk of your life that is, you dedicate so much time to hiding it that it’s even happening now all in the first place. So, the stigma has million different effects on how we view the supplies.
Ana: Yes, and it’s viewed as something that we have to solve on our own. And, and usually women’s pain is like, doctors don’t take it seriously. Yeah. So if you have intense cramps or whatever, you’re probably nobody will believe you. And it’s something you have to solve on your own rights if you go to a doctor though, we just gave you probably ibuprofen or something like that. If you go to a doctor, maybe they will listen to you. But I remember going to a doctor and telling them like, “Hey, I’m really in pain” and he was like “ah, it’s not that terrible.” So, there are lots of products out there that make you believe that you can manage these so you can be cleaner and you can be better, you can be better at menstruating, like having no odor is no stains, no nothing at all. So, you can be the best. So, if you buy these products then you are the best. Which is something really odd because it indicates that some blood that menstruation blood is no good, some other blood is okay. Like if you watch a television show and they they there’s someone one wounded or a gunshot or whatever, and there’s a lot that’s totally fine.
Jill: Like I don’t have to hide that I’m using a Band-Aid.
Ana: Exactly. If your gums, gums are bleeding, that’s totally fine. But if you’re bleeding, from your vagina, then that’s dirty.
Jill: And that’s so weird. And I think something that both of you have said that I just want to highlight because I find it so important in this conversation is this idea that the stigma really drives discussion of menstruation underground where it doesn’t really happen or if it happens, it can’t happen and kind of a larger social forum. So, what we end up with is this idea that individuals have to solve these problems on their own. Because we can’t have these wider social conversations and talk about the social structures and social contexts that have led to massive menstrual tech, inequality and inequity because we’re not allowed to talk about it at all. And so, if we think about it as products, an individual purchase decisions, right? I’m going to buy, this is my brand or whatever, of tampon. Then we can have these wider conversations about hey, like, why is everything gendered feminine? Or, Hey, why are these so expensive? And why are places charging tax on this thing that is necessary for life for 10 years cumulatively of my life.
Jill: So, I think that’s really interesting in terms of really working against the kind of menstrual tech equity that I see you talking about the stigma really doesn’t help us here, does it?
Lauren: Absolutely not.
Jill: Okay. How does this stigma persists then? You’ve talked about advertising, like what, what’s your favorite menstrual add trope that illustrates this stigma?
Ana: There’s so many, I think just the whispering or the yeah, just like a signaling with your hands that you need a tampon or something not using words, real words referring to menstruation.
Jill: I think there are some ads for products where the word menstruation or period just never happens. Yeah. So if you didn’t know. . .
Ana: Or the blue liquid instead of when they want to show absorbency, instead of using like a red liquid. They just use a blue liquid. yeah. Just because we, menstrual blood is blue right?
Jill: Oh no. Mine isn’t.
Lauren: Oh no!
Jill: Yeah, yeah, the blue liquid. Does this still happen? This was really common in ads from when I was, when I was younger. That they would advertise a product is really discrete, right? Like the packaging doesn’t rustle or the product is so small you can slide it into tiny female jean pockets were nothing fits including not your phone, but this will fit which means you don’t have to take a bulky backpacker purse to the bathroom and no one will know that you are menstruating? Is that still a thing?
Lauren: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I mean, uh, we, we do mention this in the chapter, but there was this one. I believe it’s a Kotex commercial, but I could be mistaken, but it’s from 2005, so you know, a little bit dated now, but still not that long ago. Where there’s these students in a classroom and they’re covertly passing a tampon between each other, just kind of trying to hide it. And the teacher at the front of the class sees them doing it, thinks that it’s passing notes or something like that. So, he calls on the student to come to the front of the class and present it to everybody. And so she shows it to the teacher. And he mistakes it for like a snack, like a candy bar and says, “Well, I hope you have enough to share with everybody.”
Jill: Ba-dum bum!
Lauren: Yeah. So the whole joke is that, you know, it’s so discreet but you can’t even tell it’s a tampon. You can’t even tell what the product actually is and what it’s for. That’s how much we want to hide it and pretend that it’s not something that’s actually happening. So I would say that’s definitely a trope that is still present in so many commercials and packaging. And you still see, you know, the silent wrapper technology. You know, nobody even if you’re in, you know, like a ladies bathroom where It’s like everybody there and doing the same thing, but we don’t want each other to know that the period is happening. So silent wrappers, silent technology, everything like that is definitely still prevalent.
Jill: Yeah, Right? Even so the technology has coded as feminine. But even in feminine coded spaces, you still have to hide it from other female identified people. Like, it’s still not safe even once you’re in the feminine coded space.
Jill: So let’s try and be more positive now. Can, can you tell me, do you see anywhere where the developments marketing branding is of a more feminist and inclusive, and intersectional and menstrual tech. Are there any technologies that stand out as inclusive or as trying to break the stigma or both those things?
Ana: Yeah. I, I, I think yes, I think that you mentioned that there’s a new brand Aisle, one of them. It’s Vancouver based and they developed nice briefs, shorts, panties, and many other types of underwear that they hold up to, I think three or four tampons. They are really good. So really good product and they’re targeted to whoever menstruates. It doesn’t matter how you identify. If you bleed, then this is for you. And I think that’s really cool because that’s what we actually need, right? It doesn’t matter how you identify. Like if you have to deal with your menstrual blood, then this is for you. And it’s also nice because you can, you can wash it and you can reuse it. And they look really nice, too.
Jill: Cool. What was the name of the company again, you said it was Vancouver- based.
Jill: Aisle, nice. Thanks. Any other examples that that either of you want to share?
Lauren: Yeah, I would just mention that there are a few brands like Aisle, but are really trying to make an effort to develop period supplies that are gender affirming. So the boxer briefs that I mentioned are definitely becoming more popular. So Aisle has them and I believe the brand Thinx also has a boxer brief version now of their period, underwear. And not only the actual, you know, cut and style of the products, but also the colors that they use in advertisements are moving away from the pink, and the flowers were a, you know, it’s getting really old. Using more gender-neutral language on the packaging itself. So, yeah, off the top of my head, like Asile is a really great brand. And Thinx. Also, Salt is another good brand, but uses a lot of gender neutral language and packaging. And the others lots coming up. Now I think Nixit is also another brand that is trying to move away from the really hyper feminization of period products and care. So there’s lots of good stuff happening.
Jill: You just kinda have to seek it out. Right? It’s not necessarily the mainstream stuff.
Lauren: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.
Jill: Maybe someday.
Lauren: Hopefully. Yeah.
Jill: You have drawn in the chapter a connection between menstrual tech and tech equity. Can you expand on this connection between menstrual tech and tech equity a bit more?
Lauren: Yeah. So as we talk about in the paper and as we’ve already mentioned, and now, you know, when we’re thinking of technology, we tend to first think about computers or phones. And these are, I mean, in the climate that we’re in right now, they definitely are tools to living what we might consider like a good life or a connected life in the 21st century. Where we have access to the services we need, there’s so many things that you really do need internet access and a computer for. And so we think about that in terms of equality tech equity, here we’re making sure everybody has access to these kinds of things. So once we involve menstrual supplies in that conversation, I think it’s really important to move past seeing menstrual supplies as yeah like, something that we individually purchase or buy, or need to seek out. It really puts the onus on the individual when really these are items that no matter who you are, where you live or anything like that, you need to have access to these things in order to have human equality among people. So involving menstrual supplies in the conversation about tech equity, I think just broadly kind of makes us move past what we think menstrual supplies are and what they’re for, and who should be purchasing them. So it becomes part of a larger conversation.
Ana: We were saying that, for example, if you think about a technology, might think of computers and that stuff. And that’s so not true. It’s also regarding body, bodily functions? Just like glasses or hearing aids or menstruation as well. So we think it’s really important to every menstruator to have access, to be able to have access not only to what they used to manage their blood flow, but to have the resources to do so, like clean water and many other, many other things like having a private place, like many work, there’s many workplaces, there’s no running water or no private to change your pad. So for us, it’s a matter of equity so every person can access what they were they need in order to menstruate with dignity.
Jill: So it sounds like the same way we want to try and make sure, for example, that people around the world have access to the internet, that people around the world have access to glasses, to hearing aids, to pacemakers, why aren’t we including menstrual supplies in this discussion?
Ana: Exactly. Because you need you need those in order to function. So in order to go to work, in order to go to study, in order to do whatever thing you’re doing in your daily life, you need to manage your blood. And some people are lucky enough to be able to go to the store and purchase whatever they want. Some people are not. So for that people, we also need to provide them with what they need. And I will also add managing their pain as well because some people have such intense pain that they’re not able to work or study or whatever they do. So I think that’s really important. And lots of girls and, and people who menstruate loose days of school because they, they just don’t have anything to manage their, their flow. So, I think it’s really important, almost a basic human thing to do to be able to manage the blood flow.
Jill: And then that takes the question from if its products, where again, we’re focused on the individual. If we start thinking about this as tech equity, we start thinking about all the social and structural forces that are working against it right now. So things like the cost, right? So economic forces, the accessibility is this only being supplied and female coded spaces. Also something that you both mentioned earlier that women’s pain is not taken as seriously. So there’s kind of the medical institution and the medicalization of women’s experiences. And that this also creates a stigma for many people who menstruate, who are experiencing pain and how to manage that pain. So instead of looking at it as individual preference and individual choice, we’ve now got these bigger social structural issues in play when we start thinking about this as a problem of tech equity. All those things I think start getting thrown into relief in which I think is really cool.
Ana: Yeah. Like we would never argue that public washrooms should have toilet paper.
Jill: Or shouldn’t, right? Everyone should bring their own.
Ana: Yeah. So if, if you, if you’re having your blood flow, then you should yet you don’t have a tampon or pad or whatever. You should be able to get one in order to yeah, to go on with your life.
Jill: Especially in these public spaces, right? Like, you’re out in public, you shouldn’t have to panic about that stuff.
Jill: So are there any final thoughts that you’d like to leave our listeners with, with regards to menstruation and or menstrual tech equity?
Lauren: I would just say to anyone listening to, just think about how you think about periods, and menstruation and examine and kind of belief that you might have already in place that you’ve never even really considered before because we’re not taught to think or talk or mention these things at any point in our lives. So once you actually start to think about menstruation, think about the stigma, think about the products, the advertising, everything like that. It becomes impossible to unsee it. You can’t go a day or a period, without thinking about “why am I going through this in this particular way?” and really kind of start to question. Yeah, got just the beliefs that we have about menstruation as a whole. Kind of examine what you’ve been taught and how you can change it.
Ana: Yeah, and to normalize periods like we all have periods we are alive because your mom at some point had a period.
Jill: So if we are here, you are connected to periods.
Ana: Exactly it in, no matter what you are, you are connected to periods. It happens everywhere, to every person that menstruates, right? So we, we shouldn’t be normalizing that and realizing that’s, that’s no shame on that. That’s a totally normal like if you have a bloodstain, it’s not the end of the world and it’s just a reflection of what, what happens. So I would say normalized periods.
Jill: This episode of Gender, Sex and Tech continued a conversation that began in Chapter 2 of the book, Gender, Sex and Tech!: An Intersectional Feminist Guide. The chapter is called “Flowing with tech: bringing an intersectional lens to menstruation technologies,” and it was written by Lauren Friesen and Ana Brito. I want to thank Lauren and Ana for joining me today for this really fascinating discussion. And I want to thank you listener, for joining me for another episode of Gender, Sex and Tech: Continuing the Conversation. If you want to continue this conversation further, please reach out on Twitter @tech_gender. Or you could consider creating your own essay or a podcast or video, or like any other media format to continue the conversation in your own voice. Music for this episode is provided by Epidemic Sound, and this podcast is created by me Jennifer Jill Fellows with support from Douglas College in New Westminster BC, and support from the Marc Sanders Foundation for Public Philosophy. Until next time everyone. Bye.