Periods are meant to be painful. Sex will probably hurt the first (or fiftieth) time. Childbirth is agony. Large parts of women’s lives are interspersed with pain and discomfort.
From a young age, girls are taught to expect the messy, perhaps painful, inconvenience of periods, but not necessarily taught to differentiate between what is normal and what is a cause for concern. There is a very narrow notion of ‘period pain’ that does not encompass the various ways menstruation interacts with the body; from all your clothes being too tight due to bloat, to your entire body aching, to that odd, pulsating pain at the vulva when you’re standing up.
As a result, girls can become alienated from their bodies in strange ways; it took me almost a decade to make the connection between the sudden bloating and anxiety I was experiencing intermittently to my menstrual cycle.
That is an astonishingly long time, but when you are taught about periods in a clinical and detached way, as I and many of my female friends were, and your own experiences do not correlate, it can take some time to tune into your own body’s habits. It can take even longer when we are socialised into keeping quiet about our periods.
Vocalising pain is not permitted
Menstruation is still so taboo that vocalising discomfort, is not permitted, nor is it taken seriously enough by peers, society or even the medical community. And that is where it becomes dangerous: endometriosis, a condition where tissue that lines the womb starts to grow in other places, affects around 10% of women. Yet it has a shockingly delayed diagnosis rate of up to ten years, which can be intensely frustrating for the women dealing with the debilitating pain and potential infertility. That is just one example: women often must wait years before being diagnosed with premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or other non-period related conditions such as vulvodynia and vaginismus, all because of ‘pain bias’.
Pain bias is a phenomenon shown time and time again in studies that prove women’s pain is taken less seriously than men’s; women wait longer for emergency treatment, which in some cases prove life-threatening; and women are often given less effective pain medication.
The medical community has a global problem with acknowledging and respecting women’s pain or discomfort, recognised by the WHO as a health crisis, and a global societal problem with acknowledging and respecting women’s pain and discomfort, recognised by, well, any woman who has ever been dismissed by other people for complaining about her period.
Let’s talk about sex
Young girls are taught that sex can be painful the first time they do it. The media and popular culture take that to an extreme: sex should be painful the first time, when actually it is much more likely to be nerves and tension that cause discomfort, not the fact that it is the first time. But by signposting the expectation of pain the message is that it is normal and a required experience, and therefore, not worth fussing over. After all, the pain will go, and something will start to feel good eventually, right?
Studies indicate around 30% of women continue to experience pain during regular vaginal sex, but the majority do not tell their partners.
Why? According to writer and critic Lili Loofbourow, the main reason is because women associate good sex as being pain free, whereas men associate it with sexual satisfaction. If the standards for men and women are so different, women are more like to ignore their own pain, which has been normalised and depreciated to make it seem trivial, in pursuit of eventual pleasure. As they have been taught to do from a young age.
Discomfort as a routine experience
Women are socialised to ignore what their bodies tell them, and taught to endure discomfort as a routine experience. Further examples of this range from the trivial; high heels, tight dresses, hair removal, to the more insidious; feeling uncomfortable about speaking out when it comes to consent and sexual desire, or spending years enduring serious medical conditions that can permanently affect their health.
For a period of two years, I went in and out of the hospital with crippling abdominal pain that could never be explained.
Whenever the pain started I would feel dread, because I knew the routine: I’d show up at A&E, be sent home, and then be rushed in a few days later in an ambulance when I’d finally collapsed from the severity of it. And each time I was (gently) reprimanded by doctors for having waited so long, even when I explained to them that no one would believe that something was wrong until I was quite literally falling in and out of consciousness.
By socialising girls to accept their physical or mental discomfort as ‘normal’, they are being taught to ignore their own bodies and what they know to be true. And they are being told to keep silent, and power through. This is insane. It’s time to destigmatise topics such as menstruation and the female orgasm to allow women to comfortably talk about their experiences in public. Pleasure, rather than pain, should be the new normal.
Monika Radojevic is studying MSc Development Studies at SOAS University of London.