Menstruation: Unclean! Unclean! (Well, Maybe Not)

Debbie says:

Steven Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, published in 1981, was a formative book for me. I’ve always thought of it as two books at once: first, it’s a book about the history of IQ studies and the false belief that Africans have smaller skulls (and thus, by inaccurate extension) less brain capacity than white people. Second, it’s a book about how scientists’ biases affect their results, even when they are working in complete good faith.

This story of the history of menotoxin, by Kate Clancy, is exactly the same kind of doubled account. She recounts the scientific history of the belief that menstruating women secrete toxic substances:

Dr. Bela Schick, a doctor in the 1920s, was a very popular doctor and received flowers from his patients all the time. One day he received one of his usual bouquets from a patient. The way the story goes, he asked one of his nurses to put the bouquet in some water. The nurse politely declined. Dr. Schick asked the nurse again, and again she refused to handle the flowers. When Dr. Schick questioned his nurse why she would not put the flowers in water, she explained that she had her period. When he asked why that mattered, she confessed that when she menstruated, she made flowers wilt at her touch.

So, rather than consider the possibility that the nurse was offended that her skills and expertise were being put to use to put someone else’s flowers in water, Dr. Schick decided to run a test. Gently place flowers in water on the one hand… and have a menstruating woman roughly handle another bunch in order to really get her dirty hands on them. The flowers that were not handled thrived, while the flowers that were handled by a menstruating woman wilted.

See how this goes? Schick doesn’t have to have been evil, or a woman-hater. He just has to have had a belief that affected his experimental design. The nurse doesn’t have to have been trying to get out of handling the flowers; she may well have believed that her skin wilted flowers when she menstruated. It’s so easy to observe what we’re told to expect.

After taking a little side trip to the vile De Secretis Mulierum, a 10th-century misogynist text which was popular for several centuries, Clancy jumps to the 1970s and relates some strange experiments, including “growing plants in venous blood from menstruating women to determine phytotoxicity; the sooner the plants died, the higher the quantity of menotoxin assumed in the sample.”

The people who studied the menotoxin really, really wanted to believe in it, to the point that they would ignore negative results and overstate the power of their anecdotes and case studies. The study of the menotoxin spans at least sixty years, maybe ninety depending on which references you consider legitimate, debated in Lancet letters to the editor, and published in several medical journals.

Next, “menotoxin” becomes something that all women between puberty and menopause carry. And then it becomes the cause of some diseases that women have.

“Dr. Schick and I discussed the possibility that the adult female diabetic out of control, the depressed adult female psychotic, and the adult female in the premenstrual phase secreted some common substance in their sweat.” [Reid 1974]

This, of course, is the same as the fat person’s answer in the doctor’s office: what would you tell a thin person with this condition? what would you tell a diabetic or depressed man?

Clancy finishes up with the best-accepted current thinking on menstruation:

Thankfully, the most accepted idea is that menstruation did not evolve at all, but is a byproduct of the evolution of terminal differentiation of endometrial cells (Finn 1996; Finn 1998). That is, endometrial cells must proliferate and then differentiate, and once they differentiate, they have an expiration date. Ovulation and endometrial receptivity are fairly tightly timed, to the point that the vast majority of implantations occur within a three-day window (Wilcox et al. 1999). So it’s not that menstruation expels dangerous menotoxins, but rather that menstruation happens because the endometrium needs to start over, and humans in particular have thick enough endometria that we can’t just resorb all that blood and tissue.

It’s time to dump the idea that menstruation is dirty. It’s blood and tissue that you ended up not using to feed a baby, and that’s all.

Interestingly enough, this is roughly what I was taught back in the 1960s; I’ve only come into glancing connection with menotoxin theories and I didn’t know until I read this how seriously they have been taken even during my lifetime.

Science is always going to be affected by preconceptions, assumptions, and expectations. A truly radical change we could make would be to err on the side of expecting human variation, preconceiving equality across a wide variety of ethnicities, genders, and abilities, and assuming that no group of people is inferior to another group.