Sometimes the most basic piece of information is also the most helpful, and so, as we begin what I should warn you up front will be a long, intense treatise on this topic, let me tell you this: No two women's periods are alike. Our periods are as unique as we are, which, of course, makes understanding them even more complicated than it already is.
With that said, there are enough commonalities that we can address some of the major themes here today, answer some questions men often have about the monthly bill, and attempt to dispel some mysteries. Because there's so much to cover, this post is broken up into thematic sections that will hopefully allow you to skip around to the topics you're most interested in, in the event that reading 3,000 words on periods straight through is more than you're up for. (That is fair.) Still, though, there will be fine points that aren't made and questions that remain unanswered.
I will lie awake at night fretting over these wayward fine points and unanswered questions. But that's what Kinja is for!
Because we have so much to go through here, we'll stick with a super-basic middle-school-health-class version of the what and why of a period: Each month, to prepare for the possibility of pregnancy, a woman's uterus develops a lining intended to nourish and protect a fetus. If no pregnancy occurs during the cycle, that lining is shed; the shedding of that lining, which consists of blood and assorted other secretions, is what's known as getting your period.
Menarche, which is a pretty freaking great term that describes the advent of a girl's first period, usually occurs at age 12 or 13. Some girls are early bloomers (ages 9-11), and others are late bloomers (ages 14-16). That's also fine and normal. Menopause, the cessation of menstrual periods, happens to most women between the age of 45 and 55.
I considered making some sort of tortured "men are key; men? Oh, pause" joke here, and then thought better of it.
Cramps absolutely fucking blow, the end.
Maybe that's not really fair. I mean, it's fair in that they do absolutely fucking blow, but I can do better than leaving it at that and walking away. Here's the thing about cramps: They really hurt. But there are also, like, levels of cramps.
Some women are cursed with cripplingly bad cramps, and are compelled to treat the pain with any number of remedies, heat and painkillers being the most common—say, a heating pad or a hot-water bottle applied directly to the stomach, and/or over-the-counter or prescription medication.
That last one … look, if you know someone who has to resort to prescription painkillers to deal with cramps, be aware that she's got it bad. There's not much you can do other than to help her get as comfortable as possible, if doing so is appropriate—that might mean reheating her hot-water bottle, or making note of the time at which she took the pain medication so you can give her a heads-up about 30 minutes before her next dose is due. (That's Pain Management 101: Stay ahead of the pain, and never let it get ahead of you.) Helping out in this arena is one of those little things that goes a long, long way.
Oh! Maybe this is worth saying as well: It's understandable for you to dismiss the pain of cramps because it's a feeling you've never experienced. "How bad could it be?" is a pretty common attitude, I think, and I'm not here to bash you for that, but rather just to say that it could, indeed, be pretty bad. For some women, that is mercifully not true! I'm one of the lucky ones, in that I'm blessed with relatively mild cramps (I suffer in other ways). But even the minor cramps I get push beyond just discomfort and into actual pain, and there are times when I've suffered wickedly. These things can vary dramatically from woman to woman—and also, for the same woman, from cycle to cycle. A good way to proceed is to believe it when a lady tells you she has cramps, and offer some sympathy accordingly.
The old cliché about women craving chocolate when they're sur la rag is, as most clichés are, based somewhat in reality. Some women absolutely do crave chocolate! Others crave salt. Some others crave greasy foodstuffs. Because menstruation causes a drop in a woman's iron levels, many of us crave red meat. Basically, a French bistro is the place to take a bleeding lady: Steak frites, a giant glass of red wine, and chocolate mousse, coming right up.
HOWEVER. Cravings may be common, and there may be some specific cravings that tend to be more common than others, but "common" does not equal "happens to every woman, every time," and also doesn't equal "woman with said common craving will absolutely indulge that craving every time." Currently, for example, I'm drinking a cup of tea and having a Wasa cracker with La Vache Qui Rit, when what I would really like is to get wildly high (helps with the cramps) and faceplant into a sausage-mushroom-onion pizza (helps with the munchies).
You all are a smart lot and have probably already figured out what I'm getting at with this, but just in case: Keep the chocolate jokes to a minimum. Those types of jokes are old, and annoying, and kind of belittling, too. They are very likely to piss us the fuck off. Which brings us to …
The old cliché about women experiencing mood swings when they're sur la rag is, as most clichés are, based somewhat in reality as well.
HOWEVER. If I may, I'd like to suggest that it is a thing you should never actually acknowledge. We may acknowledge it, but you should not. (If that seems unfair, consider the fact that we have to endure this cramp-y, mood-ruining, bloody madness every 30 or so days, and you do not. Decent trade-off, right?!) Think of it like this: You know how it's okay for you to crack jokes and hurl insults about your own mother, but if someone else does it, it's totally not okay? Right. Our menstrually charged moods swings are just like yo momma. (There's a joke there, but I'm not going to make it, because I don't make jokes about other people's mommas. Or at least not in print.)
This suggestion comes from two places. The first is just ... maybe don't deliberately annoy someone who's in a bad mood? Just out of a sense of self-preservation? That's kind of just good life advice, I think. (I realize it's also not easy to apply, in that sometimes you don't realize a bad mood is lurking around, just waiting to get you.)
The second reason is this: You are probably aware of the school of thought that considers the hormonal experiences of menstruating women to be a thing that disqualifies us from doing things like occupying the office of the President of the United States. "What if she has her period and nukes Russia because she's in a bad mood?!" That type of stuff. The problem with that—or at least one of the problems with that, because, wow, are there ever a bunch of problems with that—is that it equates a mood swing to a total loss of ability to think and act rationally. And that is truly, I promise you, not what happens to us when we have our periods. No one is going to nuke Russia because it's her time of the month. She might snap angrily at Russia to put the fucking forks tines-side down in the dishwasher basket, but she's not going to commit genocide over it.
In the event that you've made it this far and are still like, "Yeah, so? That doesn't seem that bad," here is a litany of other symptoms women commonly experience during their menstrual cycles: sore and/or swollen breasts; weight gain, water retention, and bloating; increased sensitivity to alcohol; nausea; night sweats; breakouts; fatigue; the Aloha Shits.
Oh right, you'll want to know more about the Aloha Shits. Many women experience a bout of diarrhea at the beginning and end of their cycle. Hello and goodbye. Aloha!
Generally speaking, women menstruate for three to five days every 28 or so days. To put it in broad strokes, that's one week a month. You know that part already, though! But here are the nuances. Every woman's cycle is different: Some are like clockwork, and some are wildly unpredictable. Birth-control choices often have a lot to do with how our menstrual cycle occurs, and oftentimes that informs the choices we make in birth control. That's a whole other post for a whole other day, but to give one common example, the pill will regulate a woman's period almost to the time of day.
Some women don't get regular monthly periods. That happens for a variety of reasons, including birth-control choices (you may have heard women talk about only getting their period once a year—that's probably a birth-control thing), weight loss, illness, stress, and so on. Sometimes it's a bad thing, sometimes it's a good thing, sometimes it's a choice, sometimes it's not.
The menstrual flow is also not uniform. At the beginning of the cycle, the flow tends to be at its heaviest; a day or two in, it becomes less so, which is what's known as a "medium flow." Then, by the end of the cycle, the bleeding begins to taper off to what's called a "light flow." The choice of feminine product often has to do with what level of flow one experiences—if you take a gander at the feminine-hygiene section in your local pharmacy, you'll probably notice that many products indicate what type of flow they're best for.
To further complicate matters, some months are just heavier than others. To provide a personal example, my current cycle is such that once a quarter, I get a vicious period — symptoms that are usually mild for me (like fatigue and cramps) are real bad, and I have a crazy heavy flow. But! It only lasts for three days, unlike the milder version that usually sticks around for four or five days. (I hope it's not weird that I'm sharing that with you.)
One last term, and then we'll move on: spotting! Whee! Spotting can happen basically any time, and refers to the unexpected appearance of very small amounts, or spots, of blood. Sometimes spotting indicates that there's something wrong; sometimes it does not. You probably don't need to worry about understanding the difference, but it's good to know that there is a difference, so that if the alarming kind of spotting occurs to a woman in your life, you don't feel entirely in the dark about what's happening.
There are a bunch of products women use to manage their monthly(ish) output. For our purposes, we'll go through only the most common ones, because, wow, there is a lot to say about periods, eh? Are any of you still even with me? Stick around; at the end, we're gonna have some fun, I promise.
Tampons: A tampon is a compressed mass of an absorbent material, usually rayon and/or cotton, with a string for removal at the base, that is inserted into the vagina. There are two primary styles: tampons that come with an applicator (made of either cardboard or plastic), or what's called a digital tampon, which doesn't come with an applicator and is meant to be inserted using one's fingers.
When I was outlining this piece, I asked my colleagues if they had any questions that my list of topics didn't address. "How do you get the tampons in there, and does it hurt?" was one. It's a really good question, too! Tampons with applicators are designed much like syringes, with a smaller tube, or plunger, inserted into a larger tube that holds the absorbent tampon, and has an opening at the tip. To use, the larger tube is inserted into the vagina, and the plunger is pressed up with the fingers, which, in turn, sends the tampon directly into the vagina.
Look, I made you this visual explainer.
So that's how you get it in there. (To get it out, as you know, you pull on the string). For the most part, no, it doesn't hurt at all. Some factors—like vaginal tightness, or dryness, or inexperience in using tampons—can lead to painful insertion, but no, it's usually not at all a painful thing.
Pads: Pads, or sanitary napkins, are absorbent pads worn outside of the body. Modern pads are fitted with a strip of stickum to secure the pad to the underwear and prevent it from shifting. Many styles also come with side panels, or wings, that are affixed to underwear leg-holes to prevent leakage and shifting. Pads are most commonly disposable, though reusable ones also exist as an option.
A quick aside about leakage: It can happen because a heavy flow overwhelms a tampon, or because a pad shifts, leaving an unprotected swath of underpants vulnerable to soiling. (Nighttime is particularly deadly.) In response, many women designate certain underwear for when they have their period.
Panty Liners: Panty liners are, essentially, just thinner, less absorbent pads. They're used for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways: in concert with tampons, to protect against leaks; on their own at the very tail end of the cycle, when menstrual blood-tinged discharge can occur; in the case of spotting; or to help prevent discharge from building up and/or staining underwear, which can happen at any time of the month. (Would you like to learn more about vaginal discharge than you thought possible? Please to step this way.)
Menstrual Cups: Menstrual cups, which come in both reusable and disposable styles, are inserted into the vagina and worn for 12 or so hours. The cup collects the menstrual blood, which is dumped after removal so that the empty cup can be reinserted. At the end of each period, the cup should be sterilized. (Oh, yes, I've written about that too. Of course I have.) If you hear ladies talking about their Diva Cups, that's what they mean. (The Diva is a reusable style.) I also want you to remember this one: Soft Cup. That's a disposable-style brand name, and it's the secret to having period sex that doesn't end with your bed looking like a crime scene. (See?! I told you there was going to be some fun at the end of this journey!)
Okay! So those are the basics around flow-control options. And you may be wondering about why we choose one product over the other. That is a fair thing to wonder! That comes down mostly to comfort, ease, availability, how heavy your flow is, activities, waste management, and cultural considerations.
For example, tampons with an applicator create more waste than ones without, and are also larger, which makes them less discrete to carry around than their digital counterparts. Within the applicator category, cardboard is more environmentally friendly than plastic, but a cardboard application can cause more discomfort during insertion. On the other hand, for a variety of reasons (many of which are cultural), some women prefer to use pads rather than vaginally inserted options like tampons or menstrual cups. Menstrual cups have their own advantages, in that they don't need to be changed as frequently as tampons and produce far less waste than some of the other options we've talked about.
Here's the thing about buying tampons as a dude—if you think of it in exactly the same way you think about buying toilet paper, the whole experience will be just fine. I mean, most people don't get embarrassed about sauntering up to a checkout counter with a roll of Charmin just because that roll of Charmin may evoke the thought that you poop. Same with tampons. No need to feel embarrassed, I promise. There are two things someone will think if they see you at the Duane Reade picking up a box of Tampax: a) "Look at that nice young man buying tampons for his sweetie, isn't that so good of him?!" and b) HA HA JUST KIDDING there's only one thing someone will think if they see you at the Duane Reade picking up a box of Tampax, and that is nothing. Seriously, no one is paying attention.
If you're still with me, you deserve a medal. Also, if you're still with me, you may have guessed that this post originally started out as a mess-free period-sex explainer that went haywire.
But here we finally are!
As you might imagine, I know the secret to mess-free period sex. Occupational hazard. I hinted at the secret upcolumn, but gosh, that was a long time ago, wasn't it? It really, really was. The secret to mess-free period sex is the use of Soft Cups.
Soft Cups fall into the menstrual-cup category and are specifically what you should use for period sex versus the Diva Cup. That's because the shape and material of the Diva Cup is more like to cause it to come into contact with the penis, which can result in a wicked "OUCH!" moment. (With that said, many women find the Diva Cup works just fine when it comes to period sex.)
Beyond the sharing of that secret, there are, of course, other ways in which people manage to have period sex without creating a giant mess of things. Some people swear by wee-wee pads, others use towels, others still invest in red sheet sets or special sex-mess blankets.
I started out by noting that no two women's periods are alike; that same sentiment can be applied to attitudes about period sex, which are as varied as our periods and personalities. Would you like to read some actual examples of those differing attitudes? The same, it's also fair to say, is true of men's attitudes about period sex. Some love it, some hate it, some are neutral about it, some are like, "Cool, it's sheep-fucking week!"
(I don't actually think any of you are fucking sheep while your lady friend has her period, I just figured that no one is still paying attention, and I could therefore throw some random junk in here for funsies. Thanks for sticking around.)
Jolie Kerr is the author of the book My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag … And Other Things You Can't Ask Martha (Plume); more of her cleaning-obsessed natterings can be found onTwitter, Kinja, and Tumblr.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.
Adequate Man is Deadspin's new self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.