Received: January 6, 2018
Acceptance: June 5, 2019
Out for Blood: Essays on Menstruation and Resistance
Breanne Fahs, 2016 Albany: State University of New York Press, United States.
Breanne Fahs is Associate Professor of Gender and Women's Studies at Arizona State University and is on the board of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research. His academic production is copious, challenging, committed; it manages to disturb and at the same time move binaries and dichotomies. Interested in panic and social anxieties about sex, her proposal is to make women themselves testify about their orgasmic experiences, oral and anal sex, masturbation, use of sex toys, sex with "friends with benefits." Their findings point to more anguish, submission and conflict than post-feminist optimism highlights when it speaks of current female empowerment and women's sexual liberation. Fahs has also studied radical feminists such as Valerie Solanas and has proposed pedagogical strategies that involve students personally - and therefore politically - with the topics of their classes. A tour of her website can complete the portrait of this academic dedicated to studying the relationships between body, power, discipline and resistance.
Out of Blood is part of this fruitful trajectory and presents various points of contact with a previous work on body hair, a topic that connected with categories such as identity, beauty, power, gender, race, class, autonomy and agency. A woman with underarms and unshaven legs can be located in the same line as a woman with bloodstained pants, unruly bodies that certain speeches classify as abject. Out of blood brings together eleven essays that analyze the culture and politics of menstruation and connect them with identity politics (feminism, anti-racism, subjectivities queer), body awareness and knowledge, social inequities and the possibilities of transformation generated by activisms and solidarity that are woven based on the body. From an interdisciplinary approach that combines feminist theory, social sciences, psychotherapy discourses, cultural studies, trans, sexuality and gender studies, Fahs wonders in what ways ordinary bodily processes can have implications for social justice and the construction of new menstrual stories, individually and collectively.
In one of his courses at the University of Arizona, since 2010, Fahs has proposed an elective assignment that grants extra credit: students should stop removing hair from their armpits and legs, and boys should shave those same areas. Each student takes note of the social reactions generated by these practices –what couples, family members, friends, colleagues say– and their own feelings (Fahs and Delgado, 2011). In mid-2014 this pedagogical experience acquired a public character. Different media –Fox included– submitted the task, the teacher and the University that allowed it to scrutiny. Fahs faced not only criticism but all kinds of insults and death threats, prompting the police to investigate his emails and offer him protection. This situation is recounted at the beginning of the book and is what explains the second part of the title of the introduction: "On dragons and death threats: telling new menstrual stories." The first refers to a belief that exists in the Komodo Islands, Indonesia, where a class of reptiles of exceptional size known as "dragons" live: menstruating women are prohibited from entering the place because these fearsome dragons could confuse them with a dead animal and attack them. With these two references, the beginning of the book not only advances its content, but also makes it clear how provocative and dangerous menstruation can be and promote reflections on it.
As Fahs argues, although half of the population menstruate for long periods of their lives, little is known about the social meanings of these experiences, much less their political potential has been explored. The activism that the author presents is diverse in its objectives, tactics and styles: there are those who associate menstruation and anarchy, those who denounce the toxic substances contained in industrial towels and tampons, medicalization, the messages that sustain the taboo, shame and the idea that women's bodies are dirty. This activism is formal - organizations and networks like Blood Sisters, or when a petition or proposal is presented to achieve a regulation, as in the case of tax exemption demands on menstrual products - and also informal, for example when a woman makes art with her blood, when she shares stories of her menarche on social media or when you decide to have sex during your bleeding. Thus, the menstrual activism that Fahs presents offers multiple, diffuse, intuitive, tactical forms of resistance. References to Chris Bobel's (2010) work on menstrual activism are constant and full of appreciation and gratitude, an example of the solidarity and sisterhood fabric that both Fahs and Bobel propose.
The eleven essays in the book are divided into four sections. The first, "Theorizing cycles and spots," includes two. The first text introduces us to the social and personal implications of the theory of menstrual synchrony. Since the University of Chicago psychologist Martha McClintock in 1971 presented the results of her research on 135 women between the ages of 17 and 22 who synchronized their cycles by living together in a university dormitory, many women have assumed that it is a rule. Although Fahs describes the controversies that this study provoked in the scientific field, what she wonders is why this synchrony is an aspiration and a goal for many women. Investigating it, she finds that adhering to the idea of menstrual synchrony allows us to establish connections with other women, with nature, with the moon and with animality. In this way, it raises questions about the place of bodily experiences as a platform for political alignment, about the meanings that sharing a biological experience brings. The second essay takes up contributions from Julia Kristeva to think about the abject and problematizes the contrast that is established between the menstrual blood associated with the vital impulse and the menstrual stain associated with the decadent and death. Also following the approaches of Emily Martin (2001), Fahs refuses to consider menstruation as failed reproduction and proposes –as she will do in most essays– to think of it as a space of resistance and fight against sexism.
The second section, "Messages from the blogosphere," contains five short and provocative chapters derived from his work on the blog. Re: Cycling from the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research. In her experience as a teacher and therapist, Fahs has noticed that women often report loss of energy, mood swings, sadness, anger, lack of sexual desire, hunger and vulnerability during their periods, and they almost never mention positive aspects. In the third chapter he analyzes these opinions in the light of the conjunction between capitalism, patriarchy, work cultures and the pharmacological industry, and the denial of the natural cycles that they propose. His proposal is, instead, to recognize cycles, accept them and take advantage of what they tell us about life.
The fourth chapter unravels the history of the term "feminine hygiene", its passage from the field of birth control to that of menstruation, and the sexist exclusions that implies associating menstruation only with the feminine and a reading of those bodies as in need of hygiene and administration. Why not use “menstrual products” or detail what is offered: towels, cups, tampons, etc.? What does it mean that these products are generally in supermarkets next to diapers? These are some questions that this essay launches . Chapter 5 recounts the visit to the island of Komodo and the demand to declare to the officials whether or not she is menstruating. His feelings during that excursion and the conversations with other travelers from different parts of the world about these rules are presented in this text. Chapter 6 - "Menstruation According to Apple" - makes a critical analysis of menstrual applications for iPhone and iPad. For Fahs, her pink, “girlish” aesthetic (girlie), and their assumptions, for example, that what women want to know is when they ovulate to get pregnant, as well as their language - referring to sex as "intimacy" or "love connection" - do not challenge ideas that associate menstruation with shame, negativity, heteronormativity and fertility. On the contrary, these constructions block the potentials of these technologies that allow to better understand the rhythm of the body, recognize the differences between the periods, schedule activities according to it and not get pregnant. The seventh essay examines the way puberty narratives are presented in a museum dedicated to Native American cultures, the absence of the word menstruation, and the ideas of decency and obscenity that this deletion translates. The problems, ridicule and criticism faced by the Museum of Menstruation and Women's Health,1 that works only online at the moment, is another example that Fahs adds to confirm the discomfort that this topic generates.
The third part, "Blood on the couch", studies the intersection between menstruation and psychotherapy, based on the analysis of the sessions of some of the people who come to his office. Chapter 8 explores the stories of three women about their periods. Although most refer to them in negative terms, they recognize that by “justifying” certain behaviors –anger, crying, hunger– as inevitable manifestations of the cycle, they allow themselves to express emotions and behaviors that they generally repress. In that sense, inquiring about menstruation in therapy enables conversation about other connected topics, such as family conflicts, sexual taboos, etc. The following essay concerns the menstrual experiences of trans men. Unlike the growing production in the social sciences on trans bodies, psychotherapy continues to be anchored in the idea of gender dysphoria and the association of transsexuality with the pathological. The three stories presented here refer to the need to make visible what bleeding means in these cases, and to develop strategies that respond to the demand to “masculinize” menstrual periods, assuming menstruation in daily life in a positive way .
The last section, "Menarche and menstrual activism," contains two chapters. In the first, the author describes different actions carried out by her students to raise awareness about the taboo of menstruation, the lack of involvement of men, the toxic components of industrial products, and focuses on the reactions generated by this task in the school community. This chapter is especially motivating for those of us who carry out gender and sexuality studies courses, since it proposes research / action tasks, teaching about activism by making student activists. The problems these students faced in presenting the results of their work ended up directly teaching them the moral panic that certain topics generate, something similar to what happened with the task on body hair that I mentioned at the beginning. The latest essay analyzes menstrual art as a form of activism, also including the circulation of fanzines and the deployment of performances, listing artists and their productions.
The book is snappy, acid, and insightful. For the author, as for Bobel, menstrual activism can help transcend differences between feminisms and also undo gender binarisms. As he expresses towards the end, "we are ready to use our menstruating bodies as weapons, as tools, as markers of the absurd, as performative statements, as devices of savage and persistent optimism." A challenging bet and, as this text suggests, very powerful.
Bobel, Chris (2010). New Blood. Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of Mentruation. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
Fahs, Breanne and Denise A. Delgado (2011). "The Specter of Excess: Race, Class, and Gender in Women's Body Hair Narratives", in Chris Bobel and Samantha Kwan (ed.), Embodied Resistance. Challenging the Norms, Breaking the Rules. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.
Martin, Emily (2001). The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction. Boston: Beacon Press.