What my Christian fundamentalist upbringing taught me about periods

A few recent readings and experiences have brought some of the ideology I grew up with as a Christian fundamentalist back into my mind. Specifically, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about conservative Christian attitudes towards menstruation.

I spoke on a panel this summer and got a laugh when I explained, “Personhood laws define the fetus as a person from the ‘moment of conception’, whatever that means.” Folks have been pointing out for a while that “moment of conception” is a pretty unscientific concept – conception is a process, not something that happens in a magic instant where a new human being is created and simultaneously imbued with a soul. Then I read this amazing interview with Vyckie Garrison, who left the Quiverfull movement. I grew up in a different fundamentalist Christian tradition, but the amount of ideological overlap was intense. Then there’s the recent ramping up of the war on contraception, which Amanda Marcotte has done such a great job of highlighting. All this got my mind going about attitudes towards sexuality that are buried just below the surface of the anti-choice movement, and are being made more and more obvious these days.

I grew up with a mix of ignorance and shame about sexuality that was no accident. While most anti-choicers see their position as being about defending human life, anti-choice politics are based in willful ignorance about sex and a belief (often vehemently denied by those who hold it) that women shouldn’t have informed control over their own bodies.

In the Eastern Orthodox Christian church, which I was raised in, menstruation is considered unclean. Women on their periods are not allowed to partake of sacraments, especially Communion, or even touch holy items like the Bible or icons. This is not a universal practice – many churches no longer follow this rule, and many Orthodox Christians don’t even know about it (since I was raised as a boy in the church I didn’t know about this rule till my sister told me – we definitely learned different things based on gender) – but it hasn’t gone away entirely.Icon of the woman with an issue of blood

Orthodoxy is the most tradition-based form of Christianity – a lot of its rules haven’t changed in about 2,000 years. A lot of the rules and rituals seem very dated from outside, but there’s certainly links to practices and beliefs in other Christian traditions. No, you’re not going to see such explicit rules about periods in every fundamentalist church. But I’ve found, for example, that the Bible story of Jesus healing a woman with “an issue of blood” is incredibly popular among these folks, and often interpreted as being about the unclean-ness of periods.

Periods as “unclean” may have started with ideas about sanitary practices – a lot of religious traditions have rituals around menstruation that suggest similar links. But that’s definitely not what it’s about now – now menstruating paints a woman as unclean, both bodily and spiritually.

For men, the act that’s treated with the exact same rules is wet dreams – which of course only impact men, because only men have sex for pleasure. Night emissions (that term always makes me giggle) aren’t considered a sin because they’re on accident, whereas masturbating is a sin. The fact that the rules are the same for periods and wet dreams point to why both are considered unclean (in addition to making clear that they’re basically considered male and female versions of the same thing). Sexuality is unclean, a sign of the fall, and both are a waste of a potential life.

Yes, potential life. Because not only is it a person as soon as the egg and sperm meet, these two ingredients must be preserved because each could lead to life some day maybe. Every sperm, and egg, is sacred. Wasting either, through masturbation, a wet dream, or simply having your period, is a sign of our fallen state, our unclean-ness. Even though a woman’s period is also a sign of her one real purpose: to make babies. So women are baby-making factories, that’s what God made them for, but their ability to fulfill this purpose makes them unclean. So women are inherently unclean, or a failure at being women.

If this isn’t making much sense, then we’re on the same page. To be punished, excluded from religious ritual, because of something you can’t control, and even though the church wants you making babies. It makes women’s sexuality and reproduction inherently unclean at the same time that this is considered a big part of their purpose in life. And there’s the attitude we keep coming up against everywhere – women are dirty whores who should just be making babies.

No, your average Christian doesn’t think this way. Many many Orthodox Christians don’t hold this worldview either (not every Orthodox church is fundamentalist, though the one I grew up in certainly was). But a lot of the more fundamentalist folks do. People I grew up with certainly do, and its this kind of belief about religion and reproductive health that I hear backing up so much anti-choice rhetoric.

There’s an overwhelming fear and willful ignorance about sexuality on display here. Folks so uncomfortable with sex and reproduction they want to put it away in a place for dirty, unseen and unsee-able things. This is the sort of belief system that leads to support for abstinence-only programs, to deliberately keeping  young people uninformed about their own bodies. Better gender stereotypes that keep everyone feeling ashamed and uncomfortable than actual health information.

No, I’m not expecting the anti-choicers to join birth control manufacturers in an anti-period campaign. But it’s worthwhile to acknowledge just how far their willful ignorance, negative view of women’s reproductive capacity, and deep, moralistic fear of sexuality can go.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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