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.

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5 Comments

  1. Posted September 6, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    But if they even bothered to read what Jesus really said, they’d realize that he thought purity laws and obsession about cleanliness was totally missing the mark. All it did was add laws on top of laws that were human made, not God-made.

    I honestly think that God’s views are the most important, but they get obscured by people who are not really listening to God or to Jesus. As a Quaker, we’re told to listen closely to “that still small voice” of the Spirit, and to contemplate closely what we do, think, or say before we do it. The Spirit is supposed to be a check upon human malfeasance.

  2. Posted September 6, 2011 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me to be likely that these are based on Jewish practices, and partly on poor translations. The Jewish concepts of tahor (mistranslated as “clean”) and tamei (“unclean”) have nothing to do with sanitation or hygiene, but rather spiritual levels. English doesn’t have an exact equivalent concept. Life is a higher level than death, and woman who is fertile is at a higher spiritual level then when she is not. Menstruation is a change from readiness to conceive to a state when she is not, and therefore represents a lower of spirituality – and any such lowering renders her tamei. The same phenomenon occurs when she gives birth or miscarries, as they are transitions from actually carrying life to not. The transition is greater when giving birth to a girl than to a boy, since a girl baby will one day be capable of carrying children herself, making her spiritually higher than a boy.

    Wet dreams somewhat similar, since they represent the loss of an opportunity to create life. It’s obviously not quite as big a deal since a man generally has an abundant supply of sperm.

  3. Posted September 6, 2011 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing. There’s a reason why religion is losing its appeal in (most parts of) the US as science continues progressing.

  4. Posted September 7, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    Wow…Thanks for writing this Jos. I grew up Catholic (similar to the Eastern Orthodox Church so much that we were told to go attend that church or an Orthodox Jewish Synagogue if there weren’t any Catholic churches in the area)
    Also my Mom told me that growing up she and her sisters weren’t told much about Biology, Sex, and Sexuality other than “If you do it before marriage, you’re a slut” and were freaked out at their periods. Thank God Mom told me what’ll go on in puberty when I was 9. Still I hear from a few older cousins that kind of crap went on when they were younger. And all this doesn’t fix the fact I’m a prude……..

  5. Posted September 11, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    These attitudes are of course very old, and in some way derive, as FuzzyFace noted, from older Jewish customs. But the more progressive Jewish sects no longer follow those customs, and moderately progressive Christian groups do not follow them either. It would make me very happy if folks like Andrew would not lump all forms of “religion” together, as, it seemed clear to me, Jos certainly wasn’t.

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