the menstrual cycle and the dodo

So I’m supervising a student who is doing a questionnaire study on the relationship between body shame – specifically genital shame – and preventive health behaviors like Pap smears and condom use. (If you’re college age and born female you can participate in the survey if you like.)

One of the question is “When was the first day of your last period? (i.e., on what day did your last period start?)” It’s an open ended question, not a calendar or anything fancy. And one respondant answered:

wednesday? i don’t remember? why is this relevant?

Which made me laugh out loud, but it also reminded me of something folks don’t talk about enough, and that’s the role of the menstrual cycle in research on women.

I think many of the problematic or confusing research results would be at least partially clarified if the researchers had taken the time to ask about menstrual phase. At any rate, it would increase the power of our observations.

It’s like the dodo, and the people who ate it. Some people described it as greasy, some people described it as tough. Why? Because some people ate it in winter and others ate it in summer, and the dodo had a seasonal body fat cycle. In order to describe what the dodo tasted like, you had to have a picture of how it changed across the seasons.

Example with women. One of the things I talk about pretty regularly is the lack of correlation between what a vagina is doing and how the person with that vagina feels. Whereas a penis’s degree of erection is a very, very good (not perfect, but very, very good) predictor of EXPERIENCE of arousal, vaginal lubrication and vasodilation just are not. But. Some studies – and by some, I mean not all – have found that while subjective reports of arousal don’t change across the menstrual cycle, physiological arousal DOES.

Random other things change too. Like attractiveness ratings for faces, preferences in body smells, and attitudes like body dissatisfaction – women report greater body dissatisfaction around menstruation, which may just be a function of mood, but I’m studying body shame and health behavior, so knowing that participants’ attitudes might be shaped by menstrual phase is important.

All that said, let me acknowledge that one of the remarkable and powerful things about women’s sexuality is the extent to which it is emancipated from hormones. Women will both consent to and initiate sex at all phases of the menstrual cycle, after menopause, and even when they’re pregnant or breastfeeding, which makes us VERY strange mammals indeed.

And the literature on something like sexual interest across the menstrual cycle is far from definitive: while on the one hand there seems to be a small peak in many women’s sexual activity around ovulation, there’s a much more pronounced peak around the weekend. Context is a crucial component in understanding women’s bodies.

So it’s a subtle thing I’m trying to pay attention to. But when you study an oscillating system – and a woman is, among a great many other things, an oscillating system – you have to measure it all points in its cycle in order to say what it’s like.