Why sex education needs to do better and teach all students about periods
Sex education has missed out on teaching all students about periods, which can leave women embarrassed and scared, and continues to stigmatise periods.
We have previously written about period poverty and the barriers it can pose to those who menstruate. A related issue is the lack of education students receive on periods in school, which contributes to the stigma around periods, creates shame, and generally makes women’s lives difficult.
Typically, the female students would be taken aside for a session or two on periods around the time they are 11 years old. This is often too late, since periods can start as early as 8, and as many as 27% of girls had not learnt about periods before it started for them. Before menstruation, children are taught that blood and pain mean you are hurt or that something is wrong. Not knowing why there is blood in their underwear can therefore make the experience really scary, and they might start to think something is seriously wrong. If they had instead been taught about periods early on and it had been normalised for them, they could have been spared that fear.
The session(s) are also not enough to cover everything. At least 1/4 women do not understand their menstrual cycle, and most would have liked to know more about what is normal and when you should see a doctor, and how periods can be affected by factors such as stress and diet. For all women, the lack of education and understanding means they do not know how to make adjustments based on their menstrual cycle if they would like to do so — since the menstrual cycle can affect many aspects of life, including energy levels, sex drive, and stress tolerance. It can also have more serious effects, when women do not know that the extreme cramps or excessive bleeding they are experiencing are cause for concern, and therefore conditions such as endometriosis go undiagnosed for years (though this is also a symptom of sexism in healthcare).
While the female students are being taught about periods, the male students will in the best cases be in a separate session receiving some form of sex education. In the worst cases, they will be sent to do sports or leave school early. As a result, about 72% of boys are never taught anything about periods. The separation reinforces the stigma around periods and the idea that periods are meant to be kept secret from men. This leads to girls and women feeling embarrassed, fearful of leaks, and afraid being seen using pads, tampons or other menstruation products — 82% of young adults feel like they need to stealthily conceal menstruation products. The shame affects women’s relationships with their bodies, their confidence, and many withdraw from sports and lessons when their periods start.
Men and boys receiving very little education on periods also leads to misconceptions, such as thinking that periods are disgusting, that women can control their bleeding, and even fundamental misunderstandings about what periods are. These misconceptions themselves makes it harder for women to discuss their periods openly, especially in professional settings. Further, men are more likely to hold negative attitudes in relation to menstruation, such as periods being debilitating and that women use PMS to avoid having to do things they do not want to do. Aside from contributing to stigma and preventing open conversations, it also places an enormous burden on women who have male partners to educate them on the realities of periods.
The problems with lack of knowledge about periods persist through women’s lives. Women often feel they have not learnt enough about how periods vary throughout life, such as with regards to birth control, childbirth, and perimenopause. Perimenopause and menopause are particularly rarely spoken about, leaving women unprepared for the symptoms and consequences they might face as they get older. These, contrary to what most expect, can include heavy bleeding in perimenopause. 1/5 British women experience heavy bleeding during this period, but this bleeding often comes as a shock to women — and the bleeding can be so heavy that women step back from hard-earned careers. They also often lack knowledge about the treatments available, such as HRT, the Mirena coil, endometrial ablation, and the drug tranexamic acid.
Improvements are being made; since September 2020, schools have been phasing in a new curriculum which includes teaching everyone about periods regularly throughout primary and secondary school. However, there is still much that needs to be done to combat the stigma around periods and the shame women are made to feel. And, at the end of the day, you cannot help but think that this would not be an issue if cis men had periods.
At JAN Trust, we fight for the right of women and girls from marginalised communities to reach their full potential. We empower and educate individuals from BAME and marginalised communities to provide them with the skills and knowledge they need to thrive. To fully be able to do so, women need to understand their bodies and not be made to feel ashamed of them.