By: Olav Westphalen
Here’s the scenario: I am on my way to some release party with DJ-battle at Taverna Brillo. It’s the night before the Swedish national elections and I get into a heated argument with a group of young nationalists waving flags on Stureplan. I shout something along the – admittedly idiotic – lines of: “I am a fucking immigrant and I pay more taxes than you!” And I go on: “Why are you so scared of immigrants? Because they have bigger dicks than you? Because they get to fuck your mothers and you don’t?” I am a bit surprised that they don’t just beat me up. I credit that, both, to the police watching us from a distance and, maybe more importantly, to the fact that I look like a Type-A Aryan myself. There’s something in the heart of young fascists that makes it hard for them to pummel the face of someone who looks like the father they always wanted to have, I guess.
Once I run out of insults, I end up having sort of a conversation with the kid who seems to be the brains of the operation. Not nuclear scientist type brains, but more than you need to wave a flag and not fall over backwards, which is what the rest of the crew is fully occupied with. (Here’s a really basic problem I have with fascism and militarism: It requires a number of rather intelligent individuals to spend most of their time with a lot of really stupid people. Who has the patience? Fascists, I guess). Anyhow, Brainy Nazi asks me with disgust in his voice how I can possibly deny that there is a Swedish Culture worth defending. I tell him that I have no idea what a culture is, and how come everybody else seems to know so much more about it? I also say that I find it impossible to determine what is properly Swedish about Swedish culture. Where do you draw the line between Swedish culture and German culture, Samie culture, Finnish culture, Russian culture, American culture, Greek culture, Turkish culture, Kurdish culture, Ethiopian culture and many others? It’s all gradients of overlapping, interlaced cultural expressions. I mean, what’s really Swedish? Matjessill? Talk to the Poles, the Dutch, the Russians, the Ashkenazi Jews, because they all think it’s theirs. It seems to me that those types of demarcations are always arbitrary and most often faith-based.
As I enter the bar at Taverna Brillo, where they usually hold their performances and art events, I am still quite worked up over the ruckus outside. Behind the DJ-set, the artist Klas Eriksson is jumping up and down like a panda bear on speed. It’s the Release Party for his fanzine. Klas is playing his usual mix of Britpop, eighties electro and soccer chants. There’s humor at play here, but it still makes for a pretty testosterony atmosphere and I am not up for it right now. I am not really up for anything. I kind of slink away to some dark corner having “the thought”. You know, the thought scientifically proven to be the thought most frequently thought at art events around the world? It goes like this: “What the fuck am I doing here?”
A friend introduces me to Macarena Dusant, an art historian, who tells me about this magazine, the one you are holding in your hand. Although at the time there is no magazine yet. She is going to be the guest editor for the upcoming issue. And she wants to produce an entire issue on menstruation. I haven’t met her before. She hasn’t read anything I have written. Hell, I am not even a writer. And yet, after a couple of minutes, she suggests that I contribute a text. Somehow I get the feeling that I’m not the first man she has asked. I am right. She’s happy to confirm that she has asked many and that so far only Andreas Gedin has agreed to contribute a text. (Andreas holds one of the first PhDs ever awarded in artistic research. Maybe that makes him fearless.) But the guest editor is still in a tight spot, because gender balance cuts both ways and for some reason gender balance seems to be a concern here. It’s not my concern. I mean, how many magazines, anthologies, encyclopedias have there been without a single word written by a woman? So, why not an issue of Hjärnstorm without men? But instead of just telling her that I have nothing relevant to say about menstruation, as I bet the other male writers have done, I say: sure, why not?
The next day I tell my wife that I agreed to write about menstruation for very little money. She has to laugh out loud, and I don’t think about the money. I leave the house for a walk. On Nytorget I bump into a friend coming out of Urban Deli. She just bought some luxury chocolate bar for 60 Crowns and when she unwraps it, it has that white, crystalline deposit all over it. I don’t know what it’s called. It’s like psoriasis for chocolate. She is really upset. I tell her about my writing gig to make her feel better. I don’t mention the fee, but she still laughs out loud. She is kind of a big-deal linguist at one of the universities. She researches gender and language, gender performativity and such things. She seems surprised that there is a new magazine on menstruation coming out. She says, she thought that that was all pretty much worked through by now. Cool. I am going use that line on my daughters when they reach puberty: “Hey! What are you so upset about? That’s all been figured out decades ago.” Anyhow, before the linguist heads back into Urban Deli to give them a ticking off about her expired chocolate bar, she asks me for my thoughts about menstruation.
When I think about menstruation I think about a comfortably left-leaning couple at a party I went to recently in Midsommarkransen, who were making snarky comments about the fact that the liquids featured in commercials for tampons or sanitary pads are never red, but rather some sterile blue. Come on! Really? If you were the art director, would you use actual blood in your tampon commercial? No you wouldn’t. You’ve got merchandize to move and a job to lose. I don’t think blood sells, unless you’re advertising hamburgers or war. By and large people are squeamish when it comes to blood, perhaps especially squeamish when it comes to menstrual blood. Why would an adagency that’s selling people a product to maintain their phobic habits try to cure them at the same time? It’s their job to dig their fingernails into your weak spots and pry them open so they can shove products into them. If you don’t like that, you don’t like Capitalism. So, maybe start making snarky comments about that.
I think it’s amazing that the term “douche” (or “douche-bag”) has become such a broadly used pejorative for someone useless, boring, self-satisfied, usually a man. It doesn’t really carry an obvious, sexual connotation anymore and it is used by liberals, rather than by conservatives. John Stewart loves to say it on TV, because it doesn’t get bleeped. If the vaginal douche is used to sanitize and deodorize the vagina, I’ve got to wonder, could menstruation-suppressing drugs like “Seasonique” or “Librel” make equally good curse words? “Seasonique” might be better. It retains that phony tone of French refinement, which makes “douche” so ripe for ridicule. Try it! “Come on, don’t be such a Seasonique!”
The Swedish railway services used to provide very nice and sturdy plastic bags for sanitary pads in their on-board bathrooms. They were light blue in color with some white and darker blues in it. Across the front they showed a realistic depiction of a massive monster-wave, a big-wave surfer’s dream, just at the moment of cresting. Across that image of awesome force it had in white, rather elegant letters the word “Madame.” There’s something about the French language.
Is it just a coincidence that so many volcanoes have women’s names? Hekla, Katla, Etna, Mount St.Helens, Iztaccíhuatl or The Woman in White, Santa Ana, Santa Clara, Santa Isabel, and Kick’em Jenny (an actual volcano in the Caribbean). Or is it because a menstruating vulva looks like an upside down volcano? But then, if you think about it, nobody has ever seen an upside down volcano.
My sister is about a year older than myself and she got her period early, while I was a late bloomer (whatever “bloomer” is supposed to euphemize when you’re talking body hair, sweat glands and vocal register). For some years we inhabited opposite ends of the universe. She had become an alien being, two heads taller than me with bushy, black hair in new places and a mystifying need for bathroom privacy. I remember that I wasn’t repulsed by her body, or by the smell of it, which had changed as well, but that I found her own discomfort with her body extremely hard to take. It wasn’t that her exploding sexuality seemed shameful to me, but that her shame was painful to witness. And at that age, when projecting a minimum of confidence was a question of social survival, requiring constant vigilance and shifting alliances, my sister’s pubescent gloominess and physical awkwardness were something to stay the hell away from. As if it was something I could catch and which would wipe out my precarious social standing. In high school, dominated by the entitled offspring of successful lawyers, businessmen and tennis-playing doctors, small boys had to be ruthless not to be trampled on.
Love is red, and so is Communism. They have each been described as all-consuming floods, tearing down order, mores and laws. During the Weimar Republic one of the literary images most commonly mobilized by nationalist writers to characterize the international Communist movement was that of rising, red floodwaters (“die Roten Fluten”). The Red Flood would dissolve in a bloody soup all that was solid, manly, civilized. Later, during the war, the same metaphor was applied to the Soviet Union’s Red Army.
Klaus Theweleit devoted some 75 pages of his analysis of the culture of White Terror in pre-war Germany to documenting the collective literary construction of the image of the Red Flood. Through an impressive accumulation of historical sources he gives evidence of the systematic, rhetorical splicing of the notions of “woman”, “communism”, “fluids” (floods, streams, tidal waves) and “blood” (spilled in battle, birth and menstruation). When writers described the looming cataclysm of the Bolshevist revolution they also, implicitly, gave voice to their fear of an unfettered, female sexuality. In the right-wing imagination, the revolution was a violent, seductive woman. Theweleit elaborates the emotional amalgam of fear and attraction, disgust and desiring anticipation, proto-fascist writers displayed when they fantasized about the onslaught of the Red Flood. The powerful desire to disappear into that maelstrom of revolutionary upheaval (to unite with that murderous woman) was so laden with fear and shame that it required the construction of a formidable, male armor (i.e. military discipline, physical exercise, paramilitary corps etc.) as well as preemptive, murderous aggression against the threats of communism and female sexuality.
In 7th grade biology, we were told by a teacher, speaking to us through an empty toilet paper roll held in front of his mouth to better project his voice, that having pubic hair and underarm hair constituted an evolutionary advantage, because they trapped smells and pheromones which played an important role in attracting mating partners. For me this was difficult to hear, not acoustically difficult, he was good with the toilet paper roll, but emotionally, as I was still waiting for my pubic hair to come into its own. There is an entry in an old diary of mine from around that time which reads “some thicker black hairs, but mostly just thin blond.”
In contemporary, industrialized societies, shaved genitals are so prevalent that pubic lice are becoming an endangered species. If I were in 7th grade today, I would be psyched. I’d be parading my hairless Justin Bieber body around the locker room, pitying my more evolved classmates who would be covering their swarthy flesh in oversized towels, constantly waxing and epilating everywhere just to fit in.
But seriously, what does it mean that we are giving up the competitive edge of our pungent bushes and armpits? Are we done with evolution and mating? Or has the olfactory completely lost out to the visual as an effective stimulus, so that it is no longer of any advantage to shower your love object in your personal perfumes? But even if the visual has indeed become the main mode of sexual attraction, it doesn’t really explain our changed attitude towards pubic hair. A completely shaved set of genitals is not a simple thing to behold. It’s ambiguous to say the least. If you’re high-minded and are willing to look past the razor bumps and rashes, you can perhaps think about smoothness, purity, idealized beauty. You may see the connection to the perfectly even, marble bodies of antique statuary, an ideal you would be sharing with neoclassicists and fascists alike. But you have to admit that shaved genitals also always look like kid-parts, like inflated, stubbly coochies and wee-wees. I think it’s worth asking how it can be that this seems to attract us so much more than the old-time pheromone cocktail. Or is it olfactory, sexual attraction itself, being lured in, fogged in by intimate gases, which doesn’t appeal to us anymore? But then again, maybe my biology teacher was just wrong and the smelly approach never worked.
One more thought: what does menstrual blood look like coming from a hairless, shiny vulva? The image of blood on childlike genitals brings up a set of disturbing associations. Is that why menstruation- suppressing drugs and douches have the markets they have, because menstrual blood doesn’t work with our new, infantilized sex organs?
In that same biology class, through the same toilet paper roll, we were informed that intercourse leads to “a pleasant tingling sensation” and that women who get their period bleed for about seven days. (It’s amazing what a simple thing the human body was in the late 70’s: Human Sexuality, week 28. Week 29 through Week 35, the Fruit Fly). Kai Sturck, a boy from my neighborhood who later grew up to become a star-photographer for tabloids and yet later ran a successful law firm and then died of cancer in his forties, couldn’t control his alarm at that thought and burst out: “What do you mean, they have to sit on the toilet for seven days?” I still wonder how his thinking went. He lived with his parents, two houses down from us. If his mother had spent a week per month on the toilet, he should have noticed that by then. So, he either assumed that his mother would just never do such a thing as menstruate, or maybe she was really gone for extended periods of time and he thought he finally understood where she was going and why.
I once spent a weekend with a woman at a fancy spa-hotel on the coast of Maine. I fell in love then and I guess she did too. We became a couple and stayed together for some years. But when we first met and had sex at that hotel we didn’t really know much about each other. She had just gotten her period, full-force. For two days we would basically commute between the bed and a huge bubble-bathtub in the corner of the room to wash her blood off ourselves. There was a private patio outside the room. This was one of its selling points that you could take a hot tub in the room and then sit out on the patio and cool off in the fresh air and look out over some rugged landscape. We didn’t get to do that, because as soon as we sat outside there was this gang of raccoons that went totally crazy about the smell of her blood. They were like kids on a sugar rush. We could barely chase them off and they kept coming back. So in the end we had to stay inside with the doors and windows locked. Her grandfather had been an American pilot during the war, while my grandfather had been a more or less convinced Nazi officer on a small naval vessel in the North Sea. Sitting up to our bellies in red, bubbling water we tried to recall what we had been told about where our grandfathers had fought. At some point she laughed and said: “My grandfather bombed your grandfather.” And the raccoons were banging their heads against the glass door.
There’s a video being projected, onto the tiled wall of Taverna Brillo. I am looking at it over the shoulder of Macarena, the guest editor, who’s telling me that I probably have very interesting thoughts on menstruation. I recognize the video and get distracted. It has no apparent connection to the music or any other aspect of the event. It’s Jean Painlevé’s 1934 underwater film “The Seahorse,” which documents in stunning underwater sequences the conception, gestation and birth of seahorses; the seahorse being an unusual fish not just because of its shape and upright posture, but because its embryos are carried to maturity in the belly of the males, who eventually give birth to them under great pain.
I am not surprised that male writers aren’t lining up to write menstruation pieces. The topic is a tricky one. Any male writer risks to come across as either an ignorant douche or as an over-eager teachers’ pet, reading up extra thoroughly on menstruation just to end up mansplaining it later. He risks inadvertently offending women, and he risks the consequences thereof. But I wonder if those fears (which aren’t really that scary when you come to think of it) aren’t further buttressed by a more general fear of the phenomenon of menstruation itself. Either way, it’s safer to respectfully state that, as a male writer, one doesn’t have anything to say about this. But then, how could that be? Generally, male writers don’t have problems writing about issues they haven’t experienced first hand. They love writing about politics in faraway places, about all kinds of received ideas and about other peoples’ money, fame or fate. And think about this: without menstrual cycles there wouldn’t be any male writers. But apparently menstruation belongs to a different category of topics. The topics you don’t speak about if you haven’t experienced them yourself. Or, as the Swedish electro-band Chu Mulu puts it:
Don’t joke about the holocaust, unless you’re Jewish
Don’t joke about gangsters, unless you’re black
Don’t joke about Aids unless you have it
Don’t joke about Ebola, unless you’re dead
Don’t joke about hamsters. Period.
But then, what about women who don’t menstruate? Do they, by the same logic, feel they lack the entitlement to discuss menstruation? What about transgender men or women, who aren’t menstruating? Do they have nothing to say?
The video program segueways into Painlevé’s hilarious “The Love Life of the Octopus,” from 1964, a grotesque, knotty entanglement of rubbery, unidentifiable parts; a silly, alien underwater orgy of a film, which I love. And I think to myself: Look, here’s Painlevé, an old, white, privileged, malegazer, a dead one, who nevertheless somehow through the use of esthetic tools, visual techniques and narrative makes immediately sensible to us some profoundly other types of bodies and sexualities. And that is something. Modest as it may seem, it is one of the few things that art can do. It can go beyond critiquing reality and reiterating subject positions to afford us a glimpse of a world profoundly reshuffled, where we are not just what we think we know we are, or what we are told we are supposed to be. A space where our cultures, our bodies, our politics become reorganized in new ways, assume shapes and form arrangements that we could not ever have predicted, where drawing a line between this and that, between right and wrong and putting a flag on it would be arbitrary, faith-based and… I don’t want to say fascist, so I say… criminally boring and bigoted and unnecessary and, most of all, fundamentally against life, which a great, bloody mess.
1. Note that the text establishes an associative connection between menstruation and infectious disease.
2. Klaus Theweleit, “Männerphantasien,“ Frankfurt/M, Volume 1, Frauen, Fluten, Körper, Geschichte (1978) pp. 235–310.
3. Incidentally, the flood could also appear in the form of a volcanic eruption. And these tropes were not exclusively coined by the right, but employed by the left as well. See the lyrics to The International: “La raison tonne en son cratère, C’est l’éruption de la fin,” or in the Swedish version: “Det dånar ut i rättens krater, snart skall utbrottets timma slå!”.
4. Attention has been called to this phenomenon by Swedish artist Frida Klingberg in her project Bevara Flatlusen/Save the Crab Louse (2013). 5. Note how, expressed through an innocent child, an association between menstruation and defecation is established.
6. Note how this episode connects menstruation to animals and nature, but also how images of war and menstruation become linked in the bathtub motive.