I’ve never used a menstrual cup. I have vaginismus, which is the involuntary contraction of muscles around the opening of the vagina that makes penetration difficult or impossible. I can’t self-administer a vaginal swab for an STI test, and I can’t insert tampons. It’s physically impossible for me to put a menstrual cup inside me, but I still feel guilty, like a bad feminist, for not using them.
Let me be clear: menstrual cups are great. I’m so glad that money is being invested in products for people who menstruate. We’re ignored even when it comes to our own bodies, and the rise of companies who create products like menstrual cups signal that things might be changing.
For some people with vaginas, menstrual cups are the only thing that let them go for more than an hour between changes on heavy days of their period. Some folks combine the use of menstrual cups with pads to avoid leaking. Menstrual cups work for lots of people. They just don’t work for everyone.
“There are very real reasons why someone might not use menstrual cups. Like me, you might not be able to physically insert them into your vagina.”
Many people are told, especially in childhood, that vaginas and periods are gross. So it can be empowering to reclaim your body – getting up close and personal with your own vagina while you’re menstruating. I know that a lot of people think the perfect way to explore this is by using a menstrual cup. But I don’t think it’s internalised misogyny to not be totally comfortable with holding a tiny goblet of your own blood while your knickers are around your ankles in a public toilet.
There are very real reasons why someone might not use menstrual cups. Like me, you might not be able to physically insert them into your vagina. You might be trans and find that having something inside causes gender dysphoria. You might be disabled, fat, or struggle with mobility. While people with vaginas are finally being considered, society often seems to only be comfortable considering thin, white, able-bodied cis women.
You might just find that every single menstrual cup you’ve ever tried leaks; you might not have access to running water or the facilities you need to properly sterilise your cup, or you might be neurodivergent and have sensory issues. Perhaps you are unable to afford the upfront cost of a menstrual cup.
“There persists a narrative that menstrual cups are the “right” choice for everyone who menstruates. And if they’re the “right” choice, then I feel like I must be doing the “wrong” thing by not using one.”
You’re not alone if you don’t use a menstrual cup. And you’re not alone if you feel guilty about that either. Even though they’re far from totally accessible, there persists a narrative that menstrual cups are the “right” choice for everyone who menstruates. And if they’re the “right” choice, then I feel like I must be doing the “wrong” thing by not using one. If I’m not using one because I physically can’t, then it must be my body that’s wrong.
It adds to the messages I’ve internalised all my life that tell me that my vagina is ‘broken’ because I can’t put things inside me. The message that, as someone with a vagina, my primary function is to be fucked.
My logic is flawed, of course, but the guilt is real. And a lot of that guilt comes from the fact menstrual cups are more environmentally friendly than most other period products.
“Menstrual cups are also branded as the more ‘feminist’ choice. If menstrual cups are inherently feminist, which is certainly how they’re branded, then not using one must be unfeminist, I thought.”
Disposable period products create a lot of waste. But, as is the case with many other areas of environmental activism, we put an unfair focus on personal accountability rather than addressing systemic issues. Menstrual cups might be better for the environment, but that doesn’t mean that everyone can make the switch from disposable period products.
Menstrual cups are also branded as the more ‘feminist’ choice. If menstrual cups are inherently feminist, which is certainly how they’re branded, then not using one must be ‘unfeminist’, I thought. Never mind that I physically can’t put one inside me, not using a menstrual cup makes me feel like I’m not comfortable enough with my own body to call myself sex-positive. That I’m not doing enough to combat the climate crisis.
In 2021, it can feel like feminism isn’t a fight for gender equality so much as something that can be packaged up with pink slogans and sold back to us on t-shirts and tote bags. ‘Feminism’ has become a buzzword that companies have capitalised on to sell us products that often actually reinforce – rather than reject – patriarchal ideas.
“It’s the kind of white feminism that doesn’t consider that not every woman’s body or struggles are the same. Let alone that not every person who menstruates is a woman.”
Inserting or removing a menstrual cup involves touching your vagina so it must be feminist. Viva la vulva, right? Except not using a menstrual cup doesn’t mean you think your body is gross. Or that you’re not comfortable with your vagina. It simply means that you don’t want to (or can’t) use a menstrual cup.
The idea that using a menstrual cup is inherently empowering is the #GirlBoss feminism that tells us that women in positions of power is a good thing. It’s as if women CEOs can’t also exploit their workers or uphold sexist practices. It’s the kind of white feminism that doesn’t consider that not every woman’s body or struggles are the same. Let alone that not every person who menstruates is a woman.
There’s still shame around periods, but there’s also shame around not using a menstrual cup. People who can’t or choose not to use them are shamed by fellow menstruators who evangelise about menstrual cups and wave their eco credentials at us. It’s there in the ads and the Instagram posts. It’s there in the smug comments when people ask “do you use a menstrual cup?” and then go on to explain how life-changing it’s been and “you simply must try it”. The shame is what tells us that we’re not feminist ‘enough’ or as politically engaged as we ‘should’ be. That we need to be doing more.
This is what companies want us to think. They tell us that we’re not truly liberated unless we do the same thing with our body as everyone else. Empowerment can be found in menstrual cups, we’re told, not in making the choices that work for us.
“It should be okay that when we’re bleeding, we prioritise our own comfort and what works for our bodies over everything else.”
We need to foster a feminism that respects our differences, not judge each other for not making the ‘right’ choice. We need to ask who is profiting off the myth that there is a ‘right’ choice when it comes to our own bodies. Instead of getting rid of the taboo around periods, we’ve replaced one patriarchal pressure with another.
For almost everyone who menstruates, periods are a pain in the vagina – literally. Some people might experience or celebrate the connection to their body or their gender identity that their menstrual cycle brings them, but the only thing my period brings me is dysphoria and diarrhoea. It should be okay that when we’re bleeding, we prioritise our own comfort and what works for our bodies over everything else.
Instead, we worry that we’re not doing enough to the environment, that we’re not feminist enough. We spend time and money trying to make menstrual cups work for us, finding one that doesn’t leak. And if we can’t make them work? Then it must be us that’s broken.
Periods are stigmatised. Period blood is stigmatised. We’re told that our bodies are gross. We’re taught to hide away our period products because they’re shameful and so are we. Fighting that shame and stigma is incredibly important. But we can’t do that by shaming other people for not choosing the same period products.
I’m not a bad feminist because I’ve never used a menstrual cup – and neither are you.
Quinn Rhodes (he/him) is a queer, trans, disabled sex writer. He’s a sex nerd with vaginismus who writes about his vagina anxiety, mental illness, and adventures in learning to fuck without fucking up. Quinn can usually be found wearing stomp-on-the-patriarchy boots while trying to work out what it means to be a feminist who’s also a trans guy. He blogs about sex at onqueerstreet.com and creates educational content and about trans inclusivity at whatsinyourpants.co.
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