Jen Gunter
2,618,737 views • 11:42

When I was a teen, I had terrible periods. I had crippling cramps, I leaked blood onto my clothes and onto my bed sheets, and I had period diarrhea. And I had to miss school one to two days a month, and I remember sitting on the couch with my heating pads, thinking, "What's up with this?" When I ate food, I didn't leak saliva from my salivary glands. When I went for a walk, I didn't leak fluid from my knees, "joint fluid." Why was menstruation so different?

I wanted answers to these questions but there was no one for me to ask. My mother knew nothing about menstruation except that it was dirty and shameful and I shouldn't talk about it. I asked girlfriends and everybody spoke in euphemisms. And finally, when I got the courage to go to the doctor and talk about my heavy periods, I was told to eat liver.

(Laughter)

And when I went to the drug store to buy my menstrual products, my 48-pack of super maxi pads, back in the day when they were the size of a tissue box, each pad —

(Laughter)

You know what I'm talking about. You have no idea how far absorbent technology has come.

(Laughter)

I used to have to buy my menstrual products in the feminine hygiene aisle. And I remember standing there, thinking, "Well, why don't I buy toilet paper in the anal hygiene aisle?"

(Laughter)

Like, what's up with that? Why can't we talk about periods? And it's not about the blood, as Freud would have you say, because if it were, there would be an ear, nose and throat surgeon up here right now, talking about the taboos of nose bleeds, right? And it's not even about periods, because otherwise, when we got rid of our toxic, shameful periods when we became menopausal, we'd be elevated to a higher social status.

(Laughter)

(Applause)

It's just a patriarchal society is invested in oppressing women, and at different points in our lives, different things are used. And menstruation is used during what we in medicine call the reproductive years. It's been around since pretty much the beginning of time, many cultures thought that women could spoil crops or milk, or wilt flowers. And then when religion came along, purity myths only made that worse. And medicine wasn't any help. In the 1920s and '30s there was the idea that women elaborated something called a menotoxin. We could wilt flowers just by walking by.

(Laughter)

And that's what happens when there's no diversity, right. Because there was no woman to put her hand up and go, "Well, actually, that doesn't happen." And when you can't talk about what's happening to your body, how do you break these myths? Because you don't even need to be a doctor to say that periods aren't toxic. If they were, why would an embryo implant in a toxic swill? And if we all had this secret menotoxin, we could be laying waste to crops and spoiling milk.

(Laughter)

Why would we have not used our X-Women powers to get the vote sooner?

(Laughter)

(Applause)

Even now, when I tweet about period diarrhea, as one does,

(Laughter)

I mention that it affects 28 percent of women. And every single time, someone approaches me and says, "I thought I was the only one." That's how effective that culture of shame is, that women can't even share their experiences.

So I began to think, "Well, what if everybody knew about periods like a gynecologist? Wouldn't that be great?" Then you would all know what I know, you'd know that menstruation is a pretty unique phenomenon among mammals. Most mammals have estrus. Humans, some primates, some bats, the elephant shrew and the spiny mouse menstruate. And with menstruation what happens is the brain triggers the ovary to start producing an egg. Estrogen is released and it starts to build up the lining of the uterus, cell upon cell, like bricks. And what happens if you build a brick wall too high without mortar? Well, it's unstable.

So what happens when you ovulate? You release a hormone called progesterone, which is progestational, it gets the uterus ready. It acts like a mortar and it holds those bricks together. It also causes some changes to make the lining more hospitable for implantation. If there's no pregnancy, (Whoosh) lining comes out, there's bleeding from the blood vessels and that's the period. And I always find this point really interesting. Because with estrus, the final signaling to get the lining of the uterus ready actually comes from the embryo. But with menstruation, that choice comes from the ovary. It's as if choice is coded in to our reproductive tracts.

(Cheering and applause)

OK, so now we know why the blood is there. And it's a pretty significant amount. It's 30 to 90 milliliters of blood, which is one to three ounces, and it can be more, and I know it seems like it's more a lot of the times. I know. So why do we have so much blood? And why doesn't it just stay there till the next cycle, right? Like, you didn't get pregnant, so why can't it hang around? Well imagine if each month it got thicker and thicker and thicker, right, like, imagine what tsunami period that would be.

(Laughter)

We can't reabsorb it, because it's too much. And it's too much because we need a thick uterine lining for a very specific reason. Pregnancy exerts a significant biological toll on our bodies. There is maternal mortality, there is the toll of breastfeeding and there is the toll of raising a child until it is independent. And evolution —

(Laughter)

That goes on longer for some of us than others.

(Laughter)

But evolution knows about risk-benefit ratio. And so evolution wants to maximize the chance of a beneficial outcome. And how do you maximize the chance of a beneficial outcome? You try to get the highest quality embryos. And how do you get the highest quality embryos? You make them work for it. You give them an obstacle course. So over the millennia that we have evolved, it's been a little bit like an arms race in the uterus, the lining getting thicker and thicker and thicker, and the embryo getting more invasive until we reach this détente with the lining of the uterus that we have.

So we have this thick uterine lining and now it's got to come out, and how do you stop bleeding? Well, you stop a nose bleed by pinching it, if you cut your leg, you put pressure on it. We stop bleeding with pressure. When we menstruate, the lining of the uterus releases substances that are made into chemicals called prostaglandins and other inflammatory mediators. And they make the uterus cramp down, they make it squeeze on those blood vessels to stop the bleeding. They might also change blood flow to the uterus and also cause inflammation and that makes pain worse.

And so you say, "OK, how much pressure is generated?" And from studies where some incredible women have volunteered to have pressure catheters put in their uterus that they wear their whole menstrual cycle — God bless them, because we wouldn't have this knowledge without, and it's very important knowledge, because the pressure that's generated in the uterus during menstruation is 120 millimeters of mercury. "Well what's that," you say. Well, it's the amount of pressure that's generated during the second stage of labor when you're pushing.

(Audience gasps)

Right. Which, for those of you who haven't had an unmedicated delivery, that's what it's like when the blood pressure cuff is not quite as tight as it was at the beginning, but it's still pretty tight, and you wish it would stop. So that kind of makes it different, right? If you start thinking about the pain of menstruation, we wouldn't say if someone needed to miss school because they were in the second stage of labor and pushing, we wouldn't call them weak. We'd be like, "Oh my God, you made it that far," right?

(Laughter)

And we wouldn't deny pain control to women who have typical pain of labor, right? So it's important for us to call this pain "typical" instead of "normal," because when we say it's normal, it's easier to dismiss. As opposed to saying it's typical, and we should address it.

And we do have some ways to address menstrual pain. One way is with something called a TENS unit, which you can wear under your clothes and it sends an electrical impulse to the nerves and muscles and no one really knows how it works, but we think it might be the gate theory of pain, which is counterirritation. It's the same reason why, if you hurt yourself, you rub it. Vibration travels faster to your brain than pain does.

We also have medications called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications. And what they do is they block the release of prostaglandins. They can reduce menstrual pain for 80 percent of women. They also reduce the volume of blood by 30 to 40 percent and they can help with period diarrhea. And we also have hormonal contraception, which gives us a thinner lining of the uterus, so there's less prostaglandins produced and with less blood, there's less need for cramping.

Now, if those treatments fail you — and it's important to use that word choice, because we never fail the treatment, the treatment fails us. If that treatment fails you, you could be amongst the people who have a resistance to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories. We don't quite understand, but there are some complex mechanisms why those medications just don't work for some women. It's also possible that you could have another reason for painful periods. You could have a condition called endometriosis, where the lining of the uterus is growing in the pelvic cavity, causing inflammation and scar tissue and adhesions. And there may be other mechanisms we don't quite understand yet, because it's a possibility that pain thresholds could be different due to very complex biological mechanisms. But we're only going to find that out by talking about it.

It shouldn't be an act of feminism to know how your body works. It shouldn't —

(Applause)

It shouldn't be an act of feminism to ask for help when you're suffering. The era of menstrual taboos is over.

(Cheers and applause)

The only curse here is the ability to convince half the population that the very biological machinery that perpetuates the species, that gives everything that we have, is somehow dirty or toxic. And I'm not going to stand for it.

(Applause)

And the way we break that curse? It's knowledge.

Thank you.

(Cheers and applause)