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Is it time to better educate boys about periods?

In advance of a Festival of Debate event about period positivity, Alice O'Connell asks why we are not teaching boys more about periods in school. 

A row of different coloured tampons on a pink background.

Colourful tampons

Anna Shvets

As part of Sheffield’s Festival of Debate, one of the discussions taking place is by teacher-activist Chella Quint. She will be hosting a hands-on conference to dismantle the old-fashioned taboos around periods, especially in schools.

It does feel like society is getting better at openly discussing periods and removing the stigma. We are taking the power back around these conversations, learning how not to be ashamed about a natural process our body needs to do. However, when thinking back to my years in school and similar experiences of friends, I wondered why with all the progress being made, girls still only start to feel less shame about their periods after leaving education.

I think it’s natural for girls going through puberty to feel slightly nervous and uncomfortable about the changes happening to her body. (Not all girls and women have periods, and not everybody who has periods are girls and women. Trans men and non-binary people may also menstruate, which can present issues unique to those groups around gender dysphoria and stigma.)

I’m sure the majority of people can remember experiencing a level of embarrassment around their first period. But I think we’re succeeding in having the important conversations with cis women and girls about what their period is, why it happens and what it means. Everyone who has periods should have the basic rights to have the correct knowledge to know what’s happening to their body and, thankfully, it finally feels like most of society believes this too.

I’m not suggesting that by having these discussions with men, those early feelings will ever completely disappear. But with so much improvement in the conversations about periods and creating safe spaces for young girls to ask questions, what is preventing girls from removing the shame they have associated with this issue? I think a lot of the discussions about being period positive, have, for a long time, fixated on teaching cis girls about their body. Although this is obviously imperative, I think now it’s time to look at the education and conversations with cis boys.

Two hands hold a menstrual cup.

Menstrual cup

Rebecca Manning

Teachers seem far better equipped today to speak to children about these topics and have an understanding of their importance. But still, I think in mixed-sex schools, the word ‘period’ is avoided. Whether it’s for the sake of not bringing boys' attention to it, to not embarrass the female students or in an effort to not make the boys feel awkward, what if this is actually just creating a secretive and shameful environment?

The majority of boys are never taught about what happens to a women’s bodies and why, which means for most, it’s something they’re ignorant about until their adult lives. Hence, so many young girls being terrified of saying the dreaded word - 'period' - in front of male students.

It should not be strange or inappropriate to explain to young boys about menstrual cycles. Anyone starting their period should be allowed discretion and separate lessons about menstruation where necessary. But I do find it shocking that we have progressed so much, yet still are unable to see how boys and young men could benefit from being taught about these issues in a more informative and educational manner.

Instead, boys are left to their own devices to make assumptions about something they have next to no trustworthy information on. Data collected by Plan International, an organisation for equality for girls, found only one in five girls feel comfortable discussing their periods with their teacher and under a third can discuss their periods with their fathers.

In school, I’m sure most of us witnessed boys making fun of a tampon falling out of a bag, or making outlandish comments about the size of a sanitary towel or why a girl's gone to the toilet. It’s no wonder so many students feel the need to cover up and hide their periods in school.

It should not land on the shoulders of a 12-year-old girl to educate boys on what a period is, when she is still learning herself. Adults need to ensure they can teach all genders about this, to create a safe space in school where periods don’t become this hidden subject matter that only half of the school can acknowledge.

Talking about something normalises it, and to only be informing one half of the population about something as impactful as this, it seems like a missed opportunity to create a more open and supportive society.

Learn more

Period Positive Schools: Menstrual Literacy for All takes place on 20 May at Sheffield Town Hall.

by Alice O'Connell (she/her)

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