Being open with young boys about periods can be, well, awkward. Not the technical reproduction bit (although maybe that too). I mean the nitty-gritty: blood on the bathroom floor, stains on the good towels, the fact that you’re exhausted but could still probably dead-lift twice your own body-weight while crying through that episode of Glee.
You know, the every-day stuff.
Periods can be painful, messy, and unpredictable and there’s really no equivalent for cisgender boys. Who better to give them an understanding than you?
Making better people
Sex educator Cath Hakanson says many women ask her for advice on how to talk to boys about periods. “Some kids find out by accident and their mums want to know - do I tell them I’m bleeding? Will they get scared and think that I’m hurt or whatever?
“And then there’s also, what do I tell boys, because boys don’t have periods so why do they need to know about it?”
Ms Hakanson says they do need to know because it helps make them better, more empathetic people.
“As an adult male or even a teenager, if they have a female partner or a sister or a colleague, they can understand that this thing does happen,” she says.
For some women, it happens with relative ease (the talking, not the period). Sydney mother Elaine Camilleri, for instance, makes no secret of her period around her four sons. She wants them to know why she’s focusing on herself.
“I’m in excruciating pain and they need to understand that they need to give me some space. I have my period, don’t bother me with this now,” she says.
Naturally, they’re embarrassed, but most of the time it works. “They share it amongst themselves. ‘Oh, Mum’s on her period. You’d better leave her alone.
She’ll rip your head off.’ They think it’s pretty funny.”
But there is a downside.
“When I’m angry they’ll say, ‘Mum’s got PMS’. It’s a long-standing joke in the house. And I’ll have to say, ‘No, it’s not PMS, you’re just being deeply annoying. It’s nothing to do with my physical status. It’s actually on you.’”
Joy Mortimer, who lives with her male partner and two sons aged 13 and 8, says that happens in her house too. “It really gets my back up,” she says. “They think [I’m angry] because I’ve got my period, but it’s not that. It’s just that I don’t have the energy to be dealing with your shit right now.”
For her, that’s part of what prevents her from being frank about the specifics.
“I’m kind of cautious and a bit cagey about putting it out there,” Joy admits. “I’ve thought about why that is, and it’s because I’m so pro-equality for women. That’s a tricky thing in my household. “I don’t want to give any more ammunition to the male camp to say woman is the weaker sex, as a negative against capability.”
Joy says the world isn’t set up to allow for breaks, and periods are seen as getting in the way of what needs to be done.
“I don’t share it openly because I don’t want to add to the inequality of women in the world,” she says. “I just intuitively know that it would get thrown back in my face.”
Tackling sexism (still)
In her work as a sex educator over the years, Cath Hakanson says a lot depends on individual situations and relationships, but talking to boys about periods can sometimes be an opportunity to challenge this kind of sexism.
“Allowing your child to say something sexist about women and periods allows you to have a conversation, because they’re picking up on this anyway through what they see on TV and what they read online.
“We’ve got to talk about stuff, because they’re getting these messages anyway, whether they're happening in front of you or not.”
For many of us, of course, we’ve never completely shaken off the embarrassment of blood leaking through clothes, tying jumpers around your waist to hide the stain, and having to ask for a spare pad or tampon.
I remember my face burning in shame when the boys in my class said they could smell when girls were “on their rags” (I believed them).
It would be nice to think that kind of experience is relegated to sometime last century, but according to research commissioned by a well known sanitary product manufacturer 70% of young Australians would rather fail a subject at school than have their classmates know they have their period.
“If we want to try to break that cycle of shame, I think it’s helpful for males to understand what it’s like for women,” says Ms Hakanson.
“So if they see a girl hop off a bus and she’s got a bloodstain on the back of her skirt, not to point it out to your mates and laugh, but to maybe go up and whisper and stand behind her or something like that.”
And that level of understanding matters more broadly, because periods have an impact on finances, health, work, and social status.
“Encouraging the next generation to view periods as a natural physical process, rather than a source of shame and embarrassment, is vital to build a more equal society,” writes UK activist and founder of #FreePeriods Amika George.
“If men don’t know about periods, how can they take period poverty or the tampon tax seriously, or even sympathise with someone in pain once a month?”
So, how do you start this conversation in your own home?
“It could be something as simple as when you’re on the toilet - kids constantly follow you into the toilet - saying, ‘I’ve got to shut the door because I’ve got my period so I need to change my pad. Do you know what a period is?’ suggests Ms Hakanson.
“Or you come home from food shopping and throw them the box of pads deliberately, or even take them down the pad aisle and go, ‘Oh, do you know what these are? I get my period once a month.’ So you can describe it very comfortably and naturally.”
Books about puberty can also be very helpful - especially those which talk about both male and female bodies.
“Periods are now being discussed, unashamedly, in our political and cultural institutions,” writes Amika George. “But we need to make sure that is also happening in our everyday conversations. The next generation of boys need to be taught that periods are not taboo.”