To Bleed or Not to Bleed: Some thoughts on The Red Tent

(Please note: the views, experiences and positions expressed within this blog post are those of the author(s) alone and do not necessarily represent the views of everyone involved in the LaDIYfest collective.)

Our recent invitation to get involved in the University of Sheffield Student Union’s ‘Red Tent’ week led to some important discussion within the LaDIYfest collective regarding how we felt about the concept of the tent and the politics behind it. As many of us had work and study commitments, we didn’t think we could do justice to the ideas we had by planning a workshop so instead of a physical presence we’ve written a summary of some of our thoughts on the topic in the hope that people attending The Red Tent will read, think and discuss our input over the course of the week.

Before this we’d like to note that the rise in feminist action at the two Sheffield Universities over the last few years has been an amazing improvement. We’ve really enjoyed working with the Women’s Committee and look forward to participating in future collaborative projects. The following reflection on The Red Tent is intended to provide a route into further conversation and exploration regarding the discussion of bodies, biology and a physical notion of womanhood within feminist spaces. We hope this won’t sound like an attack by other feminists (us!) who – for the most part – want to provide solidarity and support to your projects, or a discouragement to the totally admirable feminists at the University from continuing their activism (we’re sure it won’t!).

For the unaware, the Women’s Committee describe The Red Tent as a week of activities and discussion groups providing ‘a safe space for women (& non-male identifying people) to celebrate their bodies, menstrual cycle, and discover/re-discover their power in society’. This is the University of Sheffield’s (UoS) offshoot of an international project with the same name and is (as far as we know) the second year this week-long celebration has been held in Sheffield.

Why Bother Talking About Periods At All?

Due to the shame that many people – mostly women – who have periods are made to feel about their bodies it is clear that the culture, experience and social regulation of menstruation has a relevance to feminist thinking. The medicalization of women’s bodies and behaviour, as well as the stigma of having a body that ‘leaks’ and the importance of finding ways to ‘control’ your body in a way that others find socially acceptable has had a massive impact on women’s freedom and status historically, and continues to intrude on their lives today. Capitalism, too, has a lot to answer for when it comes to the generic pain-killing drugs sold as menstrual cures, the marketing, advertising and culture of brand loyalty and precedence of expensive sanitary products.

However, the discussion of gendered bodies, biology and nature in feminist/women-oriented spaces is not without problems. The UoS’s Red Tent’s celebratory slogan of ‘accepting your body, accepting your period – it’s beautiful! it’s womanhood!’ ties menstruation to womanhood, erasing the existence of all the women-identifying people who cannot or choose not to have periods and the non-binary and men-identifying people who do have them. We think statements like this make the SU’s inclusion of ‘non-male identifying people’ feel tokenistic and not fully considered. The politics underlying this slogan also feed into strands of feminism (such as trans exclusive/eradicatory feminism or TERF*) which essentialise gender identities and experiences and exclude important (but marginalised) members of our movement such as trans women, intersex people and non-binary individuals. We were pleased to see that this year the SU’s Red Tent includes an event open to all genders on ‘Sex, Gender and Periods: Women who do not menstruate and menstruators who are not women’, which shows the SU/Women’s Committee is making a positive attempt to address the problematic assumption that periods and gender go hand in hand.

When Periods Aren’t Always a Cause for Celebration

The celebration of periods can be an effective way of redressing the shame women are usually encouraged to feel about their bodies, but what happens if this is done in a way which excludes non-women with periods or invalidates the gender identities of women who don’t have them? Periods are not always something that are/should be celebrated. For some intersex, non-binary people or trans men the presence of their periods can be a really unpleasant reminder that their bodies do not function or look the way they wished they did from birth.

What about the many women-identifying people who also don’t feel celebratory about their periods? There is often an assumption that ‘working with your body’ is necessarily a preferable option. For example, the implication that accepting/embracing your periods is important, and that ‘natural’ remedies are better than other kinds. But for some people periods can be debilitatingly painful and cause bouts of depression among other things. If your body is affected by discomfort or pain then, as with illness, wouldn’t it be a relief to be able to medicate to allay these unwanted experiences? Why should periods be any different for those who experience unpleasant symptoms?

For some people who identify as women and some who don’t, stopping their periods or having more control over their periods’ intensity or timing is hugely liberating. It mustn’t be shameful to say ‘I hate my periods’ or discuss the difficulties some people have with them. Sometimes in an attempt to redress the shaming of people who have periods, menstrual-advocates come dangerously close to shaming those who cannot/choose not to have them, often prioritising what is deemed to be ‘natural’ and therefore best. In the process, they may also (often without intending to) renounce the identities of people who use medication and surgery to match their bodies to their identities because this, too, isn’t ‘natural’ by these standards.

The (un)Revolutionary Potential of Periods

LaDIYfest do not use binary male/female symbols or any womb/ovary/body part iconography and we encourage other feminists who want to be part of a trans, intersex and non-binary inclusive movement to join us**. Biology tells us nothing about gender. Being a woman has nothing to do with owning a womb or having a period. What’s more, The Red Tent’s claim to find ‘power in society’ through the body is misleading and mystifies the importance and material economic realities for women. We believe that power in society is found primarily in class and in money, not in penises, gonads or wombs. The international Red Tent website uses the rhetoric of social change, transformation and revolution and yet their narrative which centres on the individual’s experience of her/their blood shed tells us nothing about collective unity and social mobilisation.

There is definitely space in feminism to talk about our personal needs (including mooncups and other menstrual stuff), but we also need to recognise the limitations of these discussions and not overstate their revolutionary potential. To fight gender oppression we also need to look to our wider shared goals – not just as individuals or as bodies – but as a collective of people who are oppressed because of our identities as women, non-binary people, queers, and as trans people.

Finding the Power to Fight Patriarchy!

In ‘re-discovering our power’ in society, unfortunately we’ve got a lot to change beyond the womb-shaming and period politics that the Red Tent addresses. To ensure we can make our fight as powerful as possible, we need to make it one which addresses issues of inclusion and defies gender essentialist notions of womanhood. Our question would be: is The Red Tent the place to do this?

The Red Tent is happening between 31st March – 4th April and there is a full schedule of events here.

*More info on TERF here.

**We’re far from perfect and we’ve made mistakes in the past which have (without our intention) left some people feeling excluded from our political action. Like everyone, we’re still learning.

A BRIEF UPDATE (02/04/14): We would like to thank the Women’s Committee for their engagement and supportive responses to our post, this has been incredibly encouraging and we look forward to participating in further discussions with them. We would also like to clarify that the slogan ‘accepting your body, accepting your period – it’s beautiful! it’s womanhood!’ was used to describe the Red Tent in our invitation to get involved, but we have since been informed that it does not appear in any of the Red Tent publicity material. Kat Chapman, the Women’s Officer at the Union, has also responded to our post here.

Useful Links

A discussion on intersex and menstruation
(http://fullfrontalactivism.blogspot.co.uk/2011/08/menstruation.html)

(Trans) Mangina Monologues
(http://www.transmanginamonologues.com)

A trans man’s experience of menstruation
(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c1irHcRBYXA)

A non-binary trans person’s experience of stopping their periods
(http://www.xojane.com/healthy/off-label-birth-control-use-trans-people)

A discussion about periods between cis and trans people
(http://dirtywhiteboi67.blogspot.co.uk/2010/07/menstruastion-period-shamedysphoria.html)

More info on absent periods/amenorrhoea
(http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/periods-absent/Pages/Introduction.aspx)

About ladiyfestsheffield

LaDIYfest (noun) (pron; lay dee aye why fest) LaDIYfest Sheffield is an inclusive, DIY, anti-capitalist, community-based feminist collective involved with local activism and a range of events and activities, culminating in a weekend of festivities at the end of the year. In 2012 we will be running a series of discussion groups and practical workshops discussing feminist issues whilst continuing to organise socials and fundraise for local community groups. We want to create a celebration of women with an emphasis on the artistic, the creative and the political. We oppose the part that capitalism plays in the oppression of women. We want to raise awareness of women’s issues and engage local women with local women’s organisations to create a more equal society for everyone. We will do this by providing a platform to highlight feminist and LGBTQ art, projects and activism through music; performance art; spoken word; films; discussion; art exhibitions and practical workshops, promoting social change in a non-discriminatory environment. LaDIYfest Sheffield is part of a global movement which grew out of the DIY and Riot Grrrl scenes. Since the first Ladyfest, which was held in Olympia USA in August 2000, feminists worldwide have adopted the name and organised Ladyfests in their own towns. We salute you for inspiring us to continue making this happen. LaDIYfest Sheffield is organised by a collective of volunteers and led primarily by self identified women but anyone who shares our goals is welcome to get involved. We hope people of all genders, abilities, ages, ethnicities and sexualities will feel welcome to participate!
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4 Responses to To Bleed or Not to Bleed: Some thoughts on The Red Tent

  1. Hi Charlotte,

    Thanks for your thoughts – I hadn’t looked at the Red Tent movement before now and it’s actually quite shocking and I’m hugely surprised that WomCom really wanted to align itself with it at all. Their FAQ section (definitely not actually frequently asked questions!) defines who can enter: “Women of all ages come. Women who are in menopause time of life are needed here to make our circles whole. Women who no longer have wombs are welcome. Young women are welcome if they have begun their moon cycles.”
    I think in line with what you are saying it would be possible to have some kind of broader discussion of body issues (of which menstruation and the myriad of experiences related to them/absence of them could be part) but perhaps premised firmly on a non essentialising premise.
    Just reading around the subject in the last few days has been illustrative that is a subject that prompts a huge amount of emotion and meaning so I do think it’s a thing worth talking about, just massively not keen on being told how to feel about it and how to act on it, and who can and can’t join in.
    Cheers for this again :)
    Katherine

  2. Hi Katherine,

    Thanks, it’s been really affirming to find out that other people were feeling uncomfortable in a similar way! I agree with what you say about the over-use of terms like ‘reclaim’ and ‘celebrate’. I also think we need to find a way of rejecting the shame and stigma of certain experiences (like menstruation) without needing to necessarily celebrate them. Those aren’t the only two options.

    You’re right to raise the issue of moving forward with some of these points and I hope this blog post can act as an invite for other people’s input on this question because I don’t have all the answers. My personal feeling is that the original concept behind the Red Tent (pre-dating Sheffield’s involvement) isn’t something I would support because it seems to be as much (or more) about biological affirmations of gender identity as it is about challenging social conceptions of menstruation. However, I do think it’s possible to talk about bodies whilst not excluding people who are already marginalised. I would say that this means we need more emphasis on oppression, social regulation/control and conformity relating to bodies (which, regardless of whether they have periods or not, many trans, intersex and non-binary people are all too familiar with) rather than trying to categorise particular issues as entirely gender/women-specific. Periods (and lack of periods) should be part of this discussion, rather than becoming all of it.

    Charlotte

    Hello Anon,

    Thanks for the comment. I definitely agree that feminism should be something that deals with women and non-binary people of all orientations and gender/sex histories and I hope that’s clear in the blog post. The Red Tent could host a trans* discussion but it also needs to ensure that the rest of its sessions aren’t contradicting this attempt at trans*-inclusion.

    Most people who don’t have periods may not mind other people discussing periods, but a woman who didn’t have periods might not like it if the discussion of periods was linked specifically to identifying as a woman (because then they might feel like their identities would be in question). It would also be a shame to create a women-only space to talk about periods where people who have periods but aren’t women (some trans* men for example) couldn’t participate.

    I agree that cis and trans* feminists can co-exist, I just wasn’t sure that The Red Tent was succeeding in providing this space.

    Charlotte

  3. Hi ladiyfest, thanks for this piece; you raise a load of great points – I’d been feeling uncomfortable about the RedTent too and you crystallised this discomfort much better that I could! I find the “reclaim your period” an odd thing, too – I mean, I barely want to claim my own period, I don’t think anyone else is after it! (I’m deliberately missing the point of the reclaiming thing, by the way, but i think vocab like “reclaim” and “celebrated” can be bandied about too easily and it makes no sense to people approaching the tent with an open mind.) I’m also baffled at the idea that I can change society by virtue of my period, rather than by attacking the socioeconomic structure underpinning the patriarchy.
    Nevertheless, I do think there’s a huge problem around the way menstruation is conceived in society (as you say) and it has bothered me for a while. I do think that talking about the process and insisting that, no matter how problematic and multifaceted it is in the way it intersects with gender and gender identity, periods aren’t disgusting and aren’t something to be hidden is important. And the Red Tent could be a good space to do that. I don’t know. I guess what I am left wondering is, how can do you suggest we talk about those issues in a manner that is sensitive to trans and intersex (everyone! Men too!)? How could the Red Tent be improved? Or do you think that the best way to remove gender binary assumptions is by just not focusing on biological processes at all? I’m honestly interested to think/hear about these issues, because it is so thorny but so essential to do so.
    Thanks a lot for all the links, too, and for such a well balanced post :)

  4. anon says:

    I dont see why we cant have a feminism that deals with both cis women and trans*/lgbtq women/people. The red tent could have hosted a trans* discussion? Women who have periods may have issues with this, and want a place to discuss it trans*/lgbtq people arent hurt by this are they? and im sure the red tent could have hosted talks ect. I dont see why we can have both cis and lgbtq feminism together ;P

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