Sometime last week, ‘meninist’ student Ryan Williams found his fifteen minutes of fame in a series of tweets crying against abolition of the tampon tax, and calling for menstruating women to ‘just hold it in’. Whether Mr Williams was tweeting in absolute earnest or simply trolling the twitter’s selection of [sic] “mad bitches on the blob”, his ignorance is depressing precisely because it is so believable.
It should outrage every single one of us that an educated man of nineteen years has absolutely no grasp on basic anatomy other to his own; claiming that someone’s urethra and vagina are the same thing should seem as ridiculous as suggesting we can breathe through our ears. And yet, it comes as no surprise when (already patchy) sex education remains non-compulsory in schools; places where the penis rules in both a literal and figurative sense. Fancy a girl in maths? Draw a giant penis on her work. Vandalising an innocent desk in detention? Put a dick on it! Teacher said something that sort of half rhymes at a push with ‘erection’? Yep you guessed right; turn it into a dick joke! Of course, I’ll concede that a vulva is perhaps a more challenging artistic endeavour for the budding young artists of secondary schools, and often this kind of behaviour appears harmless in itself. Yet it is a very apt expression, or perhaps even symptom, of the deafening silence that shrouds any productive conversations about vaginas and vulvas whilst growing up.
In school, ‘masturbation’ for me was defined in reference to a penis. The same with the idea of ‘coming’. For me, and many other girls my age, sex was conceived of as a thing that men did, and men enjoyed. One rainy afternoon, the nurse told us that ‘sex’ was a penis in a vagina and ended when the man ejaculated, and we spent the remainder of the lesson doing what every other UK school kid remembers so well: putting a condom on a banana. ‘Do you finger yourself’ was an ugly, crude question, shot at you accusatively by boys who wanted to embarrass you in front of everyone in the room. You would flame red, and fervently deny that you wouldn’t ‘dare’ do that, while the boys’ conversation ebbed back into what kind of porn they’d watched last night. And god forbid any of those boys got even a hint that you might be menstruating.
In essence, we were taught to associate our own anatomy with embarrassment and shame. We waited years before learning that women could ‘come’ too, or that ‘vagina’ and ‘vulva’ don’t mean the same thing; a distinction I had to make to some female friends only a few years ago by drawing them a picture on a napkin. It made me so sad to think that they, and I, had gone so long without wanting to understand how our own bodies worked, and inevitably, having unhealthy relationships and sex with others and ourselves.
It might seem simply trivial, or indeed, funny, that Williams is so obviously ignorant about menstruation, but it is also crucial to remember that he is one of many. It is not just that his comments were retweeted thousands of times over, but that there are still places in the world where women are punished or ostracised simply for menstruating. Every day there are thousands of homeless people on the streets of the UK who have no access to sanitary products whilst on their period, and up 20% of women suffering menstrual cramps bad enough to interfere with daily life, without feeling able to speak up. The very problem that Williams was refuting, of tax on tampons, is an obviously gendered one, whereby women are forced to shell out extra money monthly for products that are basic necessities. Whilst ‘just hold it in’ might be swept aside as vitriolic trolling, it is clearly the tip of a very large iceberg.