• Clodagh Meaney

These first period stories illustrate how young people have been failed by poor sex education

"I knew what a blowjob was before I knew what a period was."

During the week, news broke that an advertisement for Tampax tampons was pulled from Irish television following 84 complaints to the Advertising Standards Agency of Ireland (ASAI).

The advertisement released in April of this year shows a chat-show style setting called Tampons & Tea where the host discusses how to correctly insert a tampon.

"So, tell me, how many of you ever feel your tampon?" the host began before her guest shyly raised her hand.

"You shouldn't, it might mean your tampon is not in far enough, you gotta get ‘em up there girls," she continued.

She then began an on-screen demonstration of how to insert a tampon correctly which featured her inserting the tampon applicator from one hand into a circle created by the other hand to mimic a vagina.

Complaints ranged from "the ad is demeaning to women and suggested that they did not know how to use the product, or read the instructions" to "it sexualises the use of tampons." None of these complaints were upheld.

However, they did uphold complaints of "general offence."

While the ASAI said that they did not consider the advertisement to be, offensive they noted that the level of complaints received illustrated widespread offence, therefore, deeming that it had breached advertising standards.

People with periods were outraged and rightly so, people felt that the advertisement was not offensive, but informative. And so followed an outpouring of people sharing their first period stories, and their initial misunderstanding of periods, tampons, pads and the normal functions of their own bodies.

The stories shared have illustrated how sex education - from both schools and parents - have failed women, and people with vaginas. It failed to educate our younger selves properly on our anatomy, and in some instances has highlighted that we were only ever given education surrounding patriarchal topics such as blowjobs and the importance of keeping our hymen intact.

For me, I knew the fragility of my hymen before I knew anything about a period.

I was thought about how important virginity was before I knew about the reality of my menstrual cycle.

I was 14 when I got my first period. I was in school one morning with pain in my stomach and lower back. I spent two hours crying and writhing in pain. My friend offered me a pad to go and check if it was my period, and it was. I saw that I had bled a bit and handed her back the pad.

She was confused, why was I giving her back the only pad I had if I had started my period? It was because I thought I would bleed slightly, once, and that was it. She had to break the news to me that bleeding would last a few days. A fellow 14-year-old gave me more informative education surrounding my period than any teacher or parent did.

It turns out I'm not alone either. People of the internet have come out in their droves to share their own first period stories.

One of those stories was from Leona Brady, who said she knew what a blowjob was before she even knew about periods.

"I knew what a blowjob was before I knew what a period was as a young girl," she Tweeted.

"I got my period when I was 10. That Tampax ad is needed. Frankly, I think this whole debacle is so embarrassing for us as a country."

Speaking to EMPWR, Leona said she remembers her first period very well.

"I'd heard one or two other girls in my class whispering about it before but I didn't fully grasp what they were talking about."

"When I got my period my mam who is a midwife was doing a day shift the morning of so I just sort of panicked and tried to ignore what was happening. It didn't even cross my mind to tell my dad."

"Later when my mother found out she brought me up to the bathroom and explained what was happening and what I had to do. She asked if I had any pains and showed me how to use a pad."

Leona said she didn't get sex education in school until two and a half years after she began menstruating.

"We didn't have tampons in the house. I remember when I was in 6th class, now getting my period for about 2 and a half years we got our sex-ed talk and when it came to talking about periods the boys were sent out of the room."

"I didn't realise how messed up that was until I was much older. I still get angry thinking about it to this day," she said.

Explaining how her first boyfriend would recoil if she mentioned her period, Leona said: "It breaks my heart that we are conditioned to hide this sort of stuff from the men in our lives."

For Debbie O'Kelly, she was 11 when she got her first period.

"It was a Friday in January when I was in sixth class, I went to the toilet at the little break and noticed the tiniest speck of blood in my knickers. My heart skipped a beat. I knew about periods, as in, I knew that women had this 'thing' where they'd bleed down there," she told EMPWR.

"I knew it would happen to me when I got older, but as a child who was still in primary school - and who was the youngest in her class - this couldn't be happening to me now, so there must have been some other explanation," she said.

"Nobody else in my class had their period (I mean, of course, sure wouldn't we all know if they did? Aren't periods everyone’s business?) so there was absolutely no chance that I, the youngest in the class who was still only eleven and very much still a child, could be getting mine."

Debbie, who was adopted, said her mam never had a period as she had undergone radiation therapy for cancer as a child.

"There was never really any talk of periods in my house. Mam had obtained a few sanitary pads from somewhere and had shown them to me when I was about 10. 'When you get your period, you'll need these,' she said. I just nodded as she placed them into the top drawer in her dressing table, thinking to myself 'mam, periods are for teenagers, I'm a child so I won't need those for ages.'

"By the next morning, I woke up feeling like I'd wet myself and looking like I'd fallen asleep on the Japanese flag. There was blood everywhere," she said. "I crept out to the bathroom to assess the damage and fighting back tears, I decided I'd better tell my mam."

Coincidentally, she had 'the talk' in school a few weeks later. Her speech and drama teacher spoke to the class about girl's bodies and what happened "when a man and women loved each other." "My eyes nearly ejected themselves from their sockets," Debbie joked.

"I was sitting there going 'What? This means I can have a baby! Why would an 11-year old want a baby?'"

"Honestly, I was beyond horrified at the whole idea; I had known about periods but genuinely had no idea what they meant and had never thought to ask why they happened."

When she got 'the talk', there was no mention of period cramps or products, she was just told "the uterus will line itself so that you can carry the baby that God has blessed you with, isn’t that wonderful.'"

"I prayed to God every night for about a month after that, asking him to take the periods away for a few years and to give them back to me when I was a teenager," she said.

"My prayers, of course, went unanswered." For Debbie, she personally felt that not having a proper education about periods meant that they made her dirty and disgusting.

"The idea of anyone in my class finding out that I had sanitary towels in my schoolbag made me sick with worry, and I didn't even want to tell my best friend, who was also my cousin, because I felt nothing but shame about them."

"I remember saying to my mam 'don’t you dare tell Mary that I have my period, okay?' before I was staying over in their house for a weekend."

"I had packed up a supply of pads and was prepared to manage this by myself. On the first evening, after my cousin went to the bathroom and I was clearing my plate in the kitchen, Mary came into me and whispered that there were pads in the top drawer in her bedroom if I needed them."

"I wanted to pass away peacefully there and then; 'that bitch, I told her not to tell!'"

In second year, a company - Always, Debbie thinks - visited the school to give another talk.

"We were all given a blue-holographic information pack with a few samples inside. We were only allowed to have information on pads, though, tampons were something they would talk to us about in fifth year, but not now as we apparently weren’t ready."

"Not ready? I was a period veteran at this stage and would have welcomed any alternative to the thick, bulky, Pampers-nappy-like pads that I had to change about 10 times a day," she said,

"I still get flashbacks to sitting in one of the toilet cubicles in school, trying to slowly and silently tear open the wrapper on a pad, hoping that nobody would hear it. There is no place so acoustically-unforgiving than a high-ceilinged, fully-tiled bathroom in a convent school, I can tell you that for sure."

Before going on the pill at 16, Debbie suffered from painful, heavy periods every month. She endured stomach, back and thigh cramps along with dizzy spells.

"I'd even be so sick some days that I'd literally vomit, but my mam would just assume I was exaggerating or faking it to get a day off school, and so I’d be sent on my merry way with a few Paracetamol and a hot water bottle."

If she has a daughter in the future, Debbie vows to have open and honest conversations about periods to ensure her child doesn't feel the shame or fear that she did.

"I think my mam did the best that she could, given our circumstances, or maybe just what she thought was right, but I really wish she’d prepared me more."

"Schools obviously have a level of responsibility but you can’t rely on them for everything, the main education about periods needs to come from home."

Katie O'Keefe was given sex education for the first time by her 6th class teacher, a man who read them the 1970 book Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume.

Coming from a religious background, the book follows Margaret and her group of pre-teen friends who start a secret group where they discuss everything from menstruation and bras to boys and feelings of sexual attraction.

"I feel like there should have been women to come in a speak to us, not that a sex education video, but someone dedicated to like teaching girls this is the proper way to use tampons and pads as well as hygiene," she told EMPWR.

"I’m sure all young girls believe they go around smelling like fish when they first start."

"I’m lucky my mother was fantastic and had me well prepared but this needs to be brought into education!"

"Boys need to be educated too," she said, commenting on recent videos circulating on TikTok which highlight that some boys don't know where a pad even goes.

"I got my first period a week before I turned 13, which was during the summer before I started secondary school," Nicole Sheils told EMPWR.

"I remember feeling very isolated that summer. I was in an awkward phase between two schools and didn’t have that many friends to hang out with."

"My brothers and I were also deemed old enough to mind ourselves so while my mother worked, we hung out in the house all day."

"When I first wiped and saw blood, my mother was at work. She had prepared me for this by giving me panty liners in advance which were stashed away in my room. I put one on and waited for her to get home."

Nicole recalls how anytime her mother spoke to her about periods or her developing body it would be in hushed tones, and out of earshot of her brothers.

"If they came in she would quickly change the subject, at the time I thought it was so I wouldn’t be embarrassed, but thinking back on it I think she was embarrassed herself."

Her friend gave her a book that explained periods, she read it cover to cover and had a decent idea what would happen, however, Nicole found the books to be vague."

"They skirted around the nitty-gritty. They told us nothing of the clots, the cramps or the dreaded period poos I later learned were perfectly normal but had freaked me out the first time I had experienced them."

When her mother got home that evening, she didn't get a chance alone with her to tell her about her period.

"I couldn’t do so in front of my brothers," she explained.

"It wasn’t until that night when I had realised panty liners weren’t going to be enough and that my cramps were worsening that I went into her room while she was trying to sleep and told her I had gotten my period. She hugged me and told me I was a woman now."

"She used pads herself so that's what she gave me to use and showed me how to stick one to my underwear."

Using pads for her first few periods, Nicole only had a vague idea of how often to change them, between that and being painfully shy when she started secondary school, she faced difficulty managing her menstruation.

"I didn’t have the confidence to speak up in class and ask to use the bathroom so I would try and wait until the break of class, but sometimes that was too late, there was a dreaded dark blob on my blue school skirt."

"I used to twist the skirt around so the stain was on the front and if anyone asked I could claim I had spilt ketchup on it at lunch. I don’t think I fooled anybody."

"My mother noticed how heavy my periods were and bought me tampons to try. There was no demonstration this time, so I pored over the instructions included in the box and tried to navigate this foreign object into my vagina."

Never comfortable with using tampons, Nicole said: "I had freaked myself out learning about TSS and was always convinced I was inserting them wrong because I found them uncomfortable."

To this day, she rarely uses them, citing discomfort.

"I’m not sure if I’m just not doing it right or if I have a small vagina or even if I’m just too tense when inserting the tampon because it’s not something I’m used to doing."

Now aged 26, and still living at home, Nicole can't leave pads or tampons in her bathroom incase her brothers or stepdad sees them.

"If I do leave them in there, they suspiciously end up back in my bedroom. I don’t want to demonise her; it’s clear my mother is in the same boat as a lot of others who menstruate - ashamed of the very organ that gives life and the monthly implications of having one."

These stories are exactly why periods should not be a taboo subject. People with periods deserve to understand the basic functions of their body. It should be an open discussion.

A young child should not be sexualised so much by the patriarchy that they know about blowjobs and hymens before they ever learn about menstruation.

The female body is often shrouded in shame and secrecy; miscarriages, breastfeeding, abortion, menopause. They are just some of the things that people with vaginas will experience at some point or another in their life and we should not be ashamed of our bodies anymore.

© 2020 by EMPWR

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