Talking About Periods

Sometimes referred to as an “intimate feminine problem,” “that time of the month,” or “mother nature,” one study found over 5,000 slang terms describing menstruation – something that impacts women for roughly 3,500 days over their lifetime.

While women experience an average of 450 menstrual cycles, discussing periods has long been considered taboo, uncomfortable, and even shameful. In recent years, several entrepreneurial organizations and social media campaigns have looked into ending period shaming, but is it working?

For a closer look at how women talk about their periods and the related emotions they experience, we polled over 1,000 American women about their menstrual cycles. We asked them which products they typically used, where and how they first learned about their period, and how it might affect them on a monthly basis. Read on to learn what we uncovered.

An Education on Periods

At some point, every woman needs to learn about her period. While some advocate feminine hygiene products like pads and tampons should be made available to students for free, others suggest the need to go further with “respectful and positive” education in the classroom. According to women polled, less than 40 percent were taught in school what to expect during their first period.

Over 63 percent of women had a parent guide them through the process, while more than 22 percent relied on a friend and over 16 percent missed out on “the talk” completely.

How young girls learn about their period can have a tremendous impact on how they feel about it when the time comes. Women with no one to talk to were more likely to feel surprise, fear, disgust, shame, sadness, and anger. In contrast, women who did have someone to discuss with were more likely to feel feminine, mature, interest, and relief during their first cycle.

Taking on Tampons

Many women aren’t always comfortable or confident using tampons.

More than 91 percent of women have used a tampon at some point, but nearly 70 percent were afraid to use them the very first time. Women often have questions about tampons ranging from how to use them to what’s inside them and may not necessarily know where to turn for answers. Nearly half of American women learned about tampons from the product’s packaging. Over 1 in 3 learned from their mother, and almost 1 in 4 said no one taught them about using a tampon.

Perhaps due to uncertainty or a lack of education on the topic, only 15 percent of women used tampons during their first period. Roughly half waited at least one year before experimenting with tampons, and some waited even longer (ranging from three to five years) after their first period.

Period Preferences

Despite once wrapping menstrual products in plain paper boxes and using a blue liquid in period commercials, the feminine hygiene product market could become a nearly $43 billion industry by 2022. That includes pads and tampons in addition to a few less conventional options.

More than 45 percent of women used a combination of tampons and pads during their period. Over time, the average woman will use over 16,800 tampons and pads, which amounts to a small part of the more than $18,000 they’ll spend regarding their period. Still, pads were considered the more popular standalone product according to nearly 1 in 4 women.

Pads and tampons aren’t the only choices women have, however. Menstrual cups are now becoming a more popular product alternative. Menstrual cups were first introduced in the ’30s and now cost between $20 and $40. Unlike tampons or pads, though, a single cup can last between six months and 10 years and can be used for up to 12 hours a day. Over 14 percent of millennials used menstrual cups – nearly 10 times more often than baby boomers. Roughly 4 percent of Gen Xers and millennials also used other products. Period panties are also growing in popularity, which may offer women another option for reducing cotton waste.

A Period’s Impact

There are many reasons why women experience pain during their periods. Menstrual cramps, typically caused by elevated levels of hormones produced by the uterus, can extend beyond the stomach to a woman’s lower back and thighs. It’s also possible to experience dizziness, headaches, and nausea beginning as early as 24 hours before a period, which can last for days afterward.

Only roughly 11 percent of women experienced no pain at all during their period, while nearly 42 percent of women rated their physical pain a four or five on our scale. For some women, menstrual pain can be far more intense. More than 1 in 10 women ranked the pain a six, and nearly 7 percent rated it a max seven – or extremely painful.

Young women are working to change the mainstream attitude toward periods with campaigns like #bloodnormal and #happytobleed, but they may have further to go to stamp out the stigma. Millennials were more likely than any other generation to experience disgust, sadness, anger, fear, and shame at the thought of their period. More than 45 percent felt disgusted, while more than 1 in 10 felt shame.

Passing Because of Periods

Periods may have once been called an “intimate feminine problem,” but there’s nothing private about the embarrassment or pain it can cause. In fact, periods can impact everything from a woman’s sexual activity to work, sports, and social activities.

More than 3 in 4 women skipped having sex on their period due to embarrassment, and 57 percent refrained from sexual activity because of the pain. Embarrassment was also a leading cause among roughly 2 in 3 women for not going swimming or to the beach and kept more than 1 in 3 women from working out. While less common, women also stayed away from sports, parties and social gatherings, and going out at night because of period embarrassment.

While some women are sometimes willing to go to extreme and bizarre lengths to conceal their periods in public, these instances may be more common than expected. Over 4 in 5 women got their periods unexpectedly and had nothing to use, while nearly 72 percent experienced visible bleeding through their clothes. Less than 2 percent reported never having an embarrassing moment related to their period.

Let’s Get Physical

While it’s still possible to contract sexually transmitted diseases or even get pregnant while on your period, experts suggest sexual activity during menstruation can be more pleasurable than normal. Sex can also be a more holistic remedy for women experiencing intense pain, as studies have shown sex can help reduce cramps and migraine or cluster headaches.

Some women may be concerned that having sex on their period isn’t safe, while others may think it gross or embarrassing, but over 60 percent of women of all ages admitted to getting physical during that time of the month. More common among millennials than any other generation, women also confessed their partners were more open to having sex on their period than they were.

Taking Back Control

Things have come a long way for women regarding feeling normal about their body and period. Early advertisements convinced women their periods should be kept secret and more modern ads still shy away from presenting periods in a real and genuine light. That sentiment may be starting to change with online campaigns and efforts like the Menstrual Hygiene Day initiative, but there’s still more work to be done. Millennials were more likely than anyone else to feel fear and shame at the thought of getting their period, and over 16 percent of women had no one to talk to about what to expect during their first period. Without proper education or support, these women were more likely to experience feelings of disgust.

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For this study, we surveyed 1,013 American women about their feelings and behaviors toward their period. All respondents were surveyed using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Only women who said they regularly got a period were considered, and women who no longer got their period were asked to recall feelings and habits from when they did get a period. Our sample size collected a generational breakdown as follows: 555 millennials, 310 Gen Xers, 136 baby boomers, nine Gen Zers, and two members of the Silent Generation, although the latter two generations were not considered in generational breakdowns due to an inadequate sample size from which to make claims.

Because data were collected in a survey, the data we are presenting rely on self-reporting. There are many issues with self-reported data. These issues include but are not limited to: selective memory, telescoping, attribution, and exaggeration. Due to the sensitive nature of this content, these effects may have been stronger than usual. No statistical testing was performed, so the claims listed above are based on means alone. This content is purely exploratory, and future research should approach this topic in a more rigorous way.


Fair Use Statement

Help us encourage and expand the conversation on periods. We would love to see the results of this study shared with your readers for any noncommercial use. Just make sure to link back to this page so that they can see our findings in their entirety and our contributors earn credit for their work.