Sex, poop and periods.

in the woods

If you were born after 1980 then you may have a hard time believing what I’m about to tell you; but I wouldn’t lie to you, especially not about this:

Once upon a time, in my lifetime, it was taboo to talk about breasts. There were no self-exam posters on gym locker room walls; there were no “Save the Ta-Tas” t-shirts. Boobs were off limits, whether called by their formal or informal name. Breasts were considered private parts, requiring cover and secrecy, unless you were one of those bad girls who nice boys weren’t allowed to go out with even though those same boys had different kinds of bad girl breast self-examination posters in their bedrooms.

You may take issue with the Komen Foundation for missteps in recent years, but you have to give credit where credit’s due. Because of Komen’s long public advocacy, we’re now able to talk about breasts, breast care and breast cancer without blushing or feeling shame, which is good news for everyone, especially women.

The bad news is that there are still plenty of other taboos that cut off what could otherwise be helpful dialogue. We’ll scarcely say even their common names, much less their formal ones. Seriously, would you be reading this right now if the title had been “Intercourse, Feces and Menstruation?” Of course not, and that’s just fine. Rose by any other name, blah blah blah. Whatever we call them, we need to acknowledge that some things in life are no less real, important or worthy of discussion just because they’re awkward.

Today we’ll talk about three of life’s realities that need unshackling from the shame shed. You already know what they are; I’ll be quick about the first two so maybe you guys (and I literally mean the guys) will stick around for the part about sex, which I’m saving for last.

Every four weeks (or so) healthy girls and women between the ages of puberty and menopause have periods, unless their uterine linings are supporting fertilized eggs (a reminder that we’re working toward a discussion about sex). The end.

If a woman speaks sharply to you, it’s more likely because you were an idiot than that she’s having her period. Yes, fluctuating hormone levels can increase irritability; but dismissing a comment you don’t like by saying “she must be having her period” is just insulting. And don’t for a second think only men make comments like that. Gals, you know you do it too, and you know it’s insulting, and you know it’s just not right, so quit it.

If you are a parent of a girl age 10-14, please do everyone a favor and watch the Camp Gyno video with her. Laugh about it, put the word “period” in the bank of normal words, agree that periods are part of life, and move on. Your daughter has important things to do with her life, and being ashamed about the period no one wants to talk about is just going to get in her way. If you’re the parent of boys, they also need to know that girls have periods and that periods are as basic a part of life as balancing the checkbook at the end of the month. Capiche?

See, that wasn’t so bad. This won’t be either.

As much as you fellas don’t like talking about periods, you seem to love talking about poop. It’s all fine and dandy for you guys (and again, I literally mean the guys) to joke about the bounty of your daily output, but the ladies? Forget it. We’re far too dainty and polite to discuss solid waste elimination, its frequency or composition. And we all still snicker and blush at the words anus and rectum.

Here’s a true story: my mother, a very ladylike and educated Southern woman with access to good healthcare, was too embarrassed to discuss her bottom and what came out of it with her own doctor. For five or six years she talked very obliquely about her symptoms but shied away from ever describing in detail what was happening with her body because the parts that were having trouble were too impolite to mention, even to her primary care physician. Her gynecologist was finally the one who identified that she had colon cancer, that’s how long things went unattended.

Everybody poops; there’s even a book about it. Those of us with intact colons all do it the same way, hopefully every day (but please, if you can wait, not in the shared bathroom at work). If you start noticing something out of the ordinary with your poop or your pooping parts, please talk to your doctor about it – directly, specifically and in detail. If you have trouble working up the courage just think about how much I wish I could laugh at the Camp Gyno video with my mother if only she hadn’t been so shy and ladylike.

Still with me? Ok, let’s talk about the other thing that we all do, I suppose some even daily, although surely you people must be tired.

Last week my friend Dan Conaway posted this great rant about the Tennessee General Assembly’s House vote, 69-17, to condemn University of Tennessee students who organized Sex Week, a week of events intended to bring the issues surrounding sex, its implications and consequences into open dialogue. The debacle even made the Huff Post.

As Dan is quick to remind us, it’s not news that humans have been having sex since the dawn of civilization. All those Begats in the Old Testament? Sex. Every last one of them.

In the last several years we publicly chaste book-buying readers somehow made E.L. James the bestselling author in British history, but we still can’t say S-E-X by name outright without feeling we’ve said a bad word. (For those of you living under a rock, E.L. James is the author of 50 Shades of Grey, “an unreadable soft core pornographic novel written as a fan fiction tribute to Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, which, by comparison, reads like Dostoevsky,” according to my beloved Daily Pessimist.)

We’ll whisper the letters S-E-X when we don’t want the children to know what’s in the movie they can’t watch, even though those same children can very well see the multitude of public billboards displaying every enticement and consequence related to S-E-X, from adoption and abortion to gentlemen’s clubs and syphilis.

Not sure you want to include sex as a regular dinner table topic? No worries. But there are at least three crucial conversations that you must be willing to have, openly and without delay when the time comes.

1. If you are a parent, you must talk to your pre-adolescent/adolescent/teenage children about sex. At the risk of offending all the earnest parenting blog world parents, I’ll go on a limb and suggest that it doesn’t really matter whether you talk about the penis and vagina or the ding-dong and the hoo-ha as long as you are having an honest and respectful dialogue with your child that takes the word sex out of the forbidden zone and into safe conversation.

You must talk about what you want your children to know as they grow into people who will actually have sex, too. No, leaving a book on their bedside tables doesn’t count. Yes, you can outsource the actual content delivery to your neighbor who’s raised four healthy and well-adjusted children; but you’ll have to make it a threesome because you need to be right there with your own child while your neighbor shares the good news. Yes, you did sign up for this, precisely at the moment you were having sex mid-ovulation cycle. Now be the grown up, name it, and have the talk.

2. If you are having sex and don’t like what’s happening, then you must speak up. Your body is yours, and sex should be a partnership built on trust and respect. Words are essential if your partner is taking you outside your comfort zone without your agreement. If what you don’t like requires just a minor adjustment, however, I might suggest looking for words other than “no, you idiot, not there,” as those particular words are unlikely to have the desired effect.

3. If you are having sex and it hurts, make an appointment with your doctor. Trust me, he or she has had more conversations about sex than you could ever imagine, so there’s no need to be embarrassed. (S)he won’t even snicker when you say ding-dong and hoo-ha because you still struggle with the proper names. If you are hurting, you may have an issue that requires medical attention – might not be any big deal, but it might.  (Wo)man up and talk to the doc.

Why lies beyond these three sex basics? Well, there are probably another hundred worthy conversations any of us (all of us) could have related to sex, sexual politics, sexual health, and cultural norms. Start by getting comfortable with the word, and see where that leads you. Who knows, once you’re able to name it out loud, you might find it’s not nearly as big a deal as you thought. Just like poop and periods. And breasts.


This post was written in response to the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge: Power of Names. For tips on writing and blogging, visit

  1. My mother was strict with me and I would get yelled at If anything I said was ” not lady like” but I mean periods,poops and stuff like that happen right!


  2. Excellent post – in my family (not my current one – the one into which I was born) – they have to whisper the word ‘cancer’ and it’s always followed by a ‘god forbid’. And we’re not even Southern. Forget poop, periods and sex….


  3. Reblogged this on Cupcake. and commented:
    In light of conversations about invisibility in my women’s studies class, let us do some justice to some other stuff that is also supposed to be invisible.


    Have at it. Go on now.

    Us humans have been doing this stuff FOREVER. You would think that it wouldn’t be this taboo to talk about, dammit.


  4. hello jennifer, it was good to read your blog and realize the state of woman affairs across the globe. it seems things are not much different from that of east.


  5. Loved this post. I liked that you talked about the “poop” taboo…I as a woman am not a huge fan of talking about this, but men? Forget it. It’s like right up there with who won the big game the night before. It’s funny how we react to to this difference in taboos. Recently, my male cousin (age 16ish) asked the family why good bras were so important after his mom got a Victoria’s Secret giftcard for Christmas. My mother launched into a long explanation of chafing, sagging, and other side effects of bad bras, at which point I think my cousin got the point, but it was so humorous to see how he reacted to what is to us not a taboo, but was rather taboo for him.



  6. Excellent post! You’ve very effectively captured the detrimental consequences that tabooing such topics can have. Coming from a sexually repressed society like India, I literally see these consequences in action everyday. In my family, when a girl gets her first period, the news often goes around as “You know, you cousin x has become a big girl?” “Big girl”? Really? It’s like they cannot hear how ridiculous they sound.

    Just last year, my 16 year old American cousin and I (18 then) had to explain what exactly sex was to my 17 year old cousin who thought the mere act of kissing was sex and could get you pregnant. Her delightfully ignorant condition came to be because her convent school had failed to give its students sex ed. This coupled with parents who shirked around the topic repeatedly. The school went so far as to explain the fertilisation of the egg with sperm but conveniently excluded the bit about why and how there was sperm in a woman’s reproductive tract. So basically we’re a country with a rape crisis and yet, our girls don’t know what sex is.

    At the end of this 3 hour long discussion my cousin said, “OH MY GOD! YOU’RE SAYING MY PARENTS HAD SEX?!”


  7. Brilliant. Wonderful. Educational. Funny. What more can we ask for?

    I just want to add, that I poop. And I’m a girl. Well, a woman. But I developed colitis as a 14 year old and had to poop in the public school bathrooms.


  8. This was great, and well put. I was born in the seventies, and
    boy was sex and the period ever so awkward for me…lol! My
    mom didn’t talk to me about anything, and learned everything
    from school when a knowledgeable person would come into
    class explaining everything to us, and when I learned about
    the period, I was freaked out for sure….thought I was going to
    bleed to death! Then when I had to start wearing a training
    bra, I walked around for lord knows how long with my arms crossed
    my chest because I was SO embarrassed. I knew when I had my
    daughter I would be upfront and honest with her about sex and
    periods, and didn’t sugarcoat anything. When she did start her
    period, she didn’t freak out like I did. I think open communication
    is the key, and the same goes for marriages too:)


  9. Loved this post! I was born at the end of the 70s, but I got a mix of the taboos you spoke of, while other subjects were common place, and spoken about out loud in my house.

    Where my kids are concerned, I do not want them ashamed of who they are, what they got, and how their bodies function. It is my eldest (a tween) who is a bit shy about herself. She is shy about imtimacy, and I respect her decision about this. At the same time, I do educate her about life, and what will be happening to her over the next few years. I think parents need to be the frontline about educating their kids about sex, poop and periods. I believe it is our job, as parents, to get our kids ready for the world, and these 3 topics are a huge part of that. There should be no shame in discussing these topics, either.


  10. I second everything you said. I am from Pakistan and I was born after 1990 yet still sex was/is a forbidden conversation here. If someone does, they are labeled as “Shameless”. Here, a grown man/woman feels shame or in your words blushes to go to the store and buy a condom. And therefore ends up with more children than he/she planned for. Condom ads gets blocked/banned here, because to some, the religious fanatics, it is considered taboo to talk/discuss sex related topics.


  11. In my household we always talked about whether or not is women had our period. It became so natural that I would forget when I was in public. And I live in the south. So you can imagine how one of my ex boyfriends reacted when he heard me say it so casually.


  12. I’m a 48 year old woman who is intelligent and educated, and yet I still have difficulty talking about some bodily functions even with my doctor. I can woman up and do it, but it becomes this huge uncomfortable thing. How stupid do we have to be as a society to make taboos out of such natural things?


  13. Great post. Yes, all these things that are so natural to being alive. Not just natural to humans, but lots of living things. All the uptight, shame based thinking we are taught to feel around our bodies, and in particular the bodily functions of women. Luckily things are changing!


  14. We recently had a discussion about an article in my Cultural anthropology class about periods. During the discussion, I was trying to talk about periods and the guys next to me could hardly look at me while I was doing so. Mind you, I was probably talking a little more loudly and enthusiastically for their handling, but still. My teacher was also saying things like, “I can’t wait for the awkwardness to commence!” Several comments about “awkwardness”. I started dreaming of a better world… probably most people don’t have utopian fantasies about worlds where they can freely talk about sex and vagina blood and poop, but for me it is. I feel like I’m lacking potential valuable knowledge about my body by shutting it out. If only there were more groups to gather and talk about this with! Gah. Great post. Thanks for bringing it up.


  15. I wish I had grown up more comfortable with these topics. Well, period was surprisingly okay, but the other two, foggedabout it. It’s still makes me really nervous and shy.


  16. As a mother to two young boys, poop is a popular topic and sex soon followed as the next popular. (They aren’t yet to learning about periods, though that is a natural connection.) My current challenge is how to teach them what is socially acceptable to talk about, what is not, what is worth taking the risk on (might not be socially acceptable but go for it). Like, what can they talk about in school and how and when. Thanks for a great and inspiring post!


  17. Okay, I admit it. You had me at poop — you would say, because I’m a guy, but, really, Lenny Bruce had me “flat” on all of that long ago. Bruce was right: say the words enough times, and the significance, funny or not, melts away. (Still, I’m reminded of the way a good friend passed away: colon cancer… no fun.)


  18. Perfect! An absolute tour de force and long overdue! So glad you (wo)manned up and just said it how it is. Well done.


  19. Brilliant, simply brilliant. I was going to say: how did I miss it? But, I just saw the date, and it came out during wonderful, but truly insane and challenging spring… when I was traveling, breaking ribs, and dealing with serious burns. It’s a wonder I lived to read this at all– but so glad I did! 😉


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