Do it bloody: how the movies are dismantling the taboo of sex while menstruating

One of the most talked-about scenes in ‘Saltburn’ depicts cunnilingus and menstruation. It’s not an isolated case, various films directed by women are breaking the stigma

Actress Alison Oliver, who plays Venetia in ‘Saltburn’, receives oral sex while menstruating in one of the film’s most talked-about scenes.

Keeping in mind that, until 1976, movies never explicitly showed menstrual blood at all, and only then in Carrie, thus linking periods with terror and, further down the line, with derision, it is not surprising that sex scenes during menstruation have comprised until very recently a great taboo of cinema. That’s why, when Netflix streamed Fair Game, directed by Chloe Domont, it became clear that times were changing … Little by little, of course. In the film, Phoebe Dynevor, who plays Emily, has a sexual encounter with Luke (played by Alden Ehrenreich) in a bathroom during a wedding. We find out at the same time as they do that the protagonist just got her period: her baby pink dress and fiancée’s mouth are streaked in menstrual blood. The couple’s reaction? Absolute acceptance. They laugh, and deliver a cinematic moment that marks a change in the way menstruation is portrayed in cinema.

Dynevor herself explained to Elle magazine that if the scene had been directed by a man, it all would have played out much differently, that there would have been no chance that the scene would have come across as sexy. “When you see a film like this, it really pushes you to want to create more and put more female influence out into the world. We as women know these things happen all the time, but why are we not seeing it on our screens?,” she asked.

Even more talked-about has been the movie Saltburn, which has become another example of how to make menstruation an ally of the erotic. Its director (who by no coincidence is also a woman), Emerald Fennell, explained to Time magazine that, although menstruation is still something that causes displeasure for some people, she didn’t hesitate to film the scene. In it, the protagonist, Oliver (played Barry Keoghan) performs cunnilingus on Venetia (Alison Oliver) after she confesses to him that she’s menstruating. His response? “I’m a vampire.” The image of him praising her body and all that it produces is immensely powerful.

The menstrual pause

Now that cinema is finally daring to portray this kind of scene, we find ourselves asking why there are still so many people who balk at having sex during menstruation. Andrés Suro, psychologist and sexologist at MYHIXEL, a company dedicated to the sexual well-being of men and their partners, has one response. “The possible rejection by some men of sex during menstruation is mainly due to culture and, of course, to lack of information and personal prejudices. Historically, menstruation has been enveloped in taboos and misunderstandings,” he explains. “All of this has led many people, especially men, to feel uncomfortable around the presence of menstrual blood. In addition, there is a profound lack of knowledge about the physiological aspects of menstruation that we still carry with us to this day. This uncertainty can lead to uneasiness and further rejection,” he says.

At the same time, many women prefer not to have sex when they are menstruating. These cases of “menstrual pause” can be due to a range of reasons within the universe of intimate relationships. “Menstruation has been a source of shame and something we learn to hide beginning in childhood. Some periods are very abundant, or even painful, and having sex can be unpleasant for both parties. Add to the mix the taboos that exist around it, plus the relationship that each person may have with their own cycle, and for many people, it becomes unpleasant, or they limit themselves out of a fear of being rejected by the other party,” says Lucia Jiménez, psychologist and sexologist specializing in sex and couples therapy, to EL PAÍS. “When you’re bleeding, sexual life continues; whether it is masturbation, intercourse with another person, or whatever the case may be. If you are used to using erotic toys, there is no reason to stop. Even if you’re not, they can serve as a method of self-stimulation when one’s partner does not feel comfortable, or if there is some hesitation when it comes to how to manage the blood. You can use clitoral suckers, and direct the action more towards the vulva, or experiment with penetration using dildos and vibrators,” says the sexologist, who works with the online sex shop Diversual.

The issue has also entered into political discourse. Last year, at an International Women’s Day event organized by the Spanish leftist political party Podemos, politician and psychologist Irene Montero declared that, from now on, “it will be time to talk about female pleasure and the sexual desire of 60, 70 and 80-year-old women. And it will be time to talk about having sex on one’s period, and how we as women feel pleasure, and which sexual practices don’t cause us to feel it.”

The ‘vie en rouge’

Yes, it will be time to talk about it, although it’s taken too long for the moment to come. According to Gloria Steinem, the reason for this is simple: men don’t have periods. In If Men Could Menstruate she writes, “Men would convince women that intercourse was more pleasurable at ‘that time of the month.’” Her words push us to delve into the benefits of sexual encounters during menstruation. “For some people, menstruation is a time of great sexual arousal, when there is more desire and intercourse becomes more pleasurable due to the increased temperature in the vagina and the lubrication produced by the bleeding. In addition, orgasm produces uterine contractions that can facilitate the expulsion of blood and relieve cramps,” says Jiménez.

It’s necessary to continue using your normal birth control methods, as in any sexual encounter, whether or not menstruation is present. Suro points out that menstruation does not significantly increase the transmission risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). “However, some women may experience changes in the pH of the vagina or even the dilation of the uterus, which makes it a little more prone to infections. In terms of hygiene, some couples prefer to use towels to protect bedding, and choose positions that are more comfortable for them during this time of month,” she says.

Sex while menstruating is opening doors in mainstream cinema, in politics and even in pornography, even though there are still few films that include these kinds of scenes. Feminist porn director Erika Lust said in an online interview for Ruby menstrual cups that one of the reasons for this is that for the most part, the production of pornography is carried out by men. “They are not really interested in [menstruation], it is not really part of their life, so they haven’t really thought about it too much. It is probably also because we are not used to seeing it,” says Lust.

Will the arrival to commercial film of sex while menstruating break the stigma? What seems clear is that, with more women at the helm of creating audiovisual content, it will become more common to see themes reflected there that, far from forming part of the “other”, are, for us, daily life.

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