Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Menstrual Sex: The Last Taboo in Advertising?

December 6th, 2011 by David Linton

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For nearly a century, ads and other promotional materials for menstrual products have been based on claims that the pad, tampon or, more recently, cup or pill, would make it possible for women to participate in activities that their periods would otherwise have interfered with.  Furthermore, one would be able to do so without anyone knowing that a period was underway.  References to freedom and secrecy, expressed in a myriad of overt or euphemistic terms and images, have been ubiquitous.  Yet, there has been one constraint marketers have hesitated to defy.  Until now.

Surely the taboos against intercourse during menstruation are among the oldest and most wide-spread of all cultural prohibitions.  And while previously ads have suggested that one’s romantic engagements – dancing, dating, going to parties, etc. – could be continued or even enhanced by using the right pad or tampon, no company ever stated that women could have an active, joyful sex life regardless of, or even despite, a regular menstrual flow.  The new series of ads for Instead Softcup boldly challenges that taboo.

But not only does it reject the taboo, in doing so it depicts women in a sexually assertive way that makes menstrual sex look like fun.  The ad on this page is one in a series that playfully mocks one of the claims usually made for feminine hygiene products: “12-hour leak protection so you can sleep.  Or not.”

The photograph is striking for many reasons.  There’s a voyeuristic quality as we gaze from a high angle at an intimate sexual encounter narrowly framed by dark walls and an open door.  Though we only see the couple’s naked legs, the image is made particularly titillating by the fact that the woman has kept on her somewhat spiky heeled shoes, suggesting urgency and spontaneity as well as a hint of kinkiness.  What’s more, the woman is on top, an image of assertiveness and power reflected in the text, “So now your period can’t stop you from indulging in all your favorite activities, whatever they may be.”  Furthermore the “woman superior” position (as it used to be called in sex manuals) also implies that the cup is so effective that there’s no danger of having your blood stream out onto your partner, even when you’re straddling him.

Another ad in the series uses a similar framing technique showing a young couple who are kissing.  They are glimpsed against a window through dark, heavy drapes in a dimly lit living room decorated in an old-fashioned style with flowered wall paper and a formal mantle upon which rests a delicate tea pot.  Here the image suggests the rejection of old (parental) ways that held that women could not enjoy sex while menstruating.

And then there’s the clever name of the product: Instead Softcup.  The first word is a little dig at the competition; the second aims to reassure the customer that the product is comfortable and easy to use.  The company’s web site also takes a little shot at the chief competitor with the slogan, “No Strings,” but otherwise it’s a fairly straight-forward, even sober, site with video interviews with reassuring doctors and the usual endorsements and images of happy, young women of widely varied ethnic origins.

The marketing campaign is multi-faceted including teams of women staffing tables outside colleges giving away free samples.

Time will tell if Softcup succeeds in dislodging pads and tampons from their market dominance.  Readers are invited to comment on the likely outcomes of the campaign.

4 responses to “Menstrual Sex: The Last Taboo in Advertising?”

  1. Mindy Erchull says:

    David, do you know the magazine in which this ad appeared? As someone who’s studied both advertisements for femcare products and female sexual agency, I’m really intrigued as to how a typical consumer might react to this ad… Thanks so much for sharing.

  2. Tomi-Ann says:

    While I totally love this on many levels, I do think it’s important to be cautiously critical of media’s ruthless promotion of women’s 24-7 sexual availability. A high-heeled, perfectly shaved, denuded (and non-bloody) sexuality is our primary value. This isn’t exactly an ad for menstrual sex is it? It’s an ad for a product that makes it so that you’re NOT having menstrual sex, because the blood is not there. Furthermore, for some women, sometimes, our periods are a time when we can say NO to sex if we want. This product allows us to have sex on our period, sure, but it also means there’s no more “I have a headache” excuse available to us. Just something to think about…

  3. Laura Wershler says:

    I totally agree with you Tomi-Ann. I love this and hate this at the same time. The issue of 24/7 sexual availability has been on my mind for years. To whose benefit? Take the libido inhibiting or annihilating effects of the Pill or menstrual suppression drugs: These contraceptive drugs make women more sexually available to their partners, but less sexually available to themselves. And you’re right about how this isn’t really period sex at all. Where’s the blood?

  4. Danielle says:

    on the contrary, you CAN still use the “I have a headache” excuse…just not the I’m on my period excuse. In fact, if I don’t feel like having sex with or without period, or for any other reason, I won’t. Also, this isn’t a product intended ONLY for sex. It’s a fem-hy product, not a sex toy. I know plenty of people who enjoy period-sex. If you use the product but want some blood during your period-sex, then take it out and don’t use it during sex. I think the ad is just pointing out only one of their features that is unique to the product while there are also others to it (maybe some better and some worse than the alternatives). Ultimately, it’s another option out there for women, and that’s a good thing. Personally, I’m a fan!

Readers should note that statements published in Menstruation Matters are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Society as a whole.