Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Misogyny, Medicine, or Menstrual Madness?

February 29th, 2012 by Elizabeth Kissling

Guest Post by Lydia Aponte — Marymount Manhattan College

In Professor David Linton’s Social Construction and Images of Menstruation course, our class watched two documentaries involving menstruation and menstrual suppression. Both Period: The End of Menstruation? and Red Moon addressed what is becoming an increasingly concerning topic: now that menstrual suppression in the form of birth control is becoming more and more readily available – and is even being promoted to specifically stop or slow the menstrual cycle – is menstruation necessary?

Many women, including myself, have asked themselves this very question – some because of the monthly cramps that have reduced us to a fetal position, some because of the awkward situations that menstrual stigma has put us in. Yet, many women still do not question it because menstruation is believed to be a natural occurrence that must happen because, well, that’s just life. What happens, on the other hand, when a man questions the necessity of menstruation? Or even further, does something about it? Meet Dr. Elsimar Coutinho.

From São Paulo, Brazil, Dr. Coutinho appeared briefly in Red Moon avidly disputing the necessity of menstruation. He believes that it is not necessary, because “what is the use of an ovulation if it does not result in a pregnancy?” I was initially stunned by his intensity when it came to the subject, not only because of his stance against menstruation, but because of the role he seemed to be playing. It seemed as if Dr. Coutinho were playing the “mad scientist,” distributing birth control to women and spreading the word that menstruation was “unnecessary” and “unnatural.” So I decided to look up this “character,” and came upon Dr. Coutinho’s biography page. Of course, the first paragraph of his bio was nothing but praise: “Dr. Elsimar Coutinho is, unquestionably, a man born to make history. For more than 50 years, his research and discoveries in the fields of human health and reproduction have broken paradigms and brought down millenary concepts.” (For a man who made history, I had never heard his name before Red Moon.)

Yet, I was more taken aback by how he had been quoted regarding menstruation. “My greatest contribution to humanity was to realize that menstruation was unnecessary, a disposable phenomena.” (Coutinho, E.M.) Not only is a doctor refuting the biological necessity of menstruation, which alone is jarring, but a man is refuting the necessity of a cycle highly regarded by many women, including myself, as a symbol of womanhood and deeming it “disposable.” Not only is Dr. Coutinho refuting it, he is actively taking measures to suppress menstruation through his research and practices.

If menstruation equals womanhood to so many, and Dr. Coutinho believes that menstruation is unnecessary, what is he saying about the beliefs and values that many people hold in regards to femininity? According to his philosophy, those,too, would be disposable. Dr. Coutinho’s suggestions — although questionable — have caused me to ask these questions: has something I regarded a natural part of my female biology been unnecessary this entire time? Is the human body wrong, and is Coutinho seeking to correct it with medicine? Or is misogyny still a key player in the menstrual realm?

6 responses to “Misogyny, Medicine, or Menstrual Madness?”

  1. Jacqui says:

    If Coutinho had sprouted horns during that Red Moon segment, no-one watching would have been surprised. Coutinho postulates that with his implants, we would be closer to what a woman’s life was a hundred years ago : back to back pregnancies and long periods of breast-feeding would have meant that women would have menstruated far less than they do now. And I guess if someone could prove that there were no qualitative difference between that pregnant/lactating state and life with an implant, then I guess if that floats your boat, why not? But the problem is that he can’t prove that. He can create the same anovulatory state, sure, but using synthetic hormones substantially different from our own hormones (no patents to be had off natural hormones) and in doses way above what the body produces. Not to mention sending the message to your body that you’re pregnant for 15 years, or however long you keep the thing. If I were my body (er… wait up… I am!) after 15 years of ‘pregnancy’ I would have no desire to be pregnant ever again. But I may need fertility drugs, hormone-based of course…
    Doctor Coutinho is just one more mad scientist selling a dream whose long-term effects he can only guess at. And women everywhere are unpaid participants in a long-term clinical trial. And while we’re so focused on menstrual suppression, we’re being doubly played because we’re missing out on the profound connection to be had with our own bodies, our own cycles, our own health. The kind of empowerment that comes from true body literacy, an experience that can be deeply enriching for every woman and one where Coutinho and co. won’t make a dime.

  2. Elizabeth Kissling says:

    I’m so tired of hearing about the menstrual cycles of Paleolithic hunter-gatherer women. For one thing, they rarely lived past age 30, so having a menstrual cycle seems like a pretty damn good trade-off for the longevity of our era.

    Not to mention the selectivity of these menstrual suppression advocates. Why do they focus only on this one thing? Paleolithic women didn’t shave their legs and armpits and use hot wax to remove their pubic hair — all of which carry health risks (seriously — look up the research on infections due to nicks and cuts and burns and infectious diseases spread by that wax) but American women are expected and encouraged to routinely remove all body hair from the eyebrows on down.

    Nor did Paleolithic women eat starvation diets to look like fashion models — not by choice, anyway — and American women are constantly told we suffer from a trumped-up obesity crisis and we should eat less (and that we should get back into the kitchen and cook more food for the rest of our families).

    And even if these things were true of Paleolithic women, why would I make health care decisions based on what my prehistoric ancestors did 80,000 years ago?!? I live in a different environment, with different demands, and probably, a different body.

  3. Paula Derry says:

    If you’re interested, I analyze the evolutionary-argument idea in my commentary “Is menstruation obsolete?” in the 2007, volume 955, issue of the British Medical Journal, page 334.

  4. Lydia says:

    Thank you all for your input! I really do wonder what Dr. Coutinho’s genuine intention is, if his beliefs are so…questionable. Paula, I will definitely read over your piece. In theory, menstrual suppression seems like an incredibly easy option,especially with the medical attention that is on it today. The question of menstruation’s necessity is one thing, but the enacting of it’s suppression is another. It surprises me how many people aren’t aware of what this could mean, and what doctors like Coutinho are presenting.

  5. […] by Dr Elsimar Coutinho, an early developer of many hormonal birth control methods, argues that women’s hormones and their peaks and troughs are always “unnatural” and “dangerous” for ou…, because cave women had fewer periods than we do […]

  6. […] by Dr Elsimar Coutinho, an early developer of many hormonal birth control methods, argues that women’s hormones and their peaks and troughs are always “unnatural” and “dangerous” for ou…, because cave women had fewer periods than we do […]

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