Two months ago someone broke into my office at work. They didn’t steal anything of monetary value so, in the larger picture, it’s not really that big of a deal. The campus police think that probably they were looking for laptops or other technology items that were easy to steal, which they did not find. But they did steal some random things, like books on race and class inequality and my red conference bag from the last Society for Menstrual Cycle Research meetings in June 2011. The books they took are probably worth almost nothing and I have plenty of conference bags and life will go on. What I found interesting, though, is the many interactions and feelings I experienced about this stolen red bag.
When the police came they of course took an inventory of all things stolen. I had to tell them what the red bag looked like and what it said on the bag. I’m pretty sure the thirty-something male police officer who recorded the incident did not even write down the fact that the bag said “Society for Menstrual Cycle Research” on it. In fact, when I told him what the bag said, he and my colleague standing next to me had a conversation about how the thief most likely ditched the bag as soon as they realized what it said and laughed. It’s probably true. What thief would want to walk around with a red bag that said “Society for Menstrual Cycle Research” on it?
Eventually two female police officers were involved as well (as investigators at the scene). The two female officers never really reacted to the fact that the red bag said “Society for Menstrual Cycle Research” and reacted with no emotion whatsoever about it. I couldn’t tell whether they thought it was unimportant or whether they did not want to deal with what the bag said. Once everyone knew that no items of monetary value were stolen, it was very clear that the incident was not of priority to everyone. I completely understood since, I, too, knew that I would not really miss the items stolen. But every colleague who found out what bag was stolen laughed at the mention of the red stolen bag. It was almost as if this red bag made it okay to think the break-in was not that important. That there was no way to track down a thief of a Menstrual Cycle Research bag because a smart thief would get rid of that bag the minute they could.
Did all of this happen the way it did simply because of what the stolen red bag said on it? Is this because of the mere mention of menstruation? And why did I feel slightly uncomfortable the whole time the police were involved? And why did I know ahead of time that there would be no police follow-up about the missing bag (or whether I had found anything else missing over time)?
It crossed my mind at the time that this is what it must feel like to suspect racism in interactions but not be able to prove it.
In the end, I don’t miss the things stolen, but I do feel like something else was going on in all of the interactions about the red bag and the lack of police follow-up on this incident. However subtle the stigma surrounding menstruation and however unimportant the bag is to me in the end, I still feel strange about the incident two months later.
To me this signifies the very, very subtle ways in which stigma works its power and the very, very subtle ways norms are reified. I also have lots of questions remaining in my head that highlight my mixed feelings about the incident: Who cares if a Menstrual Cycle Research bag is stolen? Should I really care that I have less public evidence that I go to such a conference or study menstruation and menopause? Should I really care that people don’t want to think or talk about Menstrual Cycle Research? Should I care that all of my colleagues laughed, and that I laughed once or twice too, to think of a thief running around with a Menstrual Cycle Research bag? Should police really investigate the loss of such a trivial item? My unsettled feelings about this experience make me want to at least write this blog post about it, even if it’s not important enough to keep thinking about after this. I’d love to hear if readers have had similar experiences of dealing publicly with the fact that they study menstruation, because I think this is one example of just that – a menstrual cycle researcher having contact (however insignificant) with the real world.