Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Are There Limits to Empathy?

March 17th, 2014 by Chris Bobel

Readers—I need your help!

Next month, I will participate in a friendly debate at the Museum of Modern Art about Sputniko!’s provocative piece “Menstrutation Machine.” We’ve written about Menstruation Machine on re:Cycling before. In short, the metal device is equipped with a blood-dispensing system and electrodes that stimulate the lower abdomen, thus replicating the pain and bleeding of a five-day menstrual period.

Here’s the video that the artist created to simulate what it was like for one fictional boy (Takashi) when he wore the device while socializing with a friend in the streets of Tokyo.

The debate is part of a series Design and Violence-an “ongoing online curatorial experiment that explores the manifestations of violence in contemporary society by pairing critical thinkers with examples of challenging design work.”

The exact debate resolution is still being worked out, but it will revolve around this question of EMPATHY.

That is, what is the potential of “Menstruation Machine,” specifically, or any other object, to engender empathy in another?

Need more examples? Think Empathy Belly (thanks to sister blogger Chris Hitchcock who conjured that connection).

But we can extend the concept to ANY experience designed to expressly help an individual see inside someone else’s reality. Think “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes”, the International Men’s March to Stop Rape, Sexual Assault & Gender Violence, “a playful opportunity for men to raise awareness in their community about the serious causes, effects and remediations to men’s sexualized violence against women”; The Blind Café; or the TV show 30 Days, “An unscripted, documentary-style program where an individual is inserted into a lifestyle that is completely different from his or her upbringing, beliefs, religion or profession for 30 days.”

So, dear readers, I am hungry for you to share your thoughts as I prepare for the debate.

What do YOU think?

Can design help us be more empathic?

Can a non-menstruator ever really know what it is like to menstruate?

Can a temporary simulated experience, like this or any other, build a bridge?

Are there limits to what we can know of another’s lived experience, even if we can, for a short while, FEEL the pain?

9 responses to “Are There Limits to Empathy?”

  1. Elizabeth Kissling says:

    This project has really captured public imagination! Chris Hitchcock’s 2011 piece is actually the second time it appeared at re:Cycling. We first wrote about it in 2010:

  2. Chris Bobel says:

    You are so right, Liz! Typically for ever-alert you, you posted about this first in 2010 (and I meant to hyperlink to that post, but forgot, in my rush).

    Thanks for the reminder!

  3. Elizabeth Kissling says:

    Oh, I wasn’t looking for credit as much as marveling that after four years, this is still attracting so much attention. Other worthy projects dealing with menstruation don’t seem to pop up again and again like this one (for instance, Giovanna Chesler’s Period? never got the attention it deserves, in my opinion, but maybe the new online licensing agreement will help change that).

  4. Roxanne Partridge says:

    Fascinating. At first blush: Perhaps an experience of the Menstrual Machine is less about “knowing the lived experience of menstruation” as it may be about “deepening into the unknowing of the lived experience of menstruation”? To be vulnerable and hospitable to a foreign experience seems to me like an opening to a dialogical space. I wonder if the limitation is not the frame of empathy itself? Does empathy include the co-creation of a menstrual reality between menstruator and non-menstruator?…. I look forward to reading your follow-up to this debate, Chris!

  5. Chris Bobel says:

    I think the fact that Menstruation Machine exhibited at MoMA has a lot to do it with it…the piece got lots of attention through that venue and it seems to persist. I agree, though, that Chesler’s pioneering film deserves more attention. I, too, hope the online access will mean more viewership. The film was so ahead of its time in a lot of ways.

  6. Chris Bobel says:

    Leave it to you, Roxanne, to help us stretch beyond the obvious. Love the way you are challenging the frame itself! Thank you! So much to ponder.

  7. WOW! Such an interesting concept to think about. Thanks for initiating this Chris! So much to think about….

    I’ve often joked with my massage therapists that all men should be required to have a psoas muscle release done in order to “feel” a menstrual cramp. It is one of the most exquisite and excruciating pains I’ve ever experienced in my life. It is sharp, powerful, and fleeting much like the menstrual cramps I experience with my cycle. Personally, I think experiencing that release technique for 30 seconds could make great strides in creating empathy towards menstruating bodies. It doesn’t address the experience of bleeding but it certainly leaves the recipient with a very clear memory of the physical pain that many females go through once a month.

    And, if you’ve never had a psoas release, do it. You lower back, hips, and butt will thank you….particularly if you sit for long periods. It’s not pleasant and relaxing but it is effective! :-)

    Looking forward to reading more this debate!

  8. Chris Bobel says:

    Thanks for writing Jen. I never heard of a psoas muscle, much less its release! And hearing about it led me immediately to *i don’t want to ASK for pain…why would I do that?* which I suspect is the kind of reaction most of us have to someone else’s pain, including, relevantly, to a non menstruator trying out the Menstruation Machine. So many of us are pain averse (which I am sure is protective and instinctual) so convincing someone to volunteer to experience another’s suffering is at least half the battle…then there’s the question of what one DOES with that new experience.

  9. David Linton says:

    This is a fascinating topic and opens up larger issues as well. In the world of Disability Studies the question of empathy is sometimes raised as when students are invited to spend a day using a wheelchair or blindfolded in order to “feel what it’s like” to have a disability. But being “crip for a day” falls fall short of the lived experience and the role player always knows that they can stand or see whenever they like. Having a disability is a full bodied social, psychological and physical experience. Similarly, having simulated cramps or coping with simulated blood falls far short of having a menstrual cycle, especially aspects having to do with coping with the taboos and social stigma women deal with. If men conclude, “Oh, that’s what it’s like,” they really don’t know what it’s like. Speaking as a man, I’m sure that I will never know “what it’s like.” In the area of disability though, perhaps there is one exception: architecture and design students might benefit from being required to act as though they have a mobility impairment as a way of understanding access issues and the meaning of “universal design.” One good exploration of the topic of men experiencing menstruation appears in the episode of South Park where, following his sex reassignment surgery, Mr./Mrs. Garrison frets that she will not be a “real woman” until having a period.

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.