I planned to write about something else today. I was going to do a little piece to clarify the “clean” and “unclean” terminology in Leviticus for the Lent series, but I find myself unable to write it because I’ve got this thing pressing on me, and it’s drowning out everything else.
On Monday, The Gospel Coalition (TGC) posted an article entitled, “PMS: The Monthly Fight with the Flesh,” by Rachel Jones. The first time I read it, my jaw dropped, which is, in retrospect, probably the only reason TGC posted it. It has certainly gotten them a lot of clicks and re-tweets this week. It’s a sickening feeling to suspect that a Christian organization would use the shaming and spiritual condemnation of embodied females to garner web traffic…but I can’t shake it. The fact that they got a female to write it also felt like a gut punch.
I read the article a second time, and I still found it horrifying. I read it a third time to make sure I was actually giving it a fair shot. I listened to people on Twitter who were saying they didn’t find the article offensive and why. I talked it through with a few men who were charitable and willing to offer their takes on it. Still. I can’t shake off this article, written under the authority of a Christian ministry publication.
Would you do me the kind favor of considering a few words from me on this? It’s really important.
I Know What She Meant. What She Meant Isn’t What She Said
The article begins with a listing of familiar pre-menstrual symptoms that come as a result of hormonal fluctuations in the menstrual cycle. Most women will find one of the listed symptoms familiar. Physical exhaustion, heightened emotional response, and depression (not sadness–depression) are all very common in the days before menstrual flow begins. Women of every race, nation, and generation have experienced them.
The trouble with the article begins at the top with this statement (emphasis & underline added):
“Mostly we call it ‘Pre-Menstrual Syndrome’ or ‘PMS.’ I think we should call it a fight with the flesh. After all, for many women, PMS takes our battle with sin to the next level.”
Here, the author has set up a premise that women have been forced to consume and internalize since time immemorial: Menstruation and the physiological changes experienced during menstruation are spiritually dangerous.
After reading the rest of the article, it became clear to me that what Jones is trying to say is that women can use those 3-4 PMS days as a time to draw nearer to God, exercise conscious self-control, & receive blessing from it.
I think that’s what she meant, but that isn’t the message she delivered.
If she had said what I think she meant, I’d have no issue with her article…but she didn’t. She goes on in the article to say several other problematic things, but keep in mind that the only reason this article is an issue at all is that menstruation has been used for “a thousand generations” to abuse, isolate, and malign women as spiritually dangerous, emotionally hysterical, and even demonic. To this very day, these accusations are spoon-fed to women all over the world, including in the West, and so when we write biblical advice about periods, precision is necessary. There is very heavy spiritual, moral, and cultural baggage attached to women’s menstrual cycles, and without skill, precision, and humility, it’s a topic best left out of our devotional sermons about spiritual warfare.
Early on, Jones cites Galations 5:16-23, which is about the sin nature vs. the spirit nature. In these verses, Paul is saying, “Lean on the Holy Spirit, because he will guide you on the right path, and be wary of your own human inclinations, because they will keep you away from the right path.”
Under the heading of, “Don’t You Know There’s a War Going On?” Jones compares the hormonal fluctuations of menstruation to spiritual warfare, which implies demonic influence battling against God for our (humans) loyalty. She then writes:
“In some senses, the way I think about my hormones ought to be the way I think about my flesh all month long. Paul says that there’s a war going on within us.”
“As such our hormones helpfully demonstrate how our sinful nature is part of us and yet not us: in Christ, the flesh does not define us, and it need not control us.”
“Whenever we feel sinful or sorrowful, we’re moved to acknowledge our desperate natural condition and our total need for a Savior. PMS can teach us to cry out: Wretched woman that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
Jones changes “wretched man” to “wretched woman” in Romans 7:24, and she does it to personalize the verse for women in the context of her article. The gender-neutral use of “man” in this verse means that it applies to all humanity, and I am assuming Jones swapped it for woman with good intentions, but it’s not helpful.
If I had a nickel for every time history associated menstrual bleeding with demonic influence over women’s minds and spirits, I’d be one rich lady right now. Jones didn’t mean to imply something that sinister, but she did. Words matter. Handling Scripture humbly, gently, and carefully matters, and women have been punished for bleeding with bad exegesis for long enough.
Several times, Jones repeats that our bodies are not sinful, but throughout, she chooses language that implies the opposite. The hormones of menstruation cause us to sin. The hormones of our periods are a sinful plague we must battle against. Satan, who is on the prowl for sinners (she actually cites that verse), can use the weakness and sinfulness of our female-ness to “get us.” That’s the implication of the article, whether it’s what Jones meant to say…or not. Satan will have an easier time snatching us away from God because we’re women, and because our periods make us weak and “fleshly.”
The body is not sinful. Menstruation is not sinful. The physiological changes and responses we experience during menstruation are not demonic. They are not spiritual weakness. Hear me on this, Ladies; I beg you.
Menstruation is the method that God created, that God chose, and that God gave to us. It is the means by which God has allowed us to participate with Him in the creation of life. Menstruation was given to embodied females for carrying the image of God. Like male reproductive fluids, menstrual blood is a part of a life-giving process. Life, not death. Sin is death. Life belongs to God and comes from God. The parts of our nature that make life? Those aren’t sin. Those aren’t “the flesh.” Those are from God. To malign them is blasphemy.
The Curse of Eve
I’ve seen a lot of people referring to menstruation as part of “The Curse.” By this, they mean the curse God puts on Eve after the Fall in Genesis 3:16.
“He said to the woman: I will intensify your labor pains; you will bear children with painful effort. Your desire will be for your husband, yet he will rule over you.”
Genesis 3:16, CSB
There is nothing in the curse of Eve that mentions menstruation, blood, bleeding, or a uniquely feminine brand of spiritual weakness. Menstruation is not a part of the Fall. It simply is not. When we study Leviticus, menstrual blood is depicted as so holy and so set apart for only God, that men who willingly have sex with their wives during menses are sentenced to death for it. Menstruation is referred to as “her fountain,” which is another reference to its life-giving associations.
While in the days of her period flow, a woman could not go among the people and “uncover her fountain.” She was ceremonially unclean, which does not mean “dirty” or “bad” or “sinful” or “weak.” It means that she was to keep that away from the sight of anyone but God and to stay out of the Temple until her time of spilling blood–spilling life–was over. Blood = Life. Spilled Blood = Spilled Life/Death. Blood symbolizes life, and life belongs to God, which Christians would know if they bothered to study Leviticus. Women shed blood to facilitate the creation of life. We enact death and then we enact an invitation to create life, in a cycle, every 28 days. Symbols don’t get more sacred than that, now do they?
Get out of here with calling it a curse, okay? Stop doing that. For real. Just don’t.
I’ve Seen Some Things, So Hear Me Out
For roughly two years, I ran a YouTube channel about menstrual care and menstrual health. In that time, I saw some things. I saw lovely things, ugly things, and heartbreaking things. Most of all, I got a really swift education about the realities of menses in the 21st century. Running that channel was a huge eye-opener and taught me many things about life and my female-ness, but the biggest takeaway was a profound sadness about the state of female reproductive education in even the most advanced of societies.
The truth is that a vast majority of women in the developed West are abysmally under-educated about menstruation and their own reproductive anatomy.
A lot of women don’t know what a cervix is or how to find it on an anatomical chart. The number who have no idea how to identify & assess it in their own self-checks is even larger (I used to be one of them). Many women cannot identify the various parts of female genitalia by their scientific names. Some don’t even have non-scientific labels for them and refer to the entire public region as a “vagina.” The number of women who cannot even bring themselves to use that simple term also surprised me, and the various euphemisms they’ve adopted in its place are usually both ridiculous and problematic.
An astonishing number of girls and their parents believe that tampons will “ruin” or “remove” virginity, leading many parents to remove their daughters from swimming sports after menarche (the onset of a girl’s first menstrual period), accuse a daughter of sexual immorality if she is discovered using a tampon, or instill a deep sense of general shame on an adolescent during a vulnerable stage of development. The various wives’ tales I ran across–still fervently believed and practiced by many–that involve various herbs, oils, and implements inserted vaginally to deal with fertility, pathology, and birth control would shock you out of your shoes. The deep-seated self-loathing and body dysphoria related to menstruation truly astonished me. I had no idea it was “a thing” in the post-millennial developed world. It doesn’t just exist; it is the norm.
The shame is not just socially and culturally unfortunate; it is occasionally medically dangerous. Because women are conditioned to be ashamed of their periods and repulsed by them, there is a tendency on the part of many women to avoid seeking medical care when something goes wrong. Instead, they turn to what we soften with terms like “natural remedy” or “homeopathic remedy.” Almost all of these “remedies” are totally ineffective, and some of them are harmful.
Nearly every woman I encountered during my years with the YouTube channel (and there were thousands) had at least one story or recollection of a person in her life who hurt her deeply over the topic of menstruation. Sometimes it was a parent who made her associate her cycle with promiscuity and sexual shame. Sometimes, it was a boyfriend or husband who made her feel dirty, unworthy, and reviled during her period. Sometimes, it was simply public humiliation over a spot of blood that leaked where someone else could see it. In the worst stories, it was a woman with some kind of pathology in her menstrual cycle that got dismissed. The pain of women is often discounted or ignored, even in medical circles, and our cultural mandate to view women as hysterically emotional, irrational creatures contributes to the foundations of this.
There are women who are infertile today because of conditions that got left untreated for too long. There are women who suffered tremendous physical pain from PCOS, dysmenorrhea, ovarian cysts, and other conditions for years because men and women alike call any pain associated with menstruation, “just cramps,” and openly question the truthfulness of any woman who “whines about it.” Women have died from ectopic pregnancies because of this very same phenomenon. Women are routinely ignored and punished for having periods, and it’s all become so normalized that we don’t even talk about it.
In Less Fortunate Places
Fear, shame, disgust, & ignorance have all combined to keep women utterly and astonishingly clueless about how their own bodies work and how they should (and should not) care for them. So far, I’ve only been talking about women from places like North America, Europe, and Australia. You know…the parts of the world we call “developed and enlightened.”
When you add in the developing and undeveloped regions of the world, menstruation and how menstruating women are handled reveals a horror show that you almost have to see to believe. Like the girl who cannot be on a swim team because Mom & Dad think tampons would take her virginity, girls all over the globe are removed from school after menarche. Some do this because the girl is now “a woman” and must work at home, but most do it for the simple reason that their countries do not have modern sanitation or menstrual care to accommodate a menstruating girl at school. The education of girls is not important enough to overcome the inconvenience and stigma of menstrual blood.
And Then There Are the “Red Tents”
The Red Tent is a novel that deals heavily with ancient notions of femininity and menstruation, and it highlights the segregation of women who are ceremonially unclean during their periods…into the red tent. In the real world, and in the present day, women in many African nations, in India, and in parts of Southeast Asia are segregated to menstrual huts or tents in the same way that biblical women were segregated under Mosaic Law (we will discuss this in the Leviticus series when we get to relevant chapters). The women in these huts/tents are exposed to the elements, and because they are generally in the woods or a far-removed location from their families, they are frequently victimized by human predators. The number of women who become rape victims in the menstrual hut is beyond tragic; it is infuriating. Once raped, the woman is generally considered permanently tainted, and she is never accepted in her home again.
In South America and parts of Asia, there still remain pockets of people who believe that demons take over women because they are emotional and spiritually weaker. They believe demons are heavily-involved, therefore, in menstruation. Thankfully, those belief systems are largely dying out, but are they really? If they’re dying out, then why are there poorly-worded articles about periods as spiritual battlegrounds showing up in my Twitter feed from the United States? It’s a legit question. Why?
In my own female experiences, PMS doesn’t show up as irritability. It has the dangerous capacity for kick-starting a long cycle of depression. Like Jones meant to say with her article, that makes PMS a perfect time for me to pray, to be vigilant about my emotional state, and to draw near to God. But it isn’t spiritual warfare. It’s plain ol’ suffering. Suffering is a real thing! Creation groans for its Creator, and we’re a part of that. Sin and its corruption left us to suffer disease, pain, and death, and our bodies begin to die from the moment they are conceived–even if we resist sin, these things will happen to us. God, however, is still offering eternal life. You can go to him in your times of distress, and you can trust him to help you cope with whatever you’re going through.
The way we talk about periods is important. Women have been punished for having periods since back before memory, and occasionally that punishment comes from somebody quoting the Bible. We’ve repeatedly attempted to pile divine condemnation on top of cultural disgust, and it has done inestimable harm to women, to girls, and to the way that men are taught to treat them.
Menstruation is not a curse. It’s not a punishment. It’s not a sin.
This is why the way a Gospel Coalition article speaks about periods, women, and the spiritual side of menstruation matters. It’s a big deal. The implications are great. Rachel Jones’ article should not have been published without some editing and clarification. I don’t think she meant harm, but harm was done.
See you next time.