From pussyhats to period-proof underwear, advocates have been busting through social stigmas to raise awareness about reproductive rights over the last couple of years. The fight to end period shaming has gone mainstream, as 24 states introduced bills to exempt menstrual products from sales tax (aka the tampon tax) and a small but mighty cohort of organic tampon and menstrual pad companies have launched, including Lola and Cora. (Other companies, like Maxim and Lunapads, have been around much longer.) While roughly half the human population menstruates for decades at a time, talking about periods and birth is just about as bad as walking in on your parents having sex.
Yesterday, more than 800 people gathered at an event space in downtown Manhattan for Cycles + Sex, a day of panels, workshops and product showcases about menstrual, hormonal, reproductive and sexual health. Natural light filled the space, and enormous framed posters of provocative images hung everywhere: red jelly oozing out of a doughnut, milk dripping from the tips of balloons. (The posters harkened back to the controversial Thinx ads that appeared on the New York City subway in 2015, featuring models in underwear and tank tops posing alongside photos of dripping egg yolks and juicy grapefruits.) In front of a 7-foot blow-up poster of the jelly doughnut, people took photos holding signs that read, “Pull out your politics” and “Currently bleeding,” then posted them on social media.
The crowd—mostly millennial women, but also some men and a few babies—came to hear doctors, advocates, lawyers, life coaches, nutritionists and tech founders talk about everything from why your period doesn’t have to suck, to lady-part problems (like painful sex and endometriosis), to the politics of women’s private parts and what the f*** happens during childbirth. Ricki Lake and filmmaker Abby Epstein gave a sneak peak of their upcoming documentary on hormonal birth control, Sweetening the Pill, and Pleasure Chest, the adult sex toy store (and event partner), set up a pop-up shop and offered sex-ed demonstrations throughout the day. Alisa Vitti, a nutritionist and author, discussed “the powerful uses of women’s bodily secretions. Breast milk being used to train athletes in Japan! The nutrients in menstrual blood! I was blown away by facts she shared about the powerful uses of these secretions that are otherwise seen as gross and bad,” says Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, a leading writer and lawyer, who spoke on a panel about her advocacy for equitable menstrual policy in America.
Cycles + Sex was essentially a love fest for everything from birth to bodily fluids, and it arrived at a critical moment. The Trump administration is working to defund Planned Parenthood, which provides cancer screenings, STD testing, birth control and basic health care for women who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it. When it comes to sex ed, less than half of U.S. high schools and just one-fifth of middle schools address the 16 recommended topics of sexual health education, according to a 2014 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. And across the country, less than 40 percent of schools made sex and health education a requirement for graduation.
Two birth doulas and an activist are behind the event: Ashley Spivak and Natalia Hailes, founders of Brilliant Bodies, and Lauren Bille, an activist, community builder and co-founder of the mass meditation movement The Big Quiet. Spivak and Hailes spoke with Newsweek about the inspiration for Cycles + Sex and why talking about private parts is more important than ever before.
What inspired you to create Cycles + Sex?
Natalia Hailes: Our clients! And our work as doulas and in the reproductive health space. There’s a disconnect we have with our bodies. People get pregnant without taking the time to understand their bodies’ cycles. Or they go through what appear to be fertility issues from a lack of understanding of their cycles. So we had been thinking, how can we help people be more prepared? How can we talk to younger kids? How can we educate people and help answer some of those questions that are crucial for our wellbeing? Then we realized, there wasn’t anything out there putting it all together: reproductive health, menstrual health, hormonal health, sexual health, and reproductive justice. And Cycles + Sex was born.
Ashley Spivak: You hear the word reproduce, and if you’re not in that moment of wanting to have kids, you think, This doesn't apply to me. But we’re all cycling all the time, and these issues apply to everyone.
Talking about periods can be hard enough, but why is pleasure so absent from our conversations about sex and reproduction?
Hailes: Pleasure is such an important part of wellness and one that's often overlooked. And what we know is that when it comes to sexual pleasure (or lack of it), understanding our bodies and cycles is crucial. Anything can have an impact in how we experience pleasure, from the products we’re putting in our bodies, to hormonal and cycle disruptions, so making that connection was very important for us. Pleasure deserves to be part of the conversation and people need to understand that it is OK to want it. We even talked about orgasmic births and the possibility of feeling pleasure during childbirth!
Why do these issues matter?
Hailes: When you're pregnant, you’re thinking about being pregnant, but not so much about your cycle or your sexuality as a whole. That’s one of the main takeaways we wanted people to have: This is all connected, and the sooner you get in touch with that, the healthier your relationship with your body will be.
Spivak: There's so much emphasis on the period, but no one knows anything about the other days of their cycle, or that there even is a cycle. There’s so much information that can be gained about your health from knowing that cycle: signs of endometriosis, estrogen imbalances. You can have the best practitioner in the world, but we’re the ones with ourselves 24/7, and we have the most access to our bodies and information. Having the tools to be your own Nancy Drew and say to your doctor, “The Luteal Phase of my cycle is really long,” or “I’m only bleeding for two days.” That’s giving info that an imbalance is happening.
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What challenges did you face creating Cycles + Sex?
Spivak: The hardest part for us was in terms of gender. We had to use the word woman and lady in a lot of our panels: “Lady Part Probs” and “Finally, the Female Orgasm.” We included asterisks to make sure we weren’t being exclusive, and to recognize that not everyone who identifies as a woman has those parts, and vice versa. We tried to address that as best as we could.
So you had a marketplace...
Spivak: Pleasure Chest had a full pop-up shop. You go into the store, and it’s super intimidating, and you’re like, “What the heck is that thing?” At Cycles + Sex, they really talked people through how you can use toys to enhance pleasure and intimacy. They did something on communication with your partner during sex. They also did some bondage stuff, which for our audience was probably different...and new.
Hailes: They did a workshop about oral sex and expanding your orgasms. There were so many people, just sitting there in awe.
Spivak: It’s like when you’re a kid, and you start reading Cosmo or watching porn—wherever you got that info from the first time—and it was kind of cool to go back to that feeling but get it from people who really freaking know what they’re talking about.
What role did politics play in the event?
Hailes: With the election, this was a conversation that couldn’t wait. As concerned as we are about what’s happening with the [Trump] administration and the changes that could potentially occur, there’s so much good stuff happening. It really felt like we started a movement.
Spivak: Everyone right now is so receptive to making change. This is my granola side talking, but people are coming into their power in a new way, and wanting to take action in a new way. To do that, we have to know ourselves and feel comfortable in ourselves. That requires education and support and community. With fertility awareness, it doesn’t matter who’s the president; you’re taking charge of your own cycle.
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