‘Show me!’ a Prison Guard says to the Menstruating Visitor

IMG_2529Every once in while the disparate worlds I travel in collide.

This week when I was trawling the aggregating criminal justice sites to keep abreast of the news (My 2013 book, Chasing Gideon, is about the failed promise our our right-to-counsel for the poor), I stumbled on a menstruation story.

A news item in the Nashville Scene describes a woman who was visiting someone at a local prison in Clifton, TN. When prison guards found an unopened menstrual pad in her pocket, she told them she was having her period. They made her step into the bathroom, whip down her pants and show them her bleeding crotch, she alleges in court documents–though admittedly not in those exact words. (And this, after she offered what she considered a less-humiliating alternative: peeing in the toilet so they could see her pinkish urine.)

According to the legal complaint which is filed, confusingly, with a date stamp of January 22, 2016, the guards said she either had to submit to the search or forfeit the right to ever visit the prisoner.

She submitted.

But afterwards, she filed suit in U.S. District Court, Middle District of Tennessee, against the prison, owned and run by a private company called Corrections Corporation of America.

Referred to only as Jane Doe, “[b]ecause of the extremely humiliating and embarrassing nature of the facts alleged in her Complaint,” she is arguing that her constitutional rights have been violated.

According to the complaint: She was deprived of her “rights to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, equal protection of the laws, and the right against deprivation of liberty and privacy without due process of law.”

Clearly I have to do a little more digging here. I mean, what is the legal precedence here? Do prison guards across the country routinely check women’s vaginas for contraband? We hear about it happening all the time with the prisoners themselves…but is this also true of folks who are just visiting?

The Curse


From the flyleaf of the The Curse: The Curse examines the culture of concealment that surrounds menstruation and the devastating impact such secrecy has on women’s physical and psychological health. Karen Houppert combines reporting on the potential safety problems of sanitary products—such as dioxin-laced tampons—with an analysis of the way ads, movies, books (from Stephen King’s Carrie to The Diary of Anne Frank), and women’s magazines foster a “menstrual etiquette” that leaves women more likely to tell their male colleagues about an affair than to carry an unopened tampon down the hall to the bathroom. Industry-generated instructional films define the parameters of acceptable behavior and teach young girls that bleeding is naughty, irrepressible evidence of sexuality. In the process, confident girls learn to be self-conscious teens.

And when these girls grow up, their periods evolve from embarrassing to “debilitating.” Drawing on scant evidence, today’s media have proclaimed PMS the scourge of the decade. America is apparently a nation of cranky women.

But the hush surrounding menstruation makes it “impolite” to challenge such assumptions. Houppert argues that industry ad campaigns have effectively stymied consumer debate, research, and safety monitoring of the sanitary protection industry. By telling girls and women how to think and talk about menstruation, the mostly male-dominated media have set a tone that shapes women’s experiences for them, defining what they are allowed to feel about their periods, their bodies, and their sexuality.


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Press and jacket blurbs:

Katha Pollitt in The Guardian’s /London Review of Books: “In taking on the subject, Houppert violates the central tenet of what she calls ‘menstrual etiquette’, the complex code of female behaviour intended to spare others, ie men, the awareness that women have periods, let alone, heaven forfend, that a particular woman is having her period right now – as, at any moment, about one in four females between the ages of roughly twelve and fifty is doing.”

Peggy Orenstein, author of Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap: “Karen Houppert’s fierce and witty examination of menstruation shows how the natural workings of women’s bodies–from our periods to our sexuality–are medicalized, sanitized, taken from us and sold back at a profit…The Curse will make you question the weird furtiveness that surrounds ‘that time of the month.’ And if, while reading it, you occasionally feel enraged, believe me, it won’t be because you have PMS.”

Kathleen O’Grady in the Toronto Globe and Mail: “Any woman reading Houppert’s book will bristle with anger at almost every page, but the intellectual rigor and vivacity that mark The Curse throughout come with a good dose of humor.”

Alex Kates Shulman, author of Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen: “This smart and lively report shows convincingly that the only real ruse of menstruation is the unwarranted secrecy and sexual moralism surrounding it, which have long served to keep women in their places.”

Sharon Thompson, author of Going All the Way: Teenage Girls’ Tales of Sex, Romance and Pregnancy: “In the witty, on-point tradition of Deirdre English and Barbara Ehrenreich, The Curse takes the brown paper wrapper of a bloody subject of the utmost importance to girls and women.”

Reviewed in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA):  “The Curse: Confronting the Last Unmentionable Taboo: Menstruation… of interest to anyone concerned with woman’s health, the relationship between industry and health, or the development of adolescent girls.”


DiaryDoll and Me–on the CBC

Suppose the icon bled?

Suppose the icon bled?

Here’s a segment I did on the CBC’s The Current with Anna Maria Tremonti this morning, riffing on tennis player Heather Watson’s reference to “girl things” contributing to her loss in the Australian Open. Also on the show was Annabel Croft, former tennis player and founder of DiaryDoll, a British company that makes waterproof panties so women can double-up their protection.

Keeping your periods secret, forever! Hooray. During the interview, Croft refers to women “panicking” in work meetings when they’ve got their periods but don’t want to slip out to the bathroom to change their tampon or pad. Heaven forfend. Better to wear both tampons and water-proof panties.

The company website flashes a Marilyn Monroe-esque figure whose white dress flips up and down to reveal her pristine panties–a reference to the Seven Year Itch scene where Monroe stands over a heating vent. From the company website:

Made in Britain, DiaryDolls are completely washable and look and feel exactly like your favourite pants, giving you extra time when you need it most. 

Worn together with your normal protection, nobody need ever know!

DiaryDoll …we’ve got your back covered!

The graphics on the DiaryDoll website show a pregnant woman, too. That one has me puzzled. Are they suggesting the panties should be worn by pregnant women because maybe they have to pee really bad when they are sitting in the above meeting, “panicking?” Or is in case the pregnant woman might spot–and if so, are they supposed to wear these special panties every single day, just in case? Or is it because a woman might miscarry? Or her water break? I’m so confused.

But, ahh. Protective panties. I’m so glad they’re back.

Protective panties. You've come a long way, Baby! Or have you?

Protective panties. You’ve come a long way, Baby! Or have you?

Rosie: I’m Bleedin’ but I’m Strong

Pop in a plug, girlie, and weld those bombers.

Pop in a plug, girlie, and weld those bombers.

As tennis player Heather Watson refers to “girl things” in explaining her loss at the Australian Open and the press jumps on the conversation about whether elite athletes are truly hindered by menstruation, keep in mind that this is not a new conversation.

The news cycle–wait, the news cycles? Doesn’t that render it unfit?–has a tendency to investigate this matter at politically expedient moments. Check out my 2007 New York Times op-ed on how, during the 1870s and 1880s when Americans were debating higher education for women, there was a rash of studies revealing that women’s menstrual cycles rendered them unsuitable for sustained mental and physical labor.

Then when World War II rolled around and Uncle Sam needed those women in the factories, the government released a propaganda film, Strictly Personal, telling them to stop their belly-aching about bleeding. The war effort had no room for neurotic slackers who tried to cut out of work early just because they were getting their periods.

Post war, when the soldiers came home and the government was urging Rosie-the-Riveter to take off her hard hat and put on her apron, there was suddenly research showing, for example, that women typed slower when they were menstruating. A woman’s place is in the home, of course, the studies “proved.”

A ‘Sanitized’ History of Product Ads

santowelsContrary to popular opinion–not, mind you, that this is the kind of opinionated debate you’ll see on Meet the Press Sunday mornings–advertising of menstrual products is not new. It’s been around along time. As long ago as 1908, Sears was advertising “Antiseptic Sanitary Towels” (see above). And if that didn’t work for you, never fear. You had options: Lister’s Towels, say, or Hartmann’s Hygienic Wood Wool Diapers which sounds, hmm, scratchy.


Author photo Houppert, Karen_TANIA KARPEKINAKAREN HOUPPERT was the Editor of Baltimore City Paper and a contributing writer for The Washington Post magazine. She freelances for many magazines, covering social and political issues.

A former staff writer for The Village Voice for nearly ten years, she has won several awards for her coverage of gender politics, including a National Women’s Political Caucus Award and a 2003 Newswomen’s Club of New York Front Page Award. She was an ASME National Magazine Award finalist, twice and has won numerous fellowships, grants and residencies including a 2013 John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim Reporting Fellow, a 2012 John Jay Public Welfare Reporting Fellow, a 2008 Kaiser Media Fellow, multiple Nation Institute Investigative grants, a 2011 Council on Contemporary Families Media Award for Print, a 2010 Lucy Grealy memorial writing grant, a Casey Journalism fellowship, a MacDowell Colony residency, two Mabou Mines artist residencies, and a New York State Council on the Arts grant. While serving as Editor of Baltimore City Paper her staff won 20 awards in 2016 alone from the Maryland, DC, Delaware Press Association.

Houppert’s reporting has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, Newsday, The Nation, Slate, Salon, Mother Jones, The Village Voice, Ms, Glamour, Mademoiselle, Redbook, Self, and Parenting.

She is the author of three nonfiction books, a contributor to five, and co-author of the Obie-award winning play “Boys in the Basement” based on her trial coverage of the real-life rape in Glen Ridge, New Jersey—as well as several other plays.

Her first book, The Curse: Confronting the Last Unmentionable Taboo, Menstruation (pub Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999) is an investigation of the sanitary protection industry and an exploration of the cultural history of menstruation. Houppert’s second book, Home Fires Burning: Married to the Military—for Better or Worse (pub Ballantine, 2005) chronicles a year in the life of various military wives whose husbands are deployed in the Middle East to see how feminism has and has not kept pace with military family policy. Her most recent book, Chasing Gideon: The Elusive Quest for Poor People’s Justice takes the pulse of the public defense system 50 years after the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright.

Houppert has her MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, taught in the graduate journalism program at NYU, and was an assistant professor at Morgan State University. She is currently the Associate Director of the MA in Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University and lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

Contact: karenhouppert@gmail.com or (207) 749-3783

Boobs Sore? Just Pop These Pills, Little Girl

"If your 'girls' hurt, you are not alone," according to Violet's™ website. Just take these little pills.

“If your ‘girls’ hurt, you are not alone,” according to Violet’s™ website. Just take these little pills.

I was waiting to get my hair cut yesterday, flipping through the women’s fashion magazines that were scattered about in my Baltimore beauty parlor and stumbled on an ad for an odd new product.

“Sore? Say hello to Violet™ Iodine.”

Ahh, apparently this is the newest menstrual product being marketed to women. But get this, it’s not for “down there,” it’s for up here, your breasts.

Women’s vaguely attributed testimonials explain how their debilitating boob discomfort is alleviated by Violet™ on the company website.

“I developed an irrational fear of speed bumps during my morning commute,” says Lauren, CA.

“I wore a larger bra, winced when my kids hugged me and stuck to very low impact exercise,” says Karen, CT.

“Forget exercise, and the husband, too! I dreaded that time of month!” says Lisa, SC, who kinda made the writing teacher in me wince at abundant use of exclamation points!

But help is on the way, the company promises:

“By taking a simple pill every day, the result is true relief and reassurance that you are proactively taking care of your breasts.*  With Violet iodine, you are just days away from a “new normal” — a life where breast discomfort doesn’t get in the way.

Get it off your chest™”

Okay, if you thought a little boob discomfort was just a normal part of your period and you popped a few ibuprofen and got on with your day, think again. “If your ‘girls’ hurt, you are not alone,” Violet explains on the website. This happens to 50 percent of women in their childbearing years. Still, though it is common, it is not “normal,” apparently.

You have Fibrocystic Breast Condition (FBC), the company explains.

And you know how that goes: If it has a name, then it is a legitimate “disease” or “syndrome” or perhaps merely the downgraded, “condition” but still, it means people can sell you products to treat the illness. In this case, $44.99 a month means Lisa can resume exercising, Karen can hug her kids and Lauren will henceforth sail blissfully over speed bumps on her morning commute.

We have BioPharmX, Inc., a Menlo Park, CA, company to thank for introducing Violet ™ in December of 2014.

But I caution, all this should be taken with a grain of salt. (Iodized, perhaps? Amusingly, the company does warn against women  boosting iodine levels cheaply through, say, upping their intake via a $.99 purchase of Morton’s, insisting their pricey pills function more efficiently.) Here’s what I started to notice in the company literature: It was rife with these little asterisks scattered after sweeping statements.

For example, the below excerpted press release from the website:

“What is unique about Violet iodine is its non-hormonal formula of patented molecular iodine, which aims to target the breast tissue with limited introduction in the thyroid,”* said Dr. Lee P. Shulman, Professor and Head of the Section of Reproductive Genetics in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois. “Adding Violet iodine to a woman’s daily regimen can help safely relieve the most common forms of breast pain and discomfort, including aches and swelling, while also maintaining healthy breast tissue.”*

It took a bit of sleuthing to locate the fine print but it was not an exercise in futility. It actually meant something significant:

*These statements have not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.