Sex in Our Strange World | The Religious Sect that Drinks Period Blood
The Bauls of Bengal consider menstruation sacred, and also believe men shouldn't ejaculate
In this column, Sex in Our Strange World, sex historian Dr. Kate Lister of Leeds Trinity University, explores the ways in which people from around the globe approach love, sex, and marriage.
PERIODS. There, I said it. If you are still reading this, excellent. I’m thrilled to have you on board. But why would anyone stop reading an article about menstruation, I hear you cry? Because Auntie Flo remains a cultural taboo around the world. Don’t get me wrong, medicine has come a long way since Pliny the Elder proclaimed that menstrual blood ‘turns new wine sour’, drives dogs mad, and withers crops, in the 1st century AD.
But, you only have to look at the euphemistically titled ‘feminine hygiene products’ aisle in modern day supermarkets to know that, though we have certainly moved on, we are still not entirely comfortable with the subject. And when it comes to menstrual taboos, a coyly worded sign above the jam-rag aisle in Tesco is really the least of it.
“Every month, millions of school girls miss school because of their periods, and Britain is barely any better”
In 1974, the American Anthropological Association published their research into the menstrual taboos of forty-four societies around the world. They found the most common beliefs, in descending order, were as follows;
- Belief that menstrual blood is disgusting, contaminating, or even dangerous.
- That women shouldn’t have sex whilst the decorators are in.
- That menstruating women must not touch ‘man things’ – such as weapons, tools, or even personal items.
- That menstruating women must not cook for men.
- That menstruating women must be confined to ‘menstrual huts’.
Thankfully, the practice of quarantining menstruating women has significantly declined since the 70s, but not everywhere. In 2005, the Nepalese government criminalized the Hindu tradition of Chhaupadi, which banishes menstruating women from their family home and forces them to sleep in menstrual huts for the duration of their period – Chhaupadi translates to ‘untouchable being’.
Sadly, the 2005 ruling did not stop the practice and following the deaths of several women who froze to death or died of smoke inhalation while trying to keep warm inside the hut, the Nepalese government made the practice of Chhaupadi punishable by three months in prison or a fine of 3,000 rupees.
Disgust at menstruation may be a widespread cultural phenomenon, but it’s not a universal one. Perhaps the most pro-period peeps on the planet are the Bauls of Bengal, who are real bloodhounds.
The Bauls are an unorthodox religious sect, who draw on elements of Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and Tantra, and are found throughout Bengali India and Bangladesh. They are a wandering musical community, and sustain themselves on the money they earn through their performances – they often own little more than their religious robes, and musical instruments.
“A girl’s first period is celebrated by mixing her menstrual blood with cow’s milk, camphor, coconut milk and palm sugar. It’s then drunk by her family and friends”
But, being a Baul is about much more than being able to belt out a good tune, it is also about worshipping bodily fluids – the most potent of which is menstrual blood. The Bauls refer to the ‘four moons’ of menstrual blood, seed, faeces, and urine. They believe that women contain all of these, while men are lacking menstrual blood – they regard semen as a seed, but believe woman also contain seed in their vaginal secretions and menstrual blood.
Consequently, the Bauls view men as spiritually incomplete when compared to women who have got their four moons all sorted out. In order to redress this deficiency, the Bauls believe that menstrual blood must be ingested, swapped, and reabsorbed in order to replenish body and soul.
Far from freaking out at the mere mention of ‘the time of the month’, Bauls view this as a deeply spiritual time, and it comes with some serving suggestions. A girl’s first period is a cause for community celebration and a cloth used to catch the menstrual blood is soaked in a mixture of cow’s milk, camphor, coconut milk and palm sugar, which is then drunk by her family and friends.
Tara, a Baul woman interviewed by Dr Kristin Hanssen in 2002, recalled the effect drinking her menstrual blood had on those who partook of the ceremony: ‘Powers of memory and concentration were enhanced, their skin acquired a brilliant glow, their voices grew melodious, and their entire beings were infused with happiness, serenity, and love’.
Perhaps you don’t fancy using a tampon as a teabag, in which case you’ll be pleased to know there are other ways of spreading your four moons about to achieve a similar effect. The Bauls believe that menstrual blood can also be ingested through a man’s ‘lower mouth’, or penis – so period sex, with the woman on top, is very much on the menu.
“Women are encouraged to orgasm, and crucially the man must not ejaculate”
But, this is no ‘Netflix and chill’ with a shower immediately afterwards situation. This is a highly ritualized sexual encounter, or yugala-s ā dhan ā, where male-female identities ( svabh ā b) are transcended through sex and communion of essential fluids.
Crucially, the man must not ejaculate or he will deplete his already flagging reserves of ‘seed’. For the Bauls, ejaculation is the spiritual equivalent of maxing out your overdraft. Ejaculation is carefully controlled through damer kdj, or ‘action of the breath’, which is believed to travel up and down the spine.
Women are encouraged to orgasm as this will re-energise her partner, who should be focusing on worshipping his partner’s yoni (vulva) – not to mention concentrating on absorbing all that lovely bloody energy through his genitals, and anywhere else that gets a splattering.
The Bauls are unique in their celebration of menstruation and menstrual blood. No other group of people approach periods with quite as much enthusiasm, or indeed cutlery, as the Bauls. Whilst it is unlikely that the rest of the world will take to ingesting menstrual blood as a pick-me-up, we can learn a lot from Baulinese attitudes to sex and menstruation. The most common menstrual taboo is that it is somehow dirty or unclean. This attitude directly impacts women’s self-esteem and shame around menstruation has far reaching effects.
Research has shown that women living in urban slums, refugee camps, and rural communities in particular struggle to access basic menstrual sanitary wear, and feel deep shame in asking for it.
Every month, millions of school girls miss school because of their periods. 95% of school girls in Malawi cannot afford pad or tampons, and instead reported using rags and string to catch the blood. As this often falls out of their underwear, more than half of these schoolgirls stayed at home during their period.
“The Bauls believe that menstrual blood can also be ingested through a man’s penis”
Britain is barely any better. In the UK tampons are classed as a ‘luxury’ non-essential product, and are therefore still taxed. Unbelievably, until recently, they fell into the same luxury bracket as champagne. (An easy state of affairs to enforce, perhaps, if you are a political bigwig who will never need a tampon in his life).
Research carried out by Plan International UK in 2017, showed that one in ten British 14-21-year olds have struggled to afford sanitary products, resulting in thousands of girls missing school every month. Period poverty isn’t just an issue for the school-age girls either – the average yearly cost of a period in the UK is estimated at £128.
Although the Bauls’ approach to menstruation is uncomfortable for many, surely it is far more progressive, not to mention healthy, to view the crimson tide as a cause for celebration rather than shame? We like to think we are rational and scientific about menstruation, but we are still held hostage by powerful taboos that tell us a period is gross.
The sad truth is that most people reading this will have had a stronger reaction to the prospect of drinking menstrual blood than they did to learning that women in Nepal are freezing to death in menstrual huts. And that really is a shameful state of affairs. Period.
Dr Kate Lister is a sex historian, author and lecturer at Leeds Trinity University. She also runs the blog Whores of Yore. Keep up with her on Twitter.