“It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” -Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 7:1
There is a time in the beginning of my monthly cycle that sparks me to life. The sweaty, intense dreams come a few days before, and by the time I see my first drops of red I’ve already transformed into a sensual, insatiable creature. My husband keeps track of this monthly “sexual Christmas” on his calendar. Of course sex during menstruation isn’t for everyone, but it is most definitely for me. Despite the fact that I enjoy it so much, my religious upbringing caused me to view it rather negatively.
All of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Islam, and their offshoots including early Christianity) agree that touching a menstruating woman is wrong. Of course newer, more liberal forms of these religions have a more enlightened view on the old crimson coital, yet the roots of this taboo remain in the foundational holy books upon which these religions are built.
Laws regarding menstruation in the first part of the Bible were reportedly given directly from God. As a Christian, I lived a contradiction where I was definitely not under those laws, but also definitely under those laws:
“A person is not justified by works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.” –Galatians 2:16:
“I have not come to abolish the law. The law shall remain until heaven and earth pass away.” –Jesus in Matthew 5:17-19:
For a biblical inerrantist, contradictions supposedly held the truth somewhere in the middle, and scripture had to be interpreted with other parts of scripture. For this reason I could not simply disregard the Old Testament law when developing my Christian sexual ethic. This led to me spending a few months living among Messianic Jews in Israel, attending a Christian college there, and studying the Bible up close and personal.
When Being a Woman Is Evil
During this time I became fascinated with what Hebrews 9:10 calls the “various washings.” The Bible claimed that water cleans both physically and spiritually, and God often required washing with water before entering his presence. (Ex. 19:10; Num 19:7). For my biblical archaeology final, I chose to write a research paper on the ancient mikvahs (baths) that were found around the Holy Land. Since sin separated a person from God (Is. 59:2), mikvahs were used to wash away the sin and restored access to God (Ex. 30:20). The Christian doctrine of baptism evolved from this tradition, as John the Baptist was “preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” (Mark 1:4) Ancient baptismal fonts even resemble mikvahs in many ways.
Menstruating women were some of the primary users of mikvahs. They needed to use them rather regularly for their recurring red rampages. I happened to be riding the rag (read: bleeding from my uterus) during one important visit to Old Jerusalem (read: a falafel run) when I visited a mikvah there. I walked down the segregated stone steps, knelt down to scoop up some dirty water that had pooled below, and sprinkled a bit of it on myself in a syncretistic personal ceremony. I felt I needed to ask God for forgiveness for my impurity as part of the process, but having nothing specific to confess I simply fell back on the Christian tradition of asking forgiveness for being a sinful creature in general as I had been taught. It was at that moment that this whole concept started to feel wrong.
It’s not like I hadn’t also dipped my fingers in the Pool of Bethesda to test its magical healing powers, prayed at the Wailing Wall for a prayer amplified by those old stones, or attempted to walk by faith on the Sea of Galilee’s gentle waves. My mikvah experience was not the only time I injected myself into the biblical picture, but it was unique in that it made me acknowledge my own natural repugnance in a gendered way the other experiences did not.
I was literally a woman begging a male deity to forgive me for being a woman.
I was taught to see menstruation as a reminder of sin’s filthiness. In my church’s evangelism class, the verse on sin we had to memorize was Isaiah 64:6, “We are unclean; our righteousness is like filthy rags.” Beged idim (or “filthy rags”) is a direct reference to menstruation rags. In other parts of the Bible, menstruation is regarded as an illness. The Hebrew word for menstruation is daveh which literally means “sick.” (Is. 30:22; Lev. 20:18) It’s called a disease and treated the same as any other disease or infection with the same 7-day isolation time. (Lev. 13:4)
God must have thought a woman’s menstruation was really awful since it seems to be one of God’s harshest recurring insults. (Is. 30:22; Lam. 1:8-9, 17)
I thought menstruation was a reminder of sin, but it wasn’t until I was studying mikvahs that I realized menstruation was sin. We know this because it required a sin offering where two pigeons were slaughtered. Then the priest offered “atonement” to God for the woman because of her “uncleanness” (Lev. 15). Although some have argued this was purely ritual language, the penalty was the same as committing other sins. In fact, the Hebrew word for a menstruating woman was niddah, which is also used in Hebrew Scripture to describe adultery or, in one place, idols.
Women’s blood was so wicked that Ezekiel 18:6 compared the sin of touching menstrual blood with the sin of adultery, and Leviticus 20:18 said the punishment for sleeping with a menstruating wife was banishment from God’s people. If a menstruating woman’s clothing touched a wooden object it had to be purified with water, but if it touched a clay pot the pot had to be smashed to pieces. (Lev. 15:12) And if a man touched a menstruating woman, even just the hem of her clothes, or sat on something she had sat upon earlier, he would need to wash himself and his own clothes with water. (Lev 15:21-22)
This idea is carried over to the New Testament in Revelation 14, where the 144,000 men redeemed by God are all good men who “were not defiled with women.” That place between our legs disgusted God so much that he didn’t want his own special menfolk to touch it.
The Bible seems to consider period blood dirtier than feces. The only rule for feces was how to bury it, and feces never had the sheer amount of taboos against it as a woman’s natural process. (Hey, everybody poops!) A man had a way better chance of entering God’s presence covered in fecal matter than he did after coming in contact with a woman. For this reason, some menstruating women were forced to leave their homes and sleep outside the camp during their time of the month. (Num. 5:2; Lev. 15:19)
I imagine the ceaseless trips to the mikvah represented a constant disharmony between women and God, as they were alienated (niddah literally means “separated”) from their god every month by impurity. This monthly estrangement came with human consequences as these women were then cut off from human contact as well.
“There have been extremely emotional times when a hug would have been nice, but it couldn’t happen. This is especially hard after giving birth, which is a hugely emotional time.” Ahava, A Year of Biblical Womanhood
A Gendered Distinction
I couldn’t help but notice the New Testament’s gendered dichotomy: women’s blood made one unclean, but a certain man’s blood made one clean (Heb. 9:14). When a man touched the hem of a menstruating woman’s garment he would be unclean, but when a menstruating woman touched the hem of the Man of God’s garment she became clean and her “discharge of blood” ceased. (Luke 8:44) Before Christ, the blood of animals also did the job, making women’s blood lower than that of beasts.
This all reminds me of the short essay by Gloria Steinem called If Men Could Menstruate:
So what would happen if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not? […] Generals, right-wing politicians, and religious fundamentalists would cite menstruation (“men-struation”) as proof that only men could serve God and country in combat (“You have to give blood to take blood”), occupy high political office (“Can women be properly fierce without a monthly cycle governed by the planet Mars?”), be priests, ministers, God Himself (“He gave this blood for our sins”), or rabbis (“Without a monthly purge of impurities, women are unclean”).
When women’s natural bodily processes are considered sinful, dirty, and unclean, then women themselves are no better than sinful, dirty, and unclean. All of these misogynistic verses led to me sitting on ancient stones, covered with dirty water, and thinking I needed some sort of penance for being a woman. But what the hell was I apologizing for?
I was married two weeks after returning home from Israel, and this thinking put a real stain (*ahem*) on my sex life. It was hard not to feel a little guilty when I was reminded of sin during 1/4th of my sexual encounters. And it would end up taking a lot more than doctors assuring me menstruation was good during sex for me to shed the shame. It would take uprooting my religious foundation and rejecting all those negatives messages about women outright.
Now that I’ve done that, I am free to paint the town red.
[Featured Image from Flickr Creative Commons found here.]