I have a question that Iíve discussed with many of my friends. What are the problems with using sea sponges for menstruation? Many women use them like tampons, saying theyíre more environmentally friendly, less expensive, and better for the body because they donít contain bleach or dioxins. But I am concerned about ocean pollution being something to avoid, making sponges at least semi-dangerous. I know that sponges are scientifically classified as animals. Are they factory farmed, like fish? What do women in your family use for their menstrual cycles? How do they relate to this problem? I donít like tampons, even the super-absorbent kind. Why do women have periods, anyway? I want to be healthy and they are such a drag.
Thanks for your questions, and for your interest in living a healthy life.
Sponges are colonial animals, meaning that a piece of one sponge can conceivably give rise to a complete animal. There are a few commercial sponge farms, but not many. The market just isn't big enough to support it. Almost all of the sponges sold in stores today for cleaning are synthetic.
Your concern about ocean pollution making sea sponges potentially dangerous is justified. In fact, this is the reason sea sponges are technically no longer allowed to be sold as menstrual products. In late 1980, menstrual sponges sold commercially were examined by a University of Iowa laboratory and found to contain sand, grit, bacteria, and various other contaminants. Other studies have found chemical pollutants and fungi in sponges sold for menstrual use. The Centers for Disease Control have documented a least one case of toxic shock syndrome associated with the use of a sea sponge.
The women in my family have tried sea sponges, a rubber device called "The Keeper," chlorine-free disposable pads, cloth pads, and non-chlorine bleached 100% cotton tampons. None of them are without problems. The sponges may be contaminated, need to be boiled frequently, and sometimes leak when saturated; the Keeper also sometimes leaks; pads are, well, pads, and aren't all that comfortable. Disposable pads are wasteful, and the non disposable type need to be washed and dried often.
Currently, the women in my family use a variety of products. Since we have a washer and dryer handy, some women in my family use cloth pads. Others use
chlorine-free disposable pads. At times, some use Natracare tampons (advertised as "chlorine-free and nonirradiated...and do not contain synthetics, surfactants, optical whiteners, fragrances or rayon fibers."
You asked why women have periods, anyway. I think there is a deep reason, though it is not one that is generally appreciated in our culture. As a man, it is perhaps presumptuous for me to discuss this. But I think this is a mystery that affects us all.
The great cycles and rhythms of nature are among the most fundamental realities of physical life. The ebb and flow of the tides, the waxing and waning of the moon, and the alternation of night and day, are a few of the eternal patterns by which nature renews itself and life is sustained. As human beings, our in-breath and out-breath, our waking and sleeping, are among the many rhythmic alternations that connect us to the great cycles of the living universe, and are intimate to our being. Understanding and honoring the way our personal cycles interplay with the vast forces of the planet and the wider universe is part of our glory. And yet few normal bodily experiences have been treated quite so disdainfully as one of women's most basic and earthly cycles ó menstruation.
"Nothing in our society, with the exception of violence and fear," says Chris Northrup, M.D., "has been more effective in keeping women in their place than the degradation of the menstrual cycle."
Many women find it hard to imagine that their menstruation could be anything but a source of discomfort. A young woman once told me, "I learned to be ashamed of my bleeding, to not talk about it, to basically try to ignore it, plug it up, and get on with things. I would harshly judge women who complained and talked about how uncomfortable they were. So what, I thought, we all go through that. Just get on with your life."
As a man, I have of course no experience of menstruation in my own body. Still, I wonder how life would be different for us all if women were supported in finding ways to honor their menstruation, not as a time to function as usual, but as a source of connection to themselves, to their cyclic natures, and to the Earth. What if more women were able to see their periods as a process of renewal, vital to the maintenance of a healthy uterus and reproductive system?
There is in fact a purpose behind the body regularly shedding the uterine lining and letting the blood flow away ó the uterus is cleansed of any unhealthy micro-organisms that might have gained entrance and taken up residence during the preceding cycle. By ridding the uterus of cells that might have become infected, the immunological integrity of the body is protected, the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases is reduced, and the uterus is kept clean.
Your mentioned that you are wary of superabsorbent tampons. You have reason to be. In a typical period, a woman releases between two and four ounces of blood. A single superabsorbent tampon is capable of soaking up an ounce or more of fluid, more than most women actually have in their vaginas at a given time. As a result, these tampons tend also to absorb the normal secretions of the healthy vaginal walls, causing vaginal ulcerations, lesions, and lacerations. To make things worse, they are often left in place far longer than regular tampons, thus serving as a medium for the growth of pathogenic bacteria and becoming a source of infection. When left in the vagina for five or six hours, they swell to press against the vaginal walls, which they cause to dry out and to which they then may adhere. Removal can actually cause cells to be torn off the vaginal wall. The combination of injury to the vagina and buildup of bacteria that is characteristic of frequent use of superabsorbent tampons is the primary cause of Toxic Shock Syndrome, a serious and sometimes fatal disease that has afflicted tens of thousands of American women in recent years.
As a man, I stand with great respect before the mystery and beauty of the feminine. I believe strongly that if we had more respect for the feminine, we would be a more peaceful, more healthy, and more creative society.
Yours for a world in which each of us is treasured for who we are,