GSWS 210 Gender Today: Contemporary Reproductive Politics from ‘Womb to Tomb’ at SFU

I am excited to teach another course in Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University: GSWS 210: Gender Today: Contemporary Reproductive Politics from “Womb to Tomb.” Here is the course description:

Reproductive politics refers ongoing struggles to define, constrain, medicalize, technologize, spur, and/or prevent reproduction. This is an introductory course that builds interdisciplinary and feminist tools to analyze narratives, issues, practices, and arguments regarding reproductive politics as they manifest through out the lifecourse, from preconception to end of life. Topics include reproductive choices, fertility, non-normative kinship, childbirth, child rearing, menopause and andropause, and the developmental origins of health and disease. Recognizing the topical and controversial nature of reproductive politics as well as the role of GSWS in transforming students into critical advocates for social change, assignments encourage students to engage in public dialogues on reproduction.

This second year course, suitable for students who are both new to or familiar with feminism and reproductive politics, includes interesting assignments that encourage engagement beyond the university.

If you have any questions about this course, please do not hesitate to contact me!

Knowing Menstruation Beyond PubMed

Several years ago, when I first started interacting with scientists, I went to a symposium featuring presentations of graduate and medical students’ research projects. One project undertaken by a medical student examined some aspect of menorrhagia, or excessive menstrual flow. His study required that participants measure their daily menstrual flow by noting the number of pads they used and by comparing the amount of blood soil on the surface area of the pads with a pictorial chart of standardized measures. This apparently is an established means to measure flow. However, it tends to be inaccurate, and he was encouraged by an audience member to have participants weigh the pads for better accuracy. The alternative was discussed, but it was remarked that it is not very practical for women, and thus the consensus seemed to be that using the surface area chart was the best approach.

Having at that point not spent much time with scientists, I did not want to go out on a limb in front of the audience with my comment, so I approached the student during the lunch break. Surprised by this seemingly crude means of measuring flow, I asked him why he did not employ menstrual cups, like the Diva Cup or a similar product, which could provide an easy and accurate means of liquid measure, particularly as the cups feature ounce indications on the side.

He had never heard of menstrual cups.

I was taken aback by this – that a researcher could undertake an entire project without having done what I consider to be basic research into the topic at hand. A simple google search, maybe a little outside the scope of PubMed, will reveal a wealth of information on how people who menstruate experience menstrual blood throughout their lives and the various means by which they manage their menstruation. While I couldn’t find studies on the prevalence of the use of menstrual cups, I do not believe this is a marginal means of managing flow, as Diva Cups can be commonly purchased in many drugstores and online, and are discussed in news media and online as means of managing flow that some women prefer.

I believe it is this medical student’s ethical and intellectual responsibility to inform himself of basic information regarding women’s practices and experiences of menstruation. I also believe it is his responsibility as a scientist to be aware of this possible method of measurement for his study, which has been used by other scientists to collect menstrual blood and may very well be superior to his initial method. Due care and attention not only to the “research subjects” but to the everyday lives of people may have vastly improved the quality of his measurements and therefore his research results. There may have been other benefits, such as sharing with participants an alternative to manage their menstrual flow, and providing this alternative without cost (indeed, Diva Cups are rather expensive). As menstrual cups are reusable, there may have even been an eco-ethical outcome for the research, should participants have liked the product and wanted to continue using it (this study assess women’s satisfaction with the Diva Cup and discusses the potential environmental benefits from reduced pad and tampon wastes). That being said, menstrual cups may not be suitable for every person who menstruates or every research study. My point is that this scientist should have known what a menstrual cup is.

This experience has bugged me for a while.

Talking Transdisciplinary, Doing Transdisciplinarity: Sex and Gender

On Friday I had the privilege of sitting among a highly trandisciplinary crowd to hear about gender, sex, health, and CIHR‘s Institute of Gender and Health from its Director, Dr. Joy Johnson. Her talk was for me not only informative, but a fine example of how to talk compellingly for and with transdisciplinarity. She was clearly versed in social scientific understandings of sex and gender as well as the everyday demands and commitments of scientific practice, and was able to find points where these two can meet and be mutually informative. At times I disagreed with what she said but I found these moments to be extremely productive because it is in those spaces that the true challenges of transdisciplinarity emerge and must be confronted. Her vision of transdisciplinarity is a pragmatic approach of focusing on issues. She emphasized that ongoing interrogation is needed to ensure that issues of sex and gender are addressed as best as they can be in scientific practice and health care. Such a project must be transdisciplinary. Dr. Johnson’s talk has given me new ideas as to how this project can be undertaken.

See this publication coauthored by Dr. Johnson:

Johnson, J.L., Greaves, L., & Repta, R. (2007). Better Science with Sex and Gender: A Primer for Health Research. Vancouver: Women’s Health Research Network.

On Thursday I enjoyed a talk delivered by Dr. Londa Schiebinger entitled “Exotic Abortifacients: Bioprospecting in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World.” Abortifacients are plants that induce miscarriage in pregnant women. Dr. Schiebinger spoke about why these plants of the “new world” were not mined by European explorers and colonizers like other resources, including medicinal ones. I don’t really need to say more than to quote from her talk: “Today, I am not going to tell you the history of a great man, or a great woman. Rather, I am going to tell you the history of a great plant. This talk is about the gender politics of plants.”