A Red Flag for 'Mensesplaining'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader of my story about pop culture and the rise of “mensesplaining”—women enlightening men about menstruation—raises some good objections to the term:

I think that the new exploration of periods and the general increase in openness about the topic is really great, as it’s just a biological process, but I don’t think that using the term mensesplaining to explain women’s explanations of their periods to men is at all helpful. Mansplaining is when a man unnecessarily explains something to a woman, automatically assuming that she does not know what he is detailing for her. Mensesplaining, on the other hand, is explaining a concept to men that they have never experienced and will never experience, and therefore “need” an explanation for.

There is no way for men to understand the pain of period cramps, or the ever-present fear of having a blood stain on your butt, but there is a way for women to know the history of Joy Division. Equating mansplaining to mensesplaining associates a negative connotation to the explanation of menstrual cycles that combats the initial purpose of having to explain them/the subsequent explanation of them in the first place. We need to reach a place in society where women don’t need to feel like they can’t talk about the fact that they’re on their period, that we feel like we need to hide our tampon as we carry it into the bathroom to go change, that men accuse all “emotionally volatile” women as “being on their period.” Men do need to understand, and women explaining their period to them is not unnecessary, but mansplaining is.

You make a great point, reader! And I appreciate your thinking about the term in such depth (mensesplainingsplaining? but in a good way!). I guess things come down to whether you focus on the term itself or the story that it headlined. The story is about the very good and very productive effort that women—and, occasionally, men—have been making recently to demystify the period and all the experiences associated with it. I came up with “mensesplaining” as a (playful) way to sum up that effort, defining it as “women enlightening men about something (most) guys will never experience themselves,” and also as “the dynamics of mansplaining (men explaining things to women, usually extremely unnecessarily), reversed.”

You’re totally right that “mansplaining,” the original term, has a negative connotation. Then again, since Rebecca Solnit coined the word in 2008, it has evolved and expanded in the way most any highly adaptable language tic will. As Slate’s Katy Waldman recently pointed out, we now have “ladysplaining” (meantto characterize how some women couch their comments in self-deprecation and apology”) and also techsplaining and catsplaining and Voxsplaining and, in the case of a piece of lingerie that is particularly attuned to its wearer’s emotions, brasplaining. The site Femsplain, which lists its purpose as inspiring “discussion and connection through storytelling by amplifying the voices of those who identify as women and gender nonconforming individuals,” probably does not see the “fem” in its title as a negative. (I once talked about “shoesplaining,” and I was definitely not suggesting that high heels were being haughty to me. Although it is a well-known fact that heels can be jerks.)

So you could argue, as Waldman does, that the ‘splaining trope “has steadily hemorrhaged meaning.” The flip side of that, though, is that it has given rise to a suffix of fairly extreme semantic suppleness. ‘Splaining could suggest condescension, as in the case of the man who lectured Solnit about the subject of her own book, but I think it could also suggest a more basic differential—like the kind that exists between the women who understand what it’s like to have a period, and the men who do not.