Crimson Tide Diaries: The Sponge

I’ve been a tampon girl most of my life – even at the tender age of 14 when I first got my period in a crowning glory fashion any child could be proud of: in front of all my classmates, all over the new (and only) pair of nice khakis my mother has ever bought me, while being forced to answer to my teacher why it was I needed to leave her class so urgently. I’ve had better moments. However, despite all the embarrassment, the first item of care anyone gave me was a pad. It was a bulky, kind of ugly object that resembled some of the diapers I sported in my early days. I wore it for about half a day before promptly losing my cool at what felt to me like a plastic pillow chafing my most precious bleeding bits and raiding my mother’s cabinet for a tampon. They were super absorbent, which proved to be another mistake I’d come to grips with later, but my feelings immediately changed with how normal I felt again. Interpret that how you will.

 

Thus, the tampon has been a reliable companion for many years now, until recently. A friend and I were having a conversation on our periods, where she shed some serious light over the subject. “You know, menstrual blood is sacred to a lot of folks and it just seems like we are constantly being told its gross and it needs to be thrown away. Why? Why is our blood so gross?” Honestly, I was stumped by the question. Out of my entire atypical feminist preening, I never had really thought much about my period as anything more than what it was: a body function that just needed to be taken care of.

“Besides, where do you think all your used tampons go?” Good point. Where does it go?

Gross.

With tampons, there’s a certain removal from facing the fact that a part of me very closely resembles the scene in Carrie when she won Prom Queen. One big, bloody mess. Other than the usual side effects, most of the interaction I have with my period is pulling some strings, flush, push another in, and boom – no blood, no foul. Yet, at some point, it just seemed like another act of wastefulness, a problem that, like most things in the Western world, I could just flush away and not think about where it was going to end up. There are other downfalls as well: not all people can or feel comfortable using them, most tampons are chock full of dyes, fragrances, and chemicals (hydrogen peroxide, sodium hypochlorite, bleach, and dioxin) to help with absorption and color. From an economic standpoint, an average $6.79 box gets pricy month after month, year after year (and that’s if you use generic tampons, not the fancy ones that are chemical free, which cost anywhere from $6.79-$12.29). There’s also the removal from what’s actually going on with one’s body, which, some people like (if you are triggered by blood or don’t like being reminded that you do bleed), but also maybe something that those willing may want to explore. In this scenario, it’s something I wanted to explore.

Honestly, there’s nothing that has sent me squirming more than when I’m changing a tampon and met with a bloody set of fingers, a clotted, sad-ass looking tampon, and an over-all visualization of what appears to be a massacre happening in my usual happy bits. But it just seemed”¦ superficial, that if women all throughout history had done it, I could break through the third wall and continue on in the tradition. I would be doing just a little bit more to get to know myself, as well as not send my menstrual waste into a huge dump with everyone else’s. Thus, the great period experiment began. Aren’t you lucky I have blogging access?

My first attempt at weaning off the tampons required going back to one of the older methods of stopping the flow ““ the sponge. The Museum of Women’s Health and Menstruation states that the sponge is one of many of the oldest period control methods. Women are have said to used sponges for absorbing menstrual discharge, as well as medicating their vaginas and killing sperm for thousands of years. Sea sponges had been used by women living on coastal areas, as well as sex workers who used the sponges so that they could still work on their period. The sponge itself is highly absorbent and small pored, and doesn’t dry out the vaginal canal or alter the pH of the vagina like most tampons do. Bonus points: the TSS risk is low, however, studies have been shown that it poses the same risk of tampons if you have had TSS before and there is a chance of getting TSS from sponges. Something to consider.

Whatever you are imagining my face looked like when I first saw these, you are probably right. Didn’t I just loofah my ass with something like that? Don’t let the hard scratchy sponge fool you though, that’s not the texture (or the actual size) of what goes inside you. The instructions say to run it under mild water for a few minutes until soft, squishy, and moldable. Once compactable and smaller, squeeze all water out, squish into a shape that seems right, and insert into your vagina as far back to the cervix as possible.

Now, I’m a hands-on lady who normally can multitask and put a tampon in, la-dee-dah, but the sponge requires a bit more finagling. Ultimately, putting it in comes down to however you find most comfortable doing and is best, like anything, if relaxed. So when I found myself with one leg up on my sink, another spread out, propping myself against the door and two fingers pushing it in, it looked less like those nice little illustrated how-tos and more resembled something out of the “Hey Mickey!” video. It may have been overly dramatic. I still got it in though.

The sponge itself going in isn’t necessarily a feeling I’d say I’d been all quite used to. A slight shiver went down my spine as I pushed the sponge up inside me and it made what I felt like were squeaky noises up the sides of my vaginal canal. I couldn’t help but think of the only other sponge I really ever knew that intimately.

However, once in, unless I made severe, drastic movements, I couldn’t feel it and it felt similar to wearing a tampon. But the only way to find out if the sponge was really worth my time was to take it on a test ride. The sponge doesn’t have a set time of being inside your vagina, only that it should be taken out and rinsed at least four times a day usually indicated by the feeling of expansion and possible leakage.  So I went through my normal day, only a few minor spills here and there, which seemed to be easily fixed by putting my fingers back inside and messing around with the sponge.  Overall, I was pleased with how the sponge was faring.

So, here’s where the fun starts: removal. When it came time for me to meet the sponge I had been so hesitant about, I was at work, in a public bathroom, and let’s say, some of the building buddies aren’t so”¦ friendly. Fortunately, I caught a nice alone peak and slipped into the stall to meet my bloody little friend.

Now, some folks will tie a small string around the sponge to make it easier to pull out. I had not thought that far ahead and had to pull it out with my fingers. Considering it was a heavy day, the one where it often looks like I might be losing actually pieces of my vagina along with everything else in there, I was surprised at how the sponge fared. I had been expecting a large, over-sized smelly leaking object. What I got was a medium sized, brownish-reddish object that, while it wasn’t pleasant to look at, didn’t send me recoiling in horror like I had imagined it would. To be honest, it seemed less gross than the tampons that come out of me looking like gnarly, sad little weapons of mass destruction. So now my hope was to make it to the sink with no drippage and no interference (even though I now have fantasies about hitting folks I find abhorrent with my period sponge). This is harder if you work in a place with a public bathroom, a place where the sinks are somewhat far from the actual toilet, or a place where it might not be safe to wash your bloody sponge. Does it suck being secretive? Yes, but until there’s a chiller society where one can wash one’s bloody sponge in a sink with all your pals, a bit of a secretive element is involved. Unless you just don’t give a fuck. To which I say, hell yeah.

So with a few spots dropped on the floor, I washed my sponge, turning our lovely white sink into a bloody mess, delighting in it the same way I would in making mud pies. I gave it a nice little scrub (sometimes the heavy mucus gets stuck and needs to be picked off), squeezed it and popped it back in. If you happen to be in the sanctity of your own home, you can always let your sponges dry and pop a new one in, but it’s possible to use a sponge throughout the day. Hint for all those who wash their sponges: cold water is best to stave off bacteria, but pop a bit of warm water on that sucker before it goes back in. Trust me.

Now, sponges have a lifespan and that needs to be taken into account. With good care (washing a sponge out every time, no soap, boiling when necessary, though boiling also cuts down on their lifespan and is advised against) a sponge can last up to a year. I used The Sea Pearls and their nice informational pamphlet recommended making your own disinfecting solutions with ingredients like hydrogen peroxide, tea tree oil, baking soda, vinegar, or colloidal silver. Considering these are all unavailable to me at work (and something that not all may have the time or ability to access) good ole fashioned H2O works fine as well.

So how does the sponge fare? It’s a little more time consuming, requiring a bit of monitoring in the beginning, as well as thorough washing and general maintenance of the sponges. While I like not throwing away bloody tampon after bloody tampon, I’m still having trouble with putting the sponge in, a bit of a spotting and dealing with a blood-filled sponge in public restrooms. The positives? Sponges are kinda cool. They come in different sizes for all different periods and aren’t adding on to further waste. There is, for those who are interested, something cool and equally gross about having to deal with your own blood. I won’t get all nature crystal goddess named Starlight Hemp Love Vagina on you, but having to actually deal with your blood makes it seems less like a burden that needs to be disposed of and hidden and more like something that just happens.

Yeah, something like that….

So tune into next month, when I plunge into the next great period experiment and try the much talked about Diva Cup. Until then, my lovies, happy bleeding y’all.

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16 thoughts on “Crimson Tide Diaries: The Sponge”

  1. Argh. I’m terribly sorry for sharing my experiences in a way that seems to have derailed the thread. I have no experiences with the sponge and it doesn’t strike me as something I would like to ever try when I compare it to my current menstrual product. So much extra work for a product with a shorter lifetime.

    And I suppose when I say “glossed over”, I really meant read completely, but didn’t bother to reread as I was typing up my reply. But s’no matter trying to correct my follies now.

    *shrugs* I’ll try to keep your commenting policy in mind next time I feel the need to over-share.

     

  2. It was only in the last few years that my eyes were opened to the wide array of alternative menstruation products available to women. I was a tried and true pad user for years, switched to tampons for days/pads at night, and then I found out that one of my roommates used a menstrual cup, and everything changed!!

    Ok, it’s not as exciting as I just made it sound, but everything to do with my cycle has changed since then. I started doing research–lots of it–and weighed the pros and cons of all the different alternative methods out there. I opted on the diva cup, and although it took me a few cycles to get the hang of it, I will never look back again. :) What I preferred about the cup to the sea sponges mentioned here is that I only had to take it out and wash it every twelve hours, so once in the morning, and once at night–no dealing with public bathrooms at work! And, because my job involves me being on feet all the time with rare opportunity for bathroom breaks, it just seemed to fit for me.

    Once thing that I noticed after switching from pads/tampons to a cup was that I became more aware of my cycle, less grossed out by it, and more fascinated by the whole process. It really is an incredible thing that women’s bodies regularly prepare to carry new life.

  3. I’ve never heard of using a sponge. I’ve always been pro-tampon, but  lately I’ve been thinking about the impact all of those tampons have on the environment.

    I think my biggest concern would cleaning it in public. A menstrual cup has the same issue, though. What if the sponge is full and I couldn’t privately clean it? Gah! The horror!

  4. I am a diva cup user, but I actually have been considering buying a sponge (if I can locate one in Canada! it seems to be a difficult task) because I have some really light days as things taper off and find that the cup doesn’t seal that well without the moisture generated from a heavier flow. I had read a bit about shell fragments in the sponges and that sort of made me afraid, but I think I might give it a shot… it sounds like it worked really well and would  be a really good possibility for lighter flow days.

  5. I really enjoyed this piece and learning about the menstrual sponge. While I’m not sure if it would be right for me, it’s great to know that there’s an alternative out there if I ever tire of using tampons. Also, the link to the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health got me reading about the history of periods for a good two hours or so.

  6. Honestly, I only glossed over this article. Because I am forever in love with my cup. I happen to have the Diva Cup which is apparently what you are trying out next and let me just say, any other menstrual product just does not compare. It is the best thing ever. No, not just in terms of other period products, but in terms of everything ever. Better than chocolate, rainbows and no Republicans in the White House? You bet your ass it is.

    The best thing about the cup? No more dry vagina after using tampons. Now, my vagina’s pH gets to be happy and normal all the time so my incidence of yeast infections has plummeted to, wait for it, never.

    Now, I have heard complaints about changing it in public and I can say I personally never have that issue. But then, I don’t know how other lady-bit wielders remove their cups. Also, important to note that I have no issues with a little blood on my hands that I will be washing off in a moment anyway. I personally remove it while sitting on the toilet, empty the blood in the toilet, use either a water bottle I brought in or toilet paper to clean myself and the cup up, reinsert and voila! No muss, no fuss. Occasionally I’ll get some blood on the lip of the seat, but a quick wipe cleans that up.

    Oh Hecate! Did I forget to mention I have never once had a spill? And I can leave it in for up to 12 hours at a time(generally I empty it once ever six or eight hours)? Hell yes.

    And can I just say that I have never felt more like telling people what menstrual product I’ve been using than when I started using my cup just over two years ago. Also, I haven’t bought a single pad or tampon since. So the slightly pricey tag has repaid itself already. And sponges only last a year? Bahaha! Take that! Silicone cups can last for… well, forever.

    My only warning is that you need to measure your vagina before committing to a cup. I know, it sounds insane, but the Diva Cup is really large by menstrual cup standards. You may feel like the cup was a failure if it doesn’t fit you properly. There is a livejournal community (just look up menstrual cups) that should be able to give you the details. With my Diva Cup, which is the only one I knew was available at the time, it was too large for me, so I cut off the stem(something I would recommend doing unless you like having a little silicone bit rubbing tantalizingly against the sensitive opening of your vagina all day) and turned it inside out. Fits perfectly for me that way, but every vagina is different.

     

    tl;dr  Boo tampons, pads, sponges, whatever the hecks! Cups FOREVER!

    1. It’s unfortunate you chose to gloss over this article so you could talk about your experiences. As Coco said (and as you mentioned), she will be discussing her experiences with the Diva Cup next month. The point of this series is to educate women on the alternatives to mainstream menstruation products – all of them, including the menstrual cup, the sponge, and others. Your commentary would have been better suited for next month’s article; as it is now, it doesn’t add much to the discussion on the current topic, which is sponges and not cups. Please keep in mind our commenting guidelines the next time you choose to comment.

    1. The claim is that most tampons contain rayon, which is believed to be one of the major factors in TSS. From about sea sponges: ” The sponge is the only one that has ostensibly been associated with any cases of TSS at all, and it has been associated with “less than 1% of menstrual TSS cases.”

      The one thing that is warned which I did not put in the article, is that sea sponges have not been proven effective against recurring cases of TSS if a woman has had it before.

      Im going to edit that bit now.

      1. Cool, thanks. Low risk =/= no risk, and all:) And there are documented cases (very few) of the contraceptive sponges as a cause of TSS.

        I think menstrual cups (being made of non-bacterica-friendly silicone or rubber) have an even lower theoretical risk than sponges or tampons, though again, TSS is quite rare and non-tampon internal products aren’t that common so it seems difficult to get any actual figures.

  7. I tried the sponge (along with my own hand-sewn pads!) for a while when I was in college.  It probably wasn’t the best decision for dorm living, and I know my suite mates were not happy with it.  Eventually it just became a convenience thing.  Changing the cup in public isn’t my favorite either, but I can usually manage it without looking too much like Lady Macbeth.  But there is no way to redo your sponge without squeezing blood all over or putting a bloody sponge in a bag in your purse.

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