Let’s face it: If you’ve been endowed with a uterus you probably have to, or have had to, deal with menstruation. Periods. Bleeding. Rusting. Aunt Flo. The Red Curse. Menses. Whatever you want to call it. At some point in the young lives of uterine owners we start to emit blood from deep within our loins and for the next 40 or so years we have to figure out what the hell to do without ourselves so that we don’t leave a bloody wake in our path. Throughout history we’ve sequestered ourselves, strapped absorbent things between our legs or to our butts, and stuffed ourselves with all manner of things.
My focus is not the history of menstruation or cultural blood taboos; I’m sure there are many historians and sociologists who know much more than I do. What I’m talking about here is a method that I, and increasingly more and more folks, are using to manage our periods. Namely, I’m talking about menstrual cups.
Menstrual cups are, at their most basic, an internal blood containment system that looks a bit like the mouthpiece of a trombone. A bell-shaped receptacle with a firm rim, a series of small holes just below the rim (referred to as “suction release holes”), and a stem to aid in gripping the cup for removal are bog-standard for a menstrual cup. They’re re-usable, sterilisable (except for The Keeper which can be sanitised but not sterilised), and cost less over time than “traditional” disposable menstrual products like pads, tampons, and sponges.
Early menstrual cups were made from natural latex rubber whereas cups today are made from silicone or TPE. Now I know that TPE is something that you’ll often see on the “bad” materials lists for sex utensils. Bear with me here. First, TPE (Thermoplastic Elastomer) is a fairly generic term that applies to a number of materials. The TPE used for menstrual cups is the same material used for baby-bottle nipples and IV drip systems, and is sterilisable. The EU, which is where the only TPE cups I know of are made and primarily sold, also has a history of being far more stringent in their health and safety requirements for bodily use than the USA.
Most menstrual cups sit inside the vaginal canal encircling the cervix to collect menstrual fluid. A lot of menstrual cup instructions will include Ye Old Vaginal Cross-Section Diagram, much like you’ll see on tampon instructions, which seem to indicate that the cup fits low in the vaginal canal near the vaginal opening. I, and pretty much every cup user I’ve ever spoken to or read the writing of, call bullshit. The average depth of the unaroused vaginal canal is around 3″ and cups vary in length from 1.5″-2.75″. Even if you have a particularly long vaginal canal and a short cup, placing the cup low in the body will often either lead to leakage or an upwards migration towards your cervix. So I don’t know whose vaginas those diagrams are modeled after but: Fuck cup companies and their diagrams. Fuck them right in the ear. I say most because there is one exception, the so-called “softcup” by the company Instead works (or, in my case, fails) differently. We’ll get to that in the cup comparisons.
Using menstrual cups is pretty easy once you get the hang of it. First- fold the cup and push the folded cup into the vaginal canal. This isn’t entirely dissimilar from inserting an applicator-free OB tampon (or, if you’re me, any tampon because they NEVER seat properly and have to be manually adjusted no matter what you do). Once the cup is inside, release your grip on the cup and it should pop open. After the cup opens, double check that it’s positioned around the cervix and open all the way. A lot of cup companies will tell you to rotate the cup to do this, but I’ve rarely been able to accomplish this. What I do is I run my finger, inside of me, around the cup to make sure it isn’t still folded. This also lets me make sure my cervix is in the cup and that I didn’t misfire and place the cup beside it. To remove, reach in and squeeze the cup to break the suction and then carefully pull it out. Dump the gunk, rise (or wipe if you’re in a toilet stall), and re-insert if needed.
While I’ve never had issues with fit, leakage, or expulsion, getting a cup that works properly and fits comfortably is important. One thing that can help with getting a good fit is to know a bit about the placement and moods of your cervix. The first time I felt my cervix, I thought I was intersex. I’ve learned a lot since then. You’ll also want to think about the overall design of the cups you’re considering. Most menstrual cup resources will tell you to look at size, stiffness, texture, stem length, stem design, and suction release hole placement. While all of these can factor into your selection, in my experience the important things to pay attention to (unless you’re having issues despite trying a few cups already) are the size, stiffness, and texture. Stem length is something that can be modified at home if need be, and you’ll notice I’ve cut the stems off some of my cups. For me almost all stems are too long or at an angle that stabs the front of my cunt, so I cut them off as soon as I get them. I’ll probably cut the stems off the rest of my cups once this guide is up.
Size and stiffness are the two main things you’ll want to look at. I hate to say it but cups are kinda like buttplugs in that stiffer is often better, especially when starting out. Stiffer cups can be trickier to fold for insertion but they pop open much more readily and tend to create better suction without much, if any, adjustment. Softer cups are also a bit more apt to break their seal if you have particularly strong PC muscles. I tend to stick with smaller cups. If your cervix tends to be low, or you have a shallow unaroused vaginal canal, shorter cups are likely going to be better for you.
Cup sizing is something that I find wholly irritating with almost every brand on the market. You’re often told that one size is for young people and/or people who haven’t given vaginal birth, and the other is for older people/people who have given vaginal birth. Again I say: Fuck this shit. If you have heavier periods and you need more volume in your cup, or you have a long vaginal canal/high cervix, or if you just fucking want a larger cup? Get one. I prefer smaller cups, mostly because larger cups have a tendency to press on my urethral sponge (aka g-spot), making me feel like I have to pee all day. Even a poorly-placed or larger tampon can do this to me, so I know I’m particularly sensitive to this.
Two concerns I’ve heard and seen a lot with cups are whether you can use a cup in conjunction with Nuva Ring and/or an IUD. The answer to both is yes! The Nuva Ring should not be a problem with cup use. Nuva Ring is approximately 2″ in diameter, whereas most cups are 1.5-1.75″ in diameter. Attempting to insert a menstrual cup whilst wearing a Nuva Ring can be a bit of a blind game of ring-toss, so it may be easier to insert your cup with the ring removed, then replace the ring. Removing the ring briefly in this manner will not compromise the effectiveness of your pregnancy prevention.
If you recently had your IUD placed it is generally recommended that you wait 2-3 months before using a cup. IUD expulsion rates are relatively low even without menstrual cups in the picture, and most people’s devices settle within the first two cycles. Make sure your strings are trimmed appropriately so that they do not get trapped between the rim of your cup and the walls of the vagina. When removing your cup, make sure to break the suction seal first. IUD users may prefer a lower-suction cup to make this a little easier. As always, check your strings regularly and if you notice any change in your string length contact your physician or gynaecologist.
One last fear common to new cup users is- what if it gets lost/stuck? First off, it can’t get lost. The vaginal canal is a finite distance and the cervical opening is, except during childbirth or when medically induced to dilate, a really tiny opening that your cup could not fit inside if you tried. Just as tampons and kegel exercisers don’t get lost, neither do cups. What can happen is that your cup becomes difficult to remove, due to a number of factors. Have you orgasmed recently? During arousal the vaginal canal balloons and the cervix pulls up and back taking your cup along with it. I forget this ALL THE TIME and the combination of my preferred cups being relatively smooth, my own natural cunt goo, and the retreat of my cervix means I’ve just gotta wait for things to return to normal.
If your cup becomes difficult to reach for removal try squatting in the bathtub (so you don’t have to worry about cleanup if you spill the contents) and bearing down during removal. Some folks may be able to reach deeper while laying on their back (I’m one of those people). Remember- stay calm. It won’t harm you to leave the cup a little longer and give it another go when you’re more relaxed. TSS is not a concern with cups as it is with tampons. I’ve seen people talk about using kitchen spoons, tongs, and bent coat hangers to retrieve a stuck cup. Please do not do this. There is one device that I can recommend for stubborn cup retrieval- The Magic Banana. It’s designed as a kegel exerciser in some weird way, but it fills the same role as the spoons and coat hangers but in a safe manner. Relax, breathe, find a position that allows you to reach further, and press the side or rim of the cup when you can reach it to break the suction.
Now that we’ve covered basics, application, and common concerns, let’s get to the good stuff- comparisons! Onwards to part two of the Epic Menstrual Cup Guide!
- I was also probably 7 or 8 years old, so I’m kinda impressed with myself. How many elementary school kids know what intersex is? [↩]
- I’ve recently seen tell of a lot of folk who are using both in conjunction. I’m not exactly sure how prevalent this is. [↩]
- The smoother the cup the harder it is to grip. The stems on cups are designed to combat this, but if you’re like me and cut the stems off this is no longer the case. [↩]
- TSS is caused by bacteria that can be present on tampons due to their porous and non-sterile nature. Cups are non-porous and, if you are maintaining your cups properly, can be sterilised and sanitised between uses. [↩]