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MediaMay 23, 2018

Critic editor: why we made the Menstruation Issue

university blood

Yesterday the University of Otago seized thousands of copies of its own students’ association’s magazine. The editor of Critic Te Arohi, Joel MacManus, talks through the genesis of the menstruation issue – and yesterday’s extraordinary events.

Two months ago, the Otago Women’s+ Club approached me about the idea to do a menstruation themed issue of Critic to tie into Period Week, an event they were organising. Their goal was to start an open discourse and encourage people to treat periods not as a taboo but as a bodily function. Seems ironic now.

I initially wasn’t too keen on the idea. I wasn’t sure there would be enough quality content to justify an entire themed issue. My backup plan was to try to negotiate them down to just a cover story.

As it turned out, my worries were warrantless. The news team came through with stories about a scheme to provide discounted menstrual cups to students, and proved that the University of Otago had falsely claimed that there were sanitary disposal bins available in every female cubicle on campus when that wasn’t anywhere near the truth.

The features team wrote pieces disproving common period myths, investigated all the places on campus you can find free sanitary products, and wrote a guide to ‘sexing it up in shark week’. Eighteen of our readers shared their best/worst period stories.

Chief Reporter Esme Hall wrote a guest editorial titled ‘Talking about periods is a very good thing,’ which kind of summed up the whole point of the issue.

The cover which so offended the University of Otago

Some of the stories touched on the idea that trans men also get periods, and so throughout the issue we refrained from referring to periods as something that only women get, choosing to use gender-inclusive terms instead. Saskia Rushton-Green, a freelance illustrator, designed the cover with this in mind, depicting a deliberately gender-neutral person menstruating.

“The image shows how people who bleed are pulling through with a smile and a thumbs up, even when they feel really gross,” she said.

“I certainly never intended this piece to be degrading to women/anyone who bleeds from their vagina, in fact I hope some people find it empowering. I bleed for about a third of my life and it’s not glamorous. I’d love to live in a world where if someone bleeds through their pants a little by no fault of their own, someone tells them, nobody gives a shit, and that person goes and sorts it out, but we’re not there yet. There’s a lot of underlying judgement around it that makes bleeding more stressful than it needs to be.”

We printed 4,500 copies, and on Sunday evening, the Menstruation Issue of Critic was distributed to stands around campus. On Monday, the pick up was going well. I personally went through the Central Library and restocked stands twice. It was definitely a cover that got people’s attention. It was feeling like a good week.

At around 7pm I checked on a stand in a lecture theatre where the pickup is usually quite slow, but to my surprise it was totally empty. I checked three other leacture theatres, all empty.

It was clear someone had come through and wiped them out.

By yesterday morning it became clear that it was every single stand in every single building on campus. Someone really didn’t want the issue out there. We were missing around 2000 copies and had no idea who had taken them.

It honestly felt like a kick to the guts. We’d worked our asses off making this issue and it was something I was incredibly proud of. And we had just lost half our readers, who now wouldn’t be able to get their hands on it.

The staff threw a bunch of theories around – was it a religious group, an anti-trans activist, or a lone wolf trying to cover up a story? It was such a big effort that it clearly required a team of people, and presumably a vehicle to carry hundreds of copies in.

We never considered the University. Firstly, they always come to us or to OUSA whenever they have an issue. And secondly, I got an email around noon Tuesday (17 hours after the copies were taken) from Vice Chancellor Harlene Hayne which said “I did want to let you know that this week’s issue of the Critic is particularly good.”

I emailed Property Services, who “categorically” said it wasn’t them. They pointed me to Campus Watch, who they said might have CCTV footage.

At least six stands, and probably more, were directly in the line of sight of cameras, so I went to the Campus Watch office and filled out a form. They said they would look into it.

It was at this point that I posted on the Critic Facebook page that the copies had been taken, expressed how disheartened we were, and asked anyone who knew who was responsible to get in touch.

Stuff, Newshub and the Otago Daily Times called me and wrote stories about the mystery of the missing issues. They all reached out to the University for comment.

At 6pm the University sent out a press release in response to the requests which said that Campus Watch had been instructed to remove every issue and throw them in a skip, because the cover was “objectionable” and children might see it.

This was the first we had been told of any problem with the issue. We found out in the same way and at the same time as the rest of the media.

There was one part of the University’s statement that really pissed me off.

“The University has no official view on the content of this week’s magazine. However, the University is aware that University staff members, and members of the public, have expressed an opinion that the cover of this issue was degrading to women.”

I read that as a backhanded attack on our magazine and a personal insult to the integrity of our staff. The decision to do a menstruation issue was made after a suggestion by the Otago Womens+ Club, all the menstruation-related content was written by female or non-binary contributors, and the cover artwork (which was of a non-gendered person) was done by a woman.

It seemed like nothing more than a shitty attempt to shift the blame after they fucked up. And they didn’t even have the integrity to put their own name to it. They were trying to attack us without officially attacking us.

We have the right to print provocative covers, and we so do because they start conversations. Student media should be able to push boundaries.

As one person on Twitter pointed out, this attempt at censorship turned out to be a free lesson in The Streisand Effect

As of writing this, the PDF version of our magazine has been read 9000 times online. That’s about 8900 more than what we get on a typical week, and double our total print run, and there are copies on Trademe for $40 a pop.

As Hermione Granger put it, “If she could have done one thing to make absolutely sure that every single person in this school will read your interview, it was banning it!”

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