Premenstrual syndrome and self-policing: constructing and deconstructing premenstrual distress in lesbian and heterosexual relationships

Premenstrual distress: An unavoidable condition many women suffer with relentless regularity. Or is it? Can heterosexual women learn a thing or two from their lesbian sisterhood?

In her keynote talk: "Premenstrual Syndrome and Self-policing: Constructing and Deconstructing Premenstrual Distress in Lesbian and Heterosexual relationships", Professor Jane M Ussher, will put forward her views to delegates of an international 3-day conference for psychologists to be held at the University of Leicester, entitled "Qualitative Research and Marginalisation."

Professor Ussher is Professor of Women's Health Psychology and Director of the Gender Culture and Health Research at the University of Western Sydney, Australia, and a world-renowned expert in her field.

Her talk draws on her recently published book 'Managing the Monstrous Feminine: Regulating the Reproductive Body' (Routledge, 2006), She commented: "The majority of women experience physical and psychological changes in the premenstrual phase of the cycle, but only some women experience distress associated with these changes, and position them as PMS. My paper argues that this distress and self-diagnosis is associated with practices of self-policing - negative self-judgement, self-silencing, self-sacrifice, over responsibility and self blame.

"My paper identifies self-policing practices in relation to the experience and construction of premenstrual depression and anger in lesbian and heterosexual relationships, and presents a model of clinical intervention which disrupts this self-policing, through a process of challenging PMS as a bio-medical problem, and unravelling the legitimate reasons why many women are distressed."

Drawing on in-depth interviews with 36 British and 64 Australian women, Professor Ussher argues that women's experience of distress or anger premenstrually is connected to the self-policing practices which women are expected to engage in order to fulfil their role as a 'good' wife or mother. She suggests that this is closely associated with notions of idealised femininity and the monstrous feminine, in other words the positioning of women as emotional nurturers of others, necessitating self-renunciation; the juxtaposition of the 'good' and 'bad' woman; and the positioning of woman as closer to nature, with subjectivity tied to an abject body.

Premenstrually, when many women feel more vulnerable, and their repressed frustration or anger comes to the fore, their self-control is ruptured, and they can lash out, or want to withdraw from the caring role. Yet this is followed by increased self-surveillance, leading to guilt, shame, and blaming of the body.

As women in lesbian relationships were found to report less distress associated with premenstrual changes, greater acceptance on the part of their partner, and less self-policing, Professor Ussher concludes that the identification of self-policing is of particular concern for heterosexual women.

She demonstrates how a woman-centred psychological intervention for premenstrual symptoms can act to identify and challenge these self-policing practices. It can also allow women to develop more empowering strategies for reducing or preventing premenstrual distress, and to develop an ethic of care for the self, no longer blaming the body for premenstrual anger or depression, rather, looking to life stresses, ways of coping, and relationship issues.

The presentation will report on the results of 20 years of research on PMS, including two recent intervention studies conducted with 36 British and 20 Australian women. These will include case examples, drawing on narrative interviews conducted pre and post treatment, in order to illustrate the process of deconstruction and re-thinking, and subsequent reduction in premenstrual distress.

Professor Ussher's keynote lecture will take place on Wednesday 3rd May at 4pm. Her talk will be one among a wide range of topics to be covered during the 3-day conference, which will offer a rare chance for international psychologists interested in the comparatively recent adoption within Psychology of qualitative research.

Professor Ussher is one of six keynote speakers, internationally acclaimed within their fields: Kathy Charmaz, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Faculty Writing Program at Sonoma State University, USA; Adrian Coyle, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Surrey and Research Tutor on its Practitioner Doctorate in Psychotherapeutic and Counselling Psychology; Stephen Frosh, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Centre for Psychosocial Studies, Birkbeck College, University of London; Dr Karen Henwood, Senior Lecturer in Social Sciences at Cardiff School of Social Sciences; and Ian Parker, Professor of Psychology in the Discourse Unit at Manchester Metropolitan University and Managing Editor of the Annual Review of Critical Psychology.

A full list of speakers and further conference details can be found on the website:

The conference is designed for academics and practitioners alike, and will promote cross-disciplinary discussion and debate, and encourage presentation of a diverse range of qualitative research. The first day will retain a clinical emphasis since a large number of clinical psychologists will be attending on 3 May. Otherwise, the themes of the groups of presentations have been varied across the three days in order to produce variety throughout.

Cafe Sessions have been organised each day, intended as spaces for informal small group discussions in response to keynote presentations. No more than 15 people are allowed and pre-booking is essential.


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