It is embarrassing to leak. When we bleed, sweat and cry we are seen as shameful, out of control, undignified. Leaky bodies are subject to surveillance and a violence that separates those who leak from those who do not. But this shame surrounding leakiness is not a given. Rather, it is historically and politically constructed, tied to outdated conceptions of the body and to an even older set of social hierarchies.
During the 17th century in England, men menstruated—or, at least, they thought they did. Medical documents and personal testimonies from the time are often vague, but many suggest that “male menstruation” took multiple forms, whether blood spewed monthly from the tip of the finger or from the “genital parts,” as one man reported in 1706. In general, the historian Lisa Wynne Smith observes, menstruation seems to have been understood by both medical experts and the public as an un-sexed and un-gendered event. Aristocratic men even saw periodic bleeding as a religious experience, a way of being closer to the image of the suffering Christ. Menstruation was not scientifically linked with fertility (and femininity) until the 18th century, when the humoral tradition of medicine dominant at the time described the body as in a constant state of physical flux. In this understanding of bodies the regulation of fluids was a necessity, and so bleeding was encouraged, both as a spontaneous phenomenon and through medical procedures like bloodletting. Menstrual cycles, then, were seen as purifying for both sexes.
In the humoral tradition, male and female bodies shared essential features that existed on a spectrum. Female bodies were made up of the same parts as men but were considered inferior because their genitalia were inverted and hidden. The physical body was shaped by a person’s social presentation and by how feminine or masculine they acted. If a woman acted feminine by the standards of her social world, her body reflected it. If she behaved in a vulnerable way, her body became vulnerable, too. Thus, because of her position in the social-sexual hierarchy, a woman’s body became leaky, squishy, bloated, and vulnerable. Still, these characteristics weren’t necessarily fixed. A 17th-century woman who engaged in masculine behavior might expect her penis to drop and hang out, leaving her body sturdier and more robust. According to the scientific logic of the time, a woman’s inverted genitalia could become external, just as it was within the realm of possibility for men to have periods.
During the 17th century and into the 18th, as Britain’s local agrarian trading markets emerged, men began to describe the experience of menstruation as anxiety-inducing. As men’s roles in these labor markets became separate from the roles of women in and around the household, the male body was expected to exhibit the norms of orderly public life. According to the logic of the newly separate public and private economies, self-control became a distinctly public virtue and an inability to control a leaky body became troubling, testament to a man’s broader inability to instill order in the world. In medical encounters, men described their leakiness with increasing shame, seeking ways of either stopping or hiding it.
By the mid-18th century a two-sex model of the human body had replaced the more fluid humoral model, ending the physical possibility of male menstruation altogether. Scientists linked menstrual blood to fetal development and began investigating male ejaculation, drawing categorical distinctions between men from women. With this split, control of the bodily liquids became an increasingly achievable possibility for men and an unattainable state for women. Yet both sexed bodies carried over the characteristics attributed to them in the humoral traditions: Women’s bodies were still considered leaky, but that leakiness had physiological rather than social causes. Under the two-sex model, the female body was understood as the biologically weaker vessel.
This change was accompanied by the development of mechanical language that described the body as a machine with inputs and outputs. The two-sex model intersected with the mechanical body to suggest an ideal masculine shape, determinately sexed and in control. In their newly sexed definition, leaking bodily fluids were seen as embarrassing and a consequence of embarrassed states. Leakiness was the manifestation of bodies that could not maintain their boundaries, bodies that were out of control.
We still leak, and leaking is still sexed. We still experience our bodies as units that should stay bounded and are still made to feel ashamed when our liquids become uncontrollable. Women are shamed when they make menstruation or lactation too public. The female orgasm is treated as invisible and unknowable, and consistently dismissed as unimportant to women’s sexual health. Sexed shame also manifests itself in more serious contexts, such as in contemporary research on pregnancy, epigenetics, and birth defects, which provides the tools to blame a mother when, for instance, her antibodies and stress hormones leak through the placenta, harming her fetus.
Of course, all bodies leak and, sexed or unsexed, we feel ashamed of their gunky residues. When we cry, orgasm, are sick, or get nervous, we feel we have lost control of ourselves and are embarrassed as our liquids leak out into the world. But the stains our blood, snot, sweat, cum, and tears leave behind are not only symbolic: Our molecular makeup persists outside of us in them. The same genetic information that is embedded in our bodies and escapes in our liquids can live on just as comfortably in a laboratory petri dish or as a code in a computer.
And so the institutions that rule our lives are conflicted when it comes to these leaks. On the one hand, conceptions of the stable body have served medical and legal ideas of identity well; the named and trackable self anchors birth certificates, passports, and other documents and acts as the primary marker of self and selfhood. On the other hand, our leaks can be manipulated by courts, labs, and other institutions that might want to control us. Because the legal protocols around ownership of biological data are often unclear, the biological information that leaks out of our supposedly bounded bodies is not necessarily ours to keep.
This leaked information helps institutions make claims about us. Parents who adopt, find surrogates, or receive mitochondrial or sperm donations find themselves in a precarious legal relationship to their children; without a genetic link, the legal system can bind or unbind them according to outdated and unrepresentative conceptions of kinship. Private and public insurance institutions might soon be able to impose costs on individuals if their DNA shows the potential for a disease that requires high-cost health care. DNA has already been used to tie people to sexed identities with which they no longer identify. DNA traces in blood, semen, or mucus at the scene of a crime are framed as objective forms of evidence.
While the cultural shame of leakiness impacts women and female-identifying people most often, the systematic disadvantages of leaking are felt by people of color, indigenous, and trans people most intensely. Medical and legal systems exploit their bodily tissues and liquids to make claims on their autonomy: People of color are wrongfully accused of crime through dodgy biological evidence, indigenous people are required to prove their heritage through blood samples, and trans people are unable to find legal representation with a new name and sex identity, to name a few examples. The hurdles set in place to demonstrate innocence, prove identity, and authenticate sex can be degrading and violent. Leakiness is not just undignified; it can also be unsafe. The shame surrounding leakiness makes it difficult to have a real conversation about who suffers from their leaks and how.
To address this violence, we must begin by dismantling the 18th-century concept of the stable, bounded body. Biologically speaking, we now know that our sexed and leaky bodies exist on a spectrum akin to the one described in the humoral tradition. Human genitalia are not always, or even primarily, shown to be explicitly male or female. Smaller penises are not always so easily distinguished from enlarged clitorises, especially at birth. Nor are hormones a clear testament to sex; men and women have fluctuating amounts of estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone in their bodies both over the course of a day and a lifetime. And male sex can be expressed by a varied composition of chromosomes: XY, XXY, or even XYY.
By using a contemporary biological vocabulary that rejects determinism, we might find new forms of representation and protection against the medical and legal standards that substantiate oppressive policy. Biological autonomy requires a vocabulary full of choice and change. A living being is one in a state of perpetual disequilibrium, regulated through leaking. A body that does not perform this function is, in fact, a dead body.
I do not wish to dictate the ways in which any individual person or groups of people should or shouldn’t identify with their blood, cum, or sweat. That said, embracing leakiness has the potential to be a productive experience for an individual rather than a repressive tool of the state. While we push to make medical and legal systems recognize the biological reality of our leaky bodies, can we, in the meantime, have a more intimate relationship to our menstrual blood, our orgasms, our sweat, and our tears? These leaks can represent the multiple ways we stay in flux: Periods show time passing, orgasms demonstrate sexual growth, sweat and tears exhibit hard work.
Sara Ahmed has suggested that “to speak out is to become a leak.” This is a fitting way to imagine the task at hand. We must recruit the language of biological ambiguity to make space for those who have been violated by medical and legal systems. For ourselves and for others, we need to make messes in these institutions—or, perhaps, make messes of these institutions.