Can women bleed for free? A hygienic dilemma

Photo by Sarah King

While walking into the restroom at Target, I heard the far-too-familiar sound of another woman desperately shoving coins into the tampon dispenser attached to the bathroom wall. I noticed she was empty-handed, the vendor was empty, and she was out of change. Luckily, I was also on the last few days of my period so I had a tampon to spare, which she eagerly accepted and profusely thanked me for. Everybody poops, everybody pees. Public restrooms are readily available for everyone, everywhere in the United States, with toilet paper in abundance free-of-charge. What about tampons?

Fifty percent of the population experiences an inevitable weeklong monthly menstruation period that’s not only mentally frustrating, but messy – and unlike every other natural body process, this one comes with an attached price tag. The repercussions for letting the process happen naturally are significant, but are they reason enough to consider free aid for menstruating women a necessity? It’s definitely a dilemma between morals and money that really boils down to one question: Is it ethical to charge women for pads and tampons?

The United States is among many other countries that do not see feminine hygiene as a health issue. It would seem logical that a product designed to stop uterus lining from spilling out of a person and onto everything else would be affordable, but the IRS doesn’t agree. Currently, tampons and most other feminine hygiene products are grouped as non-tax-exempt, non-tax-deductible medical expenses, while products and procedures like breast pumps, vasectomies and false teeth are not. It goes beyond the treatment of hygiene products versus the treatment of other similar items.

Women across the country risk regular infections and absences from work and school when not given access to adequate materials to aid with menstruation. Jyoti Sanghera, Chief of the UN Human Rights Office Economic and Social Issues Section, once said that the “stigma around menstruation and menstrual hygiene is a violation of several human rights, most importantly of the right to human dignity.” The embarrassment and social inquiry that comes with openly bleeding in public can be mentally devastating to women, especially at young ages. Combine this with the inability to afford or obtain tampons, and we’ve created a woman who not only feels that  is nature against her, but her government is as well.

Do you ever stop and think about how much money you spend not bleeding on yourself or other people? Many women don’t even consider it. Coughing up cash for a cylinder filled with cotton attached to a string is just a normal part of a woman’s life. Paying for a biological process that naturally occurs in nearly all women is something that makes most not even bat an eye. Tampon prices can range from an average of $7.00 to $8.00 a box at local pharmaceuticals, with cost dependent on cardboard or plastic applicators, size, quantity, and yes, even scent. The typical woman menstruates three to seven days for an average of 38 years of her life, meaning the average woman spends 2,280 days on her period. She is estimated to buy over $2,000 worth of tampons in her lifetime.

This isn’t including the dreadful rest stop bathroom discoveries that’ll cost $.50-$1.00 a pop at the dispenser, or the sudden road trip blunders that’ll cost $4.00- $5.00 for the six pack at the gas station even though only one is needed; the fact is, not only are they overpriced, they’re never as available at restrooms in most areas. They are also unavailable to more than just the panicked traveler. Food stamps do not cover feminine products, and many women resort to selling their food stamps to cover the cost of pads or tampons each month. Most prisons do not even provide feminine products, so women must rely on commissary to purchase tampons, while supplies last.

The opposition to free or /tax-free tampons almost entirely spills from the mouths of politicians and public speakers whose reproductive systems are not reliant on that time of month. Men view feminine hygiene products like cosmetics instead of healthcare, and fail to understand that it is the social sphere they created that makes tampons such a taboo topic in the first place. In 1986, Gloria Steinem famously wrote that if men got periods, they “would brag about how long and how much”: that boys would talk about their menstruation as the beginning of their manhood, that there would be “gifts, religious ceremonies” and sanitary supplies would be “federally funded and free.”

Without a doubt, there are some permissible arguments against subsidizing tampons: Other necessary hygienic items, including toilet paper, aren’t subsidized. The issue is that even in restrooms in government-run facilities free toilet paper is already offered, and no one ever suggests employees and patrons should have to bring it in for themselves. At the very least, states should stop taxing tampons and employers should offer free tampons in the bathroom as a simple way to be female-friendly; unlike other “frivolous” healthcare products like razors, birth control and toothbrushes, tampons and pads are necessary to function as a contributing member of our communities today.

Menstruating is not a choice, and feminine hygiene products should not be viewed as “fringe benefits” or “luxuries” by our government. Organizer of the U.S.-based “Free the Tampons” campaign, Nancy Kramer, shared her sentiments on the issue in a 2013 TEDxColumbus talk asking “Who decided toilet paper was free, and tampons weren’t? Who decided paper towels, soap and seat covers are free and tampons aren’t?”

In a nation where every other aspect of a woman is scrutinized, there is one simple yet apparently groundbreaking question: Can women bleed for free?

Column by: Emily Himes, Contributing Columnist

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