Menstrual equity and period poverty are two incredibly important issues that aren’t talked about enough. In this episode, we take a look at issues of accessibility when it comes to menstrual hygiene and how we can take steps forward to make sure everyone can have a safe and happy period.
Referenced in this episode:
- ACLU: The Unequal Price of Periods
- State of the Period by Thinx/Period.org
- American Medical Association: Why stigma prevents treating menstrual hygiene as essential
- Period Equity
- Code Red Collective + GoFundMe
- MA Menstrual Equity Coalition – I AM Bill
- Women’s Voices on Earth
- Thinx period underwear – $10 off your purchase
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Do you have menstrual privilege?
Think about when you get your period. If you’re tracking your cycle with the Fertility Awareness Method, maybe you start your day by taking your temperature, and you see the temperature shift back down to let you know that it’s coming soon.
Then you get your period. If you’re lucky, you find out by wiping after you go to the bathroom, but if not, you might find out by the stain on your underwear — or worse, it’s leaked through to your clothes.
Then you contain it somehow. Pad, tampon, menstrual cup, menstrual disc, period underwear — we’re lucky to have lots of options.
Then you manage it. You use several pads or liners or tampons, you have multiple pairs of period underwear, you have a safe place to wash out your cup or disc. If you have to cramp maybe you take herbs or a pain reliever. If you’re fatigued, you take a nap. If you’re craving some food, you go and eat that food.
Despite menstruation being a natural part of life that we can’t control, every sentence that I just said carries some privilege with it. Simply being able to menstruate can be a privilege in itself because it’s an indicator of your overall health.
Menstrual equity is a human rights issue
There’s privilege in being able to track your basal body temperature, having the knowledge about the Fertility Awareness Method, being able to wash the clothes that you might bleed on and in a timely manner, having a change of clothes if you happen to ruin something by leaking onto it, being able to afford menstrual products — an adequate amount of them and good-quality products — even the volume of your flow can be a privilege if you can afford to contain it.
Also, it’s a privilege to have a safe place to clean yourself and your products, a privilege to not have any PMS symptoms or period pain, a privilege to respond to your symptoms with a remedy, having money for pain relievers, having time for a nap if you’re tired, having access to food to satisfy your cravings.
These are all things we take for granted for the most part.
According to the ACLU, “on any given day, there are 800,000,000 people on the planet who are menstruating, of whom at least 500,000,000 lack adequate resources for managing their periods.” Resources being basic supplies, facilities, information, and support.
22 million of those menstruators live in the US in poverty.
In America, the government offers very little in the way of support. While countries like Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan, and Zambia have laws entitling employees to menstrual leave if needed, here we’re far behind. Very few companies offer such a benefit, in fact, in a study of working women who menstruate, 82% of those whose period pain impacts their jobs said their employer makes no accommodation for them.
In America, period poverty and menstrual inequity are serious issues that essentially determine a person’s ability to work and go to school. Menstrual equity is a human rights issue, it’s an issue of dignity. It’s both simple and complex. Simple in that everyone deserves access to safe products and to be able to safely care for their bodies, and complex in that there are just so many layers to it all.
Public health should include menstrual health
For instance, homelessness is already a major systemic issue that we do a terrible job of handling in this country. But as a result, it creates more problems specifically for people who menstruate.
There’s the issue of access. Period products are pretty expensive, especially the reusable ones. They might be cost-efficient over time, but not everyone has the privilege of being able to afford the high up-front cost of $30 underwear or a $50 menstrual cup that you’re not even sure is going to fit your body.
Disposable products are expensive, too, becoming even more so if someone is dealing with a heavy flow and they need more tampons or pads throughout their period.
Unhoused people who don’t have access to menstrual products report that they end up using rolled-up toilet paper, old rags, paper towels, newspapers, or they bleed onto their clothes. If they do access tampons, they may try to extend their use and leave it in for too long, which can cause infections that leave them more susceptible to toxic shock syndrome.
If TSS is left untreated, it may cause the person to need a hysterectomy. These infections can cause pregnancy issues, and susceptibility to sexually transmitted infections, and HPV. HPV can lead to cervical cancer, etc.
There is a safety issue here as well, not just for menstruating women but for trans men as well, who also may experience being unhoused. Their safety can be at risk if they’re outed by leaking onto their clothing or using tampons in a men’s bathroom, for instance. They may be turned away for menstrual products at shelters, if the shelters even have them on hand.
That’s another layer to it — many shelters don’t have pads or tampons to offer. They’re often one of the most requested, and least donated, items. If you do want to donate, consider donating both, or prioritizing pads — it’s also common for people in these situations to have experienced sexual trauma and prefer to use pads instead of inserting tampons.
Being unhoused is not the only barrier to accessing menstrual products, of course. For many people it’s the cost alone. Having to choose between putting food on the table and buying pads, or choosing between being able to make rent and keep their family safe and getting the higher quality tampons with the plastic applicators that don’t scratch your insides like the cardboard ones do.
Unfortunately, public health benefits (like SNAP and WIC) don’t include menstrual hygiene products, because, for some reason, menstruation is not considered important enough to file under public health. In fact, it’s actually illegal to accept food stamps for tampons and if you do this as a retailer, you could be prosecuted.
All menstruators deserve dignity
Without access, people may resort to shoplifting, which can of course bring on legal trouble, and the carceral system is no better in this area.
The Department of Justice made it a policy in 2017 to provide period products to incarcerated individuals for free, but it only applies on the federal level,
Many prisons and jails don’t provide any menstrual products, or they don’t provide adequate products, meaning they don’t offer the right amount. Again, an inmate might try and stretch the length of time they can use a tampon, for instance, and end up with a serious infection. Or the quality of the products they receive is poor, low-quality. Pads without adhesive, for example.
For the institutions that don’t provide pads and tampons, inmates have to use their commissary funds. This is not my area of expertise at all so I’m going to quote directly from the ACLU report:
“Prisoners who work in prison jobs earn less than $3.50 per day on average, and often money that they earn is put towards court fees and other costs. Because commissary items in prisons are purchased through outside vendors that often have monopolies on the products they sell, those products may be marked up significantly, making them even more out of reach for indigent prisoners.
For example, a box of tampons in a Colorado prison can cost two weeks’ wages; other states charge similarly high prices and prisoners may therefore be forced to spend multiple days’ wages on products every single month.
Incarcerated people around the country often must make an impossible choice between accessing medical care, buying menstrual products, and speaking to their families or their attorneys on the phone.
As just one example, Florida prisoners earn on average much less than 50 cents per hour, but have to pay over $4 for four tampons, $2.10 for a 15-minute phone call, and $5 for a medical visit.”
It’s dehumanizing to have to face these decisions. To have to face the abuse of people who work in the prison system too. If you read through the report, there is a discussion about inmates being forced to trade sex for menstrual products.
The discriminatory tampon tax
This is a choice by our government. This is a choice to make people with periods suffer, to create inaccessibility on multiple levels — in the carceral system, for unhoused people, for menstruators in general. It’s a choice, as well, by our government to tax these products the way they do too.
33 states in the US tax menstrual products, but they don’t tax other things that are considered necessities, like food, shampoo, and conditioner. Pads and tampons are classified as medical devices by the FDA, but the IRS sees it differently and deems them “general health products,” which also means that you can’t use your FSA dollars on them.
An FSA is a Flexible Spending Account through your health insurance that you put a certain amount of money into to pay for copays, deductibles, medications, and other out-of-pocket health care expenses. You don’t have to pay taxes on the money that’s in this account. Menstrual hygiene products are not eligible for this.
This is what you may have heard called the “tampon tax.” And the tax persists, even despite public urging from the American Medical Association to reclassify pads and tampons as medical necessities.
Eliminating period stigma
There are organizations working towards a change, however, and introducing bills that would make these things more accessible.
In 2016, New York became the first state to enact legislation for menstrual equity, mandating that menstrual hygiene products be provided in public schools, shelters, and prisons for free, in large part thanks to Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, who is the founder of Period Equity and the former vice president of the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law.
The basis of all this, the reason why our government and our society doesn’t see menstruation as worthy of support in the public health arena, is stigma. We’re taught to see menstruation as shameful and dirty. We’re taught not to talk about it, like it’s some secret. That’s part of the reason why I talk about it all the time, I want to normalize the conversation, and I recognize that it is a privilege to be able to do the work that I talk about, to be able to safely endure the menstrual phase let alone do anything related to cycle-syncing.
But the stigma is strong, and it’s another complex issue with many layers.
In a survey commissioned by Thinx and Period.org, 80% of teens feel there’s a negative connotation associated with periods, that they’re gross or unsanitary. It starts young, my friends, and it doesn’t help that schools don’t typically provide menstrual products to students, despite being unaffordable to 20% of them.
Those who can’t afford them either have the same issues I mentioned before of ruining their clothes, which can lead to social stigma and isolation because teenagers are mean as hell, or they stretch out the items they do have and end up negatively affecting their health.
Or, they can go down to the nurse’s office and ask for a pad or tampon, if they’re lucky enough to have the nurse’s office stocked with them. But that takes time out of their day and out of their learning, so there’s the issue of menstrual inequity impacting educational opportunities too, even more so if a student’s period is so bad that they have to stay home and miss school.
The ACLU says that even missing just a few days of school can lead to significant performance gaps that are exacerbated by poverty and racism.
So what are we to do?
Working towards change
We can support organizations that are working towards achieving menstrual equity and making period products more accessible, and also those that are fighting for better regulations around the safety of period products as well.
- Period Equity is a legal organiztion working to end the discriminatory tampon tax. They also focus on access and product safety as well. Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, the founder, wrote a book called Periods Gone Public exploring how periods have become a prominent political cause.
- Code Red Co Collective is a nonprofit working towards dismantling inaccessibility and lack of intersectionality when it comes to period wellness and the community problems surrounding it, such as systematic racism, period poverty, mass incarceration, school-to-prison pipeline, transphobia, police brutality, and economic exploitation.
- The Massachusetts Menstrual Equity Coalition is currently working to pass the I AM bill they co-wrote, to increase access to disposable menstrual products in prisons, homeless shelters, and public schools from 6th-12th grade without stigmatizing the individual seeking them.
- Women’s Voices for the Earth is an organization that advocates for campaigns to increase corporate accountability and transparency, enact health-protective laws, and take steps to reduce toxic exposure in their lives, including the chemicals present in menstrual products. They recently supported the Menstrual Products Right to Know Act that would require companies selling tampons, pads, and menstrual cups to list their ingredients on their packaging.
Those are a few organizations to support, though while I was researching I did find a lot of small nonprofits that serve local communities, so check your area if you’d like to support locally.
According to Women’s Voices, there are currently more than 140 bills in 37 states, including 8 bills introduced on the federal level, to advance menstrual equity by requiring free access to period products, eliminating tax, and requiring ingredient disclosure. We may not be able to solve these things individually, but you can individually call up your senators and email your representatives and ask them to support these initiatives.
Enacting change on a personal level
After you’re done cyberbullying your local politicians on Twitter, think about the change you can enact in your own world. Can you donate any products to a shelter?
If you’re in a leadership position at work, or even if you’re not and you want to band together with coworkers — can you call for menstrual hygiene products to be available in the bathrooms? Can you call for them to be available in both men’s and women’s bathrooms if you have gendered facilities? Can you implement, or ask your employer to implement a paid menstrual leave policy?
If you like to push buttons, talk about your period more. Normalize it amongst your friends and family. If you don’t like to push buttons and you’re weird about period talk, examine that. Challenge yourself on it. Why do you feel that way? What feelings come up when you think about it? Where did you learn to feel those feelings?
Think about how stigma shows up in your life. Think about the products you use. Do menstrual cups gross you out? Why? Does the thought of getting your own blood on your fingers make you wanna gag? Why? Does the idea of using an ob tampon instead of a plastic applicator disgust you? WHY?
Go forth and bleed free
I hope this episode gave you a lot to think about, and I hope I also gave you enough to take action with. My goal is to help you feel empowered and supported on the road to menstrual equity, and I hope that we can work together to achieve it.