Tampon taxes and substandard sex ed continue to prop up period taboos.
Across the US, millions of girls, women, and their allies across the gender spectrum have raised their voices and talked openly about their periods in an effort to destigmatize menstruation.
Their efforts have certainly paid off. Nationwide, cities and states continue to pass new laws that make pads, tampons, and other menstrual health products more accessible. In 2016, New York state passed a law to repeal the sales tax on pads and tampons. That same year, New York City became the first city to dispense period products for free inside public schools, homeless shelters, and other municipal facilities.
In 2017, the state of Illinois followed suit, making tampons and pads free inside public schools.
In addition to making it easier for women and girls to manage their periods, the new laws chip away at period taboos that too often fuel silence and shame around menstruation.
But they’re just the beginning.
Despite the massive movement to destigmatize menstruation, period injustices persist across the US. And nationwide, advocates are working hard to counter these five laws in particular that prop up period stigma.
1// No Safety Net Program Helps Women Who Literally Cannot Afford Tampons and Pads
The US provides a few safety net programs to assist poor women and low-income mothers in need of a hand-up. There’s the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program designed to help low-income families with young children afford food. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program — also known as food stamps — provides a small food allowance that helps people below a certain income level afford groceries.
Those programs certainly help uplift millions of women around the US, but neither one covers period products.
That’s a big deal for the lowest income Americans, especially those receiving public assistance benefits. In Mississippi, public assistance recipients receive as little as $170 per month — or just $2,040 per year.
At the same time, Jezebel.com estimates that women spend about $61 a year on items to prevent free-bleeding. That means women who receive public assistance in Mississippi might have to devote 3% of their total income toward purchasing tampons, pads, and cups.
Fortunately, several cities and nonprofits have launched efforts to ensure that low-income girls and women, like those residing in New York City’s shelter system, can get the expensive period products they need.
2// State Prison Enforce Arbitrary Pad Limits
Until February, women in Arizona’s prison system could only access 12 sanitary pads per month — nowhere near what many women need when they have their period.
If inmates wanted more, they had to ask prison guards who often denied their requests. Arizona’s arbitrary pad-rationing provision forced women to ration the way they manage periods, “free bleed,” or rely on unsanitary, solutions. They were also unable to get tampons.
But the rules began to change when State Rep. Athena Salman introduced a measure to supply more pads and tampons to women in prison. She enlisted former inmates and women’s rights advocates to testify about their experiences before an all-male congressional committee. Their testimony had a big impact, inspiring the committee to unlock the bill for a full House vote.
But a few days later, the chairman of the state House of Representatives killed Salman’s bill.
His decision only served to fuel the movement to ensure women have access to the materials they need to manage their menstrual health. A passionate response by women across the US and the world motivated the Department of Corrections to change their guidelines regarding pad access.
As of mid-February, female prisoners can now access up to 36 pads per month. The new rule by the Department of Corrections is a good start, but several issues remain. The increased pad-ration has not been codified into state law— which means it can revert back to the 12-pad limit— and women still have to ask for permission to get more pads if needed.
3// The ‘Tampon Tax’ Treats Pads Like Luxury Items
Tampons, pads, and other menstrual health resources are essential to women’s health. And yet, the vast majority of US states treat period products like luxury items by slapping high sales taxes on them.
Across the country, food, prescription medications, and other items considered basic necessities are free from sales tax. But of the 45 states that impose sales taxes, only 7 — Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania— exempt pads and tampons.
“Basically we are being taxed for being women,” California lawmaker Cristina Garcia said when she introduced a bill to remove the tampon tax. “Women have no choice but to buy these products, so the economic effect is only felt by [women[ and women of color are particularly hard hit by this tax. You can’t just ignore your period, it’s not like you can just ignore the constant flow.”
4// Insufficient Reproductive Health Education Entrenches Period Myths
Most wealthy nations teach sex education and menstrual health early and often in order to counter myths and enable young people to better understand their bodies. In the Quebec province of Canada, for example, sex ed begins in kindergarten. And children in Ontario learn about consent by grade one.
But the US approaches sex ed much differently than its northern neighbors.
In fact, only 22 states mandate schools to teach reproductive health. Just 13 require that the information shared by health educators be “medically accurate.”
That means generations of young people across the US have not received complete and detailed information about their bodies in their schools. That early misinformation can fuel knowledge gaps later in life.
According to the American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 64% of American women can’t identify the cervix in an image of reproductive organs, for example.
And a lack of information only serves to reinforce myths and stereotypes about menstrual health, especially among men who may — as Popular Science describes — consider their menstruating girlfriends as “crazy, demanding, or overly emotional.”
“Boys’ early learning about menstruation is haphazard,” wrote the authors of a 2011 study on period notions among adult men. “The mysterious nature of what happens to girls contributes to a gap in boys’ knowledge about female bodies and to some negative views about girls.”
5// What’s Inside Your Tampon?
Unlike laws pertaining to food, medications, and other items we put inside our bodies, no regulations compel tampon and pad manufacturers to disclose what chemicals and materials are inside their products.
In 2016, Congresswoman Grace Meng from New York introduced a bill known as the Menstrual Products Right to Know Act, which would force manufacturers to disclose ingredients in tampons, pads, and menstrual cups on the packaging.
“We want women to be able to know what chemicals are in these products, which come in direct contact with our bodies,” Meng told the New York Times.
Meng’s bill has stalled, but activists across the US have stepped up their efforts to demand information and, in the process, break the silence that fuels period stigma.
“[Periods are] something that happens to almost half of the population,” Lola cofounder Jordana Kier told Vogue. “This isn’t something that we should be embarrassed [to discuss]. Women should be empowered to make informed decisions about their bodies.