Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti kicked off the week with a provocative argument: In order to reduce the financial and social burden menstruation puts on women, “women’s feminine hygiene products should be free for all, all the time.” For those of us who can easily afford tampons and sanitary pads, this might seem like a silly idea, but, as Valenti points out, for women living in “countries where sanitary products are inaccessible or unaffordable,” the lack of access means missing work or school, getting infections from reusing the same rags without cleaning them, and even dropping out of school because your period causes you to fall so far behind in your studies. But while that’s more of a problem in developing countries, even in places like the United States, the high price of tampons means “some women resort to selling their food stamps in order to pay for ‘luxuries’ like tampons.”
I read Valenti’s piece less as a policy proposal and more as an attempt to reframe public understanding of menstruation. By starting with a provocative suggestion that tampons should be free, Valenti is asking audiences to really think about how the right to move about in public without bleeding all over yourself, a no-brainer for men, is a privilege for women that depends all too much on their ability to afford sanitary products. Odds are that tampons will never be free for all women everywhere in the world, but thought experiments like Valenti’s can open the door to possibilities that make life a little more fair for women: repealing sales taxes on tampons, providing tampon subsidies to low-income women, putting free bowls of tampons into workplace bathrooms, pushing for innovations to lower the expense of sanitary products, or offering tampons for free to girls and women in some developing countries so they don’t miss school or work because of their periods.
Unfortunately, “the idea of women even getting small tax breaks for menstrual products provokes incredulousness because some people lack an incredible amount of empathy … and because it has something to do with vaginas,” Valenti writes. And she’s not just speculating. When Valenti was doing research for her piece, she innocently asked on Twitter, “Anyone know a country where tampons are free or somehow subsidized?” Merely asking the question triggered an unbelievable—and unbelievably misogynist—stream of abuse on Twitter aimed at Valenti. Robyn Wilder at BuzzFeed collected some of the tweets, most of which centered on the idea that women’s bodies are extremely disgusting and that women should not offer opinions about things women might need.
The abuse seems to have been kicked off by the right-wing blog Twitchy. “Jessica Valenti is looking for a place to score free tampons,” the site’s headline reads. Not that any of her critics will pick up on this, but there’s a deep irony here. By targeting Valenti for abuse for even bringing up the issue of free tampons, anti-feminists ended up proving Valenti’s point: Menstrual products are treated like luxury items that you “score” instead of medical devices that you need because there’s so much cultural discomfort with women’s bodies.