For most of my life, I never questioned whether or not cleaning up the blood coming from my vagina was an act of luxury. In fact, most people don’t. Yet, the simple act of obtaining a pad or a tampon comes with a hefty price, especially for low-income, incarcerated or homeless individuals.
For those nonmenstruators out there who don’t understand how menstruation works, allow me to explain. Menstruation is a process through which blood exits via the vagina for three to eight days. For some transgender people who don’t have vaginas, periods come in the form of menstrual cramping and bloating from hormone injections. First of all, periods are inevitable, so no, we can’t just “hold it in.” Second of all, no, we can’t just “let it all out at once.” It’s not the same as pee. It’s more like a bloody nose. In other words, it’s not a situation that we can just “avoid.”
Yet people still seem to not understand this, leading to fundamental problems with the way society treats menstruators. Period products are so expensive that students often have to choose between buying a meal and buying pads. One in five girls have missed school because they don’t have the means to take care of their period at school. Incarcerated individuals are often denied period products and then punished for bleeding in their cells. Given the lack of attention toward providing for menstrual hygiene, sometimes homeless people’s only options are to use newspaper, socks or nothing at all to staunch their bleeding.
According to HuffPost, the average menstruator who can actually afford the ridiculously expensive price of pads and tampons spends roughly $18,171 on their period in a lifetime. And to make matters worse, in most states, tampons and pads are taxed as luxury items (in comparison, Viagra is considered a “medical necessity” and therefore not taxed in most states). Why do legislators seem to think that a man’s sexual virility is more important than the literal act of cleaning up blood?
Think about today’s anti-abortion laws or Donald Trump’s plan to roll back health care nondiscrimination that protects transgender communities seeking health care. It’s no secret that policies in the U.S. often perpetuate the oppression of marginalized communities, and the tampon tax is no exception. It’s a manifestation of a heavily implemented system of sexism, patriarchy and class discrimination, targeting specifically women and transgender and nonbinary people.
The issue is not just in law and policy. Menstrual inequality often slips under the radar because of the stigma that prevents people from talking about it, leading to doctors and health care providers inadequately addressing menstrual health, despite period cramps and period pain being very real and legitimate experiences. According to a report published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, common reasons why women didn’t seek medical treatment was because they felt “that their experience was invalid, that suffering was normal, and that bleeding was healthy,” and “women also feared being dismissed by physicians and worried about wasting physicians’ time.”
Last weekend, the leaders of the menstrual movement, myself included, held 60 rallies all across the United States, demanding for the removal of the tampon tax and the provision of free menstrual products in public institutions. We graced the front lines of Good Morning America, Politico and CBS News; presidential candidates Kamala Harris, Andrew Yang and Julián Castro, as well as U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, publicly endorsed us on social media; and we were trending on Twitter. And yet, it’s like no one heard us.
I still have people asking me, “Why are you protesting? Periods are such a niche issue.” Even professors and other activists still look away with about as much respect as if I just informed them of a blister on my foot when I talk to them about menstrual equity; it’s hard to deny that they’re either uncomfortable or not taking me seriously.
It’s not a niche issue, and it’s not just about periods. It’s about how costly it is to have a period in a society that is hellbent on using it as a tool to discriminate against marginalized communities of menstruators. It’s about providing equal opportunities and setting precedents for us to be heard by legislators. It’s a social movement that follows the heels of the #MeToo movement and the transgender health movement.
We’re asking that students, activists and legislators afford us the same level of respect that they’d give to any other social movement. One cannot claim to be a women’s rights or LGBTQ+ rights activist without supporting the menstrual movement. For our movement to keep gaining momentum, we need allies. And not just allies who claim to support us but don’t take action. We need students and activists who are willing to take time out of their day to protest, to invest a portion of their daily activities to raising discussions about menstrual inequality, to plan for petitions and lobby trips. Otherwise, if even the most progressive people don’t support us then who will?
Allison Lu is a campus sophomore majoring in public health and double minoring in ethnic studies and global poverty and practice. She is the president and founder of UC Berkeley’s PERIOD chapter and the lead rally organizer for the Northern California National Period Day Rally.