If Condoms Are Free, Why Aren't Tampons?

Students are demanding that colleges provide tampons and other menstruation products at no cost, and some institutions are starting to listen.

March 11, 2016

Student activists at the University of Arizona issued a list of demands on Tuesday that included urging the university to provide free tampons and menstrual pads on campus.

The demand was immediately mocked by some conservative commentators (“campus crybullies demand racial quotas, free tampons,” the Breitbart headline reads), but the request is not unusual. It’s a call that is becoming increasingly common on college campuses, and one that some institutions are starting to answer.

The University of Minnesota began providing free menstrual products in restrooms nearly a decade ago, and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln began to do so in September. Last week, Columbia University announced that it would begin providing free tampons in its health center after spring break.

In an email to students, Ben Makansi, president of the Columbia College Student Council, said the decision followed weeks of conversations with students and campus officials, and that the products may eventually be provided in restrooms, as well. Makansi first publicly proposed the idea during a council meeting last month.

“While this may seem like a peculiar addition to the average student council meeting, that these requests needed to be made indicates the university’s utter lack of support for people who menstruate, a group that includes a significant portion of the student body,” Courtney Couillard, a junior at Barnard College, wrote in the Columbia student newspaper after the meeting. “Sure, I can easily find a free condom on Barnard and Columbia’s campuses, but why can’t I find a free tampon in the bathrooms? Why does the administration care about my sexual protective rights, but not how I handle my monthly menstrual cycle?”

In February, a sophomore at Emory University created a petition making the same argument. More than 900 students signed the petition in two weeks. Later that month, students at Reed College formed a new student group with the sole purpose of stocking campus bathrooms with free menstrual products. The group is called Period Kollective.

Last year, in an essay that went viral online and prompted an intense backlash from critics of the idea, a student at the University of California at Los Angeles wrote that all public facilities, including colleges, should offer free tampons and pads in restrooms.

“Having these products in public facilities would also provide an easy way for women living on the streets to access these products,” the student, Zoey Freedman, wrote. “Homeless women and women with extremely low income are disproportionately affected by the lack of access to feminine products. Tampons are pricey for any woman, but women who can hardly afford to buy food can’t afford to buy a $10 box of tampons, leaving them to choose between food or feeling comfortable when on their period.”

The argument for providing free tampons on campus is part of a larger national debate over the accessibility of menstruation products. In November, two Wisconsin lawmakers introduced a bill that would require all state-run buildings to offer free feminine hygiene products in their restrooms. Lawmakers in California and New York have introduced legislation to lift sales taxes on menstruation products.

According to a survey conducted by Harris Interactive and released by Free the Tampons, an organization that advocates for making feminine hygiene products free, 79 percent of women over the age of 18 have started their period unexpectedly in public without the needed supplies. That’s what happened to a student at Grinnell College last year, inspiring her to write an open letter about her frustrations.

“I think it’s safe to say that unpreparedness has happened once or twice, or even fairly regularly, in the span of every menstruating individual’s life,” the student, Rebekah Rennick, wrote in September. “If you’re lucky, a friend has you covered. If you are not so fortunate, you find yourself fin the bathroom stall of Mears Cottage, friend- and quarter-less, with your very large, very expensive supply of tampons on the opposite side of campus.”

The student later used two bobby pins to break into “all the tampon and pad dispensers [she] could find” on campus, stacking the products on top of the machines for others to use. The machines were not permanently damaged, and Rennick's protest got the attention of campus officials. 

“I freed your tampons kept behind lock, key and quarter,” she wrote to the college. “Bleeding bodies deserve to think about Foucault and micro-organisms and the history of the bleeding bodies that came before them. When we menstruate, however unexpectedly, we should not feel fear in the pits of our stomachs because of your lack of foresight. We are a part of this college. Provide free menstrual products to students who need them so I can stop picking the locks on your bogus machines.”

Raynard Kington, president of Grinnell, said that while he does not endorse Rennick’s method of raising awareness about the issue, he agreed with her argument. Kington, who is the former deputy director of the National Institutes of Health, said the college is working with the student government -- in particular, its president Daniel Davis -- to begin offering free menstrual products in at least one gender-neutral restroom in each campus building.

To continue to not offer tampons and pads for free on campus, he said, would be hypocritical: three years ago the college gave a $100,000 award to a group that creates low-cost menstrual pads for women in Rwanda.

“I think there’s now a growing awareness about this issue in all of society,” Kington said. “It's not unreasonable to provide free menstrual products everywhere, including on campuses, especially in an affluent society and at an institution like Grinnell. We have free toilet paper, so wanting the same for menstrual products is not extreme. This is a normal human function.”


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