When Samantha Holtz was a freshman at the University of Minnesota, she had her pick of the litter at the school’s massive club fair. She was browsing tables when a complete stranger waltzed up to ask if she wanted to talk about periods.
For most people, “want” isn’t the right word. Menstruation is usually something you can’t talk about. You might whisper about it when you bum a tampon off a trusted friend, or when you inevitably can’t find the distant and discrete supermarket aisle where they stash the pads, but it’s otherwise hush-hush.
“There’s a huge stigma,” Holtz says. But she really did want to talk about them. She’s now the president of the PERIOD student organization at the university, which works to provide menstrual products to whoever needs them. As she learned over the course of her first year, we probably should have been talking about this a long time ago.
This year, a survey of poor women living in the St. Louis area found that 21 percent lacked basic feminine hygiene products on a monthly basis. Almost half had to choose between buying food and period supplies.
In 35 states, there is a luxury tax attached to tampons. Minnesota is one of the few that have explicitly designated these products as necessities, not luxuries, and made them tax-exempt. But it’s a small, pitiful cohort—especially when items like Viagra, Pop-Tarts, cowboy boots, and gun club memberships have achieved the same thing in other states.
You can stop wearing cowboy boots on a whim. You can’t stop menstruating as easily. If you’re in school, that means you might have to skip class scouting for a teacher who just might have a spare pad or two—or stay home altogether. If you’re in prison, it might mean bartering desperately with corrections staff to get your hands on supplies.
And if you’re homeless, forced to choose between a meal and a tampon, the results can be especially “grim,” says Holtz. Your choice is to bleed through your pants—which can lead to infection—or to shove something, anything, into your vagina to stop the flow.
“People have been known to use things they find on the street,” Holtz says. “Paper bags, plastic bags, paper towels… some women use socks as tampons.”
This is an almost surefire way to toxic shock syndrome, which comes quickly and is potentially fatal.
So to combat that persistent stigma, Holtz’s chapter of PERIOD will join a nationwide rally on Saturday at the university’s Northrop Plaza. The goal is to protest luxury taxes on tampons and call for freely accessible pads and tampons in schools, prisons, and churches. There will also be a feminine hygiene product drive, which will go to women’s and low-income shelters.
“Simply put, menstrual hygiene is a right, not a privilege,” the event’s Facebook page says.