With a half-eaten, white chocolate tampon pretzel in hand, I perused the Menstruation Celebration, picking up free condoms and nearly choking when I read “Period week = blow job week” on a poster debunking period myths. I swallowed slowly, and made my way around the silver tables to the other posters offering hand written advice for improving your periods and stories about periods in the news. In one corner, attendees played pin-the-ovaries-on-the-uterus and toss-the-tampon-in-the-vagina games, while teachers and students posed for photos with a cardboard uterus. A University Health Services nurse smiled from her booth, ready to answer any questions the partygoers had. After getting their fill of vagina-inspired cupcakes and before leaving, students signed their names on a petition to implement free menstrual products in all non-residential bathrooms.
The November 18th celebration hosted by Princeton Students for Gender Equality (PSGE) and Princeton Students for Reproductive Justice (PSRJ) was jarring, as any taboo-breaking party should be. The celebration is part of a broader movement to gain gender equality as it pertains to menstruation. Beginning December 5th, in response to the petition, the Princeton University Student Government (USG) enacted a two-week pilot program to supply pads and tampons in all of the bathrooms in the Frist Campus Center.
Why is a private matter like menstruation such a focus for students advocating for women’s rights on campus? Gender inequality is not just found in the workplace or in political representation; it is evident in much more personal, and often unexamined, affairs. The Menstruation Celebration and this pilot program suggest a movement to address the often-neglected ways in which gender inequality manifests in relation to periods.
Research reveals that menstruation increases female objectification and is a source of social stigma for women. In a study on the effects of menstruation on attitudes toward women, Roberts et al discovered that when a female inadvertently dropped a tampon in front of a subject, she was subsequently rated to be less competent and less liked than when she dropped a hairclip. Furthermore, participants who were reminded of menstruation tended to objectify women in general more (they were more likely to view women’s attractiveness as exceedingly important over their competence or physical capability). It is no surprise then that women are cautious to conceal their menstrual status. In Johnston-Robledo and Chrisler’s theoretical paper on the social stigma of menstruation, the authors observe that period stigma has many negative consequences for women, including self-objectification, a feeling of shame, the avoidance of sexual relations, and even lower social status for women.
This research highlights the importance of celebrations like the one hosted by PSGE and PSRJ. As psychologist Tanith Oxley remarks, “In order for women to accept themselves every day of the month, cultures must change the way menstruation is viewed…women must resist, and cultures must reduce, the stigma.” The Menstruation Celebration’s unapologetic display of period and vagina themed décor may have come off to some as over-the-top. Ultimately, any effort to reduce the stigma associated with menstruation is going to make people uncomfortable. Oxley’s message is clear: in order to reduce the period taboo, we must normalize menstruation in our culture. The celebration served as an important first step to expose students to the rarely discussed topic of menstruation and to send the message to males and females that periods are not a cause for shame or ridicule. The celebration’s advice going forward to women: talk unabashedly with friends about your period, walk to the bathroom confidently and with a tampon visibly in tow, and lay a dark towel on your bed and encourage your partner to try out period sex.
A related initiative, the new pilot program to supply bathrooms in Frist with free pads and tampons, calls attention to the economic discrimination that exists in our culture against menstruating women. The fact that public bathrooms provide toilet paper and soap but not tampons and pads is notable. As Gloria Steinem wrote in her humorous but apt essay, if men had periods, “Menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event [and] sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free.” More striking still than the absence of free pads and tampons in bathrooms is the fact that forty states place a luxury tax on these supplies—a tax placed on all supplies considered non-essential. Disturbingly, many states refuse to acknowledge tampons and pads as necessities but conversely consider Viagra a non-luxury, tax-exempt item. In other words, women who biologically have no choice but to menstruate (and therefore to buy pads and tampons) are economically burdened while men who wish to use Viagra to enhance sexual relations—far more of a luxury activity than menstruation—are unburdened.
Low-income women are particularly hard hit by the tampon tax. Intersectionality considers the ways in which different forms of oppression—based on race, class, gender, or socioeconomic status—can overlap and uniquely disadvantage individuals with multiple subordinate-group identities. Low-income women often have to borrow sanitary supplies from others or simply go without them. In an email exchange with Princeton Students for Gender Equlity, a student, reflecting on the recent pilot program, wrote “As a low-income and self-supporting student, I’ve often had to make very sacrificial choices regarding my budget, and once or twice I’ve found myself without pads or tampons a few days before I’ve gotten paid…Thankfully, I’ve had pretty amazing [friends] in my life who have given me some sanitary products, but there’s an amount of shame involved in that… ” The pilot program in Frist was an important step toward ameliorating the gender imbalance regarding access to sanitary products. USG collected data about the number of pads and tampons used by students and received nearly 1,000 responses in support of a free menstrual products program. In the coming days, USG will share its findings and feedback from the pilot with administrators and campus offices through the University Student Life Committee. Hopefully, this push will result in improved accessibility to menstrual products throughout our campus.
The Menstruation Celebration and the Frist pilot program represent a critical new lens through which to consider gender equality. Ultimately, how can we hope for the eradication of the wage gap or equal political representation in a world where merely exposing a tampon makes a woman appear to be less competent? Through hosting this Menstruation Celebration, students at Princeton have brought attention and new understanding to the role of menstruation in gender perception. They have also highlighted the need to normalize menstruation if we are to move beyond uninformed gender stereotypes and ill-conceived government policies, such as the luxury tax on sanitary products. Sometimes by taking on the most basic taboos and misconceptions, there are outsized gains to be achieved. While the Menstruation Celebration may appear on a surface level to be about games, snacks and fun, its mission is deeply serious: where something as basic as menstruation can lead to perceptions of inadequacy and lack of competence, tackling gender disparity at this level is critical to achieving equality on a broader scale.