Beyond the Tampon Tax: Menstrual Activism Going Mainstream

By Breanne Fahs

Menstruation has made a splash in recent weeks as three major events have shifted menstruation from a relatively sidelined subject into the mainstream media spotlight.  First, New York City passed a bill that eliminated the sales tax on tampons (they are currently taxed with regular sales tax in nearly every city in the United States).  Other states are also in the process of either considering such legislation (South Carolina, Tennessee), or have already put forth such legislation formally as a proposed bill (California, Michigan, Wisconsin, Virginia, Utah, Connecticut, and Washington, D.C.).  Many rightly see this move as a shift in thinking about menstruation, moving it out of the “shame” closet and recognizing that menstrual products (in their various forms) are not luxury items but are instead necessities.

Second, New York City has recently called for a bill that would provide free tampons in public school restrooms, homeless shelters, and jails. Recognizing that access to tampons and pads is a privilege that not all women share—as poorer women spend a disproportionate amount of their income on menstrual products compared to more wealthy women, and women in prison and homeless shelters often forego these products out of economic necessity—this bill again shifts the thinking about menstrual products by asking us to consider the ordinariness of the menstrual experience.  Further, these shifts in thinking about menstrual products signal that certain blindspots are created when men create laws—a reality that even President Obama commented upon asked about the tampon tax by a young YouTuber.  (He is also the first president to speak about menstruation at all.)

As a third example of menstruation coming out of the “shame” closet, Newsweek recently published a cover  (April 29, 2016 issue) that read: “THERE WILL BE BLOOD” followed by “Get Over It” with a large unused tampon underneath this writing.  The story proceeded to cover a host of issues rarely discussed in mainstream media: menstrual art and photography, social media shaming of women, lack of language around menstruation, global issues related to menstruation, links between education and menstruation for girls around the world, debates about the potentially fatal problems of Toxic Shock Syndrome, comedy sketches about genitals and periods, menstruating marathon runners, and, of course, the skyrocketing cost of disposable products.

While these three developments certainly signal a shift in thinking about menstruation, they also serve as a reminder of the limitations we face with regard to changing attitudes about menstruation.  What would it take to have reusable menstrual products go mainstream, I wonder?  What if girls in school (4th and 5th grade) were taught that tampons and pads are not the only available options?  What if more attention was paid to the interconnections between menstrual shaming of women and body shaming more broadly?  Can we imagine a radical culture of menstruation?  Who gets to talk about menstruation (and where/why/in what regard)?

I have long been interested in thinking about menstruation as a site of resistance, as something with inherent possibilities to disrupt and rebel against social norms.  In my forthcoming book, Out for Blood (due out November 1, 2016 with SUNY Press), I analyze the various ways that menstruation and rebellion intersect and overlap, from thinking philosophically about the period blood stain to imagining the therapy office as a space for menstrual resistance when I work with trans male patients and women.  I also examine pedagogical tactics of menstrual activism as students fight back against menstrual shame, culture jammers and zine makers as they re-envision menstrual culture, and museums and tourist destinations as they grapple with menstrual narratives.

Ultimately, I hope that these recent stories are only the beginning of mainstream menstrual trouble-making.  Menstrual resistance goes far beyond the mere notion of “equality” (something too often co-opted in non-radical and vaguely progressive ways) but instead highlights the potential of feminism more broadly—to undo notions of “required” body shame, silence, secrecy, and taboos applied to women’s bodies and women’s lives; to unite second and third wave tactics of activism; to bring together a diverse (and seemingly incompatible) group of people fighting for a similar cause; to challenge advertising, medicalization, family stories, education, and relationship dynamics and to raise the bar on all of those things; and, finally, to imagine resistance as part of routine minutiae of everyday life.

Breanne Fahs is an associate professor of women and gender studies at Arizona State University, where she specializes in studying women’s sexuality, critical embodiment studies, radical feminism, and political activism.Her new book, Out for Blood: Essays on Menstruation and Resistance, is due out November 1, 2016!  Read more about it here.

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