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Removing the Tampon Tax Is a Victory for My Bank Account, But it Doesn’t Change Period Stigma

Unfair taxes are the tip of the iceberg. How long will it take to stop the embarrassed giggles that accompany words like "tampon" and "pad"?

by Christine Estima
Jun 9 2015, 3:28pm

Despite their placement in this photo, lighters are not proper menstrual products. Photo via Flickr user Jo Guldi

In The Vagina Monologues, playwright Eve Ensler described the process of inserting tampons as such: "It's a dry wad of fucking cotton shoved up there... my vagina just sees it and it goes into shock."

It's true, it's not a cake-walk. For the most part it's an uncomfortable experience where you have to get the "lean" just right, a one-foot-up-on-the-loo, tilt-your-pelvis-this-way lean that I've never fully mastered. And those tiny cotton fibres smart! According to Menstruation.com.au, "their use may cause lacerations and ulcerations of the vaginal wall. [...] When the tampon is removed, a layer of the vaginal lining may be scraped or peeled off." That's a gross way of saying you might bleed more, so you'll likely end up buying more. It's a never-ending cycle (bah dum CHING).

Throughout those fertile pre-menopause years, menstruating people spend millions of dollars on menstrual products, and, for decades, we've also been taxed for the privilege. In 2014 alone, Canadian women spent over $519 million on tampons, pads, menstrual cups (et al), giving the government a whopping $36 million or more in GST revenue. But that's all about to end.

Thanks to NDP MP Irene Mathyssen's lobbying and an online petition, come Canada Day 2015, Canadian menstruators will no longer have to pay the GST on menstrual products. Huzzah! We put the US in uterUS! Ovaries before brovaries! Utopian fallopian! My menstrual cup runneth over!

With only a few months to go before a federal election, the Conservative government tabled the motion itself with cross-party support, instead of waiting for a future budget as they initially suggested.

And the movement has gone global: our Commonwealth comrades-in-bleedage of the United Kingdom and Australia have asked their governments to drop their menstrual taxes as well.

It's worth noting, however, that the NDP has been trying to eliminate the tax since 2004. In the interim decade, the tax has generated hundreds of millions of dollars for the government's coffers. With all that cash, Canadian women could have purchased Turks & Caicos and turned it into our collective Tiki Bar instead.

The NDP petition rightfully points out that "a small tax on tampons/pads/panty liners/menstrual cups adds up when combined with the systemic challenges many women, trans people, genderqueer people, and other menstruators face in terms of their income, housing, and economic stability."

But it's more than that. There is an ingrained social stigma attached to menstrual blood and the act of menstruation. While the taxes on these products reduce access to them, the social stigmas and attitudes therein decrease that access even further. Even I am embarrassed when the clerk ringing up my tampon order at the pharmacy is a non-bleeder. Most times, I won't even bother buying if there isn't a woman behind the counter. Sometimes the need for these products isn't worth the knowing looks, smirks, and shade thrown my way.

Periods are a natural part of some of our bodies and they are a sign that everything is in working order (also, Period Sex Forever!), but people in many cultures and time periods haven't seen it as such.

Some years ago Neil LaBute wrote, "I could never trust anything that bleeds for a week and doesn't die" (and then South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut and countless dudebros stole it). While most might see that as harmless ribbing, the shady side-eye it throws at us is akin to some prevalent attitudes. Many women in India, for example, who are of "menstruation age" (ten to 50) are not allowed in certain temples in order to "maintain their sanctity." Many religions have different, strict rules for menstruating women, and here in the West, with the exception of a few dudes, most hetero men are so disgusted by menstrual blood that they won't even entertain the idea of having sex with their partner while she's on the rag. It's such a common complaint among whiney Yoko Bronos that a German street artist began postering the city of Karlsrühe with period pads on which were printed, "Imagine if men were as disgusted with rape as they are with periods."

Of course, commercials for tampons and pads reinforce the obnoxious shaming—"avoid messy spills and odours" is a common refrain. And let's not forget that there is the rare risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome associated with using tampons. If left untreated, TSS can prove fatal. Since tampon packaging almost always includes a warning label, rates are on the decline, but serious incidents still occur.

Coupled with the social constraints, the financial constraints created by extra taxes are not insignificant. Many women suffer from a host of reproductive issues that can cause menorrhagia (heavy bleeding), forcing the need to spend extra on supplies. Such conditions include but are not limited to: hormone imbalances, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, uterine fibroids, polyps, adenomyosis, cancer, Von Willebrand's Disease, pelvic inflammatory disease, and endometriosis. Apart from the fact that I now want to name my band Von Willebrand's Disease, this is noteworthy stuff. For decades, people who are forced go through tampons like some of us go through Q-tips have had to suffer the indignity of their condition in addition to a tax that told them their absotively-posolutely-necessary pads and tampons were "non-essential/luxury items."

For the Greek chorus of devil's advocates out there, ready to shit on the notion that pads and tampons might be essential, let's just reflect for a moment upon the items that the federal government has already exempted from GST: human sperm (how much do people charge for that? Asking for a friend), wedding cakes (because you can't have the latter without the former?), incontinence products like Depends, and cocktail cherries.

That's how little the Canadian government has been thinking about people's periods since 2004: they're less important than maraschinos.

Now that we are no longer going to be forced to pay the federal government for the privilege of our natural bodily functions, there's also talk of ditching the provincial tax on menstruation products.

This victory is a small but important step in addressing the stigma associated with menstruation. If our MPs can speak of it in Parliament, perhaps now the general public can, too? Perhaps it's time to have a larger discussion on why women are shamed for openly discussing menstruation. I am tired of being told to be embarrassed that I bleed. I'm tired of whispering the words "period" and "tampon" for decorum's sake: a decorum that wasn't fashioned with women in mind. I am tired of tampon commercials telling me this is something "messy" and "smelly" and worth forgetting. I don't need to know why people think menstruation is gross, I just need to know why we can't talk about it. I need to know why your discomfort surrounding the topic has anything to do with me. You think menstruation is shameful? Good for you. But keep your fucking shame off of my body.

If it took us this long to address the unfair taxation of tampons, how long until saying the word "tampon" isn't followed by an avalanche of giggles and gag reflexes?

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