Tampons in Men’s Rooms? It’s Just a Small Part of ‘Menstrual Equity,’ Campus Activists Say

May 16, 2017

Over the past year, several colleges have improved access to menstrual products on their campuses, including in some men’s and gender-neutral restrooms. That last detail has prompted some conservative websites to take note.

The American Conservative mockingly headlined its report "Social Justice Washrooms," from "tomorrow’s generation of American elites." Commenters on Breitbart’s report on the trend called it "academic insanity," pointing out that "men do not menstruate."

But campus leaders say stocking all bathrooms with such products is a relatively easy way to make sure no one is left out. The University of Wisconsin at Madison, the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, and Brown University are a few other institutions that provide free menstrual products in some men’s and gender-neutral restrooms, in order to be more inclusive of transgender students.

Part of the growing "free the tampon" movement has been an effort to make college more fair for students who menstruate, a concept for which Jennifer Weiss-Wolf coined the phrase "menstrual equity."

Ms. Weiss-Wolf, president for development at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, has been advocating for legislative changes to make menstrual products accessible since 2015. That same year — in which President Trump, then a candidate, said the journalist Megyn Kelly had "blood coming out of her wherever" — was deemed by NPR "the year of the period" because of the stigma-breaking discussion of menstruation in the news and on social media that gave way to the end of taxes on tampons in some cities and states. She thinks campus activism’s role in the push for "menstrual equity" is growing.

"That’s become a really popular rallying cry and source of activism on college campuses — the idea that these products should be freely available by the schools that these students attend," Ms. Weiss-Wolf said. "This problem is eminently solvable, through a lot of avenues, and college-campus organizing is one of them."

Bipartisan Support

At Emory University, a petition persuaded administrators to invest in a pilot program to provide free tampons and pads in some bathrooms. Molly Zhu, president of Emory’s College Council, said the program is operating at four locations to start, while usage and cost are tracked.

The program’s projected cost per year is $1,113, which Ms. Zhu said would be paid through health programs at Emory.

At the University of Rochester, a free-tampons proposal won the student-government association’s annual 5k challenge, which includes a $5,000 award. The plan, submitted by students, was to leave baskets of free pads and tampons in some campus bathrooms, including one men’s room.

“Nobody expects you to carry around your own toilet paper, and so in the same sense we don't think it should be required or expected of people to pay for or carry around their own tampons or pads.”
"Nobody expects you to carry around your own toilet paper, and so in the same sense we don’t think it should be required or expected of people to pay for or carry around their own tampons or pads — that should be a service we are providing," said Lance Floto, the association’s vice president.

While some on the campus have scoffed at the idea of menstrual products in men’s restrooms, Mr. Floto said such comments often come from nonstudents. There have been a couple of attempts to sabotage the program by stealing the baskets, but Mr. Floto said he was not concerned, as officials plan to replace and restock the baskets.

"We have smaller baskets in men’s rest­rooms, but the reason we do that is because there are some men on the campus who menstruate and so it’s just the whole idea of inclusion and making sure that nobody’s left out — it’s a very easy thing," he said.

Despite online criticism about gender-­neutral menstrual products, Ms. Weiss-Wolf said that on the legislative front, the "menstrual equity" movement has had bipartisan support. She said even some right-wing media have declared that taxing tampons is sexist and unfair. In Illinois, Republicans voted to end such taxation, and a Republican governor signed the bill into law. In New York, a Republican sponsored the same kind of legislation and it passed in a Republican-led chamber.

"There aren’t too many things that are bipartisan these days," Ms. Weiss-Wolf said. "Menstruation kind of transcends all the other things about women’s bodies that make us targets for the right, and this one doesn’t."

Vending Contraception

Another way sexual health and education are often made priorities on campuses is by enhancing access to contraception, such as at the University of California at Davis, which recently brought emergency contraception to a new level by selling it through a vending machine.

Parteek Singh just graduated from Davis but not before he worked to bring emergency contraception to a campus building that is open 18 hours a day, and to make the expensive pill more affordable — students pay $30, far less than the $50 they would pay at an off-campus pharmacy.

Mr. Singh said the project had first been rejected by administrators because they found the idea of selling emergency contraception "absurd." But the idea expanded into a "wellness to go" vending machine, with products such as Advil, condoms, and pregnancy-­test kits.

"There shouldn’t be stigma, we’re in 2017," Mr. Singh said. "Every campus, they upgrade their computer labs or they upgrade their gym after 10 years or so because they want to bring the new technology, they want to keep with the innovation, and this is the same thing. You’re just upgrading accessibility, it’s not very expensive, and it has a direct, tangible impact on students."

“There shouldn't be stigma, we're in 2017.”
At New College of Florida, a similar resource serves students on the Sarasota campus as a result of a partnership with Planned Parenthood. Adilyne McKinlay, a junior and a co-president of the college’s Planned Parent­hood Generation Action, said the program supports reproductive justice and easy access to contraception on the campus.

The college even has a room dedicated to sexual health. A student can walk in anytime and obtain free methods of contraception, menstrual products, and educational resources related to sexual assault and healthy relationships.

"It’s been kind of neat to see the really creative activism that has emerged from college campuses all across the country," Ms. Weiss-Wolf said. "I put this all under this umbrella of this idea that is called ‘menstrual equity.’ That doesn’t mean just free stuff. It’s more a question of participation and civic engagement. The products that are needed to manage menstruation are essential for the ability to be able to participate in society, whether that means to attend class or go to work and be productive on the job."