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Should Colleges Make Tampons Free on Campus?

BU explores once-taboo issue others have debated, a few have adopted

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Hayley Gambone is on a mission: the 20-year-old student wants BU to offer menstrual products for free in bathrooms across campus.

But as she learned in a meeting with BU Facilities Management & Planning staffers, it’s a subject that can lead to pretty awkward conversations, even when both sides have good intentions.

The conversation started smoothly. Gambone (CAS’20), a BU student government senator, suggested that the Facilities staff replace the broken and unstocked dispensers with new ones, and the group was receptive and interested in hearing about her efforts. Only when Gambone got more specific and found herself giving a lesson in, well, female menstrual products (like the difference between tampons with and without applicators) did things become uncomfortable.

It wasn’t that her listeners rejected her idea—in fact they supported it. It was just a slightly embarrassing topic. Gambone left feeling confused and frustrated—after all, these are products their own mothers, wives, and daughters use every day. Didn’t they want to know about the products more than half the people on campus use, she wondered.

It turns out they do. But this is one issue that won’t be solved easily.

A growing movement

Blame the gender divide, or a generation gap, or just general squeamishness, but many people would prefer discussing Ebola, diarrhea, or pretty much anything ahead of menstruation. Despite the taboo, and often because of it, a growing number of college and university students across the country are talking about their periods. And like Gambone, an environmental analysis and policy major, they are lobbying for their institutions to provide free tampons and sanitary pads. The University of Washington, for example, is doing it for about $20,000 a year.

Their thinking is this: menstruation isn’t a choice, it’s a bodily function, basic human biology no different than our need to go to the bathroom. Women shed the lining of the uterus monthly, and that biological fact is nothing to be ashamed of. And in fact, groups like FreeTheTampons, an organization dedicated to ending “restroom inequality,” and PERIOD, a group with more than 200 chapters, mostly on college campuses, think every bathroom outside the home should offer free tampons so women don’t have to worry about finding one when their period arrives unexpectedly.

To accomplish that goal, people need to talk more openly about menstruation, and they are. Self-published zines featuring menstruation stories, shared period playlists (The White Stripes’ “Red Rain,” anyone?), and tampon subscription services that offer chocolate are only the beginning. Companies like Ohio-based Aunt Flow, which sells applicator-free organic tampons and bathroom dispensers, also advise college students advocating for free products.

Anne Wiegand, whose official title at Aunt Flow is happiness director, says the company is in talks with students at dozens of colleges and universities, including several in Greater Boston.

“We may have been trained as a culture not to talk about it,” Wiegand says, “but there are quite a few schools moving this conversation forward.”

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So should BU offer free tampons?

Bill Walter, BU assistant vice president for operations and services, says yes, but the “devil is in the details.”

The University has tried it before, when coin-operated tampon dispensers were vandalized and the quarters and tampons inside stolen. Facilities staff removed the doors on some machines and restocked them with free supplies, which were also cleaned out in no time. It’s the challenge of an urban campus in a big city, very different from a more enclosed campus where the people walking around are there for a reason.

“It was very problematic,” Walter says. “We’d put product in there, and the next day everything would be gone.”

He’s been researching solutions, he says, but there are tricky questions about how to proceed, such as which dispensers are most effective, their cost, and which bathrooms would get them.

“We haven’t given up,” he adds.

Kenneth Elmore (Wheelock’87), associate provost and dean of students, and Jean Morrison, BU provost, have asked Gambone to enlist the staff and resources available at Innovate@BU, a campus incubator for entrepreneurs, in helping move the effort forward.

“We want to sponsor this idea and are prepared to put some reasonable funds behind it,” Elmore says.

Will it be easy? Not on a city campus with 2,000 bathrooms and 43,000 students, faculty, and staff.

“When I’ve seen ideas that work over time or policies that people really get, they work because people problem-solved as a community, as opposed to a project that a handful of people might have,” Elmore says. “This is one of those issues.”

Other schools have tried

There also is no great model for BU to follow. Other colleges have tried, but where some rollouts have been smooth, others have faced complications. Brown University became a great place to study—for why it worked, and why it struggled.

Students at Brown were among the first to take action on the issue, in 2016. Student government leaders stocked more than 70 bathrooms with discreet baskets containing free tampons and sanitary pads, paying for the effort out of their own coffers. The aim was to get the university to take over the program, known as Project Tampon, so the students committed to restocking the bathrooms.

“Access to these products is a healthcare issue,” says Brown student government member Molly Naylor-Komyatte, who led the effort. “Condoms and safe-sex materials are available for free [on campus], and those are healthcare items. It’s a similar justification for menstrual hygiene products.”

The effort encouraged student government leaders at dozens of colleges and universities to embark on similar campaigns. Students at Emory, Cornell, Syracuse, the University of Arizona, the University of Minnesota, and the College of William and Mary followed suit with student-run programs.

“Students, staff, and visitors can all be menstruating people,” says Tiffany Haas, who led a pilot program that supplied four bathrooms at Emory. “It’s a public good.”

Student-led programs can be difficult to sustain. Haas and other students fundraise to help support that campus’ program, and the effort at Brown sparked a backlash when students put tampons in the men’s bathrooms to accommodate transgender students.

“Even Men Get Free Tampons at Brown University,” read one headline in Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller, while commenters on Breitbart called it “academic insanity.”

Naylor-Komyatte was unphased, and even welcomed the visibility.

The issue of cost

A typical woman could spend $7 to 10 a month on tampons (the most common way women deal with their periods).

Naylor-Komyatte says its a particular concern for students with financial struggles. “It shouldn’t be an additional difficulty of being a low-income student on campus,” she says.

Student government at Brown halted Project Tampon earlier this year, asking the university’s facilities department to take it over. But that hasn’t happened yet, and the idea remains under consideration, according to the Brown Daily Herald.

One need look no further than Reddit to see how divisive “free” tampons, and who pays for them, can be. In the thread “unpopularopinion,” Reddit’s commenters questioned why tampons and menstrual supplies are any different than condoms, food, and other discretionary goods.

“It’s disgusting to think that we have to compensate individuals for every disparity between them and some baseline,” one anonymous Reddit user declared.

Then there is the challenge of convincing men that menstrual supplies are not a luxury item. A 2017 survey by YouGov found that just 46 percent of the 2,000 men it polled viewed access to affordable tampons and pads as a right, not a privilege. And even despite the sweeping activism around menstruation, 40 states still tax tampons as nonnecessities. Earlier this year, a third attempt to exempt tampons from state sales tax in California failed.

“Change is slow,” Naylor-Komyatte notes, even on college campuses.

But conversations about the politics of menstruation are spreading. Three states, New York, Illinois, and California, have passed laws requiring public schools to offer free menstrual supplies for students in grades 6 through 12.

And then there’s the University of Washington.

Gene Woodard, the university’s director of facilities, says he wasn’t paying close attention to the roiling national debates over tampons last year when he met with two students who asked him to stock bathrooms with free tampons and pads.

It struck him as a “no brainer,” Woodard says, especially for students struggling to pay for college, and he knew from buying tampons for his daughters how disruptive menstruation could be to their lives. His department installed free tampon dispensers in more than 800 women’s and gender-neutral bathrooms, at a cost of about $20,000, which came from his budget.

That’s nothing, he says. The University spends $150,000 on soap.

“I would recommend it. It’s not a huge strain on the budget. And I think it’s more inclusive,” he says.

Offering free tampons and sanitary pads is not a new idea, especially on forward-thinking college campuses. Elena Kagan, now a US Supreme Court justice, ensured that menstrual supplies were offered to women at Harvard Law School when she was dean more than a decade ago.

Composite portraits of Boston University student senators Hayley Gambone and Nehemiah Dureus.

Student senators Hayley Gambone and Nehemiah Dureus will work on a plan to make free menstrual supplies a reality on BU campus. Gambone photo by Jackie Ricciardi. Dureus photo by Cydney Scott

BU’s Gambone isn’t a radical. (“I hate conflict,” she says.) She points out that Scotland passed a law in August requiring every female student to receive free tampons because one in two girls must resort to using alternatives such as rolled toilet paper, socks, or newspapers. That first-of-its-kind initiative reinforces her determination that her campaign is a necessary, and the right, thing to pursue.

She also wishes the existing dispensers on campus could be better maintained and stocked. Her own analysis of BU bathrooms found that out of 322 buildings, 8 have functional, stocked, coin-operated dispensers.

“Does anyone even carry quarters anymore?” she asks.

Gary Nicksa, senior vice president for operations, says the University is continuing to look for viable solutions to the current dispenser problem, but that many of the systems the University has researched cost $100,000 or more. “All of us went home and talked to our wives and daughters and said, ‘How do you think about this,’” Nicksa says. “You hear very different opinions.”

Gambone’s job now is to work with the many students—male and female—across campus who have a stake in the cause. That includes student senator Nehemiah Dureus (ENG’20), who tried unsuccessfully two years ago as a freshman to get student government to spend its budget surplus on free tampons.

“It’s obviously a healthier thing to have tampons than not,” he says. “I don’t think you have to know all the ins and outs of the issue to know that it’s good.”

Samira Saran (CGS’19), who leads the BU PERIOD chapter, is also on board and applauds Gambone’s work. “The conversation is escalating,” Saran says.

According to Morrison, it’s exactly the kind of project Innovate@BU is designed to support. “Access to affordable feminine hygiene products is an important issue around the world,” the provost says. “We are supportive of the efforts to ensure that all BU students have access to these products and are impressed with the initiative this team of students is showing in utilizing the resources available through Innovate@BU to advance their work.”

Gambone has lined up endorsements from a host of student groups, from the Feminist Coalition to the Panhellenic Council and Alianza Latina. She also plans to reach out to a group of engineering students who have been designing tampon dispensers as part of a class project.

It’s been an education, she says.

“I’ve definitely learned about communicating with people who have more power than I do, and how to get my voice heard by people who can easily reject me,” Gambone says. “It helps to get people on your side.”

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megwj@bu.edu.

27 Comments

27 Comments on Should Colleges Make Tampons Free on Campus?

  • Christine on 11.07.2018 at 6:53 am

    At a perfect BU, feminine hygiene products would be offered in every bathroom and BU sustainability would provide menstraul cups and period panties upon request. As a first step, I fully support feminine hygiene products in the restrooms. As an undergraduate, I worried monthly if I had enough money to buy feminine hygiene products. If I ran out of shampoo that week too, I had to make a tough decision.

  • Jenna on 11.07.2018 at 7:09 am

    The university should take the 20,000 dollars they think it’s going to cost out of President Brown’s next pay raise. Problem solved. And if boys think that sanitary items are such a luxury, I’d love for them to see what their class room seats would look like without them.

  • Anonymous on 11.07.2018 at 7:43 am

    Bad idea. Women will feel entitled to stock their purses. Soon as you offer them for free they will all be taken immediately and placed in purses and dorm rooms because this is just how people operate.

    • Amanda on 11.07.2018 at 5:10 pm

      Good point. Better not put any toilet paper in there either, then.

  • Cami on 11.07.2018 at 7:57 am

    This is definitely a great and needed thing. I’ve been approached by many girls during my time here with that anxious look we all know, asking for extra pads or tampons. I’ve been in that situation myself. Sometimes you just forget to bring extras, or it surprises you, and it’s always reassuring knowing that you’ll be able to take care of yourself because there are free ones in the bathrooms!

  • Shelly DeBiasse on 11.07.2018 at 8:33 am

    I appreciate BU Today lending an ear and space to this important discussion. As the faculty advisor to the PERIOD student organization on campus, I want to highlight the mission of PERIOD as available on their website: https://www.period.org/about-us/ First, PERIOD is an organization dedicated to SERVICE by supplying/delivering menstrual products to individuals in need. This may include individuals who attend Boston University, but mainly the focus is outreach to marginalized peoples in the communities in and surrounding BU. Second, PERIOD serves to EDUCATE people regarding menstruation and how to promote discourse around this basic human function. Third, PERIOD serves as an ADVOCATE to create change positive changes through the political and media spheres.

    Anyone interested in joining the club can find information here: http://www.bu.edu/studentactivities/get-involved/

  • BU staffer on 11.07.2018 at 10:15 am

    I was concerned when the machines were taken out of the COM Ladies rooms with no replacement machines. We now offer no monthly products for students – paid or free.

  • Just another BU Parent on 11.07.2018 at 10:18 am

    This seems to be one of those issues where 95% of people think it should be a no-brainer, but if 3% have strong ideas about exposure to menstruating women based on religious practice, strange things happen. Interesting to see what it takes to have an inclusive learning environment.

    • Paul on 11.08.2018 at 7:37 am

      Religious practice??

  • BU Legacy family on 11.07.2018 at 12:10 pm

    Coin-operated dispensers used to be available and most usually with some product stocked when I was a student, but now they are not stocked and obviously not in working order. I keep products in my office in case students or visitors are caught short. Recently, I’ve begun looking for places in the restrooms on my floor to stash some extras. In light of the growing conversation, and in support of the effort, I will speak with our facilities personnel before I try a more visible approach like a tray or basket for the restrooms in my little corner of the campus for the remainder of this semester. Its not a luxury and it can make for a distracting and embarrassing situation.

  • anonymous on 11.07.2018 at 12:36 pm

    What we really need is a much greater focus on the use of menstrual cups over tampons and pads. I *WISH* someone had told me about these when I was much younger, they are amazing. I spent $30-40 on a menstrual cup over 5 years ago (they last 5-10 years), and it makes those awkward times of the month much easier – and cheaper! – to deal with. It’s small and easy to keep on hand or take traveling (especially to countries where tampons are not so freely available), and it eliminates the the huge amounts of waste created by tampons and other feminine hygiene products. Definitely recommend.

  • Laura M. Jimenez, PhD on 11.07.2018 at 2:50 pm

    I suggest we invest in Terrier Card activated tampon/pad dispensers that do NOT deduct any $$ from the student funds.
    Additionally, the dispensers should be located in the all gender bathrooms because there are men on campus that need tampons/pads.

    • Laurie on 11.08.2018 at 10:07 am

      My thoughts, too! At my small Midwest college campus, our restrooms have baskets of feminine hygiene products available. I could see the potential for non-university people helping themselves to free supplies on a campus like BU’s. Requiring the swipe of a Terrier card would restrict free access to BU affiliates, & provide a way of monitoring for misuse.

  • Stephanie Bennett on 11.07.2018 at 7:17 pm

    I attend Framingham State University in the Greater Boston area and we face the same issues! This is a great article! Will be sharing!!!

  • BU Student on 11.07.2018 at 11:46 pm

    The number of quarters I have lost in those empty tampon/pad dispensers *eye roll*

  • Cas on 11.08.2018 at 7:51 am

    Make them pay for the tampons. Treat it as a convience fee, after all men pay for condoms in the vending machine.
    I would also be pissed having to pay extra tuition for these tampons.

    • Joanne on 11.08.2018 at 5:54 pm

      I am old enough to remember coin operated bathroom stalls in public restrooms at shopping centers. That’s right—if you didn’t have a dime, you could not relieve yourself. These became outlawed for the simple reason that we all gotta go sometime. Men, please stop acting as if women have a choice in whether to have a period or not. None of us is expected to carry a roll of toilet paper in case we have a bowel movement while on campus. Why should women be expected to carry tampons or napkins all the time incase their period starts while on campus?

    • Grad student on 11.08.2018 at 6:09 pm

      Cas, do you know when *exactly* you’re going to have a bowel movement? Do you bring a roll of toilet paper with you while on campus just in case?

      And by the way, condoms are a false equivalency—unless you have absolutely no control over when and where you have sex.

    • Mea C. on 11.08.2018 at 6:59 pm

      Your sex life is a choice, I did not choose to get a monthly period. These are two completely different categories you are attempting to relate to one another.

    • BU Alum on 11.08.2018 at 8:09 pm

      But men don’t have to pay for condoms on campus. Male condoms and other safe sex products are available for FREE at Student Health Services or SHIPPED to your door/mailbox for FREE.

      The University has been offering safe sex products for both men and women for years! It’s time they offer free tampons/pads/menstrual cups to students.

      People CHOOSE to have sex and can get free products. It’s time students get free period products for something they can’t avoid.

    • Anon on 11.09.2018 at 4:14 pm

      Last time I checked BU provides condoms for free, they definitely have the funds to do feminine products as well. At the very least the machines should work.

  • Andrew on 11.08.2018 at 12:24 pm

    I’m part of the 46% that doesn’t support this. Men are essentially being told they need to pay for women’s feminine hygiene products. This is unjust, since men already spend about $110 / year on mandatory male hygiene products (yes, shaving is mandatory for social acceptance in most career fields). Women spend around $120 on pads/tampons each year—about the same as cost on hygiene as men. So not only am I forced to purchase my own hygine now, I have to pay for women’s too through my tuition and fees? Considering equality, no thanks.

    Men: http://jacobrayrazors.com/cost-of-wet-shaving/
    Women: https://groundswell.org/women-spend-hundreds-of-extra-dollars-per-year-heres-one-easy-out/

    • Reply on 11.08.2018 at 1:46 pm

      Andrew, do you also complain that vegetarians’ room-and-board fees have to go to buy all the food in the dining hall, including meat? Do you complain that not every BU student uses the free shuttle, so it shouldn’t be available for anyone? Do you complain about university money going to sports when not every student follows BU athletics? Sorry, but society in general and university fees specifically aren’t an a la carte system. Sometimes we’re charged for things that benefit the community as a whole, even if we ourselves don’t specifically use it, because *everyone* is paying for things that are for the whole overall group.

      And shaving is just not a comparable example of hygiene. Women are expected to shave too, in case you didn’t realize, and men can grow out beards if they don’t want to shave and still be seen as looking professional. The better comparison is toilet paper – it’s something that is ALWAYS in a public bathroom, because it’s needed. And not to mention, if you didn’t read the article closely and so you missed it, the toilet paper comparison is important because it’s URGENTLY needed – but the BU bathrooms don’t even have the paid dispensers in bathrooms for emergencies anymore.

  • A on 11.08.2018 at 1:35 pm

    You do know you can get free condoms on campus from SHS and a bunch of other places, right? … Right? The Condom Fairy will deliver them to your mailbox if you don’t want to go out to the places you can get them for free. Free condom movements are important for public health absolutely, so we already have that on campus.

    Also, I think we already pay more than enough tuition to spare a small amount of money for pads and tampons. As the University of Washington representative described, it’s way less than universities already pay on soap! Our university president is one of the highest paid in the entire country; I think it’s safe to say there’s enough room in the budget to pay for tampons and pads without increasing tuition at all – especially since BU could bulk order them and drastically reduce costs that way.

    • A on 11.08.2018 at 3:34 pm

      Whoops this was supposed to be a reply to Cas, not a comment on the article itself, since Cas brought up condoms without seeming to realize they’re available for free.

      • BU Alum on 11.08.2018 at 8:12 pm

        Got you covered. Just replied to them.

  • Meagan Cassidy Coyle on 11.08.2018 at 7:12 pm

    One potential solution is having machines implement a similar mechanism to the ID scanning technology utilized to gain entry into BU residences. Perhaps consider putting a limit on how frequently and maybe even how many tampons a student is limited to in order to address this issue that BU Facilities foresees. This system would work most similarly to a vending machine in which students access it via verifying their identity, just as they do via dining halls to track meal swipes. The one exception to this system would be that tampons be made free as they are a vital part of hygiene for female-bodied individuals or individuals with a vagina/uterus.

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