If you’re a person who menstruates, or have ever spent any time talking to people who menstruate, you’ll know that sanitary products can be expensive, in part because they are taxed as a ‘luxury’, as if bleeding from your vagina every month or so is akin to an All Inclusive beach holiday or something.
Whilst most of us find this fact irritating at best, and unjust at worst, the price of sanitary products like tampons and towels is an insurmountable challenge for far too many people right here in the UK. Period poverty is alive and well, and every month many people struggle to get access to the products they desperately need.
To help combat this, many people are campaigning for free sanitary products, or to at least abolish the tampon tax that makes sanitary products even more expensive. But whilst this campaigning is important and necessary, it sometimes crosses a line that many feminists don’t even realise is there.
“It’s not just cis men that benefit from free condoms.”
See, when campaigning for free sanitary products, many people draw comparisons between condoms and tampons, arguing that if condoms can be free, why can’t tampons? After all, menstruation is a natural part of life for much of society, while penetrative sex isn’t a biological imperative. Free condoms and expensive tampons are just yet another example of the patriarchal bullsh*t that punishes women for daring to exist. Right?
Well, at first glance, sure. It is possible not to have penetrative sex, whereas a period generally comes whether you want it to or not; and rewarding men with freebies while punishing women with expensive shopping bills for a bodily function they have little to no control over is exactly the kind of crap the patriarchy loves to pull. But when you start to actually look deeper into this argument you realise that it is — to put it bluntly — full of sh*t. It’s full of sh*t and ignores a history that should be part of every feminist’s discourse.
For a start, it’s not just cis men that benefit from free condoms. Cis women, trans women, trans men, and non-binary people all exist, and many of them enjoy being able to have penetrative sex without getting pregnant or risking an STI. Painting free condoms as yet another example of male privilege completely disregards the swathes of people of other genders that use condoms in their sex lives.
Equally, it’s not just cis women that have periods — and therefore it’s not just cis women that need sanitary products. While the tampon tax stems from traditional misogyny, talking about it in binary terms is neither accurate nor helpful.
“Here in the UK, all contraception is free. Pills. Implants. Coils. Condoms. All of it.”
Gender binary issues aside, portraying the tampons VS. condoms debate as a battle between men and women also neglects the important history of free condoms, and is severely reductive. Condoms aren’t free because society loves sex and wants (cis) men to have as much safe sex as possible. Condoms are free because of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and the campaigning of LGBT+ people across the country. When you dismiss free condoms as a symptom of the patriarchy, you’re dismissing a significant and important part of LGBT+ history and highlighting that your feminism doesn’t care too much about the LGBT+ community.
And if that weren’t enough to make you reconsider your stance on free condoms, remember also that sex workers — a group that is far too often excluded from even intersectional feminist circles — rely on free condoms and allow them to carry out their work in a safe way.
Regardless of whether or not free condoms are a good thing (spoiler: they are), the other thing that proponents of the condoms/tampons argument forget is that condoms, unlike tampons and other sanitary products, are a form of contraception. And here in the UK, all contraception is free. Pills. Implants. Coils. Condoms. All of it. If you had to pay for hormonal contraception, which is used by cis women, trans men, and non-binary people alike, then sure, maybe the whole free-condoms-are-a-conspiracy-of-the-patriarchy argument would stack up. But you don’t and it doesn’t.
So no, free condoms aren’t a symbol of the patriarchy, and pointing ragefully at them when you’re campaigning for free sanitary products just highlights how one-dimensional your feminism (and logic) is.