Sanitary products on the NHS

Inspired by a current twitter chat being held by The Women’s Room, and with huge credit to Jessica Burton who blew my mind at BiCon2013 and has turned me into a periods fanatic, here are some thoughts:

It’s often said that “if men had periods, all sanitary products would be free on the NHS and we’d get time off from work for PMT”. I do think this is a handy, populist (if rather ciscentric [1]) catchphrase to highlight the impact of patriarchy on society. But.

But is it actually true? Would tampons and towels be handed out freely on the NHS? Or would we have a different attitude towards periods entirely? Perhaps such that sanitary products weren’t even considered necessary?

One of the things I learnt about in Jessica’s session at BiCon was the history of the “feminine hygiene” industry. It seems that pre-WWI, workers in factories would bleed onto straw on the floor (and many other things too, presumably partly to deny them labour breaks), which would be swept away at the end of the day. Periods weren’t hidden, bleeding was just another thing that some people’s bodies did. After the Great War, some enterprising folks realised that they could market bandages as sanitary pads, and keep some bandage factories open. Part of that marketing was about making pads seem medically beneficial and essential for hygiene, and appealling to middle-class sensibilities by being all discreet. Even modern advertising for sanitary products has a weird prudishness and revolves around secrecy and hiding the fact that you’re bleeding.

So, when the question came up, as it inevitably would, about whether sanitary products should be available on the NHS, most people said yes. It’s true that this is an economic issue that disproportionately affects women – a perfect example of patriarchy in action – but what I’d never really considered before is whether sanitary products are actually necessary. It is perfectly sanitary to reuse cloth pads (whether bought or home-made), or simply bleed into clothing. Blood doesn’t always stain, and when it does, it is the simplest of stains to remove, by soaking in cold water, or giving a light scrub. I have recently found that, apart from sometimes on the first night of my period, I can easily go a whole night sans sanitary products without blood getting on clothes or sheets, and then ‘release’ it into the toilet the next morning. Yay for gravity!

In practice, I use a mooncup, for economic, comfort and environmental reasons. If sanitary products were to be provided on the NHS (or simply made VAT-free), then I would certainly prefer for re-useable products to be the default, with a special case made for needing disposable ones.

But what I would really like to see, is a society where we are encouraged to talk about bleeding (how many people cringed at the mention of releasing blood into the toilet?), where young people – not just girls – are able to discuss what periods actually mean, how they work and why anyone should be expected to hide their menstrual cycle. Perhaps then more people would question whether they, or the NHS[2], need to spend millions of pounds on these products.


[1] It’s ciscentric because it implies that only women, and all women (between adolescence and menopause) experience menstruation. Trans men and gender queer people may menstruate. If you look beyond simply the process of bleeding, and think about menstrual cycles and thus the underlying hormones involved, then it makes sense to consider menstruation of trans women too. There are fascinating things here around gender, sex, fertility etc., which I think are completely lost due to the way that we segregate female-assigned pre-adolesents to teach them the bare minimum about periods, and ignore everyone else along with wider issues.
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[2] NHS money doesn’t come from nowhere, it is still our money after all!
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One thought on “Sanitary products on the NHS

  1. Pingback: Blood vs semen | Cis Is Not A Dirty Word

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