Do you keep a roll of toilet paper in your backpack, purse or pocket in case you have to use the restroom on campus? Did you have to pay a quarter for your toilet paper the last time you went? My guess is, probably not. I think we can all agree that toilet paper should be readily available in all public restrooms, since using the bathroom is a basic, regular and unavoidable biological function. In the same way, menstruating is an uncontrollable and normal function that affects more than half the global population. So, why do we expect people to pay for period products?
For sanitary reasons, we readily enable people to wipe their bottom. For misogynistic reasons, we allow women (and everyone who experiences a period) to bleed onto their clothes or furniture rather than giving them free access to products that prevent this. Urination, defecation and menstruation are all uncontrollable and normal human processes, yet toilet paper is considered a necessity while sanitary products are a luxury, even though they provide the same function.
We have been conditioned to be embarrassed and disgusted by periods rather than viewing them as a normal biological process and a public health issue. Most people would rather talk about diarrhea or the bubonic plague than menstrual blood. But just because periods are taboo doesn’t make them disappear. In fact, it’s a health issue that is shared by more than half of UP’s campus, female, transgender and non-binary students alike.
The common reaction to providing free sanitary products is, “Why do women need access to free pads and tampons? They’ve always carried their own, so what’s the big fuss?” Free sanitary products have been a hot topic on college campuses in the past decade due to student organization that has transformed access to menstruation products from a private to a public health issue and strived to end the shame and stigma surrounding periods. Students argue that the economic and personal disruption of menstruation distracts them from their academic responsibilities. College is already a busy and spendy experience, and adding additional time, stress and money to purchase sanitary products isn’t something the majority of the University of Portland’s student population should have to confront.
Many colleges, such as the University of Minnesota, Columbia University, University of Nebraska and more, are providing products free of charge in all public spaces, including academic halls, libraries, offices and dorms, varying by school. Nancy Kramer, leader of Free the Tampons, found that providing free sanitary products on college campuses costs about $4.67 per menstruating student each year, which would cost the University of Portland approximately $10,730.52 annually, according to my calculations. That number sounds stifling, but to put it in perspective, UP spent $92,896.30 on toilet paper last year, said Physical Plant in an email.
A national study commissioned by Free the Tampons found that 86% of women surveyed have started their period while out and about without the necessary supplies. To remedy this, 62% of respondents have immediately gone to a store to purchase sanitary products, 34% have gone home, and 79% stated they have improvised a pad or tampon by using toilet paper or something else. While 48% have used a tampon and pad dispenser, only 8% reported these machines working consistently. In fact, you’re likely to have the same experience in many buildings here at UP. I hunted around campus with a bag of quarters to test this and had varied success in receiving a pad or tampon. Even the places that advertise free hygiene products, like St. Mary’s, Beauchamp, and the Health and Counseling Center were out or low on products. See the problem here?
The University of Portland no longer stocks menstrual hygiene dispensers in dorms, so the 1,233 female students (according to statistics provided in an email from Residence Life) living on campus are often forced to venture outside of their dorms to seek these pay dispensers. I interviewed Mehling Hall Director Sarah Hill about this, and she said hygiene products are not stocked in dorms because students should treat their dorms like an apartment, where these products would not be available to you. That would be understandable if dorms had private restrooms for each resident, but they have communal bathrooms shared by an entire floor. In almost any other communal bathroom on campus, you will find a pay dispenser. Especially in an all-female dorm, it’s common sense that sanitary products should be available for residents in the case of an emergency or basic convenience.
You can buy sanitary products in the bookstore, where a box of 18 Tampax Pearls costs a hefty $7.59. According to my math, that’s an absurd 191.2% increase in unit price in comparison to the price of the same product at a regular store for mere on-campus availability. This poses a real problem to first-year students, who don’t have easy access to off-campus resources. Taking the bus, walking, or Ubering to Fred Meyer adds additional financial burdens and time constraints. It is not impossible to acquire them, but it’s another item on a college student’s never-ending to-do list. Menstruating students should not have to go out of their way to treat an uncontrollable, normal biological process, especially when it is a matter that affects over half of our campus.
Why is there an expectation that menstruating students should have to go out of their way to access pads and tampons? You don’t walk to the Health and Counseling Center to get some toilet paper when you need to use the restroom. It’s the same deal. Going to a place with free tampons and pads is not always convenient, especially if they are closed, you’re feeling queasy from cramps or you need a tampon stat. Especially on a campus where over 60% of the student body deals with this biological necessity, UP is negligent to student’s needs to not readily provide these products.
Let’s do the math. The average menstruating person uses at least six tampons per day of their period. That’s 6 tampons x 5 days = 30 tampons per cycle. Then 30 tampons per cycle x 9 months of the academic year = 270 tampons. The average 36-count box costs $7 at Fred Meyer, so 270/36 x 7 = $52.5 per academic year. If someone buys their tampons from the bookstore, the total comes out to be $113.85. Ouch.
I’m not trying to bash the university. I applaud them for some resources on campus, such as the Health and Counseling Center, where students can usually find sanitary products for free in the lobby and behind the front desk. Free tampons and pads are stocked in the bathrooms of St. Mary’s Lounge and the Beauchamp Center, but these can be hit or miss. These are all steps in the right direction, though they still don’t address the need for these products on campus in a more systematic way.
Furthermore, tampons and pads serve the same hygienic purpose as toilet paper or tissues, so why doesn’t UP provide them for free anyway? When a health issue like menstruation affects over half of campus, it deserves greater attention and consideration than our current system. Collaboration between the Office of Student Affairs and ASUP could possibly allocate funds to purchase menstrual products, and Residence Life, Physical Plant and the Health and Counseling Center could work together to distribute them.
Steps to could include retrofitting dispensers to be quarter-free, providing bins of sanitary products in all public restrooms, and fostering further collaboration with students to meet their needs. UP should also include these products in men’s and gender-neutral bathrooms to accommodate transgender and non-binary students, since not every student who gets a period identifies as female.
The University of Portland prides itself on being a majority female campus, yet adequate treatment of its female students is lacking. If UP wants to better support its majority female population and all other students who get periods, providing free sanitary products would alleviate the stress of menstruation in college.
There needs to be a greater conversation surrounding menstruation and accessibility to sanitary products. Until uterus-owners can receive an education without the financial and academic disruption of seeking out feminine hygiene products, we do not have a just campus. If the University of Portland wants to be an equitable institution, readily available access to menstrual hygiene products should be considered a right, not a privilege, on The Bluff.
Catherine Cieminski is a reporter for The Beacon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org