The Vagenda

Dinner or Tampons? The Modern Woman’s Choice


About a week ago I found myself in Sainsbury’s. Whilst perusing the aisles for my dinner, I had the awful realisation that I was shit broke, and would have to make a fateful decision on this seemingly quiet Tuesday night: dinner or tampons.

This may sound a tad dramatic, but I had £1 and it was a choice between 37p crumpets and 50p tin of beans (a tragic dinner in itself) or a £1 packet of rather rough, value tampons. Of course, I went for the tampons as otherwise my bedroom would have resembled a scene from CSI, and thus artfully extracted 2 pieces of bread from my flatmate’s cupboard for a luxurious dinner of toast and butter.

After years of being a student and forcing my mother to stockpile Always and Tampax during holidays to take back with me, I slowly realised that this economic burden now lay upon my shoulders. FOR THE REST OF MY FERTILE LIFE.

This ridiculous choice rattled me, purely out of the unfairness: I, like every other woman, didn’t choose to bleed for 5 days each month, yet I am slapped with the cost and tax on sanitary goods month on month. Incontinence pads are subject to tax relief, yet sanitary goods see a 5% tax: basically the government saying ‘you can piss yourself, that’s an acceptable thing to harp on about, but when it comes to a natural process that only affects one sex…’

I asked around for similar experiences, and Cristina, a 21-year-old student, enlightened me as to her tampon woes:

‘My student loan has been held up for the entire first term, so I’ve been living off minimal savings since September. Running my [pill] packs [together] is a viable option as how can I afford to buy a shit load of tampons and pads when I can just about afford my student accommodation?!’

UAE Student Union announced in 2014 that they would be selling tampons at a discounted price, to help out female students. The fact that this enterprising scheme even have to be set up is testament to the fact that many women all over the UK are suffering as a result of the taxation of tampons.

A few other little anecdotes from various Twitter and Facebook acquaintances included:

‘My local Brewdog has free tampons in the toilets, so I take them’

‘Tampons are taxed more than a lottery ticket and men’s razors: how is this justified?’

‘When you keep taking your next pill packet and skipping periods because contraception’s free and tampons aren’t #yasmin’

And the classic…

‘They’re bleeding me dry’

Now, I have a good grad job in London: I’m not living on the breadline or visiting food banks. However, my cost of living has near tripled since moving to the capital, and I always find myself short. This led me to think, realistically, what are those who ARE living in poverty doing about this situation that blights them month on month?

Around 3.7 million children in Britain are now living in poverty, according to Child Poverty Action Group. In terms of menstruation, this is a key time for many young girls, who are just beginning their periods and learning to accept their changing bodies. This should be a time to celebrate becoming a woman, and celebrate the wonder of fertility, not to view periods as an economic burden. Having to ask your mother to purchase sanitary goods (that are taxed as non-essential) when she can barely afford to pay the rent is not a situation that young girls should be put in. It instils a feeling of shame, a feeling of asking for a luxury during a time of austerity.

This contributes to period shame: girls learn from a young age that they, and their bodily needs, are not valued by the government or the tax system. Girl’s menstrual needs are valued lower than EXOTIC MEAT by the tax system, which is exempt. We are less important than a bloody Kangaroo burger, guys: it’s a bit tragic.

Men’s razors, however: that’s all cool. You keep shaving bros, that’s “essential” according to HMRC.

An article in Stylist magazine argued last month that tax on sanitary goods are not something that we should oppose, as tax contributes to wider society (Mangan also details that she ‘didn’t want to put [her] name to something so… vulgar’, but that rant is for another day). I mean, I’m all for tax: what would we do without the NHS, roads, and local amenities? But unjust tax is a different matter. Caitlin Moran brings up a great point in ‘How To Be A Woman’ that is rather pertinent in respects to tampon taxation. Viewing everyday acts of sexism as part of the Broken Window Theory, she details how one act of sexism will open doors to other small, but significant acts, that result in the entire metaphorical building of society being infested with latent sexism. If we sit back and accept this slight against woman, what will follow? We moan about Council Tax increases, Mansion Tax proposals, Bedroom Tax…well, now, as politicians desperately seek the female vote in the run-up to the general election, it’s time to publicly voice our opposition to Period Tax.

Just as those who have a spare bedroom feel as though they shouldn’t be taxed for not using it all of the time, the same applies to women. My womb is my spare room, and I should not be taxed because I do not use it to house a child.

 - Anna Rhodes

32 thoughts on “Dinner or Tampons? The Modern Woman’s Choice

  1. Hi gang,

    This is a strong article, but sadly it’s all a bit more complicated than writing a letter to your MP, or riding the bus without such ‘non-essential items’ in protest. Sanitary products were first taxed in the late 70s, at the standard VAT rate (17.5% then). Following a campaign, the rate was lowered to 5%, which is the lowest possible under EU law for a ‘non-essential item’. The EU sets the list of ‘essential items’, and for an item to be recognised as ‘essential’ it has to be agreed to be as such by all 28 member states of the EU.

    This doesn’t mean we should give up, though. It means we should write to our MEPs (yeah, we have those). We should also be lobbying sanitary product manufacturers – both tampax and always are owned by Procter & Gamble, which have huge commercial interests in the EU and would be able to leverage significant power in most member states to force EU-wide agreement.

    (and if this all seems a bit remote and discouraging, there’s always mooncup – – which has the added advantages of being much for environmentally friendly and, at £20, much cheaper in the long-run)

    • I second the mooncup comment. I have been on the fence for a long time about whether or not to get one and finally bit the bullet a couple of months ago because after not having had periods for several years, I was shocked at the amount of waste each month. Not to mention how much I was spending on sanitary towels.

      It was a bit tricky to use at first, but I’m really getting to grips with it now and am going to send off for some washable pads to use on heavy days/overnight.

      (It’s also really interesting getting up close and personal with my own menstrual blood – I was skeeved out at first, but now find it fascinating, and you can measure your output too!).

  2. This is such a fantastic article. I was literally thinking about this last month when I calculated an average of how much I spend on Tampons in a year (including those times you are caught by surprise and rather than spend £1.50 on ONE from a pub machine, you feel you should buy a whole new box for £2.60, as you can’t justify paying all that money for one, even though your now paying £2.60 for something you already have at home) and it infuriated me that I have to spend all that money on something that I cannot control and is part of my gender. Not to mention, I did the wise thing of getting the implant to protect myself from unwanted pregnancy, yet of course this can cause erratic and long periods, which it did with me, and continues to do so, so I feel as though I’m being punished for being safe! An outcome of this is that I have to buy more tampons, so although the contraception itself may be free, I am technically paying for it, whilst my boyfriend does nothing. No periods for him, no annoying contraception, and no buying of Tampons …. Christ, I cant believe I’ve just worked this out whilst typing this.
    That’s it, I’m going to start taxing my boyfriend for sex!
    Well done on this wonderful wonderful tampon rant; I completely agree with you.
    x tink x

    • But you must understand, boys and men have to pay quite a bit more for car insurance. Theirs something the is wrong for both genders. The reason that the insurance is higher is because of the mighty Testosterone, or so they say.
      So don’t tax your boyfriend for something that isn’t as one-sided as you may think.

      • European legislation came into force in 2012 meaning that insurers have to be “gender-neutral” when pricing insurance policies. Men still on average pay slightly more but this is because of the car they drive or their claims etc, not their gender.
        Don’t tax your girlfriend for having periods but do tax your boyfriend for choosing to have a fast car.

      • Legislation brought into force in 2012 means that insurance companies can’t discriminate between genders when pricing car insurance. Men do tend to pay more but that is due to their claims or type of car. Don’t tax your girlfriend for her natural bodily functions but do tax your boyfriend if he chooses a fast car!

  3. Great article, covering an important but oft overlooked issue.

    May I suggest menstrual cups? I spent <£20 on one 7 years ago and haven't bought pads or tampons since! I fully agree that sanitary products should be at the least VAT exempt, if not free on prescription, but until then maybe this is an option that can save some women some money?

  4. Exactly!

    Highly pissed off by Mangan article too. This isn’t the time to be demanding cuts on tampon tax, “this is the time to be demanding no cuts to disability benefits, no forcing jobseekers to work for nothing” – women are faced with both/all three, Lucy. And yeah, the “vulgar” comment, eugh. Enough already.

    Great piece!

    • She called this issue vulgar? I’m shocked, I thought her articles were pretty good on the whole. Periods are vulgar? Women talking about periods are vulgar? What stupidity

  5. It’s no longer an issue for me as I’ve been able to afford it stock up on cloth pads and a menstrual cup, but I do find it unfair for female-bodied people to be paying out extra. Though at uni a lot of my female flatmates would always spend more on the branded ones because they deemed the value range to be gross or something, so I actually don’t have much sympathy for people who complain about the cost of the big brands because they won’t use the cheaper ones. I do like to see free ones in pub bathrooms etc, but reusables all the way!

    • That’s fair, but I think if you’ve got a heavy flow then sometimes the cheaper ones just don’t work. I’ve found the cheaper ones to be utterly useless and this is probably TMI and I apologise but when you take one out, you can see how little it expands (to fill the area, as it were) compared to the more expensive, branded ones. I tend to only trust the more expensive ones based on how much they can absorb – plus, applicators are just a Godsend.

      Yet another reason why I simply must get a cup. I hear only good things.

      • Thanks, I hadn’t realised that, I guess I’ve just been lucky that the cheapest ones weren’t a problem for me. Yes, get a cup!

  6. Well this brings me back to my horrific teenage years and my mother only being able to afford the cheap crappy ones. Luckily mine were pretty irregular and about 2 months apart so didn’t have to feel too guilty/gross that often. Then when I was a student I got them from Savers for a quid (woop). Now I’m a die hard cup fan because of the cheapness/save the planet/less leakiness factors.

    But yes every time I’m reminded of that fact that they are “luxury” I am OUTRAGED. I signed the petition, I hope this ridiculous tax is dropped soon.

  7. In Ireland, asylum seekers are not allowed work and receive an allowance of €19.10 a week. Tampons have to be purchased from this measley allowance. Some women cut up rags in order to spend the money elsewhere such as on medicine (€2.50 per prescription or more if an over the counter product). It is something that women are too embarrassed to bring up and says a lot about our society that it has been overlooked.

    • THIS – absolutely spot on. It’s not quite as painful as Ireland but asylum support in the UK can be as little as £36.62/ week as well (even less if your application has been rejected but you can’t leave).

  8. I think there’s another level of trickery going on here as well, which is the idea that sanitary items must be disposable. That’s a really recent development – only the last few decades. Before then it was just a case of padding your undies with cloth and rinsing it out after. It stained a little but it was no big deal. Reusable pads and menstrual cups just aren’t flogged by shops in the same way that disposables are, because you only have to buy them once (or once every 10 years). Shops can make a lot more money out of us if we think we have to buy these things every month for the rest of our lives. Reusables are no less safe or clean than disposables (to make tampons white they are bleached. Mildly, but that;s still bleach being shoved up one of your most sensitive and absorbent body parts. Yikes!), and much more environmentally sustainable.

    • Excellent post. I entirely agree with the sentiments of the article from the perspective of gender injustice, but frankly, we shouldn’t be buying disposable tampons/pads/panty liners if we can help it. Cloth pads can be washed repeatedly, and in addition to the environmental benefits, the cost is negligible beside the cost of buying disposables. Combined with a mooncup, you shouldn’t really need to buy these items more than once every few years, if even that (in the case of a mooncup, which you only really need to change to up the size after you’ve had children).

  9. Great piece. I am always shocked there isn’t more in the media about this. I sort of forget then every time I remember, I’m pissed off all over again.

    • Yes, some food banks do accept them, I donated my unused packs when I switched to reusables, I guess just ask at your local one.

  10. I remember my second year of Uni when I bought my first mooncup I was walking on to my campus and I saw this truck pull up and collect all of the sanitary bins from student accomodation. A whole 12 wheel truck just for tampons and pads! I saw it and remembered thinking how much money goes into buying and disposing on sanitary products I felt good to be out of that system. I had a few lean months at uni the usual late payments etc and it was great having a mooncup for that exact reason I had already paid for it and didn’t have to set any of my scarce money aside for my period.

  11. This is sort of interesting. The argument appears to be that since menstruation management products are both taxed but are necessary for the convenience of the female population, this is unfair to that population.

    However, pretty much all products are taxed, including such things as food, clothing, diapers, walkers, transportation devices (cars, motorized bikes, pedal bikes, etc), power and indeed most of the things that everyone or all specialized populations need to survive.

    Maybe tax policy should be capable of making arbitrarily fine distinctions amongst populations and thus charge different populations entirely different prices for the same products.

    Economically speaking, this is not obviously a winning policy. Even supposing agreement could be reached over what constitutes an economically recognizable and deserving sub population, the transaction costs associated with implementing such a policy are liable to overwhelm the benefits.

    Plenty of sub populations depend on the availability of specific drugs, services, government programs, etc, for their wellbeing. The latter are are subsidized but the former often not.

    Tax relief on menstrual products would constitute a subsidization. What is the argument for this model rather than the (established) alternative in which populations simple pay for what they need? More than this, perhaps other populations whose lives are jeopardized by lack of access to medications or services have a larger claim to tax relief than healthy young women?

    Of course one wants as much for one’s self interest as one can get. Nothing the matter with that. But let’s call it for what it is.

    After all women have managed this facet of being female without death or any tangible harm for millennia. For sure, push for more but let’s not conflate this with unfairness or injustice.

  12. How about a mooncup? That saves money in the long run VERY quickly- £20 down payment for something which lasts years. Plus it is 100% better for the environment! (I do still understand that this doesn’t solve the problem of taxation on products that we as women NEED.)

  13. For real,ladies. RUMPS for the win! Reusable menstrual products,be it a menstrual cup or cloth pads or something else (sponges, cloth tampons, what have you), means you won’t need to buy these things month after month, year after year. I speak from experience….9+ years worth of experience! I use a mooncup and haven’t bought tampons since I bought my cup. I DID buy a few packs of pads after childbirth, as you can’t use internal products in the post partum period, but other than that, I haven’t gone down the feminine product aisle in almost a decade. TOTALLY LIBERATING!

  14. American in Philadelphia here.
    Is it sad that although I’m now 20, I still use the same rubber menstrual cup that I secretly bought off of eBay when I was 16? I mean, I wash it religiously after each use, but still. I guess it’s better than reusable pads and getting disgusted looks from the men (and women) at the laundromat when you have to wash your ten bloody maxi pads in a separate cycle.
    Tampons are expensive here too, at the drugstore they’re about 8.79$ for a pack of 36 and at the supermarkets they’re even more expensive. Pads are even more expensive depending on the brand.
    Like I don’t even have enough money to buy meat (that isn’t made from pink slime)
    Mom went through menopause at 55, guys
    I have like 35 more years of this…

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