TIME Opinion

Free Tampons Are Actually a Great Idea. Just Don’t Mention It Online

Tampon on pink background
Gustaf Brundin—Getty Images

Subsidized feminine hygiene products would do a world of good for many women and girls. So what's the problem?

The latest Twitter storm erupted this weekend over what at first seemed to be a simple question about tampons.

On Friday, Guardian writer and feminist author Jessica Valenti was researching a column on the accessibility of feminine hygiene products around the world when she turned to Twitter for help. Valenti, who has more than 70,000 followers on the social media site, put out a seemingly innocent request for information, asking:

Though Valenti’s tweet was merely a question — not a demand, not a request, not even an opinion — it seemed to trigger rage in dozens of men and women online, who then unleashed a torrent of abuse at Valenti.

Many ignored the question entirely and instead seemed incensed with Valenti for complaining about having to pay for tampons (she wasn’t), likening access to tampons to violence against women (she didn’t), or being anti-American (huh?). Bizarrely, some seemed to equate a discussion about tampons with an admission of promiscuity. Others still just felt the need to straight up insult her.

Valenti then decided to Storify choice snippets of the abuse and, honestly, it makes for pretty depressing reading.

The thing is, as Valenti’s subsequent Guardian article shows, providing free or subsidized feminine hygiene products to low-income or impoverished women and girls around the world is actually a great idea. Access to feminine hygiene products — whether they’re tampons, pads or menstrual cups — would go a long way in improving the lives of women and girls all over the world, and helping them achieve a more stable existence.

In many developing countries, the costs of tampons, pads or menstrual cups can be prohibitive. But without them, women and girls often leave themselves open to stigma and shame during their periods. In fact, Valenti cites figures that show that as many as 10% of girls in Africa miss school when they’re menstruating — and missing a whole week a month means they’re likely to fall behind.

And without access to proper feminine hygiene products women’s health is put at risk. In Bangladesh, a whopping 73% of female factory workers miss an average of six days of work every month due to infections caused from using unclean rags — instead of pads or tampons — during their periods. Meanwhile, the lost wages put them at an economic disadvantage. In India, some doctors believe that poor menstrual hygiene may be partially to blame for the country’s high number of deaths caused by cervical cancer. The BBC also reported earlier this year that up to 70% of reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene.

Yet access to pads and tampons can even be an issue in the developed world. In the U.S. and the U.K., feminine hygiene products are taxed in such a way that they could be prohibitively expensive for low-income women. Valenti writes:

In the United States, access to tampons and pads for low-income women is a real problem, too: food stamps don’t cover feminine hygiene products, so some women resort to selling their food stamps in order to pay for “luxuries” like tampons…. Women in the U.K. are fighting to axe the 5% tax on tampons (it used to be taxed at 17.5%!), which are considered “luxuries” while men’s razors, for some baffling reason, are not. And in the U.S., though breast pumps, vasectomies and artificial teeth are sales tax-exempt and tax-deductible medical care, tampons are not even exempted from sales tax in some states (including California and New York, two of the most populous states).

Of course, Valenti isn’t the first person to make the case for subsidized or, even, free feminine hygiene products, as NGOs have been tackling the inaccessibility of menstrual products in the developing world for a while now. Promoting access to tampons isn’t even new in the U.S.: in 2013, digital marketer Nancy Kramer used her TED talk to promote her non-profit foundation Free the Tampons, which is committed to making tampons and pads freely accessible in public bathrooms, just like toilet paper.

So what was it about Valenti’s question that triggered such an outpouring of anger? Are people that adamant that women and girls shouldn’t have access to feminine hygiene products?

Probably not. I’d wager a guess that most of the people who tweeted abuse at Valenti didn’t really care about subsidized tampons one way or another. Instead, their anger seemed to be directed right at Valenti and the fact that she was raising an issue about women on Twitter. Remember, many of the people replying didn’t actually focus on what Valenti had asked; they twisted her question around in order to attack her.

This isn’t the first time Valenti has been attacked in such a vicious way online. In an excellent 2013 article for Pacific Standard magazine about the regular, everyday abuse women face online, Valenti told writer Amanda Hess that she’s been subjected to abuse, rape and death threats “a number of times over the past seven years.” All because she’s a woman who writes and works on the internet. Valenti said that she’s even spoke with the FBI about her abuse and has learned not to discuss her public appearances on social media out of concern that someone might follow through with their online threats IRL.

Thankfully, Valenti is a ballsy writer who hasn’t let online abuse stop her from writing and promoting feminist ideas and causes. But what of all the writers and activists out there who can’t be as fearless? There’s a lot of smart discussion online that could actually raise awareness and make a difference in women’s lives — if only the trolls don’t derail it first.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser