The ‘Tampon Tax’: a red herring?

As surely everyone knows who lives in the UK and even glances at the news, a heated debate has recently broken out over whether or not there should be VAT on women’s sanitary products (chiefly sanitary towels and Tampax). The argument for the tax’s abolition centres on the fact that it is a taxing these products as a luxury item, when in fact they are not a luxury but a sanitary necessity. I can’t pretend I have looked in great detail at the arguments against abolishing this tax; but, certainly, on the face of it, it does seem an unfair – even discriminatory – tax that should be removed.

BUT, is this really an issue modern British “feminism” should be concentrating so much energy on? I hesitate to call myself a ‘feminist’, if to do so implies that I: am not ‘pro-life’; oppose traditional understandings of the family; deny that there can be great value in mothers staying at home to care for their young children; support pre-marital and extra-marital sexual activity and showering teenagers and undergraduates with contraception. Unfortunately, to identify as ‘feminist’ seems, at least in my social circles, to involve all the above stances, and therefore I don’t state ‘I am a feminist’ so that I don’t undermine my values on other areas. But, if to be a feminist is can simply mean to believe that women should be valued, honoured, treated without prejudice, and that they should be protected from harassment and abuse (whether verbal or physical), then yes, I am a feminist!

There has been and is discrimination against women across the world, including in Britain. Above all, women’s bodies and minds are still not granted the dignity and protection they unquestionably deserve. Women’s bodies are degraded every day in the flood of sexually objectifying and dishonouring material which floods our eyes, ears, and minds. This does happen to men’s bodies too, but to a lesser extent. It is usually women who are frequently reduced to sexual objects. There is also not enough support and empathy for specifically female rights and needs, for example women (discreetly) breast-feeding in public.

The ‘tampon tax’, as it has been nicknamed by some, is, in my view, somewhat of a red herring. To remove it, it has been estimated, would save women about £3-£5 a year. To most women, this is almost inconsequential. It would make no difference to my life as a woman at all! Meanwhile, a much greater issue does exist concerning sanitary items. For women trying to make ends meet on a small income, these are expensive items. And cheap products tend to be bulky, uncomfortable, and ineffective. I can imagine that there must be a huge number of women, struggling economically, who are forced to use products that are uncomfortable or ineffective, and who may also be forced to use these products without changing them for longer periods than is healthy because they simply cannot afford to buy them in a greater volume (and to do so has potentially very serious health risks, for example wearing a tampon for too long can cause toxic shock). These are not problems men face. And this is an area where inequality really should be faced, and urgently. I would suggest that benefits included a provision for these items for women pre-menopause, or that GPs could prescribe them free of charge to patients in need, but I think this is unlikely to be implemented as the cost of administrating it would be quite large, and we live in a time of government cuts.

What could, fruitfully, be done, is for feminists to begin a campaign of public awareness and national organisation, whereby people are encouraged to donate good-quality sanitary towels and tampax to food banks and night shelters, so that those women in need can access these basic necessities. This would surely be a significant step in improving many women’s lives in a meaningful way. Yet, it seems to me, modern feminism is more concerned with abstract issues than real women’s needs. Hence, there is a great deal of opprobrium directed towards a tax that has very little real impact; but, there is hardly any effort to improve British women’s access to sanitary products.

When the feminist movement began, for all of the flaws that it did have, it was concerned with improving real women’s quality of life. I think we have largely lost that. And, with that, many young people, including me, feel entirely alienated from ‘third-wave feminism’. It is focuses so much on ‘constructions’, and so little on lived realities. If most young women are to feel that modern feminism attracts them, the movement must turn, first and foremost, to eliminating the most widespread and deleterious issues impacting on women’s quality of life and health in Britain and abroad. As a young women, I want to feel safe travelling alone or late at night and in the dark; I want men to stop looking at and talking to/about me as if I were a sexual object; I want all women to have good healthcare for female issues; I want as much maternity care provided as I need; I want to be appraised more for my character and less for my body and face. I don’t think modern feminism is doing enough to take concrete and immediate steps towards answering these fundamental desires. It seems, too often, to be wrapped up instead in chasing after red-ish herrings.

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