Why Condoms Are Free and Tampons Aren’t: The Secret History of Safe Sex

“Sex is a choice, menstruation isn’t. Menstrual products should be free just like condoms are.”  Like many, I used to hold this view: it seemed obvious to me. People can choose to have sex, choose to get pregnant, choose to get an STD as a result of choosing to have sex. People who menstruate do not choose whether or not to bleed.

For some, menstruation can be dangerous, shameful and cause gender dysphoria. Many do not have the privilege of being able to afford sanitary products which causes some younger people to miss school whilst menstruating. For all of these reasons, it seems obvious that period products should be free in the way that condoms are. However, it is important not to compare the two; to not say “sex is a choice, menstruating isn’t – so why are condoms free when tampons aren’t?”. To explain why, we need to look into how condoms became free in the first place, because this hidden history is a queer struggle in one of the community’s darkest times.

It is no secret that much of the progress the LGBTQ+ community has made has been gained through the efforts of brave queer activists. Perhaps less popularly known is that it is due the efforts of the LGBTQ+ community to promote safe sex during the AIDS crisis that condoms to are freely available in the way that they are today. By 1987, AIDS had killed 40,000 people in America alone and the drug that was introduced to treat it – AZT – was put at a price of $10k per year. The President at the time, Ronald Reagan, did little to help the communities most heavily affected (gay men and drug addicts); many even referring to the disease as the “gay plague”.

The queer community is no stranger to being ignored and silenced, and their sorrow over this illness sweeping through their community quickly turned to outrage, fuelling many to take action. According to both the UN and the World Health Organization, condoms became the best way to prevent the spread of STDs and STIs, including HIV. As a result, many activists would distribute condoms for free at pride events and create safe sex manuals to give advice and make people feel both less afraid and alone. Giving condoms out for free not only allowed those who couldn’t afford protection to get it and lower risk of transmission, but it was also a way to normalise safe sex whilst at the same time emphasising its importance. The AIDS crisis was a call to action for a community united by not only fear but resilience, and it is precisely that resilience which allows many couples, queer or otherwise, to get condoms for free in the present day.

As far as the fight for free sanitary products goes in its own right, however, things are starting to change for the better. The UK government has announced that it will have abolished the 5% tax on sanitary items due to them being previously seen as “luxury items” and now being understood as essentials by 2021. Scotland has taken further measures to deal with period poverty, as one of the members of parliament has created a bill specifically designed to make sanitary products completely free for anyone who needs them. As any activist will know, change for the better takes time, effort and organisation, but the brave AIDS activists of the 80s and 90s should give us hope for a future of free menstrual products.

Sexual health and safety is important for people of all orientations, and menstrual hygiene is important for all those who menstruate. Despite this however, although both condoms and period products are absolutely necessary for public health, they cannot be free for the same reason. To say that “condoms are free so period products should be too” is to ignore LGBTQ+ activists’ efforts in the 80s and 90s to destigmatise and improve safety of queer sex in particular. Both “period products should be free” and “condoms should be free” can and are both true at the same time, but the courageous fight for the latter should not be ignored and its history should absolutely be part of the discussion.

Photo courtesy of Charles Deluvio

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