Tax-Funded Tampons?

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Jessica Valenti thinks tampons should be provided by the government:

Women in the UK 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 US, 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).

But this is less an issue of costliness than it is of principle: menstrual care is health care, and should be treated as such. But much in the same way insurance coverage or subsidies for birth control are mocked or met with outrage, the idea of women even getting small tax breaks for menstrual products provokes incredulousness because some people lack an incredible amount of empathy … and because it has something to do with vaginas. Affordable access to sanitary products is rarely talked about outside of NGOs – and when it is, it’s with shame or derision.

Free tampons? Sounds reasonable to me. Indeed, I’d suggested the same (argued would be an exaggeration) as a sleep-deprived college student in 2005. A friend campaigned for these at our high school, and since it’s a public school, these tampons, too, would have been state-subsidized. (Don’t think it ever happened.) The counterarguments, as I recall, were principally libertarian ones about how the quality of personal-hygiene items would drop if the market weren’t involved. As in, so much for the Tampax you know, any wadded-up absorbent material would do.

So it seems that when someone who’s a famous feminist makes this point, and in the social-media era, things go somewhat differently than when a feminist college kid with a tiny blog did so before hashtags and the like. Valenti offers up a sampling of the response she got to her suggestion. Items include:


Fun! While there’s a case to be made against government-issued feminine hygiene products, this isn’t it.

“An Anonymous Face”

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy


Anemona Hartocollis reports (NYT) that the strong arm of the law is coming for your adorable baby photos. (Pet photos are safe, for now.) But not the ones you share on Facebook, or that you might select to illustrate a magazine essay you might choose to pen about your child. The law – as far as I know – would be fine with you going around town bearing a placard with your child’s mid-tantrum face captioned with a quote of the darndest thing he or she ever uttered. No, the only ones under attack are the photos doctors traditionally used in their office decor:

For generations, obstetricians and midwives across America have proudly posted photographs of the babies they have delivered on their office walls. But this pre-digital form of social media is gradually going the way of cigars in the waiting room, because of the federal patient privacy law known as Hipaa. Under the law, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, baby photos are a type of protected health information, no less than a medical chart, birth date or Social Security number, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Even if a parent sends in the photo, it is considered private unless the parent also sends written authorization for its posting, which almost no one does.

Hartocollis notes that some doctors don’t see these photos as a violation:

“For me, the face of a baby, that is really an anonymous face,” said Dr. Pasquale Patrizio, director of the Yale Fertility Center in New Haven. “It was representative of so much happiness, so much comfort, so much reassurance. It is purely a clinical office now.”

At what age, then, does the face cease to be anonymous? Because this doesn’t seem to just be about baby photos:

Jacques Moritz, director of the division of gynecology at Mount Sinai Roosevelt in Manhattan, still displays baby pictures in an exam room. “There’s not a day that goes by that somebody doesn’t come in with a picture of the kid — up until 17, 18, 19 and 20,” he said.

It would be nice to think that, by high school, your photo would not be showcased at your mother’s gynecologist. At the very least.

Anyway, what struck me about this story was that it’s a rare case of children’s right to privacy being rounded up, not down.

The parental overshare wave has seemed unstoppable, and consists, to a large degree, of articles by parents, about their own children. A move towards demolishing taboos when it comes to sensitive medical diagnoses – brave and admirable when it comes to adults being open about their own health – has led to it seeming absolutely normal for a parent to publish an essay on his or her child’s mental or physical illnesses. The child is seen as an extension of the parent, not as a person who will grow up and have to contend with whichever information being readily available to future partners, employers, insurers. The child’s story, then, is seen as the parent’s to tell, the child’s medical records the parents’ property to share however widely, in a way that would never fly if a writer decided to hold forth about the medical complaints of an identifiable adult friend or relative. (Exception: the person being written about suffers from a condition that makes it impossible for them to read or be read to.) While there are clearly times when it’s not just acceptable but necessary for a parent to share a child’s medical information – with the child’s doctor, say, or with a support group, a school employee, etc. – we no longer seem to recognize that there might be limits. That, in other words, anything other than the limits of good taste should bar a parent from writing a confessional piece about the exact consistency of their child’s last… trip to the facilities.

The Hipaa concerns don’t challenge parental overshare head-on, of course, given that the loophole is that a photo’s OK to show if the parent explicitly says it is. And it’s arguably quite a bit worse for your mom to write a magazine cover story about your unusual digestive condition than for there to be some relatively small-scale photographic evidence that your mother went to an OBGYN. But it’s nevertheless good news that children’s medical histories are, in some small way, being recognized as their own.

(Photo by Daniel Lobo)

How Sexually Fluid Are Women Really? Ctd

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

My earlier post on female sexual fluidity-or-lack-thereof has caused some controversy on Twitter. Some are upset that I’m questioning the caller’s own label:

People should, of course, identify as they see fit, and that includes Zen Heathen. I’d merely point out that a) the caller expressed 0% sexual interest in men (we don’t learn what she thinks about the 10% of the time she’s not thinking of women – for all we know it’s that she has to pick up her dry-cleaning – and she could well be with a man because of the social pressures to be with one), and b) if you’re pairing off with someone, and their variant of bisexuality involves preferring the gender you are not virtually all the time, this is maybe a red flag. Or maybe not – by all means, if you find the one person of a particular gender you’re attracted to, enjoy! – but people certainly think so when it comes to men.

Others point out that fantasies don’t necessarily reflect what people want:

This is a fair point. What was clear from the call, but not my post, is that this is a woman who has wanted to date women for years but been too shy. That’s a little different from someone simply having this or that pop into their head during sex. I’d also repeat here, though, that I wonder how blasé and hey-people-fantasize we’d be if this were a man fantasizing 90% of the time about other men. I’d also, while I’m repeating myself, reiterate that fetishes, etc., are different from sexual orientation. Someone might fantasize about scenarios or individuals they’d want nothing to do with in real life. But always picturing men, or always women, or close-to-always, would seem to indicate something.

Oh, and allow me a starstruck moment: Savage himself replied!

Since these other responses arrived only after Savage’s tweets, I for a moment wasn’t quite sure what he meant by “shit storm”-producing “#bisexual activists.” Then I was accused of not believing anyone could be bisexual by a bunch of Twitter users, all because I didn’t think this one woman sounded like she had any interest in men, and of hating bi people and gay people and women and… I think I see what he meant:


So how might Savage have answered the call differently, without bi-erasing anyone’s experiences? He might have done what another Twitter user suggests:

The idea isn’t for the caller to be officially declared a lesbian (as if such a thing were possible), but for her to consider – and, if she sees fit, to reject! – the possibility. She is, after all, soliciting advice. But the main thing I’d have emphasized is that this call would have been received entirely differently if it had come from a man. I mean, there might have been a nod to the possibility that the man was bisexual, but a nod would also surely have been given to the ever-so-slight chance that a self-identified bisexual man with a female partner, but who can’t stop thinking about Idris Elba, is in the closet. I find it hard to believe that – outside whichever limited sphere of bisexual activists – anyone would object to throwing “gay” out there as a possibility.

How Sexually Fluid Are Women Really?

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

I’ve long had my doubts on the question. What I doubt, to be clear, isn’t that some women are bisexual. Just that all women are, which is essentially what one is saying if one declares female sexuality fluid. I doubt this in part for personal-thus-anecdotal reasons (I’m female, and my orientation hasn’t budged since it first encountered photos of a then-young Keanu Reeves close to 20 years ago), but also because there are other explanations, not related to wiring, that could account for the appearance of fluidity one witnesses.

What it comes down to is, it remains much more controversial for men than women to have same-sex relationships or encounters. But at the same time, it’s much more taboo for women than men to be without a partner of the opposite sex.

This sounds contradictory, I realize, but let me explain: There’s a stigma, for women, on being boyfriend-less, husband-less. But the stigma isn’t based on fears that the woman might be a lesbian, but rather, that she might be unable to get a man. Being found desirable by men continues to be important to women’s power in the world in a way that’s independent of how attractive that woman may or not find these – or indeed any – men. There are also financial advantages to pairing off with someone of the gender that tends to earn more.

How does any of this relate to women’s alleged sexual fluidity? Men are under greater pressure than women to seem not-gay, so there’s less same-sex fooling around among the merely curious, or it’s less openly discussed, making male sexuality seem less fluid than might be the case. But men are under less pressure than women to pair off (and what pressure there is starts so much later in life), so there may be fewer gay men than lesbians in opposite-sex relationships.

I came up with this grand (and thus far mostly unsubstantiated) theory while listening to a recent Savage Lovecast. (Update: listen to the relevant clip below, sent to us by the tech-savvy at-risk youth:


A 25-year-old woman called the show (starts at 8:13) to say that she’s a serial monogamist who’s only ever dated men. But! She can’t stop thinking about women. She’s openly bisexual, has known this since she was 14, which her current boyfriend knows, but he doesn’t want an open relationship. And so on, but what jumped out at me was the part where she mentioned that “90% of the time” when she’s having sex with her boyfriend, she’s fantasizing about women. 90%!

Imagine, if you will, ladies, if you learned that your boyfriend or husband fantasized about men 90% of the time he was with you. You’d probably come to the conclusion that your guy was gay. Not because male bisexuality doesn’t exist, but because of how close 90% is to 100%.

Presumably Dan Savage would make this same assumption if the genders were reversed. He doesn’t. This is ostensibly because the caller identifies as bisexual, but may also have just a bit to do with the fact that she’s a woman, and women, so fluid! Savage, in his response, likens her persistent desire to be with women to kinks and fetishes people try to repress over the years (he mentions foot fetishes), and it’s like, gah, this woman is a lesbian! That’s not a kink, it’s a sexual orientation! This isn’t about monogamy being constraining (as much as Savage tried to fit it into that box), but about being with someone of the wrong gender posing certain fairly obvious obstacles to happiness. What this woman needs to do isn’t – as Savage advises – renegotiate her heterosexual relationship to allow for some women on the side. She needs to lose the boyfriend and get herself a girlfriend.

Why, then, is a lesbian dating dude after dude after dude? What comes through in her call isn’t the slightest glimmer of desire for her boyfriend (“I love him a lot” and “I really care about him” – sweet, but sort of tepid for “25” and “boyfriend”) or indeed any of the other men on the planet. She’s afraid of not being in a relationship with a man: “The thought of losing that someone I have thought about spending the rest of my life with is devastating.” She’s afraid of giving up the possibility of Husband. Which is… a totally legitimate fear in our society, but hardly evidence that she’s straight or bi.

If Savage’s alarm bells don’t go off at this call, perhaps it’s because he has been socialized to believe that female heterosexuality is this softer, more reactive version of its male counterpart. That it’s basically about wanting stability, a husband, a man who’ll find you attractive. No one expects women – even heterosexual women – to lust after men. (Many of us do. But we’re socialized to be discreet about it.) So it doesn’t immediately read as “lesbian” when a woman expresses intense interest in other women, but sounds sort of lukewarm about men.

Update: Phoebe responds to some criticism of her piece here.