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A menstrual cup (Photo: erikaboo / CC-BY-SA-4.0)
A menstrual cup (Photo: erikaboo / CC-BY-SA-4.0)

SocietyJanuary 17, 2018

Stop guilting poor people into using menstrual cups

A menstrual cup (Photo: erikaboo / CC-BY-SA-4.0)
A menstrual cup (Photo: erikaboo / CC-BY-SA-4.0)

The indestructible, environmentally friendly, unlimited use menstrual cup has been celebrated as the answer to ‘period poverty’. But they’re not for everyone, writes Andrea Nielsen-Vold.

Menstrual cups are little reusable vessels that collect menstrual blood and can be used over and over again. They have been deemed a solution to the problem of managing your menstrual flow when you don’t have much money, or no money at all – so-called ‘period poverty’. But are these little cups really the answer?

I want to be clear: I think menstrual cups are great, and I use one myself. I am the person behind Go With The Flow Hawke’s Bay, a not-for-profit organisation that provides menstrual products to those who can’t afford them. And while I personally stopped using disposable products a few years ago, I still provide them for others. This means I often have to defend what I do.

My commitment to continuing to provide disposable products, when in theory one little menstrual cup could solve everything forever, comes down to one thing: Choice.

I believe people should have a choice in what they do with their bodies, particularly what they place inside their bodies.

You may think that offering someone who has no proper solution to managing their period a free menstrual cup is offering them a choice, but here’s how it’s not. Offering menstrual cups without a how-to education programme and ongoing support is actually forcing someone to take your offer without their buy-in. You’re placing them in a position of ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ and you’re giving them what you think is a solution without checking that they agree. When someone has next to nothing, they often feel they must take up this free offer, whether they want it or not, and then these cups don’t get used. I’ve got cups sitting around that were donated to Go With The Flow Hawke’s Bay over a year ago because I give people that choice – and no one wants them.

And why would that choice be no? Many reasons. Sexual abuse. Damage from childbirth. A lack of a stable living environment, no guaranteed access to a bathroom at all times, no hot water, inability to access YouTube, Google and Facebook to troubleshoot problems. And equally as valid: they just don’t want to.

I’m not saying that every programme that offers free menstrual cups is wrong, not at all. There are some excellent examples of programmes where education and ongoing support are provided – Auckland-based United Sustainable Sisters is one. There are no doubt boundless others, and just because I’m not naming your programme doesn’t mean you’re not one of them. But I’m dubious about how many of these free menstrual cups have actually become a long term solution.

We know from recent events that Aotearoa has an issue with unconditional giving. True unconditional giving means ignoring our own feelings or preconceptions about what’s best for the recipient. If the recipient just wants some disposable pads and tampons, then giving without condition means that’s what we provide – even if we think a menstrual cup would be the better solution. To use someone’s lack of choice as a way to push our agenda on them is conditional giving. And that’s actually more about how the giver feels than what the recipient wants.

So why do we continue to use ‘poor bodies’ to make ourselves feel good? Many people who aren’t in poverty don’t want to use a menstrual cup, so why are people with very limited means any different in their right to bodily autonomy? Why are we focusing on the most vulnerable people in order to reduce our own guilt on the imprint humans have on the planet? These are questions we really need to sit with, and as uncomfortable as they are, we need to have a good look at ourselves and ask why we’re doing this.

While we’re at it, can we please stop talking about how easy menstrual cups are? They may be easy for some people, or even a lot of people, but the myth that they are really easy for everyone – “you just have to stick with it” – is full of so much judgement. Judgement that if it didn’t work for you, you just didn’t try hard enough. And you also mustn’t really care about the state of the planet.

You know what? You have to get REALLY up close and personal with your body when you use a cup. Like RIGHT IN THERE. And for many reasons, not everyone is OK with that. Then there’s the issue of finding the right size and firmness. I’m personally onto my third cup. Learning about my body has been great, but I know it’s because of my own privilege that I’ve been able to do so. Maybe the standard ‘Over 25 and/or had children’ size works for you, but I can tell you now, that does not work for everyone. I use a small cup designed for virgin teenage menstruators but I’m 33 and have had two children. So unless the person we are giving a free cup to is fully aware of their flow volume, where their cervix sits when they have their period and what firmness their body prefers, then I think giving cups to these people is almost pointless. Not only are we going to make people feel like they have failed (on top of struggling with poverty, nice…), but we will also make them feel like they can’t ask for any more assistance with their period, because there is supposedly no reason they need tampons or disposable pads anymore.

So my take home message is this: menstrual cups are a very valid, environmentally and economically savvy solution to menstrual management. But they are also something that aren’t for everyone. We need to be very careful about where we place our enthusiasm for this amazing little product, and I suggest placing it on poor people can lead to some pretty harmful behaviour. If you are part of a programme that is about supporting menstruators deal with their flow on limited means then I urge you to have a good hard think about how much actual choice you’re giving people. Is a cup the only option you’re offering? If so, are you providing a full education programme and ongoing support? Are you throwing out facts about how harmful disposable products are as a means to guilt people into choosing a cup? Only you will know the answers to these questions, and if you are confident in what you do then none of what I say should upset you. But if any of this rings true to you, I suggest it’s time to re-evaluate the way you’re helping people. Because their choice should always come before our own values. Always.

For more information on why Go With the Flow Hawke’s Bay offers single-use sanitary products, click here.

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