Feminism

Alicia Silverstone and Tampon Fears

Last week on SGU, we discussed Alicia Silverstone, the latest celebrity to open her stupid face and vomit out a load of anti-vaccine flimflam. I mentioned as an aside that Silverstone also has some less-than-scientific thoughts on tampons, and how they can contain “pesticide residues from non-organic cotton and the ‘fragrances’ containing hormone-upsetting, fertility-knocking phthalates.”

Obviously, I’m in favor of corporate transparency and government oversight of things we put in our bodies, and that includes tampons. But we’ve been over this before: from the evidence we have to date, tampons are safe.

On the show, I mentioned that Silverstone’s tampon fear-mongering was of comparatively little consequence compared to her anti-vaccine drivel, since at worst women who are worried have other options, like using a menstrual cup or spending a few days in a shame hut.

SGU listener Holly sent in this message yesterday:

Message: Hey SGU,

On this week’s show, you were talking about another celebrity who’s gone anti-vaxxer. Rebecca also mentioned that that celebrity is against tampons. It just surprised me that Rebecca sounded negative about that, because tampons are pretty terrible. They probably don’t contain pesticides and the other shit that the celebrity thought they did, but they still have bleach in them and can cause toxic shock syndrome. Also, they’re wasteful as hell. One menstrual cup does the job of 22 tampons for your period, and they last a decade. And you can still go swimming with one in! I have! I guess I haven’t read any posts of Skepchick that Rebecca has made about tampons, otherwise I would know what her attitude toward them is. I am interested to hear that, and I always want to promote menstrual cups. They’re just so much safer.

Best,
Holly

The bleach (dioxin) concerns have already been addressed in Dr. Rubidium’s post, but I wanted to add a few things that Holly brings to the discussion.

First of all, when I was a kid, every girl knew about toxic shock syndrome (TSS) from the moment she or one of her friends started menstruating. TSS was the adolescent girl’s bogeyman. My friends would fret and worry about getting to the bathroom within the next twenty minutes because if she waits a minute longer, she will surely die. To 12-year old girls, on the scale of the Worst Possible Thing That Can Happen To You, dying from TSS is only marginally less horrifying than getting a surprise period in gym class, because at least if you die you don’t have to live with the resulting humiliation. (Of course, as an adult I can now say with 100% certainty that I’d rather have bloody shorts in gym than be dead. My priorities have changed a lot in the past 20 years.)

Anyway, so yes, of course I know that tampons have the potential to cause TSS. But what is that potential, exactly? It turns out that TSS is exceedingly rare: about 3-4 cases for every 100,000 women. If caught early, it can be treated, which is an argument in favor of continuing to educate girls about the dangers of it, if not making them think they’re definitely going to die the day they forget about that tampon for a few extra hours. The TSS risk can be mitigated even further by using low absorbency tampons and changing them often.

(On a side note, while looking up the exact stats for TSS, I came across the Iowa Department of Public Health website, which states “There was one case of Toxic Shock Syndrome reported to IDPH in 2012, which occurred in a 16 year-old male.” Perhaps this is a good place to point out that TSS is a staph infection that can be caused in a number of ways, not just through tampon usage.)

For me, TSS just isn’t a big enough risk to stop using tampons. I’m about five times more likely to be murdered than to even contract TSS. It’s not something I worry about.

Unnecessary waste is Holly’s other point against tampons. Waste does happen to be something I tend to, well, not worry about, per se, but at least I am concerned about it in a general sense. I take reusable bags to the grocery store. I recycle. I donate old clothes and electronics to charity. I buy things in bulk to reduce packaging. I save all my leftovers and eat them the next day.

And yet, I still use tampons. Why?

Because every month, blood gushes out of my vagina while my uterus contracts and makes me feel as though someone is stabbing me in the guts with an ice pick. For the first six or so years of having a period, I couldn’t use tampons because they were too painful. I had to use pads, and it was awful and uncomfortable and I couldn’t do any of the sports and other activities I loved for a week each month. I ruined more pairs of underwear than Bruce Banner.

I went through years of trying to figure out the best way to manage a gross and literally shitty aspect of my body, and at the age of 33 I finally know approximately when it’s going to happen, I have the drugs to keep it from killing me, and I have the right tools to make sure I don’t end up looking like a walking crime scene. I don’t feel like spending another few months learning how to balance a tiny bucket in my vagina. I don’t want to spend a few months constantly worrying that the tiny bucket in my vagina is going to tip over while I’m at Target. I don’t feel like learning how to gently remove the tiny bucket and dump out all the blood in a public restroom without causing hell for some poor janitor. Allow me to answer your objections, now.

“But Rebecca, you’re an adult and this is easy! Surely you can figure out the tiny bucket on the first try!”

Oh, like that time I used a neti pot for the first time and it looked like a snot monster exploded in my shower? Or the time I dyed my hair and the bathroom looked like a Grimace-themed bukkake porn set? Or every time I bake a cake and the kitchen looks like a scene from Scarface?

“But Rebecca, after those first few months you’ll definitely have it figured out!”

I don’t care! I have tampons figured out now. If I wanted to experience a second adolescence full of blood, I’d buy a skateboard.

“But Rebecca, I use a menstrual cup and I love it!”

Great! I promise to never take your menstrual cup away, nor make you feel bad for using it. Please do the same for my tampons.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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16 Comments

  1. Yeah, I have no desire to use a cup. That’s just asking for disaster. I’m not the most coordinated person, and really, my periods are light enough where I use very little in the way of tampons anyway, and only for the first day or two. I’d be more inclined to use washable pads except I don’t have a washer/dryer in my apartment and would rather not wash bloody rags in the complex’s laundry facility.

    If (general) you wants to use cups … good for you. I’m glad you found something that works for you. But I’ll pass. And quite frankly, it’s no one’s freakin’ business.

  2. I don’t remember ever having one conversation with any of my friends about periods as a teenager – and I went to a girls school. We never talked about TSS, but you’re right that it was probably because we’d all read the leaflet in the box. I do vividly remember my mother telling me I wasn’t getting out of my swimming lesson and if I was worried to just use two tampons at once, which freaked me out and set off my TSS alarm bells. I’ve never figured out how to inserts two tampons. But I do use a menstrual cup, so go figure. For me it’s purely about money and the fact we have to pay taxes for menstrual products. I find it abhorrent to have to pay a “Period Tax”

  3. I’m Brazilian and I got my period almost 15 years ago and never has anyone told me anything about TSS. In fact, the first time I came across it was on an American blog. Now I’m not sure if cases of TSS are even rarer here (I don’t think the super absorbent tampons that were associated with a higher chance of TSS were ever sold here, for instance) or if there’s just a bigger taboo/less information about it.

    1. It’s always been a terrible idea; I’m surprised that tampon boxes are allowed to call them flushable. I remember in middle school or high school we had a plumber come to our house do some serious work on our pipes, and it turns out they were clogged with tampons–literally tangled around pipes and tree roots and stuff. I didn’t get to see it; my mom just told me (and I remember refusing to take any blame because I always threw mine away–sorry, Mom), but I can’t imagine the sight…

      1. Tree roots? I think those are a problem independent of the tampons… though I thought it was common knowledge that you weren’t supposed to flush tampons.

        I use reusable cloth pads. It seemed like less of an adjustment than a cup. (I was already using pads rather than tampons, other than for swimming.)

  4. I’ve been using a cup for about 3.5 years now. I switched from tampons and haven’t looked back. At the time, I was researching them online and had a good impetus to switch. I was going on a two week long road trip with a bunch of men in the car (on tour with a band) and needed something that I didn’t have to worry about changing out for long periods of time. I bought one a month before my trip and got the hang of it after a couple of days. For me, cups are much more comfortable than tampons ever were and I can keep one in up to 12 hours on light days. And I’ve definitely have dumped mine in public restrooms. They stay in place with suction, so it’s not a balancing act like one might think. Yes, sometimes I get blood on my hands and I have to wash my hands much more often when using a cup. But it’s something I’ve gotten used to. Of course, not all women have the same experience and some don’t like cups or want to use them. For what it’s worth, I’ve anecdotally read online that some women report that their cramps are less severe after using a cup. It’s something that I think needs more research.

    1. “For what it’s worth, I’ve anecdotally read online that some women report that their cramps are less severe after using a cup. It’s something that I think needs more research.”

      Unfortunately for me, it really seems to ramp up my cramps :(

      I always wondered (perhaps the answer is obvious), doesn’t the blood spill back “into” you from the cup when you lie down or do gymnastics?

      1. I always wondered (perhaps the answer is obvious), doesn’t the blood spill back “into” you from the cup when you lie down or do gymnastics?
        Yes and no? The blood can’t flow back into your uterus – your cervix is in the way – but I suppose if you were to lie down some of it might pool in your vagina. Even then, though, it would flow right back into the cup as soon as you sat up. Also worth knowing is that menstrual blood is fairly viscous compared to normal blood, and the average woman produces about two ounces per cycle. It doesn’t exactly slosh around in there.

  5. Menstrual cups worked really well for me, but my IUD works even better (no more periods at all).
    I think the reason some people get such a mad zealous gleam in their eyes when trying to convince others to use a cup is because they know they’re part of a tiny voice trying to compete with the MASSIVE HUGE TAMPON-SELLING VOICE telling women that if they have to touch their own vaginas or their own menstrual blood they are dirty and disgusting people.
    I don’t think anyone needs to hear more arguments in favour of using tampons, though I agree with Rebecca that the topic at all is pretty low on the priority list of Other People’s Business.*
    * I say low rather than not on the list at all because, as already mentioned, the wastefulness and sewer-blockage issues are not irrelevant to the good of society at large. Though not nearly as relevant as a whole host of other stuff.

  6. While I agree no one should try to push you into a choice you’re not comfortable with, I also think for a lot of women there isn’t enough positive information about options. I’m really grateful to a friend who was going on and on about how much she loved her menstrual cup. Before she convinced me to try it, I hated tampons only marginally less than pads, but even though I had already heard of cups I think I was embarrassed to try something that seemed so abnormal. And although I know it comes from frustration with people who are legitimately being douchebags about your choice, the way this article talks about the “tiny bucket” does feel derisive and has the potential to make women feel bad about considering a cup.

  7. Before I had my period, there was the “Rely” tampon. It was a miracle! You could leave it in for 12 hours! My mom loved them. She was pretty upset when they were taken off the market because of concerns over TSS. MS. Magazine had an article, I recall, mentioning that TSS was actually rare.

    Of course, while there was Rely, there were also books encouraging wimmyn to lean up against a tree and fortify it with our life-giving blood. Perhaps that’s a good use for the cup, no?

  8. Rebecca, I promise I’m not trying to take your tampons away. But I’d appreciate it if you didn’t spread lies about my cup. A cup is far less likely to leak than a tampon. Putting it in and keeping it in is easy; there’s no balancing involved. It can be left in for 12 hours (I’ve left mine in for 18 with no consequences, not that I’m recommending that), so the odds of having to empty it in a public restroom are pretty small. And it saves a TON of money long-term. Tampons have done an enormous amount for the liberation of women and I’m not here to demonize them. But if you don’t want to switch to a cup, maybe just say “I don’t want to” and leave it at that, rather than listing a bunch of ill-informed fantasies of why cups are bad.

    1. You have a really, truly bizarre definition of “lies,” or else poor reading comprehension. Sorry to break this to you, but a cup is absolutely not less likely to leak than a tampon when I’m using it for the first time. It’s just a fact. The odds of my tampon leaking right now are 0% because I know how to use it. The odds of any other device I’ve never used before are, by definition, equal to or greater than that. I’m really not sure why that makes you angry enough to call me a liar and accuse me of spreading “ill-informed fantasies.” Jesus, calm down.

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