The tampon tax proves the UK still sees the male body as the default.

At the end of a long, stressful day sometimes only self-indulgent pampering can help. A bubble bath, a glass of wine, high quality chocolate, and a tampon, fresh from the packet. What could be more luxurious?

If something about that description of indulgence seems a little out of place, that’s because it is. Because no matter what this government and the European Commission seems to think, tampons and sanitary pads are not luxury items – even if made from extra-super-absorbent cotton.

It is easy to make jokes about the “tampon tax” debate. Just as listicles of Waitrose’s ridiculous ‘essential’ range are easy to mock (look out for poppy seed thins and limoncello desserts on David Cameron’s planned ‘British Bill of Rights’), the state of affairs that maintains tampons are taxable luxuries, while edible cake decorations, kangaroo meat and pitta bread deserve zero per cent status, is laughable. Stella Creasy’s joke-filled speech in Parliament last week proved the ludicrousness of the tax, as did the surge of tweets following the vote that decided not to scrap it. The situation is absurd.

Yet, while tweets playing on the idea of ‘luxurious’ menstrual products, and videos of MP Bill Cash being forced to actually say the word ‘tampon’ out loud are entertaining, the laughter masks truly depressing circumstances. The uproar over the products may seem like an overreaction to some; why all the column inches over what amounts to only a few pennies per purchase, some may ask. Leaving aside the fact that the average woman buys 11,000 tampons during her lifetime at a cost of around £3 for a basic box, meaning that someone earning minimum wage must work approximately 38 full working days to pay for her lifetime’s supply – leaving that aside – the answer is that this 5% VAT rate is a clear signal that our society is still far from equal, and that when it comes to economic law women’s needs are still not considered. The “tampon tax”, and the recent vote upholding it, are proof that women are still regarded as secondary, their bodies seen as an embarrassing problem.

The visible discomfort displayed by male MPs in discussing the topic – Cash repeatedly referred ambiguously to “products” before being repeatedly compelled by Creasy to refrain from dodging the issue – signals that the Parliament Chamber remains a space where ‘vagina’ is a dirty word. Like overgrown schoolboys, our elected MPs squirm at the thought that half the population need to use menstrual products every month (note the use of the word ‘need’, almost as if the inconvenience and cost of periods was something women didn’t flippantly choose each cycle). Even suggestions that this issue is trivial in comparison to something like transport policy indicates that we still live in a society that euphemizes “women’s issues” and writes them off as marginal. Our political system assumes a male default. Is it really too cynical to suspect that the reason incontinence pads are tax free, while maternity and sanitary pads are not, is that they may catch male leakages as well as female?

That this has incensed many, and has got a Parliament hearing is somewhat encouraging. That the vote was close – 305 to 287 – is frustrating, but also signals that the old guard cannot hold on forever. The union of Conservative and Labour ministers on the subject, with David Gauke, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, bowing to pressure from the Tory backbench and promising to raise the matter with the European Commission, is encouraging. If even social conservatives recognise this regulation is absurd and out dated, then perhaps there is hope that, in the future, girls won’t be brought up to think of their bodies as shameful non-essentials.

That this has incensed many, and has got a Parliament hearing is somewhat encouraging. That the vote was close – 305 to 287 – is frustrating, but also signals that the old guard cannot hold on forever. The union of Conservative and Labour ministers on the subject, with David Gauke, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, bowing to pressure from the Tory backbench and promising to raise the matter with the European Commission, is encouraging. If even social conservatives recognise this regulation is absurd and out dated, then perhaps there is hope that, in the future, girls won’t be brought up to think of their bodies as shameful non-essentials.

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