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Let’s Talk About Those Tampon Machines In Bathrooms

Hi, I’m Madeline and I have a period every month. I know it’s a shocker, but every month without fail (thank God) the Lord blesses me with 5 to 7 days of hell. As a woman and a college student I usually don’t remember or know when my period is going to come. It was one of these days, a day when my period decided to throw a surprise party, that I realized a serious problem plaguing bathrooms across the nation: the tampon machines never work.

I rushed to the bathroom, my fate lying in the clutches of one of those silver machines affixed to the wall. You know that machine that we laughed about in middle school. The one that seems to be commonplace in every single bathroom in America, yeah that one. Imagine my surprise though when I slipped my quarter into that little silver slot only to find it empty. After trying two more bathrooms I gave up, quarter-less and brokenhearted I decided to fashion some sort of makeshift pad until one of my roommates could drop off the supplies. It felt ridiculous to have to plan a drug-deal esque drop off in a bathroom just for some tampons. So after much thought and a handy Twitter poll (which confirmed that, yes, these machines never work) I decided to investigate this phenomenon.

I started by trekking the entirety of the University of Nevada, Reno. Pro-tip: don’t do this activity in your brand new Steve Maddens. But foot pain aside, I checked every machine I could find. I carried a bag of quarters across the University and left with only 3 pads and 1 tampon. Out of the 30 machines I checked, only 3 of these machines were operational. The rest stole my quarters and pride. One even broke apart as I used it. I watched as my quarter disappeared and I was rewarded with a piece of the silver box clanking into the little metal slot. In that moment it came across my mind that maybe this was the machine’s way of rebelling. Maybe it inadvertently realized that it was in disrepair, neglected and disregarded by women who after all too many tries realized that nobody actually cares about the little metal machines in the bathrooms.

But I care. I want women to not be afraid of getting a surprise period! I want women to stop organizing mafia style drop-offs in bathrooms. I want women to be able to pull their quarters out of their purses and put them into this machine with confidence. So when given the chance, I brought it up to the President of the University at their bi-annual Tacos With the President event. Raising my hand high I asked my question: “As a woman I was wondering why most of the tampon machines on campus are in disrepair or broken?”

To which the president responded: “I haven’t experienced this problem myself but I can assure you that we will bring this to the attention of the facilities.”

A few days later I continued my investigation through a phone interview with David Dutra: The Assistant Director of Building Operations. He told me that the University is currently looking into the state of the machines on campus. He informed me that after my complaint to the President of the University, they began a school-wide survey of the machines. With the survey’s completion Dutra expected that they would have enough supplies to fill the machines.“We {the maintenance department} do have enough product to stock the operational machines when the survey is done.” As for the future of the machines (and their operations) “We don’t know if this is even a service the University will want to provide in the future.” He admitted to me that many Universities across the nation are deciding to get rid of the machines altogether. Dutra also explained to me that their are no laws requiring the University to have the machines.

So why did they have the machines in the first place? I had just visited the University’s new student achievement center and the machines in those bathrooms weren’t even operational. After researching the brand name I even found that the machines sell for around $350 a pop. Why would a University be wasting thousands of dollars on machines that aren’t even required by the federal government? Furthermore, if they are dropping some serious doe, why the neglect?

So once I got home that night I grabbed a cup of coffee (God knows I would need it) and started researching. I found that the first ever “Menstrual Pad Vending Machine” was created by Kotex brand in the 1920’s, “It took two years to perfect the Vending machine for Kotex, sanitary pad which has revolutionized an age old habit of women.” After that companies such as Modess, who famously created the “Modess…..Because” campaign, followed suit with their own machines. In 1991 Bobrick Washroom Equipment Inc. patented the machine and now sells it to companies and corporations across the nation.

However, after more research I found that these machines are not required. There are no laws, amendments, guidelines, NOTHING for these machines. Even the American Restroom Guidelines disregard the existence of the machines. It’s as if they don’t even exist.

So now I was dealing with an even bigger problem than I ever thought. Not only were these machines not operational there was also literally no logical reason for them to exist. So I did what anybody who’s borderline insane would do, I started looking through amendments and court cases. You heard me right, court cases. I probably looked over hundreds in the span of a few days, when I finally found the needle in the haystack.

Not only are these machines not regulated by the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), ADAAG (Accessibility with Disabilities Act Guidelines) or Bathroom Association they are also in direct violation of the ADA. The ADA regulates public restrooms and buildings, making sure that they are accessible to disabled persons. The official operations manual lays out how to correctly create everything from bathroom stalls to wheelchair ramps nation-wide. By having set regulations disabled persons don’t have to worry about being able to access public buildings and spaces. Section 4.27.4: Operations in the official ADAAG guidelines states that all “controls and mechanisms shall be operable with one hand and shall not require tight grasping, pinching, or twisting of the wrist. The force required to activate controls shall be no greater by 5 lb.” These machines, which are operated with a pull knob, require the subject’s hand to grasp and pull.

GENEVA LEMA, Plaintiff, V. MODESTO HOSPITALITY, LLC (2012), brings up this very fact. The plaintiff, Geneva Lema sued the Doubletree Hotel in Modesto California for negligence of adherence to the ADA guidelines. Among her complaints was the fact that she was unable to use the tampon machine due to the fact that she suffers from Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a degenerative disease causing weakening of the bones. Lema, “has difficulties related to grasping, pinching and twisting of the wrist.”

At this point, I realized that there was some serious neglect on the government’s part when it came to these machines. In a poll done by the nonprofit Free The Tampons, a non-profit that aims to make tampons accessible to underprivileged women and youth, out of 1072 women polled, 86 percent of them had received a surprise period in their lifetime. Out of the 86 percent, 48 percent admitted that she had “obtained her supplies from a tampon/pad dispenser in a public restroom.” Unsurprisingly, “only 8 percent say in their experience tampon and sanitary napkin dispensers in public restrooms work all the time.” That’s a pretty low outcome for something that is available in nearly every woman’s restroom in America.

Currently, women like, New York City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras, are hell bent on making it easier for women to receive the sanitary products they need during their time of the month. She believes that by making tampons in schools, prisons and shelters in the NYC area easily accessible and free, she will be able to partially help with this current public health crisis.

Not only are these machines neglected and ignored by the general public they are also blatantly ignored by the government. Without regulation, these machines can be filled, placed and used however the property sees fit. According to their 1992 patent the machine was created and “the dispensing may be controlled by coin mechanisms for each type of article or may be free, no-coin operation.” Companies could have the option to sell their tampons for 25¢, 50¢ or for free. I found through my investigation that even at the University level the price of the non-existent tampons fluctuates, with inflation in high traffic areas such as the student union (where they were .50.)

If legislation were to be passed adding these dispensers to the ADA, ADAAG and American Restroom Guidelines. Not only would they be disability accessible there would also be a standard pricing for these items nationwide. Women across America would finally have the luxury of receiving a tampon discreetly from one of these dispensers. By regulating these machines, I believe that by lifting the stigma from these metal phenomenons, corporations could decide that women deserve to have the luxury of the tampon within the bathroom setting.