Emerson Flows, resident assistants lobby for accessible reproductive resources

By Maddie Khaw, Assistant Enterprise News Editor

If you menstruate, you’ve probably been surprised by your period at some point and been frustrated when you don’t have period products on hand. These circumstances sparked advocacy from Emerson Flows in 2019 that resulted in the placement of free period products in some campus restrooms.

Emerson Flows is “an organization that’s dedicated to fighting for inclusivity, menstrual equality, and the destigmatization of menstrual products,” according to senior publishing major Emily Lang, who serves as president of the club. Since its 2019 initiative—which Lang said brought period products to approximately 30% of women’s restrooms—Emerson Flows continues to advocate for accessible period products in all bathrooms across campus. 

The club plans to present a petition to Emerson administration at the end of the month lobbying for free period products in all bathrooms. The petition has amassed more than 150 signatures, along with anecdotal testimony, but Lang said the club hopes to garner even more support. 

“Period poverty,” Lang said, is “the inadequate access to menstrual products” that affects an estimated 500 million people worldwide, according to a BMC Women’s Health study published in 2021. The study found that 14.2% of college-aged individuals who menstruate experienced period poverty in the past year, and an additional 10% experienced it every month. 

This year has also seen a tampon shortage and a price raise in other menstrual products. In June, Bloomberg reported that the average cost of a package of pads rose by more than 8% while the average price of tampons increased by almost 10% from the start of the year through the end of May.

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“Menstruation is painful enough without bankrupting students,” Lang said. “We feel that Emerson should be willing to provide period products in all bathrooms.”

Emerson Flows aims to make period products available not just in women’s restrooms, but also in all the men’s and gender-neutral restrooms on campus. 

“It’s not just women who have periods,” Lang said. “Transgender men, those who transitioned and those who didn’t and still identify as men [can have periods.] …Having period products in men’s rooms would reaffirm the men who menstruate.”

August Fowle, a junior communications major and a non-binary transgender man, said he thinks the Emerson Flows initiative is “a great goal.” 

Fowle noted that while he considers most Emerson students relatively accepting of the transgender community, putting period products in men’s restrooms could be a step towards making the campus more trans-inclusive.

“I think people know trans people exist, but may not realize some of the people they’re interacting with are trans,” he said. “It’s just a matter of being inclusive to all people of any gender identity, how that gender identity manifests, and what medical transitions they have or haven’t taken.” 

“I think it helps to normalize the fact that there might be trans men who need those products in the bathroom,” Fowle continued. “Over time it creates more of a cultural change.”

Nancy Allen, a senior executive-in-residence with a professional background in public health, teaches a course on sex, society, and health. She said it’s important for period products to be available to all students.  

“Trans men still need access to these products, and might find it much easier to access them in an anonymous way in the bathroom on campus as opposed to in other scenarios where safety might be jeopardized,” Allen said.

Stocking period products in men’s restrooms could also aid in destigmatizing menstruation by normalizing periods. The sense of discomfort surrounding menstruation starts for many students in elementary and middle school, with early sex education often segregated by gender—a “disservice” that, Allen noted, fails to provide students a comprehensive view. 

“For a lot of boys, what happens to girls’ bodies [during puberty] is mysterious and weird and they don’t get it,” she said. 

Emerson Flows aims to combat this stigma around menstruation by publicizing the conversation. Lang feels society has been silent on the issue for “way too long.”

“It’s not dirty, it’s not gross,” she said. “It’s something 50% of the population experiences, so we should be more open and accepting of it.”

Nelli Sargsyan, an associate professor of anthropology at the Marlboro Institute and the faculty adviser for Emerson Flows, said accessible period products create inclusive environments for those who menstruate while educating those who don’t. 

Making sure those of us who menstruate can go about their lives without added stress around access, comfort, or in worst cases, stigma, is an expression of collective care,” Sargsyan said. “I appreciate the work of the club in sharing resources—knowledge as well as material supplies.”

Students can access other sexual health services through the Emerson Wellness Center. According to its website, the Wellness Center provides in-clinic pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Infection testing, gynecological services such as Pap tests and birth control, along with health education and self-care advice. 

Pregnancy tests and visits with a medical provider are free, and labs such as STI or Pap tests are sent to Quest Diagnostics for processing, which is often covered by students’ insurance. In addition, the Wellness Center provides barrier contraceptives such as condoms, which are free for everyone at the center’s location on the third floor of the Union Bank Building. 

The center also refers students to Planned Parenthood, Women’s Health Services, and other local gynecology providers for inquiries about abortions and birth control methods like Intrauterine Device (IUD) and nexplanon insertion, according to Laura Owen and Lisa Viveiros, who both serve as associate directors for the Wellness Center. 

“We want to ensure we are supporting students who wish to terminate a pregnancy,” Owen and Viveiros said in a written statement. “All undergraduate students are eligible for services at [the Wellness Center].”

Some resident assistants in the Little Building have taken it upon themselves to provide condoms to residents by taping a bucket or envelope full outside their doors.

Senior creative writing major Sisel Gelman, who serves as an RA in Piano Row, noticed conversations around safe sex on campus happen primarily within the first year, with discussions of consent taking place in first-year orientation and condoms being available in the Little Building. Beyond freshman year, Gelman said it seems sexual health becomes less of a priority for students, which she attributed to the factors of age and the novelty of sexual freedom common among first-years.

Gelman said condoms are available in the Residence Director’s office in the Little Building, where RAs can stock up on their own supply to provide students on their given floors. Gelman said upperclassmen residences including Piano Row and 2 Boylston Place lack such a resource. 

Gelman reached out to the Wellness Center to ask if condoms could be made available for the RAs in Piano Row to provide to students. She also asked for a supply of paper pregnancy test strips, which she noted could be ordered in bulk online. For Gelman, prioritizing sexual health is important in ensuring her residents’ bodily autonomy.

“Sexual health, specifically for women, is a determining factor in whether women will finish college,” she said. “Sexual health [resources] have that immediacy of keeping a community safe from STDs and STIs, but also in the long term, giving women freedom to reach that highest fulfillment.”

The Wellness Center agreed to provide free condoms, lube, and dental dams to students in all residence halls, but said pregnancy tests cannot be supplied to students in the same way.

However, the college provides free pregnancy tests through the Wellness Center, where clinicians help students with next steps that cannot be assessed when students take tests alone. 

Gelman agrees sexual health should be discussed more often. To continue the conversation around sexual health and expand accessibility to reproductive resources is to implement Emerson’s existing values, she said.

“This is just [taking] the next step to efficiently utilize resources, to bring them closer to the students so they don’t have to look for them,” Gelman said.