We’ve made a lot of strides when it comes to normalizing some formerly taboo topics. And rightly so: it’s almost 2023! But we’d argue we’re still a little behind when it comes to (said in a hushed voice) periods. Yep, Aunt Flow, as we nickname this very normal bodily function that happens to a huge percentage of the population, just doesn’t get the respect she deserves.
But now at least one country is trying to change that. Scotland is making moves to change the culture around periods, and one region even appointed a “period dignity officer.” We have to admit we’re intrigued. Not just because it’s such an interesting concept, but also because the position went to…a man. So what is a period dignity officer, are they a good idea, and should anyone be able to do the job?
Scotland’s Period Act
Looks like Scotland is trying to up the world’s game when it comes to giving all menstruating people the basic dignity they deserve. Earlier this year, Scotland gained worldwide praise when it passed a pioneering Period Act, making tampons and pads free by law and instructing schools to make them available in every building. Because, uh, yeah.
And to many of us, making period products free would feel like a small financial relief (and a no-brainer), but for some here in the US, and many more around the world, a period act like the one in Scotland would be life-changing, and potentially even lifesaving. After all, at least 500 million women and girls globally lack access to menstrual products and adequate facilities for period hygiene management, according to the World Bank. And while it is a matter of simple human dignity, it’s more than that: poor menstrual health and hygiene exacerbate gender inequality and hold women back when it comes to education, health, safety, and human development.
So yes, it’s obvious that many in Scotland are pretty excited about this development, with lawmakers hoping to work with other countries and nonprofits to spread the good word. One region in the country, Tayside, even went above and beyond the law and appointed a period dignity officer, whose job description included doing things like leading a campaign across schools, colleges, and the region to raise awareness and understanding of Scotland’s Period Act, and to ensure that the Scottish government funding was allocated properly.
And who was the right person for this job? According to the job description, the requirements were “a successful track record of engaging and empowering a large range of people,” including “in particular young people who menstruate.” Based on those criteria, the region chose someone who ended up being controversial, to say the least.
The successful candidate was a former personal trainer who had also worked for a tobacco company, and as the student well-being officer with Dundee and Angus College, which was among the colleges involved in the hiring process. He was also a man.
Those who hired Jason Grant claimed he had tons of relevant experience in project management in both the private and public sectors – but it wasn’t his credentials that got people talking. It was his gender. So what was the reaction to his appointment, and what’s going on now?
The Undignified End of the Role of Period Dignity Officer
After the appointment of Grant, things exploded IRL and on social media. Said one Twitter user, “This feels like a joke. Jason Grant — Scotland’s first ‘period dignity officer’ — will never know the indignity of being bullied at school for having a period, of leaking, of being unable to afford period items, despite these being routine things many women sadly know all too well.” Others talked about being fed up with men “mansplaining” them about things they know little about.
The backlash went on and on, and the Tay region eventually threw their hands up. They didn’t just let Jason Grant go, they scrapped the whole position of period dignity officer. “Given the threats and abuse leveled at individuals in recent weeks, the period dignity regional lead officer role will not continue,” a spokeswoman for the Period Dignity Working Group, the team in charge of the initiative, said in a statement.
In September, Grant took legal action for his dismissal (as of this writing we do not know the outcome of the case), with his lawyer asking the question, “If Jason was not a man, would he have been dismissed from the role?” Excellent question, and the answer is probably not. But what about a more pressing question that’s on our minds: should a man be able to do a job like period dignity officer?
Representation Vs. Inclusion
When they hired Jason Grant, the Period Dignity Working Group said, “By changing the culture, encouraging debate, and removing the stigma around periods, we look forward to supporting the delivery of this important work across the region.”
And that’s where who can do that job gets complicated. How do we do those things, like change the culture and encourage debate? Some argue, very persuasively, that a job like this should be a way to give people who menstruate some much-needed representation, and a long-hoped-for voice at the table.
According to Charlotte O’Byrne, a fundraising manager at UK period poverty charity Freedom4Girls, “It’s more the case that many people are disappointed because it’s the first ever role of this type at such a high level and it has been awarded to a man. We want a woman’s voice primarily here. Yes, we want and need allyship between women and men, but within that, we kind of want it acknowledged that women, girls, and menstruating people are the ones who live with the inequality and have been conditioned to just shut up and put up.”
In addition, for many, their problem with Grant’s appointment is that they believe someone with lived experience would be the most qualified person, since they would be the one who would be most able to connect with others who are going through the same experiences. Said one member of the Scottish parliament, “It is incomprehensible that a young male without lived experience of menstruation is an appropriate person to address the needs of pre-pubescent girls at this vulnerable stage of development.”
But with that being said, we could play devil’s advocate and argue that because being a period dignity officer is about “changing the culture, encouraging debate, and removing the stigma around periods,” everyone has to be reached and everyone has to be on board. After all, you can’t change the culture around something if you don’t talk to the people who haven’t experienced it.
According to Monica Lennon, a member of the Scottish Parliament and an advocate for the Period Act, “If we want to tackle stigma and to create culture change that eliminates the embarrassment around periods, then I think we have to have an inclusive approach,” adding that the issue around periods involved mental health and well-being, but also education and the community, and that nobody should be excluded from those conversations.
Grant himself commented on his controversial appointment, saying “I think being a man will help me to break down barriers, reduce stigma, and encourage more open discussions. Although affecting women directly, periods are an issue for everyone.”
We wish we had the answer to all of this, but we don’t! What do you think? Is it all about representation? Or is inclusion important, too?
How Are We Working Toward Menstrual Equity?
We’ll leave you with a final question: should we have period dignity officers, or something similar, in this country? Or federal laws that make it feel like periods are treated with a little more respect?
Maybe we’re not talking about period dignity officers just yet, but you might be surprised – and pleased – to know that, in the last 8 years, states have passed 62 menstrual equity laws, representing real progress for the menstrual equity movement. This movement pushes for increased affordability, access, and safety of menstrual products.
Some of the state laws include eliminating the menstrual tax, making menstrual products more accessible by requiring them in schools, prisons, correctional facilities, and shelters; and addressing the safety of these products by requiring ingredient disclosure.
On the other hand, only two federal laws have been passed, one allowing menstrual products to be paid with pre-tax dollars using a Health Savings or Flexible Spending Account, and one requiring federal prisons to provide menstrual products free of charge. A Menstrual Equity for All Act has been introduced in the House, but as of now, it has not been passed.
So we still have a lot of work to do to break down the culture of stigma and shame that often surrounds menstruation, and give it the dignity it deserves. But the fact that we are talking about and passing policies to ensure access, affordability, and safety of these products is a huge leap forward.
We should probably all learn from Scotland’s example in passing their Period Act, and maybe learn something from Tayside’s controversial appointment. There’s a lot to think about, but the main point is that we all need to do whatever we can to give everyone the dignity they deserve.
Co-written by Joanna Bowling