Laura Coryton is co-founder and managing director of Sex Ed Matters, an award-winning social enterprise that helps students to tackle sex and relationship taboos. Laura started a petition to scrap VAT on period products (known as the “Tampon Tax”) which was signed by upwards of 300,000 people and led the international campaign against period poverty. In 2022, Laura was named one of the Obama Foundation’s Europe Leaders.
What inspired your campaign against the tampon tax?
Rage inspired the campaign. Rage about the sexism which underpins the stigma associated with periods; about the financial penalty so many people just for having a period and about the lack of women in parliament which led to it deciding periods were a luxury.
When you started your petition against it, did you anticipate that it would get so many signatories and become an international campaign?
Absolutely not! I was a 21-year-old waitress/student from rural Devon with no political experience whatsoever. Growing up, I never identified as the type of person who ‘does’ politics because I felt powerless. Why would anyone listen to me?!
Looking back, I feel sad I ever doubted my power and that so many people feel the way I did. I’ve since learnt that no matter where you’re from or who you are, your voice matters. The experiences you face aren’t the exception. More than likely, many others will face the same barriers as you. The people who face those barriers are in the best position to tackle them because they understand them the most. If you don’t speak up against them, who will?
What did the campaign against the tampon tax teach you about how to achieve change?
So many things, including that celebrating the little wins along the way is really important. To be honest, ending tampon tax isn’t what I’m most proud of in this campaign. It was the smaller campaigns that supporters started, having felt empowered by my petition. We now have sister petitions in every continent across the world and in countries such as Tanzania, France, South Africa, and all across the USA. Small acts really can change the world!
Your social enterprise Sex Ed Matters aims to bring sex education into the 21st century. What does 21st century sex education look like to you?
I love this question! Above all, 21st century sex education is empowering, exciting and offers an opportunity for students to take action. It is not anchored in science or facts, which can never reflect the reality of sex and relationships. Rather, it’s about discussing ideas, problems and how to tackle them. For example, what can students do to reduce sexual harassment levels on school grounds? How can the grips of incel culture really be tackled? These kinds of questions and discussions are what makes sex education so valuable.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about sex education you’ve encountered since starting Sex Ed matters?
So many! Firstly, that sex education is just about pregnancy and STIs. Sex education is about so much more, including consent, healthy relationships, rejection and sexuality. It’s about the topics which dominate our lives and yet which we’re told not to talk about.
You wrote Speak Up! as a guide for girls that want to change the world. What advice would you give to any young girls reading this that want to get involved in campaigning?
Be ambitious. I often look back at my campaigning journey and feel frustrated what I wasn’t ambitious enough. I was never certain if the campaign would succeed or if I was doing campaigning the ‘right’ way, when in reality, there is no ‘right’ way!
To any young girl wanting to campaign and make a change for the better, dream big! Proceed as if success is inevitable. Campaign as yourself, not as a ‘campaigner’. You have the right to speak up as yourself. You can do it!
You were chosen as one of the Obama Foundation’s Europe Leaders. Can you tell us a little about the experience?
It was life-changing. The course brought together 36 incredible campaigners and changemakers from across Europe. We met online once a week for six months to build our leadership skills and discuss problems we were facing and at the end of the course, we all met in person in Copenhagen at the Democracy Summit. Here, we discussed what it meant to make sustainable and impactful change with President Obama himself who was very generous with his time. The group is still very active to this day.
The biggest takeaway from this experience has been to embrace dreaming. Envision a better world and work hard to create it.
Are there any campaigns out there that have really inspired you?
Too many to name them all! Being inspired by others is so important. My list includes heroes such as bell hooks, Kajal Odedra, Laura Bates, my family and friends, Simone De Beauvoir, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Creighton and many, many more.
What’s next for you, Laura?
There’s lots in the pipeline! Including our new tampon tax petition which is lobbying retailers to lower the price of period products now the tax has been axed and my social enterprise just won funding to create a new diagnostics tool next year to help schools identify safeguarding risks such as sexual harassment on campus – you can stay updated with our work by joining our mailing list here.