By Juliette Cule
I’m no expert in the toilet department, but I have been a metaphorical bedpan over the last few weeks, being filled with other peoples opinions on the matter. Now it is time for me to empty my contents into the public domain.
Once everyone was clear on what gender-neutral toilets were, the opinions flooded in. I’ll try to present all the arguments I have heard – however, through getting involved in a lot of discussions and reading around the subject, as well as my personal experiences, I’ll say now that I’m in favour of providing at least some form of gender neutral toilets in every environment. I think it is an issue that needs to be discussed and addressed. In fact, I find the concept of gender separation according to two strict binaries kind of ludicrous – see this article looking at the way toilet signs illustrate how we construct gender. In my ideal world all toilets would be self-contained cubicles (and there would be loads of them and they would always be clean). However, there are a lot of problems to address on our way to this beautiful and peaceful toilet future.
I have roughly categorised the problems thrown up by GNTs. The discussions are amazingly wide-ranging and very interesting, so I would wholly encourage you to bring it up at your next dinner party: I promise a fascinating debate will ensue.
Perhaps the most emotive and problematic implication of GNTs would be removing a ‘safe space’ for women (and men?). Toilets are a secluded and private space without security cameras, and by removing the gender segregation women would potentially be vulnerable to attacks.
I don’t want to simply argue against this, because I understand and to an extent agree with the logic. However, to me it runs along the lines of the argument that ‘women shouldn’t walk home at night’ – the idea that a women on her own in a secluded place is vulnerable suggests that it is the woman’s responsibility to stay where the public can see her and keep her safe, rather than the rapist’s responsibility not to rape. Furthermore, if a person is intent on attacking someone in a public toilet, I doubt very much that they would be put off by the picture on the door. I would even suggest that providing this illusion of a safe space could endanger a women by allowing herself to be cornered rather than seeking help – see the case of Sherrice Iverson cited on page 9 of this essay.
Suggesting that women use women’s toilets as a safe space relies on the assumption that gender can be split into men and women, and potentially elevates the safety of cis-bodied and feminine-presenting women over all other individuals. Kath Browne from the University of Brighton writes that women who can not immediately be ‘read’ as women report experiencing abusive comments, exclusions and physical violence. The presumption that gender segregated toilets maintains individual safety is simply untrue and excludes a significant minority for whom going to the toilet – a daily task – is a difficult and potentially dangerous experience.
I’ve certainly used the toilets as a means of escaping unwanted advances. Recently I felt genuinely threatened by an aggressive man and left the situation for my own safety. Whilst at the time I appreciated having a safe space, I also felt trapped, distressed and guilty for leaving my friends to deal with the situation. Personally (and I realise this is provocative and problematic) I can’t help but wonder whether if the option had been removed I would have sought out more serious consequences to this man’s behaviour by fetching a bouncer or seeking assistance, rather than waiting it out and leaving the man potentially unaware of how unacceptable his behaviour was. I dislike the concept that women need a safe space to remove themselves from the threat and I think it undermines the notion that the attacker (regardless of gender or situation) is the one who should face consequences for their actions rather than the victim.
Several immediate reactions were ‘ugh, no!’. Men’s toilets seem to have a reputation for urine-soaked floors and unsavoury smells, and some women do not wish to experience this on a daily basis. Not having too much experience of men’s toilets, I don’t feel that well placed to comment, but I’ll go ahead and do it anyway. The gender-neutral toilets I’ve frequented in Brighton (some of which are used primarily by men) seem to be fine, and sharing bathrooms with men at various homes has never been an issue. Equally, women’s toilets can be just awful. Let’s not enforce more gender stereotypes, but rather let’s stick to the adage ‘if you sprinkle when you tinkle, please be sweet and wipe the seat’.
I’ve spoken to men who have said they don’t fancy the queues that build up outside women’s toilets and women who have been in favour of GNTs because queuing for the ladies when the men’s is empty is frustrating (and excruciating when you really need to go). However I’ve also heard from a friend working at a tech company that she has the opposite experience – men complaining about queues whilst she rarely encounters another employee in the ladies – and I’m not sure I’ve ever queued for the toilet at a football match. It seems that yet again that despite our preconceived notions of what goes on in/around toilets, it actually varies wildly from situation to situation and trying to divide the crowds along gender lines doesn’t really solve any queuing problems. If venues worked by capacity rather than trying to second-guess the gender ratios, queuing times could be much easier managed.
Women do take longer to go the toilet – Wikipedia says so. Reasons for this range from women wearing more complicated clothing, needing to use sanitary items, the simple fact they have to sit down, and – importantly – the lesser number of provisions. Urinals take up less space than stalls so women’s restrooms, especially historically, have less servers than men’s toilets. Current laws in the UK require a 1:1 female-male ratio of restroom space in public toilets. This doesn’t allow for this disparity in provisions which goes some way to explaining the stereotype of longer queues.
The argument has been raised that older generations who are less used to the concept of gender fluidity and more used to the notion that men don’t clean up after themselves would not be comfortable going about their business with other genders present. Indeed, one women I spoke to disagreed when I said we are comfortable sharing gender neutral toilets on trains and planes, and rather that she puts up with them because they are all that is available.
If the aim of this discussion is to make everybody more comfortable, surely it is vital to make sure those who are more comfortable using separated toilets have the facilities to do so. Following the NUS guidelines for GNTs, gendered toilets would remain alongside provision for GNTs so this would not be a problem. In terms of a complete conversion to GNTs, my fantasy toilet of lots of self-contained cubicles would mean this situation wasn’t such a problem, and on a wider scope if we can consider the implications of GNTs we can further consider our own internalised responses to gender and see how they affect the way we view the world.
More hanky-panky in the toilets
I mean, I just don’t think that toilets are the sexiest place to do it, and with the increased footfall that GNTs would produce you would have to be as bold as you would currently be to have sex in gendered toilets – but let’s throw a condom machine in my fantasy toilets just in case.
Men and women have different requirements
Some men do not want to lose their urinals. Then again – some men do not want to use urinals. Women certainly don’t want lose their sanitary bins (although if they used mooncups they wouldn’t have this issue, but that’s for another time…). We’ve gotten past the point where men need manuals to de-flower their wives, so surely they can cope with seeing a bin in their cubicle. Just because a toilet is GNT, it does not mean that the walls of cubicles will suddenly vanish and you’ll be surrounded by urinating men -nor would the urinals be suddenly next to the sinks, or indeed anything change other than the mix of people you are surrounded with. Whilst I understand these arguments, and I don’t want to see anyone urinating either, I think we do a disservice to ourselves as human beings when we suggest that we can’t share a space to do a daily necessity.
Time to conclude this engrossing subject. Whilst I feel fairly passionate about the inclusion of gender neutral toilets, I understand that others feel equally passionate about maintaining a separated space for a wide range of religious, individual, social and other reasons. I do however feel that this is a fantastic springboard to consider how pervasive our notions of gender are, and how they still affect us on a daily basis. It is difficult even to discuss these notions of gender divides and stereotypes, but discuss them we must. In investigating this article, it seems there is a silent ‘toilet culture’ that we navigate almost on autopilot. It is time to switch this to manual and ask ourselves – why are there not safe and accessible toilets for all, and when will there be?