Toilets.  Not exactly a glamorous topic, but a necessary fact of life, and we use them several times every day.  We can’t always predict when we’re going to need one, but when we need one, we often need it quickly.  They are a universal requirement for humans living in civilized society.  And yet they are very often a source of frustration for many, and cause a great deal of angst and distress for some.

The problem is that public toilets are not always available, or appropriate for a person’s needs, or safe to use.  Why are public toilets so difficult?

Public toilets in ancient times were large communal affairs, where people of any gender would sit side by side on wooden planks, perhaps discussing their plans for the day or current politics.  I remember seeing one in the ruins near Pompeii.  But somewhere along the line, as modern society developed, toilets became much more private affairs. 

It’s worth noting that conveniences inside public buildings have only existed for a couple of hundred years.  Prior to that you would have had to use the “privy” or outhouse, a hole in the ground used by all and sundry when nature called.  These were pretty rough – if you were lucky there might be a lockable door, no paper, and forget being able to wash your hands!  They were also unisex, but of course as with most things in our history they were designed primarily for men to use.

It was not until the invention of plumbing that toilets could be installed inside dwellings – the WC or water closet then became a fixture in public buildings.  It was at this time that there started to be a notion that there should be separate toilets for men and women.  This probably derived from the paternalistic attitude that women were weak and needed protecting, and should really not be venturing out into public anyway.

Fast forward to the present, and we haven’t really progressed much when it comes to the public convenience.  The gender separation still exists, and is now enshrined by many as a human right.  Funnily enough, it doesn’t seem to apply in the family home, or in places where space is limited, such as airplanes, trains or small businesses.

And now there’s a raucous outcry about trans women using the female toilet.  This fear is based on a fiction, that trans women are really men and are therefore a risk to cisgender women in a space like a bathroom.

It’s such a ridiculous and ugly trope, and statistically speaking it’s as far from the truth as one could get.  In fact, it’s trans women who are most at risk of violence – from cisgender men, which of course means that using the male bathroom is very dangerous for them.  Trans women have one of the highest rates of being assaulted in public, and the Trans Murder Project figures show that the risk of being killed simply for being trans in public is very high in some countries.

The idea that trans women are a threat to cis women in the bathroom space has no basis in reality, and incidents where a trans woman has attacked someone in the ladies’ toilet are so perishingly rare you will simply never read about them. Clearly the greatest risk is for a trans woman who enters a male bathroom. 

Similarly, trans men have a tough time too, as they are likely to be asked to leave women’s toilets due to their appearance, and are at risk of violence in the men’s toilet.  And as for non binary people, perhaps they have the hardest time of all. What safe space exists for them in the public restroom?

The truth is that there is no increased risk to cis women from the presence of trans women in their space.  There are 2 main reasons people go to the bathroom – to use the toilet and to groom their appearance.  The people who are obsessed about the genitals of the person in the next cubicle are not the trans people – they are just there to pee!

So, is having separate toilets for males and females a good thing?  Proponents argue that it’s about safety for women, and also cite aesthetic reasons (the fear of seeing penises waving about at a urinal perhaps).  But I would argue that there are many reasons to abandon the gendered toilet altogether.

  1. It’s a terrible use of space. I’ve heard architects discuss this at length!
  2. There is inequity in giving equal space to each – we all know about the long queues extending out of the women’s room while the men waltz in and out without having to wait.  Partly this is because women have extra things to attend to when they’re in the cubicle – dealing with bleeding, changing pads, tampons etc, and partly it’s because men often have a urinal which means they don’t have to queue at all.
  3.  It makes life very difficult for parents if they need to take their opposite sex child to the toilet – do they risk letting the child go in by themselves, or take them into their own toilet (risking anger from people there) or run the gauntlet of entering the incorrect toilet?  I can personally attest to the fact that this is not an uncommon situation and can be very difficult to navigate!
  4. Using gendered public toilets is very often anxiety-provoking for trans people. If all toilets were gender neutral, then trans people would be able to go to the toilet in public without fear.

Really, in the 21st century, it’s time that the whole concept of the public toilet was redesigned. No, I’m not suggesting we go back to the 12-a-side plank idea! But I do think we could design something more efficient and pleasant than the standard western public convenience – an open space with grooming areas, baby change areas and private cubicles (with proper locks and self-closing doors!), accessible to all including people in wheelchairs.  No gender demarcation, and, because of its open nature, less fear.

1 Comment »

  1. Thanks, Fiona. Couldn’t agree more that we have to start thinking – and designing – public toilet spaces outside the present paradigm. When you have to go, you have to go! Let’s not make it a complicated affair.


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