Toilets are really the epicentre of gender debates. This is partly because ‘utilising the facilities’ is something we all do, daily. It’s also because ‘the can’ is a place we feel vulnerable, where we literally have our pants around our ankles. Most importantly, restrooms are one of the very few remaining spaces where people are overtly and publicly divided into sex/gender categories. In the fight between holding onto the binary and stepping away from it, it’s no wonder toilets are the primary battleground.
Let’s start with the obvious. Lavatories are often divided into men’s, women’s, and disabled. This is problematic on several accounts. First, there are people who do not define themselves as either ‘man’ or ‘woman’ and thus the event of going to the loo can be a stressful identity crisis moment. Then, there are those whose sex and gender are different, and whilst they might feel comfortable using one facility, society, or even other toiler users, may disagree. There are some places that have gender-neutral washrooms, either by necessity (the venue is too small to have multiple restrooms) or design. Some people love them, and some people find them difficult to accept. According to YouGov, about 33% of UK participants are fine with a gender-neutral toilet, if there are also separate facilities for ‘men’ and ‘women’. Only 10% are happy with solely gender-neutral toilets. These statistics have the expected effect when adjusting for age (the older generation wants separate WCs), but interestingly fewer women are happy with solely a gender-neutral toilet than men.
We can guess why this might be. Generally, women feel less comfortable and less safe in public spaces than men, and this includes the lavatory. Whilst statistically women are happy for there to be a gender-neutral option, they also want the option of avoiding unnecessary confrontation with men. Also, and I know n.a.mNot all menclose, there are plenty of stories of gender-neutral Johns gone wrong, where men have forgotten to lock (or close) the door, or in the absence of urinal targets have missed and hit the seat. Those who do not experience the intricacies of gender queerness may not feel like gender-neutral toilets are worth it.
Another obvious gender difference when it comes to restrooms are baby changing facilities and bins. Historically, the folding-down padded baby changing table has more often been in the women’s lavatories than the men’s. The same goes for child-height sinks and soap dispensers. This operates under the assumption that women are more often responsible for childcare than men, which you can either see as a solution to a wider societal problem (women do take on more childcare burden and thus do need the facilities, whether you agree with this or not) or as a perpetuation of the problem (men don’t have access to baby changing facilities and thus how could they possibly change the baby, a woman must do it). Sometimes the baby changing facilities are in the disabled toilet which is gender-neutral.
Now, bins. Bins are useful to people of all genders for throwing away trash. Bins are often found in women’s cubicles for the purpose of disposing of menstrual products. They are not often found in the men’s. This is problematic because there are people who use the men’s facilities who have periods. It’s as simple as that. They have no gender-neutral toilet, and they have no bins for their blood-soaked tampons. That’s without even thinking about menstrual cups. Also, men’s toilets often use up the majority of space with urinals, often only having one cubicle which can lead to a big wait and an even bigger smell. Men have also spoken out against the lack of bins in their facilities. In the UK, there are close to half a million men who suffer from some kind of incontinence and have nowhere to dispose of the pads they wear either. This is just another example of heteronormative assumptions of wellness.
A not so small aside to remember the extremely racist history of WCs around the world. For a long time, toilets were not only separated by gender but by race. Black and brown people were often forced to use unsanitary facilities, sometimes a long way away from their workplace or neighbourhood. Even if public lavatories can still be disgusting or lacking in toilet paper or soap, the ability to go to the loo without suffering racial prejudice is something often taken for granted. Referring to separate gender toilets as ‘gender segregated’ does not justly remember the history of restroom privilege.
At the end of the day, WCs are controversial and vital. They divide the population, and the debate includes not only heteronormative gender norms, but also city planning errors, and ableist assumptions. We can only hope that the day will come when we flush the patriarchy down the toilet.