The thing about toilets is that it’s not just about toilets. It’s about ALL the public spaces which could present a risk to women and/or children because of factors such as confined space, being locked in, restricted escape routes and being either explicitly or potentially in a state of partial/complete undress. These spaces include public toilets (no, not your private one at home, stupid), changing rooms in shops, gymns, leisure centres etc, prisons, rape crisis centres, dormitories, shelters and more.
The reason these spaces are SEX-segregated is that men can be violent and sexually predatory towards women and children (no, not all men, and yes, women can be violent too). The stats are stark, and divide the sexes up quite neatly according to likelihood of violence and abuse. 98% of sex offenders are men. Most of the victims are women and children. It is not just the most serious sex crimes which inform this public policy of sex-segregation however: there is a whole raft of other, lesser, crimes committed where men have access to women in intimate spaces. These include indecent exposure, voyeurism and sexual harassment. Added to that there are the almost exclusively male types of antisocial behaviour, such as indulging the fetish of listening to women urinate, public masturbation and peeing on the seat.
Some of the behavioural differences between men and women are well documented in the crime stats, but there are other differences too – those of biology. Men for example pee on the seat because they can. They have a penis to pee out of. Women on the other hand have to sit down on the seat to pee. At home it is annoying to have to shout at boyfriends, brothers, husbands or sons who fail to lift the seat before peeing and leave a mess they expect you to clean up, but it is far worse having to wipe up a stranger’s urine before you can sit down. Yes, women do leave drips on the seat sometimes, but copious splashes are largely a male speciality.
Talking of biology, there are different reasons that men and women need the provision of public toilets, apart from the obvious ones. For example, women have periods. Coping with the mess of an unexpected period might require an emergency change of underwear and the washing of bloody hands and/or knickers in the communal sinks. (Not just me right?) It’s embarrassing enough amongst strange women, but at least you can expect a degree of understanding. With men present it becomes mortifying. You might prefer to stay put in the cubicle all day rather than come out and face the shame. As a teenager I would have viewed the buying of a sanitary towel from a machine in the toilets completely unthinkable if boys had been present. In my eyes it would have been tantamount to shouting ‘LOOK AT ME – I’VE GOT A VAGINA!’
On that subject, it’s worth remembering that there is a large range of female people likely to be using the toilets provided in public facilities: it will include very young girls, teenagers just starting menstruation, women with mental health problems/learning disabilities, pregnant women, victims and survivors of rape, assault, male violence, domestic abuse or child sexual abuse, elderly women, women with physical heath problems/frailty, women suffering incontinence or menopausal symptoms, women of faith or with strong religious beliefs, mothers with babies, toddlers or young children who need the toilet and/or sinks, and women and girls in the middle of a bout of cystitis or thrush. That’s just off the top of my head. You can’t always tell by looking at someone whether or not they are surviving or suffering from anything, but it’s fair to assume that some female users of public conveniences will tick some of those boxes.
In conclusion, privacy, comfort AND safety are obviously all important considerations in the design of toilets if they are to be useful to women and girls, and so to be told (as I frequently have been) that ‘you’ll be quite safe: nobody can rape you because the cubicles have locks on the doors’, is an exercise in willfully missing the point.
Despite all this there is a recent trend for changing sex-segregated toilets into ‘gender-neutral’ or unisex toilets. Samira Ahmed tweeted of her experience at the Barbican:
Toilets are being re-designated as ‘gender-neutral’ or unisex in universities all over the US and the UK, and it’s not just in universities. Another Twitter user posted her photo of a toilet on the north Kent coast.
Many similar examples have been shared on social media, with the common denominator being that in every case it is the Ladies toilet which has been sacrificed to the ‘gender-neutral’ trend. Men are essentially now the protected sex. Men, WHETHER OR NOT THEY IDENTIFY AS MEN, are getting the toilets they want, plus access to the women’s toilets. Doesn’t seem fair really does it?
The results of a poll for Loose Women suggested that not everyone is happy with the way things are going:
The response to this tweet was a perfect example of the lack of understanding from (mostly) men who could not understand the problem that women might have with unisex toilets. A more interesting question in my view, is why so many men would jump at the chance of using the women’s toilet when they are finally allowed to? A possible explanation, courtesy of Twitter, is a little unsettling.
The move towards ‘gender neutral’ toilets is a clumsy attempt to be trans-inclusive before any legislation is even in place, and without thinking it through properly. There are obvious and serious implications for women and girls, which have not been taken into consideration. The kind of low-level sex crimes detailed above are largely opportunistic: if the opportunity is there then someone will be there to take advantage. To those arguing that there is already legislation in place to prevent men abusing women and that therefore these changes will make no difference, I would say that, similarly, there is already a law to prevent abuse against trans people, so why do we need to change anything? It is like arguing against the provision of adequate street lighting because men will attack women anyway.
It may well be true that if a man wants to abuse a woman in a toilet he will do so whatever the sign on the door, but that is no reason to make it easier for him. As it stands at the moment a woman has the right to challenge a male in the Ladies toilet – this at least gives the woman some power, and shows that the law is on her side. The current changes, if they continue to gather pace, will put the boot firmly on the other foot.
Brilliant as ever.
Just to add to the “off the top of your head” list, women may be miscarrying in public loos. Traumatic enough, surely.
Also, although I’m long past menstruating age, I remember feeling uncomfortable about the noises associated with changing my tampons and pads…the rustling of paper packaging, cellophane wrappers and adhesive backing strips, and sometimes the plop of the tampon as I withdrew it. Can’t imagine I’d feel relaxed about it with unfamiliar men in cubicles either side of me.
‘Coping with the mess of an unexpected period’, yes, and I bet most men and legislators don’t have the faintest clue of the many things that can happen and need dealing with, not only in the loo but at a public ‘women’s’ bathroom sink.
Maybe someone should solicit and gather stories of our embarrassments on womanly functions needing addressing in the relative privacy of the loo, to educate people. A few more:
Sometimes the bleeding is through more than just underwear. Change of clothes, addressing a stain in the sink…
Having to resort to a public bathroom to use a breastpump because away from your baby and breasts are bursting, leaking milk through your clothing? I have had to do this at the Barbican, no less. How many women understand this fully, let alone men? (Plus the sound can be embarrassing…. people wonder at rhythmic noises coming from a cubicle….)
Having to completely change clothing for a social shift of events. (Have had to do this in a public bathroom many times.)
Women dealing with morning sickness, lurking by a toilet in case they need to be sick.
Needing to pee on a test stick for ovulation or pregnancy.
Even the sounds of opening a tampon is not something I would feel comfortable doing with a man in the next cubicle. (Him imagining it being inserted, and knowing I am bleeding… ?)
The privacy of a toilet cubicle for women is for way more than peeing, and even simple peeing needs privacy. And we’re talking only the liquid form of elimination… nobody dares mention the greater wish for privacy I’m guessing most feel about being overheard (can’t even find a comfortable, decorous way to write this) when needing to poo? And on one forum, people raised the question of different behaviours between men and women on this, that more men seem to exult in shameless sound and fury?
Here’s hoping single sex bathrooms survive this craziness. And I haven’t even talked about the losses of needed privacy from abuse shelters, rape crisis centres, prisons, etc.
Well said. I recently found this article, sadly, in my ‘science’ bookmarks – it’s as if the entire reason for sex-segregated washrooms in the first place has been forgotten. New and advancing ideals are wonderful, but you can’t lose sight of the bigger picture.
Reblogged this on PetuniaCatLand and commented:
Trenchant, clearheaded analysis from Helen Saxby. This at a time when women’s bathrooms, but not men’s, are being unilaterally made “gender-neutral” 🙄 in various public places.
It’s all so true. Well written!
This is all happening under the guise of needing to protect feminine men from other men, so where is the logic in opening up women’s toilets up to… all men?
And it seems they don’t care that women need protecting from men too.
Also, have you ever been into a male toilet? They bloody stink to high heaven! I DO NOT want to use toilets that smell like *that* simply because males are allowed to pee in previously female-only toilets now.
I know many women who went into a ladies room to evade a creepy man long enough to plan an escape. Other girls help each other in those situations, or you can make a phonecall to friends to come get you, or to the facility to remove the man.I also know of women who were drugged at bars being rescued in the ladies room by other women, noticing their condition. Now a man feels comfortable just following her in, theres no where to go to get away from men. The social comfort women used to have in confronting men in bathrooms or locker rooms has already diminished, that was the main deterrent, not the sign on the door. We’ve been divided. Men know that if they get hassled all they need to do is accuse the other woman of being bigoted.
Let’s not forget the women potentially having miscarriages in public toilets.
Most miscarriages happen in toilets.
And can involve the woman running out of the cubicle , partially undressed, in bloodstained clothing–clutching a foetus or gigantic blood clot….bleeding profusely and screaming or crying.
Surely the answer would be to have three loos.
One for biological women. One for biological men. And one for anyone who feels comfortable using a gender neutral loo.
Reblogged this on PsA Mum.
I have had fairly lively discussions with my college age children about this. They use gender neutral bathrooms at uni and have laughed at me for thinking
1. Somebody will rape me
2. There are cubicles!
3. Women are violent too.
4. 8 +year old boys are on their own in public toilets (i tried to avoid this for years making him use the disabled toilet or standing hovering , outside and shouting through the door)
After very convoluted conversations I have managed to convey my concerns. This article is exactly what I need to underline my point of view. Thank you. I will keep spreading the word.
Brilliant. Thank you.