The Thing about Toilets

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.

The Women’s March and the Erasure of Women

On Saturday January 21st the Women’s March on Washington took place in order to protest the potential effects the election of president Donald Trump would have on women’s rights in the USA. Conceived of by women, organised by women, networked and shared by women and overwhelmingly attended by women, the Women’s March became a chance for women worldwide to join in solidarity with their American sisters, and march for women’s rights in towns and cities all over the world. And this is what women did, in large numbers and in many places.

It is quite clear from the pictures that this was a women’s event, though it was by no means exclusionary – anyone could attend, but the focus was on women. In the UK for example there were many feminist and women’s groups represented:

It was a powerful opportunity to get across whichever feminist message meant the most to you, or whichever feminist campaign you have been working with, or simply to register your opposition to sexism. Although not all the signs and placards at the march were overtly feminist in nature, they were overwhelmingly so. Some of the subjects of inequality that women marched for included sexism, objectification and the sex trade, reproductive rights, political representation, violence against women and girls, women’s health and childcare. The other issues represented included racism and homophobia which obviously affect men too, and climate change and poverty which affect women disproportionately, as women bear the brunt of world poverty and the effects of climate change. I am trying to get across here the fact that even though there were some men present at the march, and even though some of the issues represented concern men too, you would have to be wilfully blind to ignore the fact that this was a women’s march, about women’s issues.

So why did the BBC do just that?

In the reports on BBC TV News on Saturday evening the march was referred to as an ‘anti-Trump’ march which was attended by lots of ‘people’. On BBC Radio 4 the same language was used, both on the Saturday evening and the Sunday morning news bulletins. We only got to learn that it was a ‘women’s march’ towards the end of the programme Broadcasting House, when one of the guest reviewers mentioned it. The choice of words really jarred after a day of following the march on social media and other news outlets, where the constant repetition of the words ‘women’s march’ had a feeling of power to it, which is a rare experience for women listening to the news. It felt as if the BBC had some kind of agenda. WHY was the word ‘women’ so dangerous to use?

Online it was a similar story, at least at first:

BBC online (thanks in part, I like to think, to a couple of tweets sent by myself and others…) changed their headline from ‘Anti Trump marches take place all over the world’ to ‘Women’s marches take place all over the world’. So thanks for that BBC. A small victory.

If the marches were just that: ‘anti Trump’, then I wonder why so many women came out the whole world over, in countries far and wide, none of which actually have Trump as their president? It doesn’t take much analysis to see that it was not Trump himself that the rest of the female world was protesting against, but the attitude towards women represented by Trump – an attitude which unfortunately can still be found all over the world, and which women still have to deal with on a day to day basis. The election of Trump acted as a catalyst for a powerful outpouring of dissatisfaction everywhere with the current state of women’s equality. The specific problems vary from culture to culture, but the strength of feeling is the same, and the election of Trump gave us a rallying point to express it.

It was not only the BBC which seemed intent on erasing the women from the Women’s March. Transactivists too were less than happy with the emphasis on the female population, particularly the biological aspects of being a woman:

Transactivism has been getting more and more extreme of late (the more it’s been allowed to get away with stuff…?) but this is a new low. Now we are being led to believe that simply HAVING A FEMALE BODY AND MENTIONING IT is transphobic and cissexist.

All women are now in the wrong.

Remind you of anything?

This is what happens when you allow men to dictate what you can and cannot say about your own body and your own experience. Women must simply disappear from the story in order not to hurt the feelings of trans people, and if we don’t do that we are wilfully contributing to their oppression. So it’s difficult, because we’re nice. We’ve been socialised to be nice. We don’t want to hurt anyone do we?

We need to wake up to this as women. On the one hand we have all that power and energy out there. We were funny and creative. We got angry. We did a good march:

On the other hand we are standing by when the very words we have to describe ourselves and our lived experience are being taken away from us. It has been happening for a while: Green Party Women call us ‘non-men’, to Sussex Police we are anyone who ‘self-identifies’ as a woman, to Planned Parenthood in the US we are ‘menstruators’ and to some people we are literally anyone who ‘doesn’t identify as male’:

brighton-hove-police-postermenstruatorswho-does-not-identify-as-malegreen-party-women-non-men

It’s time for women to wake up and stop being nice. The Women’s March felt like a celebration of how brilliant women are and what it looks like when we get angry. We should be more angry and we should be able to name the reasons for our anger. I hope the Women’s March has sown the seeds for further action and more awareness, but to be able to fight for your rights you need to be aware of how they are being eroded and who is doing the eroding.

It’s as if the BBC has sent a memo round saying ‘The word Woman is only to be used when it’s a case of a transwoman being done for murder or assault. Otherwise the word People will be sufficient. Woman’s Hour can apply for an exemption to this if and when it’s necessary.’

The trans lobby seems determined to erase all words to do with women, especially the biological ones, and many organisations have already capitulated. We now have birthing parents instead of mothers and chest feeding instead of breast feeding, amongst many more examples.

Is the timing coincidental or is the BBC’s choice of language meant to appease the trans lobby?

Women often find it hard to say no to men, but we really have to now. Current legislation around ‘gender identity’ will harm women and benefit men, and our ability to talk about this, let alone organise against it, is being eroded by the same ideology which is harming us in the first place. The downgrading of ‘sex’ as a category in favour of ‘gender identity’ has this one very important result: instead of the axis of oppression being male/female ( where 49% of the population who are male oppress 51% of the population who are female) the axis is being changed to cis/trans (where 99.97% of the population who are ‘cis’ oppress 0.03% of the population who are trans). It’s a clever way for men to say they are being oppressed by women, and it’s a reason we must all reject the category of ‘cis’ which only ever functions as a means to make us feel guilty when we assert our female rights, and to obscure the sex-based oppression we suffer. If 51% of the population cannot name their body parts for fear of upsetting the 0.03% this is an obvious and overwhelming injustice. You’d think.

The other result of this new language is that everything previously fought for on the axis of sex oppression becomes de-sexed, or, in common parlance, gender-neutral. It’s a tactic used by Men’s Rights Activists, for obvious reasons: if you can argue that domestic violence for example affects men almost as much as it affects women you can grab some of that (woefully inadequate) funding for yourself. Regarding trans people, if you can argue that transwomen (and particularly transwomen of colour) are the most oppressed of all then you have to give them priority treatment to compensate. Which is, I suppose, how two male-born speakers, one a self-confessed rapist and the other an apologist for child sexual exploitation, got to be two of the speakers at the Women’s March:

To get back to something positive, here is a reminder of the wonderful job women made of the Women’s March on Saturday:

And now let’s ensure that the complaints resulting from the Women’s March are seen for what they are: an attempt to silence and erase women. The (frankly ludicrous) assertion of trans rights over women’s rights, in response to the Women’s March, should be a wake up call to all of us.

If we don’t tackle this now then next time we need a protest march we may not even be allowed to call it a Women’s March.

Poldark, Prostitution and Protein World

In recent weeks several public conversations and debates have taken place on subjects that primarily affect women and girls: objectification, body-shaming, the sex trade…the usual suspects. A new way of minimising the harm of these practices for women seems to have emerged, in the form of claiming they are all gender-neutral, or at least ignoring the aspect of gender, and therefore erasing the equality issue. It’s been done before of course, notably in regard to domestic violence (brilliantly dismissed as an argument by Karen Ingala Smith here), but as a way of silencing feminist debate it seems to be growing in popularity: #NotallMen is being joined by #Don’tForgetTheMen! Men who want us to recognise that they are not *all* bad also want us to believe that they share *equally* in the oppression.

First there was the Student Sex Work Project by Swansea University. This study, based on a self-selecting online questionnaire, found that there was parity between male and female students doing ‘sex work’ and that this should have implications for the services provided to offer support to these students. There was a lot wrong with this survey, primarily to do with the methods used and the stated aims – unsurprisingly it concluded that ‘stigma’ was one of the most significant downsides of the work (as opposed to, say, threat of violence), and, more surprisingly, that ‘sexual enjoyment’ was one of the motivations to go into the trade. This is much less surprising when you note that significantly more male than female students had responded to the survey with a positive response to the question of whether or not they were involved in ‘sex work’ and that the definition of ‘sex work’ included porn acting. A lack of scepticism over this blatantly unrealistic result further discredited the project findings and, bar a couple of newspaper reports, it sank without trace.

Except that Ally Fogg picked up on it, and wrote an article highlighting the statistic of ‘male student sex workers’ and helpfully linking to another report that showed that 42% of ‘sex workers’ are male. This report relied on data from an internet site advertising adult services, and the 42% referred to the number of ads featuring men. Looking more closely though, the actual response to these ads was negligible compared to the responses to the female advertisers, and therefore the men could be seen to be ‘fishing’ rather than actually engaging in the sex industry. As with the students in the first study, it is tempting to point out that there is a certain branch of male thought which holds that to be a porn actor or ‘sex worker’ would be the perfect job – the envy of all your mates!- and possibly there are many men trying to get into the trade by advertising themselves. It doesn’t mean there is corresponding demand for their services. Ally Fogg was happy though to report on these statistics uncritically. He also does not engage with the question of who is buying the sex from the men who are involved in the sex trade, and in fact the title of his piece: ‘Britain’s Student Gigolos’ gives the impression that the customers are women when clearly they are predominantly men. (To be fair, when I pointed this out to him he agreed it was misleading but said that the title was not his. He couldn’t do anything about it. Bit lame though).

At the recent debate at Conway Hall in London: ‘Buying and Selling Sex’, almost every aspect of the argument for and against the sex trade was explored before the subject of gender came up, almost as though it was rude or inappropriate to mention it. When it was suggested by Niki Adams of the English Collective of Prostitutes that the current austerity measures have made it more necessary for women to enter the sex trade out of desperation, to feed their children, I wondered why this was not also true for men. All over the world in every different society and every social class there are women forced into prostitution. Correspondingly, all over the world in every different society and every social class there are men who can afford to buy sex. It’s not hard to detect a pattern. The small percentage of male prostitutes mostly serve other males, so although they may well experience a power imbalance due to age or race, there is not the power imbalance due to gender that women face, and therefore it is not always helpful to women to include male prostitutes in the analysis of their particular problems. If you persist in saying ‘but men too’ in trying to make the subject gender neutral, I would turn the question round and ask instead why women, as a rule, do not buy sex? That is something which would be hard to talk about without mentioning gender. The answers may seem obvious to some but that’s not usually a reason to refrain from asking the question.

And then there’s objectification. The Poldark phenomenon hit the headlines a couple of weeks ago, and was discussed on Woman’s Hour with guest Martin Daubney, presumably because the article he wrote on male objectification for the Telegraph makes him an expert. Women have apparently been ‘perving’ over Aidan Turner’s naked torso in the BBC series Poldark, and according to Daubney this is exactly the same as the objectification that women have always experienced, but, because objectification is everywhere now, we should all just learn to deal with it. Men can deal with it you see, but women can’t. Men are ‘bigger than that’, despite the fact that they are objectified EVEN MORE than women now.

As if to prove him right, up pops the Protein World ad and up jump the women to complain about it! If only we could learn to deal with objectification like men have done eh…? But no: there are protests and petitions and vandalism all over the place instead. And, helpfully, another piece by Ally Fogg (in which, even more helpfully, he links us to that previous piece by, you’ve guessed it, Martin Daubney!) These two are spoiling us at the moment!

This piece pays a brief bit of lip-service to the fact that there might be reasons for men and women to respond differently to objectification (in a nutshell: it’s been going on for a long time so women are sick of it!), but largely once again men apparently do it better. For Daubney it’s all about the ability to ‘grow up’ and take it on the chin, whereas for Fogg the emphasis is on the very real political and social changes men have suffered, which gives them more of an excuse than women if they respond negatively to objectification: either way they’re exonerated compared to women, who inexplicably tend to do things like ‘peevishly whinge to Everyday Sexism’.

What is missing from these smug accounts of male superiority is any sense of the context in which these objectifying images appear and impact on women’s lives. So here’s a handy guide:

  • Historical context. Under patriarchy women throughout history have had to bend towards what men want of them in order to survive. Many laws and social rules have existed to keep women dependant, so that pleasing a man was the only option available. What men have always needed from women is sex and babies, so women have always been defined by, and valued for, their biology. The march towards equality consists for a large part in challenging this narrow definition of women in order that we can be seen and respected as full human beings, equal to men. Objectified images of women reinforce the old order and remind women of their ‘place’. They remind men of women’s ‘place’ as well. Objectified images of men carry no such meaning.
  • Social context. Sexually objectified images of women exist in a culture where sex crimes are overwhelmingly enacted against women and almost exclusively perpetrated by men. Many men enjoy the idea of being objectified by women: it might mean they’ll get more sex! Many women are unsettled by being sexually objectified by men: it might mean we’ll get raped. Studies confirm what most women know instinctively: that viewing sexualised images has an impact on a man’s ability to see real women as full human beings, with, for example, the right to say no. So this background wallpaper of images in our lives can encourage attitudes and behaviours which come under the general heading of ‘thinking with your dick’ – the impact of which is not usually positive for women.
  • Media context. Media representation of men is varied, like men themselves. The oiled six-pack image is one choice amongst many for men to aspire to or identify with. If that’s not you then you could look to the nerd, the skinny rock star, the many types of sportsmen, politicians, TV stars, actors or business leaders who are successful role models whilst coming in a variety of different sizes, shapes, colours and ages. For women there is no such embarrassment of choice. We live with a media saturated with images of young, slim, white, large-breasted hotties, and the small percentage of media attention paid to other kinds of women (Older women! Black women! Successful women!) are often accompanied by criticism due to the lack of the preferred attributes mentioned. In advertising 95% of objectified images are of women. By contrast 95% of sports coverage in the media is of men’s sport: it’s not just a question of the images we see all around us, but of the images we don’t see. This is not true for male representation in the media.
  • Physical context. Women’s physical shape is much more diverse than men’s. Most of the arguments I have read assume that because the Protein World ad model is thin, the protesters must be fat, otherwise what’s their problem? But actually it’s the shape of the currently fashionable media woman of choice that is more important. It used to be that women had ‘vital statistics’ (ah, the good old days of objectification!). It was considered that a figure measuring 36-26-36 was the ideal: that meant you had a bust, some hips and a waist, and although not perfect in terms of being seen as a full human being, it did at least allow you to have a whole body. That changed over the years (and I blame the Sun’s Page 3 and the lads mags for this), until women were classified by individual body parts alone, particularly their breasts. Now we get ‘Debbie from Manchester, 32EE’- not just measurement but cup size too. And that’s important because the emphasis on the fullness of the breast has led to a corresponding reduction in the size of the back (I suppose because breasts look bigger on a smaller frame). The Protein World model, like most of the Page 3 models, has a tiny ribcage supporting relatively large breasts, and although this might be natural in the model’s case, it certainly isn’t in the main population. Analysis of the range of Page 3 model body statistics done for the NoMorePage3 campaign showed that the currently desirable shape is unachievable for 95% of the female population. It is clearly impossible to achieve for those of us who have a pear shape, an apple shape, a straight up and down shape or a wide ribcage, whatever weight we are. It is not an image which exists to inspire women to get fit and lose weight, it is designed to make as many women as possible feel bad about themselves so that they will buy your product. I would go further and say that it’s a type of image that might inspire girls to go on crash diets and then have breast enhancement surgery, neither of which are healthy choices. Sometimes I stop what I am doing in my day and wonder how many teenage girls at that particular moment in time have suddenly come to the gut-wrenching and devastating realisation that as they continue to lose weight their breasts get smaller too! (I feel for you girls…) It’s cruel to demand both skinniness AND large breasts for the ideal body shape, it’s a huge stroke of luck to have both and nothing to do with ‘working for it’. You can see why anorexia or obesity might be a solution for some young women, to escape the endless conflicting demands made on their bodies. Needless to say, this is a conflict that does not exist for men. It would be like having a continual barrage of images exhorting you to lose weight, but knowing that if you did your penis would shrink.
  • And finally, yes: it’s been going on forever and we’re sick of it.

But do you know what I’m also sick of? I’m sick of being misrepresented as a woman and as a feminist by men just trying to score cheap points for their own gender off the back of women’s protest. Writers who should be intelligent enough to analyse and understand the bigger picture, and even have some human empathy, or at least imagination, to inform their judgement, are instead characterising women as moaning whinging jealous losers who just need to grow up a bit. Martin Daubney, as a former editor of Loaded, used to get paid to misrepresent women in pictures: now he’s getting paid to misrepresent women in words. But it is this final paragraph from Ally Fogg that hit me the hardest:

Boys do not need to be shielded from aspirational or sexualised images, they need to be secure that they have a meaningful role in society beyond zero-hours contracts, the call-centre and brief respite in the gym. They need to feel like they have more to offer the world than a perfect set of abs. Achieving all that will take more than removing a poster from the Underground.

Because, you know, God forbid that anyone should show that amount of empathy for a woman. Try substituting girls for boys and breasts for abs in that paragraph, and you have the perfect illustration of how it is for girls. Only a hundred times more so.