Festival Toilets are a Feminist Issue

In my decades of attending UK festivals I have experienced a huge range of different festival toilets and I have navigated them all, mostly with a cheery lack of concern. I’m at a festival for the music, I don’t much care about anything else, and I’m not very squeamish when it comes to other people’s mess and smell. I’m the person who will jump the queue to use the toilet everyone else is avoiding because it’s too disgusting. I put this down to cutting my festival teeth at Glastonbury, surely the worst of all in the toilet department. Much like learning to drive in London, once you’ve mastered that, everything else is easy by comparison. Except the Isle of Wight, obviously. That’s a bad one. I’ve never done Reading/Leeds but the toilet anecdotes there are enough to put me off, involving as they do crowds of youths setting fire to toilet blocks or even uniting to push a portable toilet over while somebody is still in it. That’s a step too far.

But in general I will put up with a lot in order to get my fix of camping and live music. The two festivals I attended this year however (with much gratitude that they went ahead at all, obviously) flagged up a few issues which seemed to be more relevant than ever considering our current quest to make everything ‘gender-neutral’. Festivals in fact are often quoted when someone wants to make the point that mixed-sex toilets ‘work’ and that we should embrace them wholeheartedly in every context. So here are are a few points to show that they don’t ‘work’ for women, and that what we are obliged to put up with for a few days in order to get to see our favourite bands should in no way at all become the norm for public toilets in everyday life. Festival toilet experiences actually serve very well to illustrate the point that it is not only (or even first and foremost) safety which is an issue for women in toilets, but accessibility, useability and hygiene. And equality with men.

The most obvious problem for women when hygiene is lacking is that we have to sit down every time we use the toilet and we have to use toilet paper. As soon as the toilet paper runs out in your nearest toilet block (halfway through the first morning of the festival usually) women are disadvantaged. It is not only that we need to wipe every time, but that before we even sit down we need a clean seat. I try to use a toilet vacated by a woman wherever possible because she will have cleaned the seat ahead of me in order to use it herself. Men leaving toilets are a sadly predictable bunch. When a man uses a festival toilet, if he just needs to pee he does not have to clean up first and he does not have to dirty his hands by lifting the seat, and if there is already a mess there is little incentive to take care, so he might as well relax and add to the mess. Somebody in the queue will have to clean up that accumulated mess and that someone will invariably be a woman. I spend a proportion of my festival time doing housework: cleaning up the pee (and sometimes worse) of strangers. The paper I have taken in with me in case the toilet roll is empty might all get used up before I even get to sit down on the toilet myself. Men are not doing this housework at festivals, they don’t have to. I am inordinately grateful to any man leaving a clean toilet behind when he vacates it, as I know that he has either taken the trouble to clean it or been careful enough not to soil it, and that is a rare and wonderful thing.

There is a way for a woman to use a toilet without sitting on the seat, but that involves a squat or a perch. It is achievable but it really helps if there is something to hold on to, otherwise the prolonged strain on the thigh muscles can make things very difficult. Men, with their superior muscle to fat ratio, usually have stronger thigh muscles and can squat for longer if they need to, and most of the time they don’t need to. The disadvantage of portable toilet design, with the toilet seat on a ‘shelf’, is also reflected in the fact that softer, fatter and more squashy female thighs easily splay over the edge of the plastic seat when sitting, and come to rest in the disgusting mess either side. It takes an awful lot of toilet paper to clean not just the toilet seat but also the shelf surrounding it before you can sit down.

At the (otherwise brilliant) Green Man festival this year all the usual portaloos had been replaced with compost toilets, a laudable idea and one which I fully support, but which made things even worse for women. The shelf was high (much more difficult to squat above when you’re in the class of people who are on average shorter) and the hole down to the drop was surrounded by such a flimsy toilet seat it may as well have been painted on. In the traditional portaloos at least the toilet seat is positioned on a moulded plastic ridge, raised slightly from the surroundings, and therefore some help in raising the backs of your thighs from the mess. The portaloo design also usually incorporates a vertical post set into a recess in the door, which can be used to hold on to whilst perching, but the eco toilets had no such feature to mitigate the higher shelf/inadequate seat combo, so the only solution was to use half a toilet roll each time to clean the large flat area covered with other people’s piss (and worse) before the toilet was useable. Not very eco-friendly, not very woman-friendly. (I wrote to Green Man about this and they wrote back thanking me for taking the time to flag up the problems).

Portable toilets made for festivals and events are clearly designed with a default male in mind, and this makes things unequal even with no added problems in the mix. Not all of us will even be ‘default women’ for the weekend: the fact is that at any one time there will be a sizeable proportion of women and girls who are menstruating, or suffering a particularly heavy period or a bout of thrush or a case of cystitis, or any one of a range of other infections which are exacerbated and even caused by a lack of hygienic facilities. None of these conditions has ever dissuaded anyone I know from going to a festival, but it means that a lot of women are being inadequately catered for, or even being put at risk. The lack of provision for sanitary disposal is the least of it. Interestingly, I have seen comparatively few used sanitary products floating in festival toilets over the years, even though I’ve seen lots of everything else you could imagine (or would rather not) in a toilet situation. It’s almost as if women and girls are considerate enough to wrap their used products in toilet paper or make sure they are adequately flushed away before leaving the toilet for the next person.

At the (otherwise brilliant) End of the Road festival this year there was an interesting variation on the male default theme. In a couple of locations on site there were toilet blocks rather than individual portaloos. The signage on half of them said ‘Urinals’ or ‘Men’ or had a male symbol displayed. The other half of the blocks were not signed at all. I can see the thinking behind this: if you speed all the men through the urinals you can shorten the queues for women and make sure their toilets are cleaner. However, there are men who need to poo. What to do about them? You can’t really put up a sign saying ‘Women. And Men Who Need To Poo’. So there were men in the women’s queue but it wasn’t really a women’s queue because it wasn’t really a women’s toilet, even though inside there were individual cubicles and mini washbasins and hand driers and a very confined space. The impression given was that men could be individually catered for, but not women, and it added to the feeling of the current social atmosphere whereby the word ‘woman’ somehow cannot be mentioned. The toilets were much cleaner though, and an absolute treat compared to the single portaloos elsewhere on the site. It made me wonder why it would not be possible to have dedicated women’s toilets on a festival site. I haven’t come up with an answer to that.

Talking about poo (I was, earlier) the biggest human poo I have ever seen was in a festival toilet, after a man had vacated it: it was perched atop the usual unflushable mound of soaked toilet paper and crap that accrues by the middle of an average festival day, and looking for all the world like a horse had produced it. I couldn’t help but reflect that the larger the species the larger the waste products, and that truly, on average, men are larger than women.

In a BBC report today the issue of having a period at a festival is tackled by some young women who want to see change, although unfortunately they are complicit in the current fashion of shunning the word ‘women’ and choosing to refer to ‘menstruators’ instead. Some people are more squeamish about the word ‘woman’ than they are about the contents of a festival toilet. But, importantly, it’s about far more than menstruation, as I have tried to set out above. As sex is a protected characteristic in the Equality Act, you would at least have half a chance of instigating change by proving indirect sex discrimination, if you wanted to use the law, which is on your side. ‘Menstruators’ do not have protected characteristic status, so the word is less than useful legally. By avoiding the word ‘woman’ you are therefore also avoiding the legislation set up to provide potential support for your claim of sex discrimination. I would not personally wish to use the law in the case of festivals, I just want to be their friend, but it helps to know it’s there and that it backs up your claims. With the push for more gender-neutral provision in other contexts it may become necessary to use the existing legislation to prevent women’s facilities becoming reduced even further. It helps to remember you have rights and that those rights are sex-based.

Gender-neutral toilets disadvantage women and girls. Trying to use gender-neutral language to talk about it shores up the inequality which the Equality Act was formulated to overcome. Festivals are brilliant, I’d put up with anything to attend, but even I can see that festival toilets are a feminist issue.

The Thing about Toilets

Everyone 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.