The price of spending a penny

Everyone seems to want to talk about toilets. Karen Pollock tries to look past the myths, and into the facts of public toilet provision.


It seems a week cannot go past without another, tired, toilet debate. Some of the assumptions made seem to come straight from the Barbie school of gender essentialism. Another Angry Woman has an excellent piece on the assumptions and etiquette of public toilets. I, too, fail to recognise these wonderful palaces referred to on shows like Loose Women. There seems to be a determination to say women do not piss, shit or bleed (and of course some do not do the latter). Instead, toilets are dressing rooms, not places where people vomit, have sex, take drugs, weep after a break up, change clothes to avoid being outed, and, occasionally perform bodily functions. I wonder if the term dressing room is more relevant than at first appears here. Perhaps toilets do seem a sanctuary to those in the public eye, rather than the place of necessity briefly visited by most of us.

The history of the public toilet in the UK is a history of our obsessions, fears, prejudices and public health concerns. Following the Great Exhibition in 1851, the first widespread building of pubic toilets since Roman times took place in London and spread throughout the country. Changing work and leisure patterns combined with a growing understanding of the health implications of waste disposal led to a belief in the need for public toilets. However, whilst the need was recognised, the values of the time meant a certain attitude to what we could, or could not, see was common. Not for the Victorians the pissoirs of Europe. The classic design of public toilet had a door, a turning, and another door before you reached the “business” end.

An ideal design, to spare blushes, and an ideal design for those who wanted to engage in activities out of the public eye. You cannot discuss public toilets without discussing cottaging; indeed, the word comes from the penchant for the Victorians of designing their toilets to look like cottages. If you want to know more about the aversion to men who have sex with men being played out in moral panics around cottaging, I suggest that you follow the works of Professor Chris Ashford.  Over time, many public toilets were closed, often with cottaging being the reason (even if costs were often given as the excuse). Talk to the older generation of gay men in the North East, and locations like the Bigg Market toilets are well known. From the 1980s onwards, single cubicle toilets were seen as the way forward for those who wanted to crack down on sex, among other behaviours, they disapproved of. The term “superloo” was invented, to describe these modern wonders – futuristic, self-cleaning and, of course, gender neutral.

There seems to be a determination to say women do not piss, shit or bleed (and of course some do not do the latter).

The division of toilets into gender belonged to a certain era of our public sanitation services. Different eras brought different concerns. Anyone who has attended school in the UK will know that school toilets have a reputation for bullying, and have caused great concern. Now, in a move that would have our Victorian ancestors turning in their graves, school toilets are being designed with clear lines of sight from the outside. The cubicles are still private, but all other areas are visible, and thus no longer havens for bullying. Similar ideas lie behind the positioning of toilets in new schools. No longer banished to a far corner, they will very often be near the school entrance, again so that bullying and other behaviour can be prevented.

The myth of sanctuaries for cis women is just that, a myth. The myth of men harassing women in toilets is also a myth. The biggest myth, however, is that somehow, some great inviolable tradition would be destroyed if we moved away from mass-use gendered Victorian toilets into individual single use, non-gendered cubicles. Before transphobes teamed up with the Christian right, the move was towards these anyway. They are safer, not from predators of a different gender, but from same gender predators.

From the 1980s onwards, single cubicle toilets were seen as the way forward for those who wanted to crack down on sex they disapproved of. The term “superloo” was invented, to describe these modern wonders – futuristic, self-cleaning and, of course, gender neutral.

In this discussion of toilets, I feel it is important to challenge a new development, which, whilst intended to be helpful, is not. Some organisations have decided that the way to provide toilets for non-binary people, or trans people afraid to use gendered toilets, is by designating accessible toilets as gender neutral.

It is back to the idea that our attitude to public toilets shows the concerns of the age. Disabled people were not considered part of society for many years. They were supposed to be at home, or in homes, invisible and non-participatory. Activists fought for toilets that were accessible; it was a vital step in making a statement of “we belong too”. As a stop gap or temporary measure, allowing abled people to use accessible toilets may be acceptable (that is really up to the disabled community to decide). However, the campaign has to be for a move away from historic, outdated models. New builds need to move towards accessible-for-all individual toilets. Disabled people need not to be an afterthought in design or accessibility considerations. Non-cis people need not to be considered a threat. Where gendered cubicles do exist, they need to be described not by arbitrary gender markers, but by their function. Some toilets contain urinals, some do not. This is what people need to know, not assumptions about what we think the people using them should look like. Perhaps most of all we need to stop using projections about our fears to decide one of the most simple things, can we provide safe, civilised spaces for people to have a wee.

Follow Karen on Twitter (@counsellingkaz)

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