Women queuing for toilet
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The gender politics of peeing in public

Women are five times more likely to have to queue to use a public toilet. Does that make loos “sexist”?

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By Lynn Enright on

Crying. Selfie-taking. The reapplication of make-up. Consoling. Email-reading. Pregnancy-testing. Public toilets aren’t just for peeing, pooing and menstruating, you know. In fact, I’ve spent several enjoyable hours in public toilets in my time, especially in the kind equipped with chairs and fancy hand lotion – I find them very good places to pick up compliments, and they can often offer much-needed respite from wedding receptions and work dos.

But obviously I also know the agony of queuing for a public toilet. I know the uncomfortable shuffling, the shifting from foot to foot, as if to redistribute the pressure building in the bladder. I know how it feels to do the bathroom maths, weighing up the waiting time against the probability of peeing my pants. I know what it’s like to return from an interval just in the nick of time, saying, “sorry, sorry, sorry”, to each tutting person I must rouse from their seat, when really I just want to scream, “It’s not my fault, there were only two ‘Ladies’ toilets and there were, like, SEVENTY ladies.”    

And I know it’s worse for women. This week, YouGov confirmed it, with data revealing that British women are five times more likely to have to queue for a public toilet than men. The research showed that only 11 per cent of men report having to queue for public toilets on a regular basis, compared to 59 per cent of women.

The reasons for this disparity are fairly straightforward: even when women’s toilets are the same size as men’s, queues quickly accumulate because women take longer in the loo. And no, not because we’re reapplying our make-up or chatting or whatever (we would never do that in the cubicle if there’s a queue. NEVER), but because women’s clothing takes longer to remove and the process of peeing is more involved and time-consuming for women. Periods can also contribute to women spending longer than men in public loos. In general, studies show that women spend around twice as long in the loo as men, taking around 90 seconds as opposed to 40.

The obvious answer to this disparity would be to build bigger toilets for women with more cubicles – and the so-called Potty Parity movement in the US is encouraging architects and designers to think along those lines.

There’s a strange girls-versus-boys thinking going on, it seems. And perhaps that’s not surprising: public toilets are strictly gendered

For too long, these fields have been male-dominated and the specific needs of women have been ignored or overlooked in renovation and building projects. When YouGov put the option of bigger loos for women to the British public, however, there was a pushback. Only 25 per cent of men (as opposed to 48 per cent of women) think it would be fairest if women’s toilets were larger than men’s.

There’s a strange girls-versus-boys thinking going on, it seems. And perhaps that’s not surprising: public toilets are strictly gendered – more so than most other adult spaces – and so they seem to reinforce harmful gendered behaviour and assumptions. Take, for example, the fact that women’s loos are overwhelmingly more likely to offer baby-changing facilities than men’s. Or the often-sexist signs, like the ones seen in a hotel in London that suggested men thought of football while they peed, while women pondered shopping.

Interestingly, academics have shown that the strict gender divides in public loos work out better for women than men – not in terms of waiting times, obviously, but in more social ways. As The Atlantic reported (in a very thorough long read on toilets in 2014 – seriously, it’s worth your time), “In the bathroom, people are free of the typical gender hierarchy of the co-ed public sphere – in which men are at the top.” That means that women feel more comfortable and will often chat with each other, swapping make-up and watching doors. This explains my enjoyable time in public bathrooms, then, but men do not fare so well, with the lack of a gender hierarchy leaving them feeling exposed and suspicious of each other.

These strict gender divides also lead to problems for trans and non-binary people, with “bathroom bills” – laws that aim to restrict trans people’s access to public toilets, by making it illegal to use a toilet different to the gender you were assigned at birth – being proposed throughout the US. In the UK, trans children and teenagers have been suspended from school for using the “wrong” toilets and the issue remains contentious.

There are lots of other reasons why people may find public toilets uncomfortable, too, and in a brilliant TED Talk called “Why Design Should Include Everyone, Sinéad Burke outlines how being a little person affects her trips to the loo in public spaces. “Using a public bathroom is an excruciating experience,” she says, explaining that she struggles to reach the lock on doors and can’t reach the sink to wash her hands. She can reach the sink and the lock in the toilet designated for disabled people, but she can’t actually get on the toilet because they are higher so they can accommodate people who use wheelchairs. “The bathroom is an example of where design impinges upon my dignity,” she says starkly.

The best solution to address all these various issues would probably be single-cubicle toilets that host sinks and accessible facilities in gender-neutral spaces. But, for both practical and ideological reasons, that might be a long time coming. In the meantime, kindness and compassion seem like the next-best option. I’ve seen countless acts of kindness carried out in public bathrooms, whether it’s tampons slipped under toilet doors or toddlers entertained while mothers pee. I’ve even seen a woman let another obviously-more-desperate woman go ahead of her. So, I know we’re capable of it.


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