Today is World Toilet Day, a campaign to draw attention to the sanitation crisis in the developing world. But we also have a toilet crisis in the West, says Violet Hunter, and every one of us – woman, man, trans and gender-diverse – is affected.
The woman next to me eyes my pink appendage. “I didn’t know you could BYO,” she says, waggling her standard cardboard unit. Yes, I nod. We laugh, chat a bit. It’s Glastonbury, mid-noughties. We’re holding She-Pees – not woolly toys or pink tents for laydeez, but single-purpose willies for women, so we can stand and pee.
The ladies urinal at Glastonbury is also called The She-Pee, and in the noughties it was a watershed of sorts. An attempt at “potty-parity”, as the Americans infantilisingly call it, the festival’s approach to equal toilet wait times seemed to work. It was quick, efficient. There were no queues. Only some women got wee on their pants.
For a heady moment back then we asked ourselves: could women’s urinals herald the end of queues for the ladies’ loos? But it wasn’t to be. The real world was too much for the She-Pee. We continued to queue, and men continued to pop in and out of their loos, rolling their eyes as we stood endlessly in line. As if it were all our fault.
But is it? I mean, why are there always queues for the ladies’ loos? Are we simply slow pokes, pottering about in the cubicle, dusting our noses and posting pics to Instagram? (Mmm, rarely). Is it our cumbersome clothing, poorly designed to allow access to our nethers? (Partly). Or is there simply something wrong with us? (Yes! Actually, no).
The real reason is simple – women’s biological needs are different from men’s. Women have more bodily fluids to dispose of, often more urgently. Sometimes we’re pregnant and the baby is sitting on our bladder, so we have to go more often. Or we need to throw up. Or we need to breastfeed away from judgmental eyes. Or we are having our period. We’re more likely to have children with us, and boys, as well as girls, use our loos. Sometimes, like men, we just want to pee, or poo, while we’re out.
Sitting to pee requires entering a cubicle, turning around and removing some clothes. For starters, this takes longer than walking in and unzipping a fly. There are handbags to hang – for security, for access to tampons, to change our laddered tights. There are simply more women than men and fewer toilet facilities available. Even when there are an equal number toilets available, we don’t get equal access, because there are more of us using them, we have to go more often and we spend longer in there.
For a range of historical, rather than biological, reasons, toilets in the West are typically gender segregated. The Ladies room generally consists of one toilet per cubicle, for anything that needs doing. These take up more space than The Gents, where men’s functions are split: shared urinals for peeing, individual cubicles for poo, etcetera.
So isn’t the answer for women to make like a man and stand? The idea is at least as old as democracy (yes, there is an ancient Greek vase illustrated with a woman standing to pee.). And as we saw at Glastonbury, it can work. But, only as long as it’s culturally sanctioned. Society has to be down with it. And they’re not. We’re not. I’m not. Not really.
Secretly you see, I kept my She-Pee. Partly out of nostalgia for queueless loos, but also because I imagined I might slip it into my purse and use it to crush some toilet oppression out one night. I had visions of leading a queue of toilet warriors into The Gents, which would be full of sparkling available urinals into which we would gloriously relieve ourselves.
But I never led the revolution. I continued to queue, and the She-Pee stayed in its pouch. Because in practice, women need the right clothes, with zips and folds in the right places, if they’re going to stand and pee. And if they’re using existing loos, they need a device, like a She-Pee, and the problem with the She-Pee, aside from the obvious – if you don’t hold it right you will get wee on your pants – the problem is, it’s predicated on the assumption there is something inherently wrong with women’s bodies. So rather than providing more and better toilets that meet the needs of over half of humanity, women are expected to purchase a device with their (at least) twelve-percent-less-earnings, to enable them to stand and pee. As if our ‘lack’ of penis is the issue.
Of course, our lack of penis is the issue. Most legislators, urban planners and architects in New Zealand (and the US, Australia and UK) are men. People with penises decide who gets what toilet and how many. Even though urinals are messier, harder to clean and not necessarily popular with men, the entrenchment of gender roles and male entitlement clings tight to the bowl of old ways.
If women are going to stand and pee, toilets need to be designed for women’s bodies, and we need to train our girls from childhood how to handle their genitals to direct the flow. All par for the course for men, but women? Hell, I didn’t even know you could direct female flow until a few weeks ago.
However, it turns out, there are also many men who prefer not to stand. They like to sit for number ones as well as number twos. They like to sit privately and silently. They do not necessarily want to discuss rugby or racing or beer while weeing. They do not (necessarily) want to compare urine arcs or appendages. Sometimes they would enjoy the opportunity to sit on a public bog and indulge in a little Instagram.
Unfortunately for men, it is not socially acceptable to say you like to sit. It is a bit feminine. And feminine is bad. And sitting is an actual threat to manhood. Or so you would believe if you read British and American men’s responses to the news that European men often sit to pee. Even though it can ensure proper bladder drainage and better bladder health. Uh, uh. No way. Gotta take a stand.
So the men in charge, some of whom probably also like to sit, have subtly tried to address this matter in two ways.
The first is an outrage. If there are only two public toilets, sometimes men are allowed to use The Ladies too. Already there are a lot of people wanting to use The Ladies. In fact, The Ladies is full to bursting. Women, children, anyone not able-bodied, anyone who wants to change a baby’s nappy – they will all be in that queue. Now, able-bodied, child-free men are busting in too.
I was recently in Norway, a country touted for its gender equality, and this situation presented itself often. I once stopped at the aptly named Fartsmåling*. There were two public toilets. A sign for the women’s indicated everyone could use it, including men. However, only able-bodied men were allowed to use The Gents. It contained a single urinal. I know, I busted in there. But. I mean, what? Why? Why not two loos? I will let you guess outside which toilet there was a queue. In that queue there also was a man. I hope he used this time to consider the state of things.
This brings us to the second matter. The subject of gender-neutral toilets. A single-stall toilet anyone can use. This sounds like a solution. It could be a solution. It’s certainly been the solution suggested for addressing the needs of trans and gender-diverse people. And I think it could be the solution for reducing The Ladies Line.
Already one of the most discriminated-against groups in society, transgender and gender-diverse people have been subject to several controversial ‘bathroom bills’ introduced in states such as North Carolina in the US. These force people to use the bathroom that matches the gender on their birth certificate – rather than the gender they identify with, when using government-owned toilets. It doesn’t take much to realise the kind of distress, pain and humiliation this causes. Even Bush-appointed Judge Thomas Schroeder said, “We’re going to have people dressed like men, who consider themselves men, walking into a women’s restroom. How is that going to work?”
A frequently heard suggestion is that trans and gender-diverse people opt to use single-stall gender-neutral public toilets. However, these are few and far between, if they exist at all. Many people in affected states now plan their entire day around the likelihood of needing to use a toilet, including going without liquids and suffering in pain.
So while it may be true that people are equal in their need to use the loo, it is only some people who get to decide who can use a toilet with convenience and comfort. And we don’t need to look far to see that the more you resemble those with that power, the more likely you are to find yourself quickly and conveniently relieved.
Which brings us back to men.
Because unfortunately, the single-stall gender-neutral toilet solution requires an examination of men’s toilet habits. Evidence, put forward by men themselves, suggests they are unable to guarantee they can pee, poo, do whatever within the confines of the toilet bowl. Surely this is not a natural state caused by too few X chromosomes? Men seem quite capable: they hold most government posts, run most companies, they earn more – all of which is of course down to merit. It must be possible for them to learn to aim with precision, avoid splashback, and… just sit down to pee?
An increase in toilets available to women also stands to benefit men. Not only because men will probably use those loos too, but because it will reduce male crossness. Currently, when a woman comes out of The Ladies, after maybe days of waiting, bent with a phantom still-full bladder, the male in her company will be standing, often as not, arms folded, glaring as she approaches.
Why is he so cross? she thinks. Is he in fact at the end of some extraordinary male toilet queue? She glances around but can only see other cross-faced men standing wherever they choose. Perhaps the ambulance is already outside, waiting to take him and his straining bladder to hospital? But, no. He is cross because he has had to wait. While she’s been larging it up in the basement, foot propping open a heavy door, as a hopeless but ceaseless hand-dryer blows malodorous wafts down The Ladies Line.
So men, see? You too stand to gain from increasing the number of loos available for women. It will improve your mood, your bladder health and add minutes back to your day. With your XY power and dominance of toilet change-makers, you can make this happen. Women may even love you for it.
Because as we were reminded last month, a toilet can be a place of love. But mile-high style loving aside, there was one love-vibe at Glastonbury I truly dug: the triumph for women’s liberation I experienced entering The She-Pee urinal. No waiting. None. Some women punched the air as they entered.
Because men take no-queue-loos as the norm. Yet, when potty-parity was attempted at the Adelphia Coliseum sports stadium in the US and men had to wait in line, it wasn’t the air they punched, it was each other. And men complained so much about queueing at Chicago’s Soldier Field stadium that guess what? They converted some of the women’s toilets into men’s. Because it turns out, it’s OK for some people to wait, as long as those people are not men-people.
As those men found out, waiting for the loo is frustrating, painful and time-wasting. It can make you angry. But from anger springs action. Which makes me wonder: what if women stopped cleaning loos? Stopped wiping up the mess made by boys and men? What if they started busting into The Gents to breastfeed, vomit, change nappies and tampons and tights, to pee and poo? Would the nation come to a smelly standstill? Would the men rise up to take back their oversupply of loos? If the women of Iceland can bring their nation to a halt to prove a point, surely we could too?
And who knows, with all that extra time in the week, women even might solve a few lingering issues: poverty, climate change, the Auckland Housing Crisis.
It’s the twenty-first century. A self-confessed sexual predator has just been elected president of the United States. This is no time for the ladies to wait.
* Fartsmåling was not the name of the stop, as we presumed, but a sign indicating we were in a speed monitoring zone.
** Violet Hunter is a pseudonym.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.