Wednesday, October 11, 2017

A feminist toilet story

It's International Day of the Girl, which seemed like as good an excuse as any to catch up on some stories and news. I don't generally consider myself to be a militant feminist, but more and more these days as I read stories and look at history of gender disparities in toilet provision I find myself climbing up on a metaphorical soap-box, and crying foul.

Author's note: It should of course be acknowledged that this issue goes far beyond the gender binary. I have used the terms "men" and "women" throughout most of this piece partly because that is how much of the historical literature and current press divides the matter, but there are, of course, women with penises, men with vaginas, and people who defy any of these prescriptive lables. Perhaps a more accurate division would have been to write about people with external and internal plumbing... but even this didn't seem quite right, as public urinals tend to be for the benefit of (and safest for) cis-gender hetero males... hence I have stuck with slightly clunky outdated terms. I welcome comments on how to do better at integrating inclusive language!

So to bodily functions:

A few weeks back some excitement was caused in the toilet world by news from Amsterdam of a young Dutch Woman, Geerte Piening, who found herself unintentionally at the centre of a debate around women's toilets. From what I have been able to piece together from news reports, the story actually begins in 2015 when she availed herself of an alleyway after a night out drinking. She was caught and fined 140 euros for this action, but decided to fight it on the grounds of sexism: Amsterdam has 33 urinals but only three or four toilets open for women at that hour. Two and a half years later when her appeal was finally heard the judge (male) reduced the fine to 90 euros, but maintained that she should have used a urinal ("It wouldn't be pleasant, but it can be done.")

There is now a facebook page and a women's movement urging women to take photos of themselves in urinals and show the impracticality of their use.

The story intrigued me because I have been saying for years that if women want better access to toilets we are going to have to start peeing in public. Admittedly this has always been somewhat in jest (from a public health point of view I recognize that it is a terrible idea) but the fact remains that part of the reason urinals are plonked on every street corner of Soho on a Friday night is that it is generally expected that men will be out and needing relieve themselves, while women are expected to hold it. I haven't done a comprehensive urinal count of the city, but I can tell you that on my tours alone we pass at least 4 more places where men can go than we do for women in a mile-long walk. Here are a couple of them:

City planners and officials will (as the Amsterdam judge did) argue the impracticality and expense of such accommodation. The fact remains that women's anatomy is seen as problematic, and more complicated to deal with. Women's toilets have been described variously as "objectionable on the score of delicacy" "an abomination" and "an unnecessary expense."

This toilet debate puts me in mind of the social and medical models of disability. The medical model says that it is the person who is broken and needs to be fixed- whether because they can't climb stairs or hear or deal with overstimulation. It looks for ways to help them conform to social expectations, and expects them to adapt. The social model meanwhile argues that disability is to a large extent created by these imposed societal norms, and takes the more holistic idea that society can adapt through inclusive design and different approaches.

The field of toilet design has historically been dominated by men. It seeps across our culture in subtle ways. My favorite example: why do jeans (generally considered to be gender neutral clothing) have a zip closure at the front, if not to allow men to urinate with greater ease? Skeptical that this is the case? Look at the fact that cultures which prefer squatting over sitting tend to favor robes for both genders. These things may have been obscured by the world of fashion, but I firmly believe that the origins of our aesthetic preferences are at least to some extent rooted in the basic functionality of allowing us to relieve ourselves in the most practical manner.

Anyway, this rambling is to say, that while we often take for granted the way things are, there are other ways forward. It may sound extreme to say that we live in a world designed by and for men, but there are subtle signs of that all around us. We've got to start somewhere, so why not with toilets (which, after all, provide access to greater participation in society.) The challenges this disparity creates range from the relatively frivolous (longer queueing times) to the very serious (girls leaving school when they start menstruating because they have no where to go.)

The solution may not yet be obvious, and there is unlikely to be a gender-wide consensus on the best way to approach the issue. Some women will merrily use a she-wee, or a women's urinal, while others see them as degrading or just uncomfortable (which in turn, it could be argued, is a product of our social conventions and ideas of propriety.) There will never be a one-size-fits-all solution.

Right now I think the best we can hope for is to start the conversations. We may not have the answers, but by airing the issues in public we can get more people thinking about what the alternatives might be. Many people (men and women) haven't thought about it simply because our approach is so ingrained that it hadn't occurred to them there was anything to think about.

Do you have a story on the subject, a favorite solution, or an idea that hasn't even been mentioned yet? Do share in the comments!

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Thames Barrier Test Day

Today was the annual closure of the Thames Barrier. One of the largest flood barriers in the world, it has protected London from Storm surges and unusually high tides since 1984. It is raised once a month for testing, but a scheduled full closure only happens once a year and is a rather special occasion.

We arrived on the South Bank near Greenwich around 9 in the morning when it was quiet, save for lots of Environment Agency staff bustling about and setting up. We set up a picnic on the grass and waited. By the time things got started an hour later the road was lined with people who had come out to watch.

There are ten gates, four of which lower down and six which lie in the river bed and rise up. They moved one at a time, each one taking about ten minutes to raise or lower. By 11:30 the whole thing was in place. It would stay there until after high tide, and then raise a few meters to allow underspill and level out the water before opening the gates again (we didn't end up staying until the end, so will have to catch the underspill another time. It's apparently a great time to see lots of birds who come to feast on the fish it churns up.)

The barriers have closed 176 times for flood defense (an average of about 5 or 6 times a year) in addition to their routine closures. But it is not intended to last forever... eventually due to climate change and sea level rise the gates will no longer offer complete protection.

The Thames Estuary 2100 Plan developed by the Environment Agency sets out a plan the next 100 years, which of course is largely guess work beyond the short term. As they put it:
"The plan is based on contemporary understanding of predicted climate change, but is designed to be adaptable to changes in predictions (including for sea level rise) throughout the century."
It was interesting to reflect that I have never lived in a place where I was very aware of environmental threats or imagined the Thames as anything other than a beautiful river (with an interesting history of sewage). Until today, as far as I knew Thames Barrier was "that thing that looks a bit like the Sydney Opera House, that you can take a boat to." It's amazing to think about the infrastructure that is in place, and the careful research, thought and engineering that goes into it, without the average person being aware... and that one day changes, no matter how prepared and planned for, will probably take us by surprise anyway. I'm grateful there are people who devote their careers to the subject in so many ways from protecting the environment from harmful chemicals and plastics to tackling the engineering challenges to ensure that when changes do come we are prepared. There were loads of great organizations out recruiting today, and I now have a whole stack of bedtime reading for tonight!

More information on TE2100 is here:
More information and reports on the Barrier are here: