Wednesday, September 12, 2018

A critical deconstructed response: Public Toilets are Just Not Good Enough (Katy Rice, The Argus, 21 August)

There has been a higher than usual number of public stories in the past weeks, between the Uritrottoirs in Paris, the launch of the Use Our Loos campaign in the UK and the BBC’s big freedom of information request. This has sparked (as it always does) a number of off-shoots which I have followed with interest. In my news round-up the other day I came across this piece by 52 year old Katie Rice entitled "Public Toilets are Just Not Good Enough." The farther I read the more frustrated I became and felt compelled to respond to it… largely because it embodies everything I feel is backwards about current conversations on public toilet provision and because Katie Rice is not alone in these attitudes. Advance warning, this post is a bit of a personal rant.

Ms. Rice starts out promisingly enough with the tag line: 
“PUBLIC loos are a feminist issue and if they’re not, well, then they should be.”
She lists the standard toilet closures that we have heard so many times, but the piece quickly descends into a Victorian cis-feminist rant, more a self-indulgent lament than a suggestion for any possible progress.  Below are some of the more mis-guided and offensive statements, and my responses.
“Most of us women do not want to urinate in public. […] Some, tanked up on a night out, do it in the street at one in the morning but the rest of us, quite frankly, are a bit more civilized than that.”
The equation of “being able to hold it” with “being civilized” taps right into the stigma and shame we place on bodily functions, from pee to periods to perspiration. “Civilized” people control their bodies and don’t admit to producing odors or substances.
 “We need privacy and that comes in the form of a cubicle because we can’t and don’t use urinals like men, not being in possession of that handy little gadget that allows men to wee standing up.” 
Has she heard of the She-wee? It's literally a handy little gadget which allows women (or people who are not otherwise naturally anatomically equipped) to pee standing up. But that's a minor point... plus they are better suited to hiking than urban adventures. 

Anyway, she goes on: 
“Women have to go into the cubicle, lock the door, partially undress, put loo paper on the seat (not entirely necessary but many of us don’t want to sit on an unclean seat), wee, wipe, dress…”
Aaaagh! What would otherwise be a sensible commentary on the amount of time it takes gets obscured by the perpetuation of toilet-seat germaphobia... the idea that the toilet seat is the grossest thing in the room. I am all for cleanliness and hand-washing and good hygiene, but the list of things that has more germs than a toilet seat could fill volumes. Among the things on that list: the flush button, the door handle, the taps on the sink, and the hand dryer. So unless the toilet seat is literally covered in poo chances are you're not going to come into contact with anything on there that you would touch else-where in the loo. 

But then she enters the most unforgivable territory yet...
“And in the politically correct rush […]”
Uh oh! Red flag for thinly veiled trans/homo/xenophobia coming up. And sure enough she goes on: 
‘[…] to start desegregating public facilities as gender neutral, women’s privacy and safety have not been taken into account. They may well address the concerns of transgender people who face intimidation and harassment in gender segregated facilities […] but they don’t address the safety concerns of women who make up a far greater proportion of the population.”

Okay. Firstly there is, as far as I am aware (and I have looked), no research stating that gender neutral facilities are less safe. In fact, the limited case studies available tend to point to gender neutral facilities having a lower rate of crime than segregated ones and that in fact because they have higher footfall they tend to be safer.

Secondly the argument that cis-women form a “far greater proportion of the population” is or should be irrelevant when weighing the relative safety concerns. Because there most definitely is plenty of documented evidence of trans people facing bathroom discrimination and violence.

This attitude infuriates me, but it is very prevalent. I have had multiple conversations in the past month with women over 50 who are heavily involved in the world of public toilets who, as one put it "Don't see why the majority of us should be inconvenienced because of a small minority." By which she essentially meant she would rather see an already marginalized group of the population be further excluded from society than give up the personal comfort of the gender segregated loos she has known all her life. Only half a century ago in the US people were making the same arguments for racial segregation in toilets...  and their arguments didn't sound all that different from the ones for gender segregation you hear today.
“On a more trivial level, can we trust men to put the seat down afterwards? Can we trust them not to wee all over the seat we women have to sit down on? Yuk. No, thanks.”
This is straying dangerously into the “boys are gross and have cooties” territory, which is really best left behind in kindergarten (or better yet, never introduced into our consciousness in the first place… side tangent: where does this idea come from?) Women wee all over the seat too... especially when they buy into the previously mentioned germophobia and insist on hovering above it.

She finishes: 
"What it all comes back to is a lack of public facilities particularly for women. Women have long complained about this problem but they are not being listened to. I don’t think women are being consulted when new buildings are being designed or about existing public toilets. And I don’t think we are making enough noise about it."
In and of itself I can't fault any of these statements. Yes, there is a lack of facilities. And toilet design in a field historically dominated by heterosexual cis-gended men, and therefore the facilities are designed with their bodies and comfort in mind. So by all means let's make noise about it! But lets do it in a way that looks forward rather than drags us backwards. 

The more I get involved in this world of toilet campaigners the more it strikes me how many conversations about publicly available toilets look backwards instead of forwards. Campaigners arguing for Victorian ideals of a discreet private room, segregated by a comfortable gender binary.

And I'm unsatisfied with my own response because I don't know what all the answers are. But whatever they are I think they have to do with much wider questions than public toilets. Because these places don't exist in isolation. They are a reflection, perhaps even an amplification of, our cultural beliefs about bodies, gender, class, morality and propriety.