The Old Vic Theatre on The Cut in London. The Old Vic is one of the best known and best loved theatres in the world, synonymous with the greatest acting talent that Britain has ever produced. This iconic 192-year-old building has a rich history of great performances and The Old Vic Theatre Company under the artistic leadership of Kevin Spacey, continues to attract the best creative talent from the UK and all over the world to tread its famous boards. (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)
Features

The theatre of inconvenience

The Old Vic’s abolition of women’s toilets is an outrage

Who is the theatre for? The idealistic answer to this question is “everyone”, although audience demographics suggest otherwise: those who buy tickets for plays are disproportionately older, richer, whiter and more educated than society at large. Maybe it’s consciousness of their medium’s elite status that makes so many of those involved in the theatre into fervent advocates of inclusion. In an update on the refurbishment of its toilets, the London Old Vic announced that “the most important thing to us is running a theatre that is welcoming and comfortable for those who visit us”. That’s the most important thing, more important than the plays, more important than the bar takings. Theatre is for everyone.

Well, kind of. The reason the Old Vic was running this update was that its toilet accommodation had not actually proved particularly welcoming and comfortable to all patrons. This was not a new situation for the Old Vic, which has long been known for poor provision of ladies’ toilets — so poor, in fact, that when the theatre launched a public appeal to pay for renovations, one of its flagship promises was to double the number of women’s toilets. But when the Old Vic revealed its new and improved toilets, there was a twist: rather than doubling the number of women’s toilets, it had abolished them altogether. All its toilets would now be “gender neutral”.

Access to toilets is fundamental to making public space accessible — you can only go to the places where you can, well, go. But wherever you visit, you will see that toilets have been designed without any consideration for women. We are left in line, shifting from foot to foot, queue backing up through the door to the ladies, while men breeze in and out of the gents. The reason for this is very simple: going to the toilet takes longer for women, roughly twice as long as for men (since we cannot simply unzip at the urinal, but must go into the cubicle, partially undress, sit ourselves down, and maybe deal with tampons or sanitary towels while we’re about it).

Logically, then, women should have twice as many toilets as men. What the Old Vic delivered instead was this: “Our loos now offer ‘self-selection’ rather than being labelled male or female,” the theatre explained. “You can choose which one you want to use, rather than responding to a label placed on you, which you may not identify with.” Patrons could choose between blocks with cubicles only, and blocks with cubicles and urinals. The decision was lauded for its “inclusivity” of trans and non-binary people. But allowing anyone into any block of toilets is only inclusive in the most emptily formal sense.

After all, women cannot use urinals (obviously), will not use cubicles set alongside urinals (why risk an eyeful of penis landscape?), and would strongly prefer not to use a cubicle which might have a man next door. The simple desire for privacy is justification enough on that last count, but there is also a more serious incentive: sexual violence is a male crime, and the men who commit those crimes against women will gladly exploit any degradation of the conventions of privacy.

Although less than half of swimming pools and leisure centres have made the switch to unisex changing rooms, a Sunday Times investigation last year found that these facilities account for almost 90 per cent of reported sexual assaults, harassment and voyeurism.

By the “inclusive” decision to stop sex-segregating its toilets, then, the Old Vic has effectively excluded women — certainly those women who will not take the risk of being victimised — from its audience. And though it has increased the number of toilets overall (from 22 to 44), it hasn’t come close to offering the 2:1 ratio that gives women and men equal wait times. There are 24 cubicles in spaces without urinals, which means there are 20 toilets available exclusively to men.

You might be able to self-select your label, but you cannot self-select your body: the Old Vic’s “gender neutrality” is tilted firmly to the benefit of men.

The gender politics of toilets are a subject with a substantive body of research behind them. It’s a body of research that the writer Amber Massie-Blomfield did not engage with when she wrote a piece for the Stage celebrating the Old Vic’s decision, published on 4 October. “Trans people are among the most vulnerable in our society,” she wrote. “It’s incumbent on a civilised society to protect the most vulnerable people within it.” (That women may also be vulnerable is not a point that apparently troubled the construction of her argument.) There was a backlash to Massie-Blomfield’s piece, and in response, the Stage commissioned me to write a more critical take on the toilets issue.

This is where things got messy. My article was published on the following Monday morning; by the afternoon it was gone from the website, along with Massie-Blomfield’s. The Stage issued a statement saying that it had received “strong responses from our readers against both articles”. The timing makes it clear which piece had initiated the retraction. But it wasn’t what I’d written that was the problem, as Massie-Blomfield summarised in a subsequent post reflecting on her own unfair treatment: “For the most part, it was the content of my article that invoked [sic] ire, but much of the anger around Ditum’s piece was that she had been commissioned at all.”

And why shouldn’t I have been commissioned at all? There were two lines to this attack. First, I should not have been commissioned because I am allegedly “anti-trans” — a libellous characterisation of me, based on the fact that I’ve written several pieces of journalism from a feminist position, criticising the adoption of the disputed “gender identity” hypothesis (the belief that everyone has an inherent “subconscious sex” which may or may not align with their body) as a basis for policy and medical care. Second, I should not have been commissioned because (according to an open letter against me) I have “little to no known connection to the theatre industry”.

This is an astonishing position given that the purported intent behind the Old Vic’s gender-neutral toilets was “inclusivity”. Inclusivity, but only for those who are preselected by a theatrical elite as one of their own. Being a regular playgoer with a normal-size female bladder and an above-average knowledge of toilet planning isn’t enough to qualify me to have an opinion: my right to be heard on this point was contingent on me being a “theatre person”, whatever one of those is, and on me reaching the pre-approved correct conclusions about desegregated facilities. (It is of course beside the point that I could equally, and in equal bad faith, have objected to Massie-Blomfield as not being a “feminism person”.)

The issue of what can be said, and by whom, is a thorny one in theatre, with its history of official censorship up to the mid-twentieth century. Even after the 1968 Act removed the Lord Chamberlain’s power over the stage, there were private efforts to enforce the decency of drama: in 1980, Mary Whitehouse lobbied for a prosecution against the play The Romans in Britain over its inclusion of (simulated) anal sex between two characters. Whitehouse refused to see the play herself — The Romans in Britain was apparently so potent that, like my argument against gender neutral toilets, its contents did not need to be known for them to be damned.

In my years of theatregoing, I’ve watched plays involving bestiality (The Goat, with Damian Lewis engaged in giddy romance with a ruminant), on-stage masturbation (Against, featuring a writhing Ben Whishaw in his pants) and more bestiality (Equus, about the intense attraction between a boy and a horse). I saw the revival of The Romans in Britain at the Crucible in Sheffield, and it currently accounts for probably half the penises I’ve ever seen in the flesh (although that could change if I ever have to resort to using gender-neutral-with-urinals toilets). Theatre can, and should, be a splendidly indecent medium.

Those who patrol the edges of the sayable when it comes to toilets may be “theatre people”, but they’re hardly a part of that tradition. Instead, they’re engaged in the modern racket of using a weaponised social issue to determine who should and shouldn’t get a voice. Delightfully, the online theatre journal Exeunt published a “dialogue” on my article between an AMAB (“assigned male at birth”) non-binary person and an AFAB (“assigned female at birth”) non-binary person who are “in a romantic and creative relationship” — in other words, a male-female couple got to arbitrate on my presumed harmfulness to the LGBT community.

Self-selection of labels is a rich opportunity for those who grasp how to extract advantage from claims of marginalisation detached from material analysis.

Dispiriting as the Stage’s editorial collapse may be, it’s hardly the only outlet to have allowed the tactically outraged to dictate its coverage: the Spectator stepped in to republish my column, and it’s a frustrating fact (for someone like me who sits on the left-liberal side of the political spectrum, anyway) that right-of-centre publications have generally shown the most steel in addressing the conflicts between trans activism and women’s rights.

In the case of toilets, it’s a conflict that can be easily and amicably resolved. Keep the men’s toilets, offer double that number for women, and throw in a couple of self-contained gender-neutral toilets besides. The fact that I suggested this in my piece and was nonetheless trashed suggests that solving the problem was never the intention.

This was a landgrab by those who have, Whitehouse-style, positioned themselves as the righteous, even though they speak for a tiny minority. Mixed-sex toilets are objectively unpopular. In fact, their unpopularity is the point here: to passionately endorse such an obviously extreme idea demonstrates an extraordinary depth of commitment to one’s tribe.

The price of this display is that women’s rights have been overlooked, trans people’s needs turned into a culture war, and journalism hobbled from being able to explore fundamental changes to society. For the clique seeking to make the theatre their own, it must seem very agreeable to purchase it at others’ expense.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover