TORONTO, ON - AUGUST 24: Gender neutral bathrooms can be found at this year's CNE. This trailer of portable toilets is in the kids midway, tucked in behind the Press Building. (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Toilets matter

Women and girls deserve a safe space

In May 2016, the Obama administration issued a federal guidance instructing public schools that students should be allowed to use whatever bathroom they felt comfortable with, regardless of their sex. The Obama administration was threatening schools that if they did not allowed students to choose whatever bathroom they wanted to use based on their internal feeling of “gender identity”, they would be at risk of expensive lawsuits or of losing vital aid from the federal government. 

The guidance was not legally binding, but it sparked a firestorm across the United States, fuelling concerted pushback from Republicans just in time for the election months afterwards.

The Joint Guidance to Help Schools Ensure the Civil Rights of Transgender Students ordered schools to “treat students consistent with their gender identity even if their school records or identification documents indicate a different sex” and to “allow students to participate in sex-segregated activities and access sex-segregated facilities consistent with their gender identity.”

The “bathroom bills”, as they came to be known around the world, pit progressives against conservatives over access to single-sex spaces. But rather than an earnest conversation about privacy, safety and dignity, the conversation was deliberately distorted as a battle between teenagers who just want to pee versus nasty reactionaries blockading the doors to the loo. 

In 2016, there was far less awareness of the implications of “gender identity” theories or policies. Aside from the committed radical feminists who had spent decades shouting into a void, the general public had little to no grasp of what it truly meant to have the State order that people should be allowed to access sex-segregated facilities based on how they feel internally, rather than based on their sex. It was a perfect framing, pitting “hysterical” conservatives and Karens against poor teenagers who just want to pee

In the years that followed, slowly but surely, the erosion of single-sex facilities became normalised around the world. “Gender-neutral” facilities took hold in almost all areas of public life such as schools, government buildings, theatres, etc. 

The erosion of single-sex facilities became normalised

The vast majority of women and girls reject sharing toilet facilities with men and boys, with a 2021 YouGov poll suggesting that fewer than one in twenty women support sharing such an intimate space with members of the opposite sex. There have been reports in schools about teenage girls refusing to use the newly-installed “gender-neutral” facilities, feeling uncomfortable navigating their emerging puberty alongside their male peers.

At the height of the “bathroom bills” debacle, I remember thinking that, although I felt strongly that women and girls should have a right to single-sex spaces and services, I didn’t want to be that feminist banging on about toilets. Instead, I clung to arguments about the importance of recognising sex differences in medical investigation or how paramount it is to have clear data on male violence against women and girls. But getting into a fight about toilets and where people pee? That was always a framing that kept me at bay. And that is why the “bathroom bills” messaging was so effective. 

It was also dishonest. Toilets represent a fundamental part of how countries can guarantee women and girls participation in the public sphere. 

Around the world, there has never been any doubt of how important single-sex toilets are for women and girls. As a matter of fact, it is treated as a human rights issue, with an acknowledgement that any mixed-sex space potentially becomes a space for stress, discomfort and  in too many cases, of male violence.

Researchers at the University of Columbia’s School of Public Health wrote in 2018 making the case for female-only toilets by arguing: 

At the most basic level, adolescent girls and women around the world have increased and distinct water and sanitation-related needs, the product of their physiology, reproductive health processes linked to menstruation, and pregnancy, and safety concerns. This can be especially challenging for girls and women living in low-resource or over-crowded contexts, such as urban slums, displacement camps and informal settlements.

Why is the discourse around whether female-only toilets matter different depending on whether those women live in the Global North or the Global South

In the Global South, it is acknowledged that anxiety around finding a women-only toilet can result in women and girls restricting their free movement in society. In 2018, UNICEF, WaterAid and the Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor published Female-friendly public and community toilets: a guide to planners and decision makers, which was aimed at local authorities and similarly advocated for the need of more women-only toilets, as they are crucial to integrating women into society. Toilets are so important to development that the United Nations commemorates November 19 as World Toilet Day.

Men end up having more options than women

To begin with, women usually have less than half the level of toilet provision than men have in society, partly due to the fact that urinals take up less space than cubicles. Furthermore, when buildings desegregate their toilets, they further marginalise women as men can sit down to use a toilet but women cannot accommodate themselves in a urinal. So, in a “gender-neutral” environment, men end up having more options than women.

Women need more time in the toilets because they need to undress, at least partially, for urination and defecation. Menstruation, perimenopause, menopause and pregnancy can increase the frequency of women’s need to use the toilets as female bladders become weakened, irregular or constricted during these physiological processes. Incontinence affects one in four women over the age of thirty-five, compared to one in ten men, and this is due to issues like childbirth, fistulas and the way the female urinary tract works.

There should be no shame in saying that toilets matter a whole lot. But when it comes to the litany of sex-based rights affected by “gender identity” policies, it seems toilets oftentimes tend to come last. It is like there is embarrassment to having a conversation about why we don’t want men next to us while we wash bloody knickers or a menstrual cup in the sink. Maybe it’s just me, but the trepidation the “bathroom bills” controversy left in many liberals lingers on.

Unless there is sufficient pushback from the grassroots feminist movement, and society as a whole, we could easily see the same organisations which publish report after report about the important of female-only toilets churn out new ones about how this was antiquated thinking that needed to be tossed aside in favour of the flashier “gender-neutral” trend. The global “gender identity” takeover was a social engineering project meant to dismantle women’s rights, including the right to single-sex spaces. Is there any hope that we can stop such a concerted effort?

In early July, the UK government announced that all new public buildings such as schools, hospitals and office buildings must have separate male and female lavatories. Speaking with The Telegraph about the announcement, a government official explained: 

It is vital that women feel safe and comfortable when using public facilities and that there is a greater emphasis on provision that is focused on dignity, privacy, tolerance and respect for all. These changes will stop the march of ‘universal’ and forced sharing of spaces with a focus on guaranteeing privacy for all. This is a common-sense approach that is inclusive for all.

If the UK government can pause and listen to the voices of the public, perhaps other countries can follow suit. Let’s hope that the recent announcement by the government that single-sex toilets will be respected signifies an end to the gaslighting of women.

The hyperbole around the “bathroom bills” was successful in framing the public discourse around toilets as a matter of freedom and liberty for trans people. But obscured by this conversation was the reality that, in the drive to gender-neutralise toilets across society, it was women and girls who were once against relegated to the private sphere, this time by their bladder.


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