All-gender toilets built at Curtin University will ‘help transgender students feel safe’, according to an article in The West Australian last week. The article also says that a ‘concerted vandalism campaign’ left many students feeling unsafe. The vandalism included tearing or defacing posters. A sad state of affairs. . There’s no excuse for discrimination or harassment of anyone.
Curtin University follows the lead of the University of Western Australia in building all-gender toilets. The Education Department of WA urges new schools to incorporate unisex restrooms.
On the other hand, Worksafe, the organisation responsible for Occupational Health and Safety, still states that workplaces should provide separate toilets for men and women. You can read more here.
Safe toilet access for everyone
I respect unequivocally the rights of people of all genders to safe toilet access. Nor do I care how many unisex or all-gender toilets spring up wherever people want or need them.
At the same, time authorities and individuals must respect the rights of women like myself and provide comfortable women-only toilets where required.
As an 83 year-old woman, I’m happy with my gender, and proud of my body and its achievements over a long life.
Some might identify me as a cisgender woman. (Cis means ‘the same as’.) They would say my gender identity matches the sex assigned to me at birth. I’d have to tell them that no one would have thought to ‘assign’ my gender identity when I was born. Stating a child’s sex and implied gender in the olden-days was quite straightforward.
The doctor or midwife took one look at a baby and said something heartfelt and enthusiastic, like,
‘Oh, a beautiful baby girl (or boy)! How wonderful!’
Simone de Beauvoir’s amazing book, The Second Sex changed my thinking and my life in the early 1960s. The Second Sex demonstrated that women’s rights had been denied by patriarchal societies for centuries.
From that time, I became a passionate and unapologetic feminist.
Fighting for women’s rights includes arguing for spaces where women can be safe. This includes safety from violence of all kinds. It also means safety from body-shaming and embarrassment. Sharing toilets with ‘all-genders’ does not provide that safety.
Vandalised posters in all-gender toilets
The posters vandalised in one of the all-gender toilets at Curtin University bear the Curtin Student Guild logo.
The text in small white print says,
Please respect the right of trans, genderqueer, androgynous and others who do not fit into gender stereotypes to safe bathroom access.
No mention there of women’s rights to freedom to be themselves in public toilets.
Why all-gender toilets don’t work for me
There are many reasons why they don’t work for me (or for many other women). Here are a few of them.
- The sign pictured above states, ‘We all need to pee’. Of course we do. But some of us need it more. Pregnant women often experience urgency and frequency because of the pressure of a growing uterus on their bladders. Menopausal and older women often need to ‘go’ more often. So do little girls and boys. Experience teaches women that these ‘special people’ may need to jump the queue* to get there quickly. We let them go ahead of us. We also let people with little kids go ahead of us. Not sure how many men in queues would understand that dynamic.
- Girls and women also use public toilets to deal with menstruation. They prefer privacy in which to dispose of sanitary products and wash their (perhaps bloody) hands. Sharing washbasins (as happens in the shared toilets at Curtin) doesn’t work if someone is looking for that privacy.
- Puberty presents problems for girls who are confronted with bodily changes. It’s often hard enough for girls to use school toilets without having to share with adolescent boys and grown men.
- Women use toilet mirrors to fix or reapply makeup. Some of us prefer to do this in private, or at least away from the male gaze.
- No one wants to have to put the seat down after another person. Not all men are trained equally well in this. And some are simply in a hurry.
- Women tend to be cleaner users of toilet spaces because we sit to pee. As the mother and grandmother of boys, my experience is that they care a lot less than girls about swamping the toilet floor.
* One of the best things about the wonderful Perth Optus Stadium is the number of women’s toilets. No queues, even at the end of big Australian Football League matches. Who wouldn’t love that?
What about other countries?
A number of other countries, including the USA, Canada, Thailand, China and some countries in the European Union have mixed-use facilities.
The new toilets at Curtin come just as the United Kingdom begins to reexamine its position. Unisex or gender-neutral toilets there have caused much debate since the first was build in a school near Manchester in 2000.
The following quote is from a document from the UK Government Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
The government’s position is of the view that there needs to be proper provision of gender-specific toilets for both men and women, with a clear steer in building standards guidance.
In recent years, there has been a trend towards the removal of well-established male-only/female-only spaces when premises are built or refurbished, and they have often been replaced with gender-neutral toilets.
This places women at a significant disadvantage. While men can then use both cubicles and urinals, women can only use the former, and women also need safe spaces given their particular health and sanitary needs (for example, women who are menstruating, pregnant or at menopause, may need to use the toilet more often).
Women are also likely to feel less comfortable using mixed sex facilities, and require more space.
Perhaps organisations in Western Australia might do well to look at what has happened in other countries. In the meantime, if I have any choice at all, you won’t find me anywhere near an all-gender toilet.
I owe a debt of gratitude to my friend Ingrid Lyberg for educating me about shared toilets, among many other things. Ingrid maintains an amazing blog at The Privy Counsel. Here’s a bit about it from the website.
PLUMBING THE DEPTHS
The Privy Counsel is an international community of intellectuals, giving counsel, advice and information on toilet-related topics. Why toilets? we hear you ask. Because toilets matter! Ever been to a great restaurant, café or pub only to have the experience tarnished by a less-than-lovely toilet? If you have ever been annoyed by a bad bog, this blog is for you!
Other things we love are history, especially medical history, and especially anything to do with syphilis. And rum. And some good, rampant feminism.
Our simple sense of humour belies our actual academic credentials.