EXPLAINER-Flushed with rage: why toilets have become a feminist issue

by Sonia Elks | @SoniaElks | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 4 October 2019 16:34 GMT

Female toilet signs are pictured at the World Robot Conference (WRC) in Beijing, China August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee

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Public spaces are increasingly introducing gender-neutral toilets in a bid to use space more efficiently and include transgender people and other minorities

By Sonia Elks

LONDON, Oct 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - "The ladies are about to storm the men's loos", said British actor Joanna Lumley in an appeal to increase the number of toilets for women who face long lavatory queues at London's historic Old Vic theatre last year.

Now they can do exactly that. The Old Vic, which opened in 1818 and has seen a host of names such as Laurence Olivier and Peggy Ashcroft perform on its stage, switched this week to unisex toilets in an upgrade of its facilities.

Theatres, cinemas, museums and other public spaces are introducing gender-neutral toilets in a bid to use space more efficiently and include transgender people and other minorities.

But the push for inclusivity has angered some women who say their comfort and safety is being put at risk - and argue men are still being left with a better deal.

Here's why toilets have become a battleground:


In short, yes. Researchers say women's use of toilets rather than urinals means it takes them longer than men to use the bathroom on average.

Guidelines from the British Standards Institution suggest public spaces should provide two toilets for women for every one given over to men.

However, that is rarely followed in practice - architects tend to give men equal toilet floor space and more facilities because urinals are smaller than stalls, according to the British Toilets Association (BTA).

Meanwhile, transgender and gender non-conforming people report they can face hostility and even attacks if they are perceived to be in the wrong toilet.


Institutions from cultural spaces to schools and offices are introducing toilets that are open to all in an effort to increase efficiency and inclusivity.

Non-gendered spaces mean less discomfort for LGBT+ people, especially for those who don't identify as either male or female. The arrangement means they are less likely to be challenged for being in the 'wrong' toilet.

They can also prevent long lavatory queues for women, according to a study by Ghent University, which found unisex toilets can slash waiting times by making more efficient use of space.


Some women and girls are uncomfortable about having to share toilets with men, and some feminists argue it may increase the risk of sexual attacks.

Others berate so-called 'lavatory conversions' that involve doing little more than putting up a 'gender neutral' sign on the door.

Women have protested against 'gender neutral' toilets that contain urinals they cannot use, while the men are free to make use of what was previously the ladies' space.

Others resent being forced to share the stalls with men.


Experts are still trying to resolve an issue with no simple answer that often descends into heated discussions over gender and culture.

Limited space, particularly in historic venues like Victorian theatres, make it harder to cater to all with plentiful facilities.

Including urinals for men in unisex loos can, surprisingly, reduce queues for all according to the Ghent study, which found the arrangement privileges men but also creates efficiency by freeing up other toilets.

But expecting women to walk past urinals to access stalls is a no-go, said Raymond Martin from the BTA.

He said the move toward unisex toilets was an issue that went beyond making sure women have time for a drink in the interval.

"Toilets are about equality," he said.

"They are about social inclusion, about us all being part of a community and being able to move about freely and be able to use the toilet when we need it."

(Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Tom Finn. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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