There has been a furore this week about toilets. I like furores about toilets as I like anything that makes people think about toilets and what they mean for us. This furore was about the Old Vic theatre in London. A while ago, the Old Vic appealed for funds as it wanted to increase the number of women's toilets. It asked for £100,000 and promised to double the number of women's toilets, of which there were 22. This was a very good idea: women routinely take longer to use public toilets. We have more clothes, we sometimes have small children, shopping, periods, UTIs. This is well-known, and for what the Americans call true "potty parity," the ratio of women's to men's toilets should be 2:1. That would prevent the endemically common sight -- particularly in theatre intervals -- of women queueing out of the door of their toilet and no queues at the men's. (I used to enjoy attending shipping conferences for that reason: it used to be such a male-dominated industry, there were never any queues at the women's toilets.) However, when the theatre announced its refurbishment was complete, instead of adding to the number of women's toilets, it had decided that all its toilet stalls were now "gender-neutral." Instead of installing 22 more toilets for women, there are now 26 "gender-neutral" toilet stalls and 18 urinals. Fifteen of these toilet stalls are in the same block as men's urinals. I don't know many women who would be willing to walk to the gauntlet of men urinating at urinals to use a toilet. I wouldn't. So in practice, if you are a woman and you want to go to the toilet in a space where you will not encounter men, you have fewer toilets than before.
All in all, a disgrace from the Old Vic. Of course when the news broke, there were plenty of people defending "gender-neutral" toilets. I keep putting "gender-neutral" in quotation marks because I think it is a nonsensical phrase. Biological sex and gender are very different concepts that are increasingly conflated and should not be. Our biology is what we are born with. Gender is how society expects people of either sex to behave. In that case, as I was a tomboy, I enjoy running in mud and I rarely wear make-up, I am challenging gender stereotypes, of what society expects women to be. That makes me gender-neutral or non-binary according to current terminology. Actually I think that makes me a woman with a brain big enough to make choices about who and how she will be in the world.
Toilets are not about gender. Toilets are about biology. I have read far too many accounts of women and girls being assaulted in toilets not to believe that women and girls should always have single-sex provision. Always. The Old Vic's solution is stupid. Either make all toilet stalls unisex (as "gender-neutral" used to be known). This is not my ideal solution, and in this I am backed up by the marvellous Alexander Kira, who wrote a book called The Bathroom, which I quoted in The Big Necessity:
In The Bathroom, Alexander Kira explains public convenience behaviour by noting that people feel more negatively about public toilets than private, because of the stranger factor. Public restrooms fuel old, primeval concerns about territoriality, which should be guarded, and strangers, who should be feared.
Kira lays out a spectrum of toilet tolerability. Most people are comfortable in a hotel toilet because it does the best pretence of being private. Workplace public toilets are the next best thing, because the people who use them are known, usually. And so on, through cinemas and shops and hotels, to the free-standing, filled-with- strangers public bathroom, which provides privacy from others, and a total removal of responsibility. People do all sorts in public toilets because they can, especially when prudishness persuades planners to locate them out of sight, away from public thoroughfares, behind hedges and in far-off car parks, where anything and anyone goes.
I think single-sex toilets are the safest option for women and girls, and I definitely prefer having the option of using them or not. It would have been simple for the Old Vic to increase the number of women's toilets, as it had committed to do (making its crowd-funding appeal somewhat fraudulent): all you do is add some "gender-neutral" stalls for people who don't want to choose single-sex spaces, retain the single-sex toilets (and double the number of women's toilets as you promised to do) and bob's your uncle: everyone is provided for.
But it seems that writing about women's rights to single-sex toilets is extremely controversial. When my friend Sarah Ditum, a thoughtful and excellent writer, wrote a piece for The Stage about the Old Vic toilet furore, The Stage removed her piece within hours because of "strong responses" from its readers. It didn't bother to tell Sarah before doing so, either. The Spectator later published Sarah's piece, which is here, so judge for yourself how controversial it is. (It is not, not at all.) Here also is Caroline Criado Perez's piece on the same issue (though behind a Sunday Times paywall). I have a strong response to lots of things but I don't ask for them to be censored. This was an extraordinary act of editorial cowardice, and I really hope The Stage lost a lot of readers by acting so dishonourably. I'll certainly never read it again.
The Old Vic's decision is only the latest in a disturbing trend: in misguided attempts at inclusivity, "gender-neutral" toilets are being created, but usually from women's toilets. It's rare than men's toilets will be transformed into gender-neutral toilets, but women's often are. Women already suffer from a huge disparity in toilet provision, and the gender-neutral trend is making things worse. It is entirely possible to be inclusive while not stamping on the rights of women and girls to have single-sex spaces. Public toilets are unique places: they are public, but also hidden from view. This makes them easy grounds for all sorts of behaviour, and it makes women and girls vulnerable. There are far too many incidences of voyeurism and assault of women and girls for me to be in favour of unisex toilets as standard. Single-sex toilets are safer for women and girls. I hate to cite the Daily Mail, but this piece, about how schoolgirls are avoiding gender-neutral toilets and staying home rather than having to use them, or not drinking liquid so they don't have to pee, is too important not to post. (And also, the Daily Mail dares to write about the legitimate concerns about e.g. gender neutrality, when the liberal press won't. This, as I write for the liberal press, is dispiriting.) As Catherine Bennett tweeted, what did we think would happen? I've written too often about how girls stay away from school in parts of the world where their schools have no toilets and particularly when they are menstruating. This is just a different version of the same issue, but this one is entirely of our own making. To live in a country where schools have clean and available toilets, and to read that girls are uncomfortable using them because of current political trends that many people are too scared to protest, is infuriating and depressing.
During the Twitter conversations about this, someone pointed out that Professor Clara Greed has written a journal article about gender neutral toilets. I was in touch with Clara a few months ago and she had let me read it, but I hadn't realised it was published. Clara has been campaigning for women and girls' rights to single-sex toilets for years and is a wonderful academic and toilet champion. A kind benefactor has sent me the link to the pdf, which is otherwise behind a paywall, so I'm going to post a link to a download here. Please read it. And next time you go to the toilet, remember it.