Why haven’t we solved the public toilet gender problem?

On our recent trip in Sri Lanka, the coaches that we used to travel over the country would stop at points for people to stretch their legs, have something to drink, and use the toilets. And the usual situation occurred in that the line for men’s toilet was non-existent while that for the women was long, at least until I gave the women the all clear that the men’s toilet was unoccupied and they commandeered the men’s toilet for their own use until the line was cleared.

In my office building, a magnificent old one with high ceilings and chandeliers and marble floors, there is a men’s room on the ground floor where my office is that four people can use at any one time although I am the only male with an office on the floor. There is no women’s room, even though three women have offices on that floor. Women have to go one floor down to the basement where there is a dingy unisex bathroom that can accommodate just one person at a time. (It is unisex because it is the only one that is accessible for the handicapped.) This situation is absurd because there is a huge auditorium on the ground floor that is used for large classes and public talks and you can imagine the plight of women during those times. The simplest solution would be to make the men’s room also into a unisex one but because it has multiple stalls, current mores prevent that solution.

These examples of toilet inequity can be multiplied many times. But apart from the practical problem, there is also the political one. Whenever there are moves for gender equality such as the Equal Rights Amendment, people seize on the alleged horror that men and women might be forced to share the same public bathrooms as a means to oppose the measure. This has resurfaced with the recognition of transgender rights and we have the whole dreary discussion again of who should be allowed to use what rooms.

Surely this is a problem that can and should be solved once and for all? Part of the problem is the feeling of shame that accompanies these natural bodily functions that makes people want to act like it is not a part of their lives and prevents frank and open discussion of what should be done.

Harvey Molotch, professor of Sociology and Metropolitan Studies at New York University, writes that the problem is compounded by the fact that “for one reason or another, American public bathrooms are often designed to make the experience exceedingly uncomfortable” by deliberately reducing the level of privacy.

In the US, stall enclosures typically have large bottom (and top) openings, along with peek-a-boo gaps at panel seams. The US is a distinctly open society; in virtually every country which has them, toilets have more solid enclosures, with stalls going closer to the ground and ceiling,

Why is this? The reasons may be lost in the mists of time but he speculates.

The US features probably arose from authorities’ concern, way back when, over what people might do if they had more privacy – specifically, drugs or sex (especially homosexual male sex).

Either way, it’s now expected that when we sit on a public toilet, we expose our feet to the occupant next door. Among other effects, this allows those who know us to make positive and precise identifications based on shoes: another blow to anonymity.

His article goes on to address the many ways that the toilet problem can be, and has been, addressed, including the gender problem.

Gender segregation continues to deliver injustice. Women need more opportunities to go, a fact increasingly being reflected in changing building codes in the US and other countries. Now starting to appear on public policy agendas are the difficulties of people who are transgender or gender-nonconforming. Some people are actually forced to use a bathroom designated for the opposite sex due to their situation: women caring for men (and vice versa), fathers for girls and other variations.

So why not open it up and let all genders share the same zone? It would yield a huge increase in space efficiency, while alleviating the long lines at the women’s rooms, which often occur as stalls remain empty in the men’s room. Integration might also enhance safety: more people would be on hand to act in case of emergency. Hanging a “women” sign over a door only keeps out men with good intentions. (After all, those with bad intentions won’t be impeded by a sign.)

The last issue is a tricky one. Yes, it is true that a mere sign is not going to discourage a person with bad intentions from going into the room assigned to another gender. But right now, someone doing so immediately triggers an alarm. If we had unisex public bathrooms, that person’s intentions would not be clear until they were in closer proximity to a potential victim, alone with them in an enclosed space.

A lot of things need to be threshed out. But he says that our reluctance to address this issue head-on and instead treat it as an afterthought is part of the reason why we never get anywhere with solving this problem once and for all. “Silence about the issue persists, largely because of cultural taboos that discourage any discussion about alleviating design flaws.”

Of course, this does not even address the fact that about a third of the world’s population does not have access to sanitary toilets at all and that is another huge difference because of the adverse health effects it has on people and the environment.


  1. AMM says

    I think the explanation for stall partitions being open at the bottom is more mundane — it makes it easier to mop. That’s also why public toilets have wall-mounted toilets.

  2. Heidi Nemeth says

    Women don’t use male urinals, and men are adverse to having women enter male restroom facilities where men are using the urinals. Many, if not most of the men’s rooms I have seen have at least one urinal. The comparable women’s rooms (equal size often dictated by law) don’t have urinals.Stalls take up more room than urinals. So there are fewer actual places for women to urinate in the women’s room.

    Women take longer to urinate (we have more undressing to do), urinate more frequently (we have smaller bladders), have to accomplish more functions (dealing with menstruation and young children and purses) and need more space (undressing requires more space) than men do. To accommodate women’s needs, women need more than twice the facilities (urinals + stalls) men need. Very few public places have such accommodations. Restroom facilities are discriminatory and deter women from feeling comfortable in public places -- especially if those public places are old, male-dominated establishments like Case Western Reserve University. No women’s restroom on the same floor as a large public lecture hall? For shame!

  3. jd142 says

    When I was in Jr. and Sr. High (grades 7-12, 12-17 years old for me) the bathrooms in the men’s room had no doors at all. That’s right, an awkward, overweight, self-conscious guy like myself had to sit there while people were coming in to use the urinals. I have honestly seen more private accommodations in public parks. My assumption at the time was that it prevented horny teenage boys from masturbating.

    By the time I was in 9th grade, I realized that the bathroom by the gym, the ones parents used when they came for basketball games or to see their kids in a play, had a bigger stall for wheelchair access and a door. Naturally I walked across the school for everything except urinating. We were a very small rural school and I never got into trouble, so no one questioned the extra few minutes I used.

    As a teenager, having either gender walk in on me using the bathroom would have made me feel uncomfortable. As an adult I am better adjusted.

    Two points for people who don’t use male bathrooms in the USA:
    1) I am surprised that some men don’t know and obey the urinal rule. It’s every other urinal for as long as you can hold it. If you would have to stand next to someone, use the stall unless there is a line. There are some funny youtube videos that explain this.

    2) In some old buildings, there are no urinals. There is just a trough. I started a new job in 2014 in a very old building, and for the first two months that’s all the men’s bathroom on our floor had. In 2014. The second worst design I’ve seen had floor length urinals, the holes in the floor. The splashed. A lot. But at least it was on your shoes. And there’s nothing short of changing male anatomy that could stop it.

  4. doublereed says

    I thought that legally there has to be equal accommodations of restrooms, regardless of unisex alternatives. Having a men’s room with no designated women’s room is surprising to me. Maybe because it’s just an old building or something?

  5. says

    I’m disabled. If I take a fall in the loo, I don’t care who’s doing the helping, what they have in their trousers, or what they may happen to see of my body, just that they’re offering (and providing, if accepted) assistance.

    Also, not everyone has a same-gendered caregiver.

  6. John Morales says

    Contradictory comments, unless an urinal is not a toilet:
    (1) Heidi Nemeth, #4

    Women don’t use male urinals, and men are adverse to having women enter male restroom facilities where men are using the urinals.

    (2) Tabby Lavalamp, #7

    I always find it bizarre when single occupancy toilets are gendered.

  7. Mano Singham says

    Heidi @#4,

    This building is very old and a landmark and really solidly built. All these make major construction changes, like the construction of a new women’s room, hard. The simplest thing would be to remove the two existing urinals and make that space into a third enclosed stall, and make the entire bathroom open to all. But that runs into the problem of acceptance of multi-gender use.

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