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.