“I’m sorry to ask, would you be able to take her to the toilet?” a slightly pink-faced man asked me while gesturing to his daughter.
The craziness of a father having to ask a complete stranger to take his kid to the toilet really brought home the weirdness of gendered toilets to me — that and being annoyed that there’s a whole extra flight of stairs to the women’s bathroom at our office.
From university campuses to company HQs, there’s increasing pressure for organisations to do away with the ubiquitous triangle-dress lady and stick man and allow any person to use any bathroom.
But so far, very few companies are ready to cross into an Ally McBeal-style future where men and women poop side by side.
In fact, by going gender neutral at their shiny new £1bn King’s Cross HQ, Google will be one of the first companies to make the move.
In an age where nasty women march with banners held high and pay inequalities are being spotlighted, why does the idea of sharing a bathroom still seem so weird?
Those against flushing the signs often say it’s about safety. Shared toilets, they argue, put women in a vulnerable position away from the public eye, potentially alone with men, and at greater risk of sexual assault.
But what does suggest about men? It implies that all men are sexual predators that are to be feared. That’s one hell of a brush to tar a whole gender with.
It also overlooks the 12% of rape victims that are men and the women that commit sexual crimes.
The sad truth is that if a person is intent on violating someone else, the sign on a door won’t stop them. You only have to look at how widespread the #MeToo movement is to see that.
The need to look out for and protect each other isn’t unique to one gender. Nor is one gender to be feared and the other protected.
Powdering My Nose
But safety isn’t just about protection. Over the years, sitcoms have built up a picture of the bathroom as a haven of femininity — a sanctuary almost.
While men get in, get their business done, and get out, women in rom coms spend ages in the bathroom powdering their nose, crying and consoling one another, or just catching up.
Life isn’t a scene from Clueless. And toilets rarely look as softly lit and welcoming as they do in sitcoms. The majority of the time women go to the toilet, we’re just… going to the toilet. It’s really not that different.
Others argue that men and women have different needs when it comes to toilets: men use urinals and women need sanitary bins for menstrual products.
But let’s compare work and home here. Men don’t need urinals at home — they cope with lifting the lid just fine (mostly). Similarly, men don’t seem too scared by the presence of a bin in the bathroom at home.
In fact, blended bathrooms could be a good opportunity to tackle one of the last great taboos: periods.
How many women have found themselves awkwardly smuggling a tampon into their pocket at work or dreading someone asking if they’re leaving early because they’re taking their bag to the loo?
Half the world is female. Periods really aren’t that unusual. Why do we still sneak around and treat them like a secret? Sharing bathrooms could go a long way towards normalising a natural thing.
The Gender Police
Actually, dividing basic facilities into something as subjective as gender seems pretty impractical. How exactly are we defining a man or a women?
If it’s by how someone looks, do we start turning more masculine women away from the female toilets? Could a guy be too girly to pee in the men’s? Where should that person go then?
If actually you want to divide toilets by sex, how on earth do you enforce that? Genital checks before our designated bathroom? Of course not.
Why do we have a division that’s impossible to actually enforce?
If it ain’t broke
When all other arguments have been exhausted, some downplay the issue. After all, it’s not really a priority is it? It’s fine as it is, right? There’d be all that work… unscrewing signs.
But this isn’t the way it’s always been: separate toilets are a relatively modern idea. As the Industrial Revolution took off, women moved from the home to the public sphere. Deciding women were made of far too delicate stuff to be around men, ‘female’ versions of everything from libraries to toilets popped up.
Does the idea of separate facilities for different people ring any bells? In the Jim Crow South, toilets were not only divided by gender but by race. Black protesters were shot for trying to use ‘white’ bathrooms.
But while the idea of a women’s library or black bathrooms seems absurd, the great bathroom divide is alive and well, defended as something sensible and pragmatic.
It might seem like a small thing to get your knickers in a twist about, but think how many times a day you go to the toilet.
Every single time we go, we’re reinforcing the idea that ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are binary categories to be kept separate — us and them.
We all have to use the bathroom. It’s a basic human need. Let’s stop overcomplicating it. Let’s challenge ourselves to think about whether the status quo really makes sense. Let’s ditch this outdated poop-iarchy.