Going to the toilet outside of the home is an issue we all encounter in our daily lives, and it becomes especially pressing when travelling, changing cities or expatriating.
In Europe, on-street toilets are generally rare, or hard to find. In fact, most cities don’t acknowledge the biological needs of city-users at all, as if emptying bladders and intestines, as well as taking care of menstrual bleeding was too private or too shameful to be mentioned in the public sphere. What we do in the toilet is simply kept off the streets.
Where on-street toilets do exist, it often takes a lot of courage — or desperation — to enter one. A common guarantee of at last minimal hygiene and comfort is an entrance fee. Depending on where you are, the fee can vary between 50 cents and 2 euros. And again, this doesn’t seem like much when you hear the nature call. Not so on an empty bladder, though.
The longer you look at this without having your judgment clouded by ammonia-induced hallucinations, the worse it gets. If you stare at the issue of public toilets long enough, you will see it’s a question of having your rights denied, your identity oppressed. Especially if you’re a woman, but also as an elderly or a sick person. Certain religious groups, the disabled and parents with small babies are affected by it, too.
Discrimination in the loo
There is one group which isn’t affected. It’s the healthy, Christian men of working age. Why? Because they were the ones who effectively designed public toilets in the days of nascent public healthcare. They were the ones who subsequently exported this flawed system – together with their equally flawed patriarchy – to the so-called “colonies”. Today, it’s still largely members of that same group who hold positions of power, retaining the ability to make decisions that affect groups they are not members of.
This status quo doesn’t necessarily stem from misogyny of our toilet-founding fathers. Rather, it stems from their thorough lack of understanding of women’s needs. Talking openly across genders about the practicalities of menstruation is uncommon even today, and so the knowledge of women’s toileting needs isn’t nearly as universal as it should be.
It boils down to a very simple concept: women’s toileting needs are greater than men’s. This is because we bleed from our uteri for up to five days a month and we generally need a toilet to take care of our bodies while they bleed. Because of our anatomic design, we need more space than a man to take care of all our bodily functions. And because we need to expose more flesh to get things done, our need for privacy and hygiene is greater than a man’s.
At this point, it is worth repeating another well-known fact: women are disadvantaged also in the economic sense by earning only 78% of what our male counterparts do, while paying between 5% and 20% tax on basic hygiene products.
Towards toilet equality
So what does it mean that toilets that are easily accessible, free-of-charge, hygienic and safe are so rare in most European countries? It means that the needs of women, as well as other groups, are not considered a priority. In fact, while some cities have made an effort to clean up their public toilets, they have also reduced their numbers – as in the case of Vienna, where there were a meagre 270 public toilets before the “clean-up”; afterwards there will be 150. It’ll cost 50 cents to use one. And this is a city which for several years has topped the rankings of “most liveable” cities in the world!
Public toilets should be a common feature in the urban landscape, especially now that urban dwellers constitute over 50% of the world’s population. There are many positive examples around the world that the EU should adopt. The famous “potty parity” law adopted in the US, Hong Kong and Singapore ensures a 2 to 1 ratio on female to male toilets. New Zealand has made toilet wait times that don’t exceed 3 minutes a matter of its human rights legislation. More countries should follow France’s example, where legislation was passed in 2012 to ensure that all public toilets are free of charge.
There are many voices coming primarily from the LGBTQIA community in the US, but in Europe as well, that call for a revision of the cis-gendered way we’ve been organising our bodily functions. What they propose resembles the racial desegregation of toilets (amongst all other public spaces) which took place in the 1960s in the South of the US and in the 1990s in South Africa, and could put an end to the discrimination so many groups — women, the elderly, the poor and homeless, as well as sick and disabled — put up with today.
In a city you aren’t familiar with, big brands can easily cash in on how recognizable they are – for that brief moment when your bladder feels like it’s going to burst, the yellow arches and green mermaids are a piece of home away from home. A couple of euros for a strawberry milkshake that’ll serve as your pass to the magical room of running water and toilet paper doesn’t seem like an exorbitant sum to pay. This is how these corporations have become unofficial leaders of the toileting sector.
City authorities make the easy assumption that since off-street toilets are readily available – in bars and restaurants, in shopping centres, and in museums – there is no need for on-street toilets that are accessible to anyone, i.e. free of charge. Though it can be easily pegged as a typical element of neoliberal hegemony, the current public toilet policy isn’t merely driven by making a profit.
We live in cities constructed and run by privileged men. Menstruation, disabilities and illnesses are invisible to many. Lack of universal access to clean toilets and running water can limit women, the disabled, sick and old to the home. In order to reclaim the cities, we need to talk about going to the toilet more.