Public toilets as we know them in our Western society today are designed around the segregation of people into “men” and “women”: before entering, we have to decide based on their respective signage between the facilities for male and those for female users. Whichever door we go through, we generally find ourselves in a large space containing multiple washbasins and cubicles (and, in the men’s, often a number of urinals). If a third door is present, it usually bears a pictograph of a person in a wheelchair – a sign that, when set against the other two, seems to suggest people with disabilities have no gender – and leads to a room with facilities including a wheelchair-accessible washbasin for disabled users. Way beyond the scope of the signage, the design of public toilets is problematic – with those for the disabled for instance frequently falling far short of the promised accessibility.
Many questions come up: Why do some buildings offer fewer restrooms for women than for men? Why does the design of public restrooms treat women and men unequally? Why are baby change units mostly placed in women’s restrooms? Are there no fathers with babies who need such a unit? What should they do? Why are accessible bathrooms often locked and the keys out of reach? How should menstruating people manoeuvre the spatial segregation of toilet and washbasin? What about those who identify neither as male nor female? And those whose do not conform to gender stereotypes in their appearance? The current design of our public restrooms, in fact, discriminates against the majority of the population.
Public restrooms are not only segregated into “men”, “women” and “disabled”. There are also fewer restrooms for women than for men, even way less are disability-friendly. Since many public buildings, those of companies and factories included were designed and built by able-bodied, white, heterosexual men and at a time when few women and disabled people studied at universities or worked in office blocks, just to point out two examples, these groups were overlooked or ignored. Even though today public restrooms for women and disabled exist, their numbers are still low. As architecture and design researchers, Kathryn H. Anthony and Meghan Dufresne point out in their text “Potty Parity in Perspective: Gender and Family Issues in Planning and Designing Public Restrooms” (2007) this form of discrimination leads to health effects, especially for women. Almost one-quarter of all adults with female reproductive organs is menstruating right now. Women are also more likely to suffer from incontinence or have to take care of small children. Those are stress factors, all the more when no (free) toilet is available.
Only cubics of so-called women’s restrooms are (often, not always) equipped with sanitary containers. For those who identify as men, but who nevertheless menstruate, this poses one only out of many problems that come along with the current design of public restrooms. Even if cubics are equipped with sanitary containers, a washbasin is only located outside of this unit. Who first washes hands in order to be able to then change a pad or a tampon, or to empty a menstruation cup, in a hygienic way has to still figure out how to open and close the door of the cubic without getting in contact with new germs. The spatial design makes it impossible to rinse a menstruation cup. Before getting dressed again and leaving the cubic, the hands can only be cleaned from blood in an inconvenient and improvised way with the help of toilet paper or brought along wet wipes.
Studies such as Jody L. Herman’s paper “Gendered Restrooms and Minority Stress” reveal that conventional public toilet design not only ignores and excludes transgender and gender non-conforming people, it also exposes them to danger and can lead to conflict situations. According to a survey detailed in Herman’s paper, 18 percent of respondents have been denied access to a public toilet, 68 per cent have experienced verbal harassment, such as having their gender questioned, while nine per cent were even physically assaulted. 54 percent of respondents reported health problems attributable to their avoidance of public toilets (as a result of holding it in, for instance). These findings show that such facilities are not accessible to and safe for everyone equally.
How can public toilets be made safe for, accessible to, and usable by all? In 2003, students at the University of California in Santa Barbara set up the initiative “People in Search of Safe and Accessible Restrooms” (PISSAR). Equipped with a tape measure, clipboard, and checklist, they set off on patrol, assessing, documenting, and mapping every single facility on campus. Their checklist included questions on toilet door signage, on the availability (or otherwise) of handrails, on the height of mirrors, washbasins, and tampon dispensers, and on the availability and location of baby-changing tables. In addition to drawing attention to the issue, the campaigners and the data they gathered helped to highlight failings and put pressure on the university managers to address them. PISSAR’s efforts not only resulted in toilets being redesigned but also in the university agreeing as a matter of policy that all future building projects should feature both accessible and gender-neutral toilets. Though the group has since disbanded, it has inspired many other activists.
Architecture and design studios should learn from these initiatives and work on solutions. Of course, also laws and norms have to change, but designers can significantly contribute to a rethinking of public and private commissioners. Very often studios propose gender neutral cubicle-based, open-plan facilities, that are still based on a seperation of toilets and washbasins. These are only a superficial solution. They still discriminate against menstruation persons. And also against women who are in search of a moment for themselves, to look into a mirror or to readjust their headscarf. Moments in which everyone should actually feel safe. But the shared space in which the washbasins and mirrors are placed offers no shelter from the male gaze. The stress that they feel can be even many times bigger for survivors of sexual violence.
The concept of the cubicle-based, open-plan facilities needs to be replaced by individual, accessible rooms each with a single toilet, a sanitary container, a washbasin and no gender-specific signage. As a consequence, there would not only be enough space for wheelchair users, but also for people with a pram, and children and persons who are dependent on assistance. Public restrooms should be designed in a way that makes them safe and accessible to everyone. It also has to respond to all needs and take care of survivors of sexual violence, especially women and transgender.
- Kathryn H. Anthony and Meghan Dufresne, “Potty Parity in Perspective: Gender and Family Issues in Planning and Designing Public Restrooms”, Journal of Planning Literature, 2017.
- Jody L. Herman, “Gendered Restrooms and Minority Stress: The Public Regulation of Gender and Its Impact on Transgender People’s Lives”, The Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law, 2013.
- Alison Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.
- Simone Chess, Alison Kafer, Jessi Quizar, Mattie Udora Richardson, “Calling all Restroom Revolutionaries!”, in: Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (ed.), That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation, Berkeley: Soft Skull Press, 2008.
A former version of this text was published in issue 270 (March/April 2017) of the design magazine form.
Anja Neidhardt is a Berlin-based design curator and writer. Since January 2018 she is co-creating Depatriarchise Design together with Maya Ober. Besides from also being a member of the editorial team of the German magazine ROM, she writes for different international design publications and teaches Design History and Theory at the Academy of Visual Arts in Frankfurt/Main.