By Tess Beck
Toilets seem to be a hot topic at the moment among transactivists, the religious right and radical feminists. This is due in part to legislation introduced in North Carolina* making it illegal for people to use bathroom facilities that do not correspond to the sex recorded on their birth certificate.
This leads to the unedifying spectacle of Caitlyn Jenner (obnoxious Trump supporter) using the ladies’ at Trump Towers and making rapey jokes about it.
But even more worrying is this scene, where a woman is forcibly removed by police from a public bathroom, because she is judged not to look sufficiently feminine and she is not carrying ID on her to prove her sex.
Meanwhile, here in the UK there is no legislation about who can use male or female washroom or changing facilities. In practice, most businesses recognise the discomfort users may suffer if they see someone of the opposite sex in their changing room or toilet, and will put up warning signs as appropriate when cleaning/ maintenance is being undertaken by a male or female operative, or even temporarily close the facilities. We hope that all users, especially women, would have the confidence and means to report anyone using a public lavatory or changing rooms whose behaviour gave them cause for concern.
But public toilets have long been a feminist issue here, and not for the reasons the American controversies would have you believe. Although public toilets for men were introduced for men in the 1820s, they were not introduced for women until several decades later. Providing public toilets for women enabled respectable women to be present in public space, which is why it was controversial. Reforming organisations such as the Ladies Sanitary Association continued to campaign for better provision into the 1880s.
Now in the 21st century, there is still far less provision of public toilets for women than men. This is despite recommendations that the ratio of provision should actually be 2:1 in favour of women, as it is in Japan.
Local authority cuts and concerns about the use of public toilets for anti-social and illegal activities have led to a decline in the number of public toilets across the UK. The lack of availability of public toilets leads to certain groups of people not going out for fear of being caught short. This particularly affects older people, people with disabilities and their carers, people with irritable bowel disorders, pregnant women, parents and carers of small children. This leads to greater social isolation for these groups of people, who are mostly women.