Public toilets and cultural conflict

When you gotta go, you gotta go and it doesn’t matter who you are or how you identify. Historically, the use of public toilets has been studied from four different and separate perspectives. These are gender, public health, ergonomics, and the spaces people like between themselves and others. Public opinion plays a role and this makes the creation of inclusive public toilets a site of cultural conflict.

Standard toilet block in a rural area signed as Ladies and Gents.

Trans* rights are getting more attention these days and public toilets seem to be an area where public opinion plays a big part. But the trans population is not the only group that has trouble with toilet rooms.

Public toilets have been around for more than 2000 years. They are both public and intimate places at the same time. This gives rise to an emotional response to our need to eliminate and dispose of our waste. We care who we share this public yet intimate space with.

Steinfeld, Thibodeaux and Klaiman have taken up the issues with a view to solving issues by design. That is, to make these public amenities more inclusive. In doing so, it might provide some insights into making other public facilities more inclusive. The title of their research paper is, Public Restrooms: A Site of Cultural Conflict.

The research paper outlines a literature review and the qualitative research methods. The aim is to identify strategies for inclusive restroom design that is acceptable to the US population generally.

From the conclusions

The researchers note that in many parts of North America, any attempt to depart from the conventional binary women/men design will be politicised. Hence they can expect little, if any change. The conventional euro-centric gender segregated restroom is a reflection of a culture that supports a rigid idea of gender identity. Unfortunately, it neglects the realities of diverse needs.

Supporters of trans access to restrooms have focused on changing laws. However, laws do not address the whole problem. They can still face violence and abuse. The design of public toilets needs to be addressed too.

On orange door with a sign saying Unisex Toilet and baby change with icons to match.

A simple strategy for improving trans access is re-signing single user restrooms to be “all-gender”. It is an good initial first step because trans and cisgender people with additional needs can use these restrooms.

From the abstract

Public restrooms have become the major locus of conflict over trans rights. But this is only the latest manifestation of cultural conflicts related to restrooms. Historically, the restroom has been studied through four aligned, but separate, lenses: gender studies, public health, ergonomics, and proxemics.

These four lenses are both interdependent and intersectional. A review of literature paints a picture of how this conflict represents the gulf between embedded cultural values and the lived experience of a diverse population. We hypothesize that there is strong consensus on what people desire in toilet rooms, particularly regarding safety, hygiene, and privacy. However, these desires conflict with a cultural legacy based on hetero-normative values.

This hypothesis was tested through a review of research and preliminary findings from a survey that targets the intersections of gender identity, public health, ergonomics, and boundary regulation. This research leads to a holistic picture of the public restroom and situates the contemporary conflict as the result of polarized public opinion.

Demographics and ideology play an important role in forming opinions. While the public restroom is the main focus, this research improves our understanding about the larger issues. How might our built environment adapt in response to a more nuanced view of gender? How might urban spatial practices serve as catalysts for social change.

*Note that the term “trans” is used to encompass a wide range of gender identities including transgender, intersex, gender non-conforming and others.

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