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Why public toilets are unfair to women

Why public toilets are unfair to women

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Bad toilet design, for one, but also social and cultural reasons.

By Terence Lee

Photo: LYDIA / Creative Commons

WOMEN in many countries face a perennial problem: Long queues at the toilets. Blame it on biology: While men can pee standing up, women who attempt to do create a stinky puddle of mess.

We men suffer too when the toiletry needs of women are not met. We’re forced to wait and carry their Kate Spade bags, filled with a weird assortment of “essential” stuff like makeup kits, tissue paper, and soft toys.

An unnecessary inconvenience really, when we should all be spending the time on shopping — for more Kate Spade bags.

Which is why the problem of inadequate toilet facilities for women deserves the attention of legislators, architects, and bureaucrats, which are positions dominated by men, by the way.

The good news is, Homo Sapians have come a long way from their barbaric past.

Clara Greed, a professor of inclusive urban planning at the University of West England, writes: “…Women’s right to urinate has not been as easily accepted, certainly not in the open and often not in any sense of public space…the lack of toilet provision for woman…was no oversight but part of (a) systematic restriction of women’s access to the city of men.”

Things are certainly changing. In developed countries, female lavatories are de rigueur, although long queues are still an unresolved issue in some parts of the world.

Take Singapore as an example, a developed country with an advanced economy, where public facilities are topnotch and well-maintained (at least the places where tourists visit). But toilets still stink, and the queues are still long. Cinema lavatories, especially, often look as if a Sale is happening right inside.

Says Cherissa Ong, a 23-year-old recent graduate: “After a movie, I desperately needed the toilet because of the drinks I consumed. I ran to the toilet only to be greeted by an extremely long queue. After I did my business and came out, I saw that the woman behind me was still queuing. I wonder what they do in the cubicle?”

Rasyida Sam, a young corporate communications executive, faces this problem often too: “I’m especially impatient when it comes to long queues at the toilet, especially if it’s during the peak hours or when I’ve to rush…sometimes I just decide to ditch the idea of waiting in the queue and hold my pee. Truth!”

The recalcitrant toilets they cited include the ones outside the cinemas at Junction 8 and The Cathay, as well as within shopping malls like Bugis Junction and Plaza Singapura.

Women spend about 79 seconds in the loo, almost twice more than men, who clocked out at 47 seconds.

Granted, some developers in Singapore do display some enlightened feminist sensibilities.

Suntec Convention Centre and The Singapore Expo feature extra toilets for women, although long queues still exist whenever at events like IT fairs (Singaporeans are crazy about gadgets).

Newer cinemas like Kallang Leisure Park and the newly renovated Shaw Theatres Lido boast cavernous toilets with a jaw-dropping amount of cubicles. In Kallang, the loo right outside the cinema has 15 toilet seats. At Lido, I was told the female toilet there has some 20 cubicles.

So, Singapore is on its way towards “potty parity”, although more creative solutions exist to mitigate the problem.

But before we go further, let’s resolve a question that’s been haunting men since sex separation occurred in public lavatories: Why such long queues?

I’ve touched on the architectural reason: Toilets just aren’t big enough for the ladies.

Here’s another: A bevy of studies in the 80s showed that women spend a hell lot of time in the toilet (not that we need research to know that). But Anh Tran, then a Cornell undergraduate, found that women spend about 79 seconds in the loo, almost twice more than men, who clocked out at 47 seconds.

What is not as black-and-white is what accounts for the difference. But we can hazard a few guesses. Biology matters, for sure, but so do social and cultural reasons.

Women are commonly thought to treat toilets as a social experience; where friends bond over the sanitary pad.

Men, on the other hand, find talking in toilets taboo. The strong, silent types have a decidedly utilitarian approach: Unzip, pee, zip. Sex acts revolving around the glory hole, where a man puts his penis through a hole in a cubicle for another man to suck off, also feels somewhat detached (unless you later find out it was your dad’s dick in your mouth).

Perhaps social pressure for women to look good results in extended toilet stays. The loo, in sociologist Erving Goffman’s language, is our backstage area where we preen ourselves for the world. Men only need to fix their hair, but women… has to do whatever they do in there.

Lastly, the female gender’s role as primary caregivers to children is a factor. Women have to breastfeed and change diapers. They are also more likely to lug children around with them.

There are many creative solutions to the lack of potty parity, other than simply building bigger toilets for women. We just have to look to advanced European countries like Netherlands and Sweden, which are paradises for feminists.

The first solution involves changing women’s toilet behaviour, by enabling them to pee standing up. Devices existing out there do just this: They’re called she-pees, or she-wees, which are basically water-proofed cupboard funnels which you place under the vagina.

Can this humble contraption bring potty parity?

Singapore-based liquid waste management company QoolEnviro has even imported a similar contraption, the P-Mate, from Netherlands, where women happily use urinals to pee (see our product review here).

Granted, behaviour change takes time, and Singaporeans are not exactly queueing up to buy the device.

The second solution, already widely implemented in Sweden, involves installing permanent unisex toilets in public areas.

This arrangement has many benefits: Demand for toilet usage is more evenly distributed across all cubicles, awkwardness generated when transgendered people use lavatories is eliminated, and self-contained unisex toilets (like portable loos) are more efficient when it comes to cleaning.

Furthermore, we’re more familiar with the concept than we think. Airplane toilets and portable loos are unisex, and we accept their existence.

Of course, installing them in a shopping mall requires a paradigm shift. Some women understandably, are uncomfortable with the idea.

“Some men can’t aim. Do I need to elaborate more?” says Cherissa.

Rasyida, on the other hand, having seen how such toilets are implemented in Sweden, embraces the idea: “If we have unisex toilets where one specific cubicle has everything including the sink and mirror, it could be a feasible concept. Much like the handicap toilet.”

As for me, well, I’m all for unisex toilets — if it cuts down the time I spend waiting for my girlfriend.

Read more toilet articles here.