Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors.
Public buildings in the United Kingdom will soon be required to have gender-specific toilets, after a consultation on the provision of toilet facilities whose results were published in January 2021 (UK Government, 2021). It states that toilet provision must be adapted to everyone’s needs, and that clear guidance is needed around this topic. It also asserts that proper toilet provision can only be achieved through the presence of gender-specific toilets, going against a movement in the last few years towards more gender-neutral toilet facilities (Milton, 2021), which was especially led in education institutions (Sleight, 2017).
The advantages of gender-neutral toilets
Gender-neutral toilets, also called unisex toilets, are facilities that can be used by individuals of any gender, whereas gender-specific toilets can be used by either women or men. The latter can be harmful to transgender and transsexual individuals. Indeed, they may be forced to use a toilet which does not correspond to their gender because of their appearance or sex of birth (Sleight, 2017). In North Carolina a law passed in March 2016 to make it mandatory for people to use the toilet corresponding to their sex of birth, ripping off trans rights (Thorn, 2016). Gender-specific toilets are also an issue for individuals who have gender ambiguity at birth or who identify as non-binary (Olagnol Le Sam, 2017).
Gender-neutral toilets can also be very beneficial to women. Indeed, women’s public toilets are often characterised by a longer waiting time than that faced by men. It is due to the longer time women spend in the toilets, namely 2:46 minutes against 1:38 minutes for males. Several reasons explain this phenomenon, such as menstruation care or the impossibility to use urinals. The results of a study led by Gand University in Belgium show that unisex toilets would lead to a 63% decrease in waiting time for women (Olagnol Le Sam, 2017).
Another advantage of gender-neutral toilets is linked to costs. Indeed, there can be organisational issues in the cleaning of gender-specific toilets because cleaners must be of the same gender as users. This is not a problem with gender-neutral toilets, making them more cost-effective. Moreover, building gender-neutral toilets is cheaper because it uses repetitive detailing. On top of that, gender-neutral toilets in schools were noticed to be subject to virtually no vandalism, contrary to gender-specific toilets, thereby decreasing cleaning costs too. Last but not least, at school, gender-neutral toilets are less favourable to bullying, whether or not based on gender grounds (Sleight, 2017).
Obstacles to the implementation of unisex toilets
Nonetheless, there are significant obstacles to the implementation of unisex toilets, and these are of a cultural and social order. Indeed, an important proportion of women affirms not feeling safe in gender-neutral toilets. According to YouGov, 56% feel that way in the United Kingdom, and more than 45% of American and French women (Gomes dos Santos). Consequently, even if gender-neutral toilets seem to be beneficial in the several ways evoked above, they cannot be imposed at a psychological cost on women.
This does not mean that aggressions are more frequent in unisex toilets. Indeed, no study has yet proven such a thing (Milton, 2021). However, the fear of gender-neutral toilets is understandable for several reasons. First, men’s toilets often contain more litter and stronger odours than women’s, raising concerns about health if toilets are shared. The dirtiness of toilets can therefore drive a feeling of insecurity and repulsion in women. Second, even if figures on rapes committed in toilets are not available, women have the feeling that unisex facilities would lead them to be at higher risk of being sexually assaulted. This is especially backed by the fact that over 90% of sexual aggressions in changing rooms occurred in unisex facilities (Hosie, 2018). There is, however, a difference between changing rooms, which are open areas, and toilets, which are closed individual spaces, the shared area being only composed of sinks.
Experimentation and policy
The greatest obstacle to a successful implementation of unisex toilets is therefore mentalities, as we lack evidence on aggressions in gender-neutral toilets. The establishment of such facilities should therefore be subject to two main criteria.
1. Consultation: the conception and implementation of gender-neutral toilets must be subject to a consultation of women, men and transgender people as well as specialists in related topics.
2. Experimentation: gender-neutral toilets must be implemented to measure the feeling of insecurity experienced by women in mixed facilities and see what can lower it, especially in the long term.
By creating gender-neutral facilities, evidence on the likelihood of aggressions and on the evolution of feelings of insecurity can be collected to evaluate whether gender-specific facilities should exist in all public spaces. However, it seems crucial to keep gender-specific toilets in some settings, such as bars or clubs, as alcohol consumption really increases the likelihood of sexual aggression, for example.
To conclude, gender-neutral toilets can have numerous advantages. Nonetheless, current evidence does not allow us to tell whether the feeling of insecurity women undergo using gender-neutral toilets can be attenuated by certain arrangements and toilet designs, and whether sexual aggressions are more likely than in settings with gender-specific facilities. It would therefore be interesting to conduct real-world experiments to collect data on such parameters to assess policies, especially the United Kingdom’s recent push for mandatory gender-specific toilets in public spaces.
Gomes dos Santos, Valentina (n.d.). Rebel [online] Available at: <https://www.rebelessex.com/2017/11/unisex-toilets-freedom-fear-women/> [Retrieved 18/06/2021]
Hosie, Rachel (2018). “Unisex changing rooms put women at danger of sexual assault, data reveals”. The Independent [online] Available at: <https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/women/sexual-assault-unisex-changing-rooms-sunday-times-women-risk-a8519086.html> [Retrieved 18/06/2021]
Milton, John (2021). “Public buildings must provide separate single-sex toilets under new government rules”. Pink News [online] Available at: <https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2021/05/17/gender-neutral-toilets-public-buildings-single-sex-uk-robert-jenrick/> [Retrieved 18/06/2021]
Olagnol Le Sam, Elise (2017). “Pour ou contre les toilettes unisexes?”. Fourchette & Bikini [online] Available at: <https://www.fourchette-et-bikini.fr/actus/pour-ou-contre-les-toilettes-unisexes-54467.html> [Retrieved 18/06/2021]
Sleight, Christopher (2017). “Why fit unisex toilets in schools?”. BBC [online] Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-39192130> [Retrieved 18/06/2021]
Thorn, Rachel (2016). “Why toilets are a battleground for transgender rights”. BBC [online] Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-36395646> [Retrieved 18/06/2021]
UK Government (2021). “Toilet provision for men and women: call for evidence”. UK Government [online] Available at: <https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/toilet-provision-for-men-and-women-call-for-evidence/toilet-provision-for-men-and-women-call-for-evidence> [Retrieved 18/06/2021]
By Clementine Bachelart
Clementine is a first year Philosophy, Politics and Economics student. Passionate about international relations, international development and cultural issues, she also loves debating and playing music.