The response isn’t about toilets, but about women demanding more than they are “given”
Last week, many people took time out of their busy schedules to tell me I was a moron, should shut up, and should learn to urinate like a man. These suggestions, ranging from irritable to misogynistic and violent, came in response to an article I wrote for TIME about the history and politics of women waiting in line for public toilets. In an effort to better understand opposing points of view, I’ve categorized the objections into 10 themes:
- Women should learn to stand, commonly understood to be a superior method of elimination. Many people even pointed me to helpful products. The argument goes that women should stand to overcome their “inferior biology,” whereas men sitting “like women” is emasculating—even though 30% of men surveyed prefer sitting. After millions of sit-to-pee gadgets were sold in Germany and people in Sweden started teaching boys to “be a sweetie and take a seatie,” there was a backlash among men in Britain and the United States lamenting the end of men. If you think women standing is “empowering” but men sitting is emasculating, tell the U.S. Navy, which eliminated urinals on aircraft carriers in 2012.
- Women may have to wait in lines, but men’s rooms are disgusting. However true, this objection is irrelevant to women disproportionately waiting in long lines. And there are efforts to clean up men’s bathrooms. In Taiwan, Japan, and Sweden, there are public health initiatives for men to sit because standing is less sanitary and less healthy, and urinals take longer to clean and come at greater public cost.
- Women should stop preening in front of the mirror. I could find no studies that measure this stereotype. However, several consumer surveys found that men spend more time grooming in general. In any case, women aren’t standing in lines for mirrors, but for stalls.
- Women should stop going to the toilet together. In many countries, including ours, girls are frequently socialized to go to bathrooms with others because they have to be ever vigilant about avoiding rape. In point of fact, young boys, sexually assaulted just as frequently, should be taught precautions too. Instead, rape myths maintain that boys can’t be raped, so we put them at higher risk and mock girls for “staying safe.”
- Your female opinion must be dismissed. Many people didn’t read the article, concluding that I was saying, for example, that “peeing standing up is sexist.” They saw the word “sexism,” and responded with a profusion of unimaginative gendered slurs, like “dumb b**ch.”
- Stop lying. Among the rebuttals I received were: “No woman breastfeeds in public restrooms,” and “How can you say women stand in lines more than men?” Yet there is an entire campaign to raise awareness about women breastfeeding in public restrooms. As for men waiting in lines: yes, this happens, most often in places where there are comparably few women (e.g., Silicon Valley or the military).
- This isn’t “the battle that feminism should be focused on.” The issue here is a centrally important one: we need to understand and stop perpetuating discriminatory norms developed when women had almost no legal rights and were largely barred from contributing to defining culture. This basic problem is as true in the law, medicine, and media as it is in the design of public spaces.
- Stop “being a victim” because “no one is making women wait in line.” Unfortunately, women can’t actually walk away from the bodily-fluid-filled reality of our lives, including leaking breast milk, seeping blood, or bladders possibly being crushed by pregnancy. Pointing out this reality no more makes a woman a victim than if a man describes a problem with the low height of stroller handles.
- This is the result of biology, so deal with it. As one person on Twitter put it, “biology doesn’t design toilets.” It matters that people who do not have these concerns make up the vast majority of legislators, the foreign service, our military, and humanitarian aid decision makers. Women’s input and meeting women’s basic physical and safety needs are important, and incorporating them would mean more effective solutions to everything from urban design that includes better sanitary facilities to disaster relief to environmental policies.
- This is a “first world problem” because “women in the middle east (sic) are getting acid thrown in their faces after they’ve been raped” and “men go to war.” These issues are global ones, as India’s “Right to Pee” campaign, and China’s “Occupy Men’s Toilets” protest illustrate. Setting aside the implied dismissal of egregious gender-based violence in the United States, which is firmly in the middle of the global pack, women do suffer gravely elsewhere, including, notably, from having no safe access to sanitary facilities. Even in our recent past, this problem has inhibited girls’ ability to attend school and women’s ability to work. It contributes to illness and exacerbates poverty. In disasters, our inability to plan for women’s bodily needs results in higher mortality rates for girls and women. As for war, militarism is directly linked to gender inequality and sex segregation.
All of this in response to the simple question of why women are still not having their basic needs equitably met. During the past three decades, laws focused on “Potty Parity,” an infantilizing term redolent with Victorian shame, have been passed in the United States, and yet the problem persists. Increasingly, as the result of effective LGTBQ activism, communities are developing organic and often hybrid solutions, including gender-neutral bathrooms, that more equitably address everyone’s needs. If Viennese urban planners have done it for their city, surely we can do it for our public toilets?
Outraged people, employing ad hominem attacks, suggested I’d posited a “conspiracy,” and were particularly put out by the word “sexism,” something they associate with an individual’s explicitly intended discriminatory behavior. So why such virulent responses to an article about reducing women’s wait times and recounting history? The response isn’t about toilets but about when women—and other historically marginalized people—demand more than they are “given” and stop quietly accepting historically permissible marginalization in the public sphere.
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