Unisex public toilets can be used by people of any sex, gender or gender identity, i.e. male, female, transgender, intersex. Gender-neutral or mixed-sex toilet facilities can benefit transgender populations and people outside of the gender binary.
Unisex bathrooms are becoming increasingly popular – but it’s still a contentious subject in some quarters. Just look at the ‘bathroom bill’ debate that’s currently raging on the other side of the Atlantic.
In recent years, society has made huge strides towards gender equality – but unfortunately, we still have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to washrooms. It may not be obvious on the face of it, but traditional bathroom design has always favoured men: women tend to use the bathroom more frequently than males because, on the whole, women have smaller bladders. Unlike males, they also need to attend to matters of feminine hygiene.
Women also take longer to use the bathroom, not only because they need to urinate in a seated position, but also because women’s clothing (tights, skirts etc.) is generally more restrictive.
The problem is that even though women use the bathroom more frequently and take a longer time to do so, male and female bathrooms have always tended to be the same size. This results in long, uncomfortable queues for the ladies’ room. Queuing for the toilet isn’t something men have to deal with – so why should women? Unisex bathrooms would go a long way towards leveling the playing field and helping to ensure so-called ‘line equality’.
Gender neutral washrooms are also far more inclusive for transgender people. Deciding which bathroom to use is a common problem for people who identify as transgender; in a recent US survey of transgender people, nearly one in ten respondents reported that they’d been denied access to a bathroom in the past year. It’s a sad fact that transgender people can also face taunting, threats, and even violence for using the ‘wrong’ bathroom. If unisex bathrooms were to become the norm, this would no longer be a problem.
Another benefit of unisex bathrooms is that they make it far easier for parents to accompany children of the opposite sex to the bathroom. Most men would feel uncomfortable entering a women’s bathroom, and vice-versa; the only alternative is to let children use the facilities unattended. Although it’s rare, leaving children unattended in public bathrooms can have tragic consequences: in 1998, a nine-year-old boy was murdered in a public restroom when his aunt decided to let him use the men’s bathroom alone.
Finally, there’s another, altogether less high-minded benefit to installing a unisex bathroom: they save money. By having a single bathroom for all users, you’ll save your business valuable square footage, which can be put to use for more commercial purposes. You’ll also need to purchase and install fewer fixtures overall, which in turn in will reduce the amount of money and time you spend on maintenance and cleaning.
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Of course, unisex bathrooms are a contentious issue, which is reflected by the intense media scrutiny to which they’ve been subjected over the past few years. One of the main concerns of the people who oppose unisex bathrooms is that they could lead to a rise in sexual assaults. Others may object to them on religious grounds.
Much of the controversy surrounding gender neutral bathrooms seems to centre on children. When a state primary school in London fitted unisex bathrooms, it prompted fury among many parents, and an online petition against the toilets attracted over a thousand signatures.
Furthermore, many people feel embarrassed by using the toilet around people of their own gender, much less the opposite gender. Paruresis, or ‘shy bladder’ syndrome, is form of social anxiety that prevents sufferers from being able to go to the toilet in the presence of others. It’s thought to affect around 4 million men and women in the UK, although the real total may be far higher – by its very nature, paruresis tends to be underreported. While there’s no data on how unisex bathrooms affect bladder shyness, it’s reasonable to assume that the problem would be compounded by the presence of members of the opposite sex.
All that said, the increasing prevalence of unisex bathrooms is no doubt a byproduct of the wider move towards complete gender equality in society in general. After all, we don’t separate bathrooms by race or religion – so why do we still segregate them by gender? The likelihood is that those who oppose unisex bathrooms will soon find themselves on the wrong side of history, and if social trends are anything to go by, then mixed gender washrooms may well soon become the norm.
With that in mind, let’s turn our attention to the practical aspects of building a gender neutral washroom.