Defend Truth


To pee or not to pee? That is the gender-neutral question


Le Roux is a researcher based in Cape Town. She has a keen interest in the thoughtful protection of all that is fragile, important and irreplaceable. She writes about environmental and social issues and holds a Masters’ degree in Environmental Management.

Are gender-neutral public toilets really such a good idea? The truth is that women have different biological needs to men, and gender-specific bathrooms offer safe refuge.

A fresh debate was sparked recently around the configuration of public bathrooms when the DA’s Western Cape leader, Bonginkosi Madikizela called for the abolishment of bathrooms separated on the basis of sex, in favour of gender-neutral bathrooms.

After passing through Cape Town International Airport, he posted the following on social media:

I find it backwards, discriminating and stereotyping that just because you are a male, you must be searched by a male. If you are a female, you must be searched by a female at the airport, what about members of LGBTQI+? I’m gonna challenge this. We must also do away with male and female toilets, we must have unisex toilets.

While it was not specified exactly what such a scenario would entail, one can draw on examples of places that have in recent years opted to roll out unisex/gender-neutral bathrooms without the option of conventional female or male bathrooms.

It is critical to ensure that gender non-binary members of our society feel safe and to create inclusive spaces that respond to everyone’s Constitutional rights to safety and dignity. These two rights often intersect on a fundamental level when it comes to sanitation.

Due to the fact that all bathroom users, including women, would also be impacted by changes to public bathrooms, widespread consultation and gender mainstreaming should precede the adoption of new policies on public bathrooms to ensure that a solution can be found that does not place any person at a disadvantage.

The need for gender inclusivity in public spaces

In a study by The Other Foundation in 2016, it was estimated that at least 1.4% (roughly 530,000 people) of the adult South African population, (including men, women and people of all population groups, rural and urban dwellings and across age groups), identified as either homosexual, bisexual, or gender non-conforming in some way. This is similar to the average ratio observed in other countries across the world. Furthermore, approximately 430,000 men and almost 2.8 million women present themselves in public in a gender non-conforming way.

In the same study, it was stated that 80% of people interviewed indicated that they have never and would not consider verbally or physically abusing someone who is gender non-conforming. It unfortunately leaves a concerning question mark over the remaining 20%. Furthermore, the report estimated that in the prior year, 450,000 South Africans have physically harmed women “who dress and behave like men in public”, while 240,000 physically harmed men who “dressed and behaved like women.”

This paints an alarming picture of the life of gender minority groups in South Africa. Internationally, as well as in South Africa, the safety of gender non-conforming people, especially in spaces such as public bathrooms, is of great concern. Verbal, physical or sexual abuse (including corrective rape) against members of the LGBTQI+ community is unfortunately not uncommon and it is critical that safe and inclusive spaces, including public bathrooms, exist.

There is a lack of comprehensive research on bathroom preferences in South Africa, as well as safety statistics specifically around the use of public bathrooms. Such studies would go a long way to inform the public debate around the optimal configuration of public bathrooms to ensure the protection of rights of all users.

The conventional approach of having separate male and female bathrooms creates spaces where gender non-conforming people may feel unsafe and fear being victimised, assaulted, or raped. Some members of the LGBTQI+ community may therefore prefer a gender-neutral bathroom to the traditional gender-binary approach to bathrooms, especially in settings where people may not traditionally be allowed to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender.

How did we get here?

The history of why public bathrooms are segregated by sex is slightly complex and differs around the world. Before the Victorian era, women were repressed and expected to be confined to the home environment, while men were engaging in economic activities in public.

During this time, public bathrooms in the Western world were male-only. On the occasions that women needed bathroom facilities while not at home, they had to improvise, make use of a urinette, or “hold it”, as there were no public bathrooms for women. The first known public bathroom segregated by sex was recorded in Paris in 1739.

The very fact that women enjoy access to public bathroom facilities today was a major victory for women’s rights, redefining the place and role of women in society.

With changing realities and economic conditions in the 19th century in America, women started securing their place in a variety of sectors across the country. In Massachusetts, women worked alongside men, often outnumbering them in factories in mill towns. In the late 1800s, partially as a result of calls for bathrooms at the workplace for women, but also due to cholera outbreaks, cultural notions about women being the weaker sex, as well as Victorian values of modesty and privacy, discussions about the single-user only bathrooms at the workplace started taking place. This gave rise to legislation that established sex-separated bathrooms at the workplace.

Public bathrooms from a woman’s perspective

The debate around public bathrooms is often presented as a practical and logistical problem: that waiting times for women using public restrooms far outweigh the average waiting time for men (often termed the “potty-parity problem”); and that gender non-conforming persons often feel unsafe and uncomfortable in a conventional bathroom configuration where they are forced to conform to the traditional single-sex bathrooms.

The conventional solution that is offered, mostly by men, is to abolish male and female bathrooms altogether and to only provide for gender-neutral bathrooms for everyone to use, as it would solve both the issues mentioned above. While a unisex-only bathroom approach may seem progressive, it creates a suite of new problems – the inconvenience of which is mostly borne by women.

Let us, for a moment, only consider a woman’s perspective (admitting this may not necessarily reflect the view of all women) on the issue of sharing a bathroom with cisgender, heterosexual males in public and workspaces.

More than half the people alive today in South Africa are women. This does not necessarily grant women a majority vote in how public spaces should be laid out, but it warrants women having an important voice in the debate.

Men and women have fundamentally different hygienic needs and use bathrooms differently – a lot of which comes down to biology. For starters, women sit down on a toilet seat every time they need to use a bathroom, while men need to use a toilet much less when urinals are available, as a time and water-efficient way of taking care of their needs. This may potentially limit men’s exposure to some diseases, while women are more exposed to its transfer in public settings.

Men don’t menstruate. They don’t use menstrual cups and sanitary towels, experience menopause or some of the uncomfortable bodily changes that some women undergo after childbirth, and therefore men do not need the same forms of privacy and comfort that are required around such biological realities. But women do.

If this discussion was about the use of public park benches, it would have been very different, as park benches are one facility we use in the same manner.

Furthermore, South Africa’s shocking statistics on abuse and sexual assault of women and children should constantly be kept in mind when developing models for safe and inclusive public spaces. One of the few arrangements in society that provide women with some power when it comes to their safety, is the separation of bathrooms for men and women in public spaces, including at the workplace.

Apart from privacy and social considerations, this separation gives women power as it provides them with a quick filter mechanism to discern whether or not they are in potential danger.

One only has to remember the horrific rape incident that occurred in 2018 when a young girl was followed into the female bathroom at a Dros family restaurant. When the male was spotted in the female bathroom, it was immediately clear that he was not supposed to be there and he could immediately be labelled as a threat.

This incident also highlights the fact that public bathrooms are not only used by adults, but also by children who sometimes use these facilities on their own. In other words, ensuring separate bathrooms for women (including young girls) helps to limit the opportunity and ease with which a potential attacker could strike.

Another consideration is the fact that the “ladies’ room” is more than merely an ablution facility. It is a safe space in a world where women’s needs are often not considered, prioritised or catered for. At the workplace, it is often a space of safety and privacy, of getting away from sexism, or for sharing and bonding with other women.

Women (like all members of society) have a right to feel safe. Whether or not women would be less safe when sharing bathrooms with cisgender, heterosexual males, is one issue, but women may feel less safe. This could lead to women opting not to make use of bathrooms in public, regressing the very progress made centuries ago to ensure that women enjoy the same level of access to bathrooms in public as men!

The way forward

Not all bathrooms are created equal – some were designed to compete at the Ally McBeal level, while others are at the end of long, dark and hidden alleys of shopping malls or train stations.

It may well be of worth to consider the appropriateness of different options on a case-by-case basis, but with the realities women and children face in South Africa, it would be ill-advised to do away with women-only spaces.

In unisex bathrooms with more than one stall (and as a matter of fact, any public bathroom), security, privacy and protection against voyeurism, sexism, indecent exposure, intimidation and violence should be central considerations in the layout and design of bathrooms.

To mitigate such concerns, one possible solution is to keep male and female bathrooms separate, but, as some shopping malls have started, to offer family bathrooms (and as most already make provision for disabled persons), have an additional gender-neutral bathroom. This way provides an alternative option to people who feel uncomfortable using binary male or female bathrooms, while it would still be available to anyone else to use as well, without taking safety and comfort away from women and young girls.

Public bathrooms have been evolving in response to societal realities and political changes for centuries. While we have come a long way to respect the rights of women as equal members of society and with equal space in the economic sphere, we need to continue to strive towards the equal and fair inclusion of all members of society.

The only way to ensure that a suitable solution is found is to facilitate widespread consultation with all affected parties. It requires careful consideration of available options to uphold the safety and rights of all bathroom users, including women and children. DM


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