Gender-neutral toilets are not a neutral option for women...

by Catherine Monaghan

May 14 2024

Recently I attended a play at The Abbey Theatre in Dublin. I was with a few women friends, and we had a lovely night. The play was great. To a woman, though, we were surprised and unimpressed to find the toilets were gender neutral.

Why are the toilets gender-neutral? What does this achieve? Who does it appease?

Most of us are aware on some level that to openly ask these questions is now a bit taboo. Nobody came out exclaiming “What’s going on with the toilets?”. It was more a matter of hushed tones and either eye-rolling or questioning looks.

We’re being gaslit¹.

We all know  that there are very good reasons why women need women’s toilets. The same reasons that we needed them fifty years ago - safety, dignity, and privacy at a time when we are vulnerable - still exist today. Presumably those reasons will still exist fifty years from now.

Statistically, the overwhelming majority of sexual offences are carried out by men and the overwhelming majority of victims are women and girls. Most women do not want to put themselves or their children in a position where they might be isolated or exposed around a man they don’t know. This is just common sense. To tell women that such caution is no longer necessary because sex is now a spectrum and gender is fluid is blatant gaslighting. It’s bullshit, and we all know it.

If it needs saying, most men are good men but women can’t spot the bad ones just by looking and so we exclude all men from women’s toilets, change-rooms, etc. The same applies to men who identify as women - we can’t tell the good ones from the bad ones just by looking so we must exclude all biological men from women’s single sex spaces. Most men understand and respect this, and most men also say they’d prefer single sex toilets.

Now, I understand that this makes it tricky for a small number of people - men who identify as women, or women who identify as men. The purpose of gender-neutral toilets is, one assumes, to make it easier for this group of people. Unfortunately though, that means making it difficult for women, a much larger group of people.

Women fought long and hard for single sex public toilets, as without these their lives were fairly restricted, and it was only in the late 1800s that these facilities were introduced. If you haven’t heard the term “the urinary leash”, it refers to the constraint placed on women by lack of accessible toilets. Travel from home was limited to either how long they could hold on before needing a bathroom, or how far the nearest accessible toilet was. We’ve come a long way in the past hundred years but the urinary leash still applies to many women around the world today, especially in developing countries. And even where there are facilities, there is often a shortage of toilets for women compared to men, hence the ubiquitous queues for the ladies’.

Public health experts say we should aim to have two female toilets for every one male toilet because women generally use the toilets more frequently and for more reasons than men.

Women, especially during pregnancy, need to urinate more frequently than men, and it takes longer (not because we’re messing around in there - it just physically takes longer for a woman to empty her bladder).

Our biology dictates that we deal with issues to do with menstruation - changing tampons or sanitary pads, dealing with unexpected bleeding or leaks. Some women now use moon cups which need to be washed in the sink between changes. At any one time, around a quarter of women of childbearing age are menstruating. Most women just want a bit of privacy to deal with it. Is this too much to ask?

Women are more likely than men to be caregivers to babies, children, the elderly or disabled so we need to ensure safety, privacy, and dignity not just for ourselves but for our dependents too.

Lack of single sex toilets excludes women (and men) who do not feel safe or comfortable sharing intimate spaces with the opposite sex. This includes women who are not permitted to share facilities for religious reasons. For example some Islamic, Hindu, and Jewish Orthodox women are forbidden to share toilet facilities with male strangers, especially when menstruating.

Gender-neutral toilets means less facilities for women, when what we really need is more.

With all of this in mind, I wrote to The Abbey Theatre to let them know what I thought of their gender-neutral facilities. I relayed a few of the above points and suggested that, assuming 50% or so of their patrons are women, their requirements should be given serious consideration (in fact, a quick search online would indicate that women generally make up more than 50% of theatre audiences).

The response from the theatre left me with more questions than answers. They wrote:

“The introduction of all-gender bathrooms throughout the building reflects our ongoing commitment to access, inclusion and participation.”

Access, inclusion, and participation for who? There were already toilets for every body. As outlined above, some women (and men) will now have to self-exclude.

The theatre is under no legal obligation to make the facilities gender-neutral. In Ireland we have legislation, The Equal Status Act, 2000, which makes it clear that it’s reasonable to treat someone differently on the basis of gender “where embarrassment or infringement of privacy can reasonably be expected to result from the presence of a person of another gender” (page 11, 5.2.f). “Gender” in the Act refers to the male or female sex (page 8, 2.a). This means that it’s legal and reasonable to restrict entry to women’s toilets to women only (and the same goes for men’s toilets).

Moving on…

“All-gender bathrooms allow our visitors, patrons, staff and others to make an informed decision, based on their personal preference.”

How is there an option to make an informed decision based on personal preference when there are only gender-neutral bathrooms and no single sex facilities available? Patrons have no choice but to use shared facilities!

And finally,

“We had also been dealing with an issue of queues at intervals and all-gender bathrooms have improved this problem.”

I have a suggestion: if it’s ok with the men (who at least don’t have to concern themselves with the safety issue), how about making the men’s toilets gender-neutral and leaving the women’s toilets for the women? That way, there are more toilets available for women without obliging all of the women to share with men.

I have replied to The Abbey with the above questions but have yet to receive a response. I will keep you posted, dear reader!

If you come across a situation like this and you’re not happy with it, call it out. Write an email, tweet about it, or call the venue and let them know how you feel.

For a little more on conversations about gender ideology, feel free to read here.

If you’d like to read some books on the subject, you’ll find a list of suggestions here.

If podcasts are your thing, this is a fascinating episode by Caroline Criado Perez, Waiting for the ladies, about the history of women’s public toilets and the impact they have on women’s participation in society.

  1. Gaslighting is loosely defined as manipulating someone into questioning their own perception of reality.