The Political Urgency of the Public Toilet

I’ve been spending much of the pandemic practising peeing standing up. In the shower. Carefully following the instructions accompanying my recently purchased ‘female urination device’. The next step will be to learn how to aim it into a plastic bottle.

This is no laughing matter. With our socialising and exercise limited to open-air spaces, entering other people’s houses prohibited and all public toilets closed, there’s only one way out. Public urination (and indeed defecation) is a huge public health problem at the best of times, and especially when we’re trying to avoid a highly contagious disease. Hackney council has had to install large signs declaring “It’s a Park, Not a Toilet”. Horror stories have circulated about shit mounting up on Britain’s beaches.

Councils in urban areas have been struggling with this problem for a while, as the number of homeless people has escalated at the same time that public toilets have been closed due to funding cuts. In a number of boroughs there is not a single public toilet.

I first learnt the plastic bottle trick from my father when he was as a road sweeper in north-east London. While I (a well-dressed woman) might be able to persuade a café-owner to let me use their toilet, road sweepers are rarely welcome in such places. This got me thinking about the politics of the public toilet, and how important the ability to relieve yourself is to whether you can move freely through our city streets.

Marginalised people are not only less able to use toilets in restaurants and pubs, their need is often more pressing. Pregnant people and menstruating people need the toilet more frequently and more urgently. Disabled people and older people find it more difficult to urinate al fresco. Men’s greater freedom to pee in public is not only due to their anatomy, it is also more culturally acceptable. It is much more shocking to see a woman squatting, and women and trans people are much more likely to face sexual violence if seen to break these unwritten laws around gender. Black and brown men, more likely to be harassed by the police and often stereotyped as sexual predators, might also have more reservations than white men about getting their penis out in public.

Denying people public toilets has long been used as a strategy to control their access to public space. In the 19th century, as cities were redesigned, town planners refused to allow women into newly-built public toilets, claiming that they shouldn’t have need of them since their place was in the home. It was only with the rise of department stores in the 1880s and 1890s that middle-class women could start moving more freely around the city, finally provided with somewhere safe and ‘respectable’ to go to the loo.

More recently, fining people for public urination has been a key tactic in clearing homeless people out of gentrifying city centres. While one might enjoy the prospect of the drunk city worker having a £40 fine slapped on him for taking a piss on the pavement, homeless people, with no alternative, are criminalised fines they can never pay back and driven into to less visible and less wealthy neighbourhoods.

We need to stop feeling embarrassed about talking about needing to use the loo, and need to get much louder about naming the right to a public toilet as a human right. Re-opening public toilets, and expanding the number of women’s and gender neutral toilets, should be a public health priority. The people who manage and clean them need to be provided with proper personal protective equipment, a greater degree of respect, and a massive pay rise.

Rather than blaming individuals for their ‘disgusting’ behaviour, we need to acknowledge that we all have bodies and bodily needs. Our ability to meet those needs is hugely dependent upon social and economic factors, and these inequalities need to be addressed. One of the few positive stories to have emerged from the pandemic is the way that we are reclaiming public space. City streets are being closed to cars; people are sitting out on their front steps; children are playing in the street; and those of us who don’t have gardens have never been more grateful for our public parks. But if we want everyone to be able to enjoy public space equally, then public toilets need to finally get the attention they have always deserved. Until that day comes, I shall insist on keeping the issue alive with frequent and unsolicited reports of antics with my ShePee.