Looking into the Toilet: Potty Politics

by Mandy Van Deven
- India -

What do former U.S. Senator Larry Craig, women in Victorian England, and transgender activists have in common?

The first multi-disciplinary book about potty politics to be published, Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender, explores the ways in which one of our most private public spaces is laden with cultural, social, and ideological meaning. From ablism (discrimination in favor of the able-bodied) to ethnocentric hygiene, this collection of essays encourages us to consider what toilets—their design and functionality—say about societies around the globe. I spoke with editors Olga Gershenson and Barbara Penner, who spearheaded the project, about how they came to write about the water closet, why the loo is still taboo, and what about their work struck a nerve among conservatives.

Since it’s not the most obvious subject matter, how did you come to edit a book about toilets?

Olga Gershenson: I am a cultural studies scholar, and I specialize in Jewish Studies. So Ladies and Gents is a bit of professional detour. In fact, the subject of toilets was a complete accident - no pun intended (laughs). I was teaching a course on gender, and bumped into a totally unexpected subject: toilet accessibility for folks who are transgender, gender-variant, or just plainly don’t look their sex. I was stunned that for all these people something I took for granted was a hurdle and a risk. I tried to do more research on the subject, couldn’t find much material, and realized there was a need for a book about toilets and gender. Five years later—here we are.

Barbara Penner: I come at the subject of toilets from the perspective of an architectural historian and a feminist. I wanted to find a space that would illuminate how female experience and identity is shaped in the city. As one of the last openly sex-segregated spaces in Western cities, toilets fit the bill, allowing me to think about the ways in which the male-dominated professions of planning, engineering, and architecture fail to accommodate and even actively suppress female needs.

In the late nineteenth century, George Bernard Shaw, then heavily involved in local government, complained that the barrier of the “unmentionable” meant that women’s bodies were never visible at the political level. This silence about needs and provision, in turn, has historically had a real impact on women’s mobility, comfort, and sense of belonging in the modern city. And as any woman who’s faced the long queues at theatres or sports events knows, we still have a long way to go.

Your contributors take a variety of approaches to this topic, and it really crosses a lot of topical boundaries—from cinematic history to linguistics to architecture to queer theory. Why is important to include such diversity of perspectives?

Olga: This is a first-of-its-kind exploration of the topic, and it’s a collected volume, so by definition it had to look at the gendered bathroom from multiple perspectives. Moreover, Barbara and I come from different background ourselves—professional and personal—and we’ve been working on this book across continents. Our contributors are also a multidisciplinary, international team. Under these circumstances, a variety of perspectives is a must.

I read Bushra Rehman’s piece on lotahs when it was originally published in ColorLines. Did you seek these essays out or simply rely on your Call for Proposals (CFP)?

Barbara: Bushra’s was the only piece we reprinted, as our primary goal was to provide a platform for original toilet papers. We invited many scholars who were already working on the subject of toilets, but we relied on the CFP to reach out to a new generation as well.

Olga: I should add that in the process of working on this book we’ve not only reached out to the “toilet scholars”—we’ve also created some. I discussed this project with Nathan Abrams at a Jewish Studies conference. We both thought it would be interesting to think of public toilets in the Jewish context. Nathan kept coming up with the examples from media and literature, so I convinced him to write a piece for us. And voilà—another toilet scholar was born!

You received an unusual amount of press after the release of the CFP. Why do you think writing about toilets struck a nerve with so many people?

Barbara: The CFP certainly succeeded in getting the project noticed! To our astonishment, many commentators in both traditional media and the blogosphere weighed in with mostly indignant comments. We were accused of triviality, immorality, scatology, and worse. Almost all of these comments came from extremely conservative sources acting as self-appointed guardians of morality, education, culture, women’s roles, etc. What set most of these commentators off was our promise to look not only at “licit” toilet use, but at “illicit” practices like cruising, which, hilariously, at least one Right-wing commentator helpfully described for his readers right down to the “glory hole”. Tactics like this, of course, perfectly fit the sensationalist formula of revealing secret practices while disclaiming them that the media later so enthusiastically deployed with Larry Craig. Looking back on it now, I realize we were naïve to think it would be otherwise.

One interesting point you make is that women’s public toilets are a relatively new phenomenon and were a highly contentious issue when they began cropping up.

Barbara: I remember my astonishment when I began to research female public toilet provision in Victorian London. I started off thinking the battle I was studying was a one-off. I soon realized it wasn’t at all unusual. Debates over toilet provision for women kept occurring because they were inseparable from Victorian attitudes towards women. Nineteenth century women were not full citizens in the public sphere—they couldn’t vote, after all—so how could they lay equal claim to public amenities?

The question of whether or not to provide people with public toilets always turns to issues of legitimacy and belonging, so proposed changes to the status quo provoke such passionate objections, as we are seeing today in the fights over transgendered toilet provision. How often were efforts to desegregate workplaces and schools blocked by objections to shared toilets?

Olga: The thing that amazes me most is the issue’s pervasiveness. A women’s public bathroom was thought of as an “abomination” in Victorian London. Today, the demand for fair provision for gender-variant people is controversial in the same way.

Bathrooms link so many political issues: transgender rights, feminism, health, ablism. How has potty politics evolved in the United States?

Barbara: The biggest change in America has been the so-called “potty parity” legislation passed in various states in the 1980s and 1990s, which mandates that for every male toilet, one female toilet must be provided. But this equality on paper does not provide true equality of provision because women take much longer to use toilets and are not provided with urinals. For this reason, in 2005 New York introduced its Women’s Restroom Equity Bill, which requires that, for every male toilet, most new public buildings install two female ones. Obviously this is important, but I wonder if part of the problem is that we never question the design of female toilets in the first place. They haven’t been redesigned since the Victorian era: surely now is the time to test out space-saving or ecological alternatives?

I know it’s like picking your favorite child, but were there essays you just had to include in this book?

Olga: For me, it was the piece by architect Deborah Gans that told about public toilet problem and provision in refugee camps. This brought together so many issues—social justice, architecture, religious law and prohibition—and placed it all in the context of war and politics. It also brings home a simple point: when we write academically about the toilet, it is never an entirely theoretical debate divorced from the everyday.

Barbara: I was also really happy to have a contribution from an architect. I work in an architecture school, and I was always keen to make that link between theory and practice. This is why, even though I learned from all the essays in the book, I was probably most excited by the ones featuring art or design. They tended to be the most speculative. And speculation and provocation is what we need to shake us out of the usual way of doing things.

Your publisher is an academic press, but it sounds like you intended this book to reach a lay audience as well.

Barbara: We are very much hoping this book will be read by activist groups, filmmakers, design professionals, and government officials: those who are in the position to change things for the better in the here and now. I know from experience that if anything in the built environment enrages women, it’s toilets or the lack thereof. Perhaps this book will persuade some of them that it’s worth taking their frustrations out of the queue and into the streets.

Did anything come as a surprise during the course of this project?

Barbara: What surprised me was that there are many people all over the world working on this subject, but most feel totally isolated. Almost everyone who contacted us started their email with, “I had no idea anyone else was working on this topic.” This really underscored that this book had an important job to do. Despite the fact that water and sanitation issues are absolutely crucial to debates about global health and the environment—and will only become more so—this conversation too often excludes toilets as part of a larger discussion. So long as toilet studies remain fragmented, and people who study them feel marginalized, there’s no possibility for a “joined-up” or coordinated approach.

Were there topics you’d hoped to cover, but weren’t able to?

Olga: I was very keen on finding articles on graffiti and on humor. You’d think both of those would be fertile topics, but everything we received on either subject was not at the same level as our other contributions—and we received dozens of submissions. So we made do by referring to previous studies of toilet graffiti in our editorial introduction. Some of our authors inevitably deal with toilet humor, but it’s up to future books on the subject to treat these topics in the more thorough way.

Barbara: Since Ladies and Gents is the first of its kind, we were never aiming to be comprehensive—an impossible goal anyway. The thing we most wanted to achieve with the book was to give people working on toilets a sense that there is a field out there, one that is genuinely multidisciplinary in a way few others are. We wanted to give toilet studies a more general visibility and legitimacy, and encourage future work in the field across cultures and disciplines.

About the Author
Mandy Van Deven is a freelance writer and the founder of the Feminist Review blog. Focusing on gender, politics, and popular culture, her work has appeared in various online and print media, including AlterNet, Bitch, In These Times, and make/shift. Mandy worked for over ten years as a grassroots organizer in New York and Atlanta. She is an avid and enthusiastic world traveler who has collected friends in countries all over the globe. Mandy currently lives in Kolkata, India.

7 comments on “Looking into the Toilet: Potty Politics
  1. Marianne says:

    “Potty parity” is an underappreciated concept. The only article I can remember on this topic was a study of wait times in public sports stadiums which found that women take twice as long as men in the bathroom, and therefore, stadiums need to have twice as many women’s bathrooms to achieve “potty parity.” So, here’s a whole book on it! Wouldn’t this make a hilarious and intriguing documentary film?

  2. parwatisingari says:

    how does one get to read it?

  3. mandyvandeven says:

    Marianne: Absolutely it would!
    parwatisingari: You can buy the book online or perhaps in an Oxford Bookstore. Is there one in Goa?

  4. JMarsden says:

    What a fascinating topic, one that is often researched behind closed (stall) doors because it is so taboo.It’s intriguing to read about how the architecture of toilets affects women, men, and transgendered individuals differently. It’s something one might think about in the line while waiting to use the restroom but never in a research setting. Looks like a great book!

  5. lesley says:

    This is a very interesting piece and it makes me want to read the book right away. It amazed me to read how widely debated this topic has been and the discrimination that was in this context.

  6. bpenner says:

    Thanks everyone for these comments. We received so many negative comments so it is especially sweet to hear positive feedback!
    In response to Marianne and to parwatisingari, I wanted to mention a few quick things. Marianne, there is a really rich tradition of documentary films set in public toilets. One of the things we do in our introduction is try to cite as many as we could find. I’ve noticed that our publishers have made our intro available as a PDF which can be freely downloaded from their website: http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/1992_reg.html So you can check out the list. There are many that I really like (and I am currently writing about Peter Greenaway’s amazing 26 Bathrooms), but one of most outstanding is about public toilets in India, Paromita Vohra’s Q2P, 2006. Everyone should see this film! At one point, I know this could be downloaded from the web, but I can’t find the link now. However, it is relatively easy to get a hold of and well worth the effort.

  7. brittanyshoot says:

    I think this sounds like a particularly useful book for people who either travel or move internationally. It might help folks who don’t think about these issues put them into context based on how they personally have to relearn toilets every time they go someplace abroad (in that, you might become more empathic if you were to imagine that disorientation as your dominant experience as a trans person in restrooms). I’ve definitely had instances – even as a cisgender woman – of trying to renegotiate public restroom space in places I’ve never been or where I am a visitor. I think the actual toilet (or in some places, lack thereof) is also as interesting as the space around it: a private room, a stall with no door, the gadgets associated with the stall (waste receptacles, flushing mechanisms, noise machines I found in Japan that mask the sound of peeing), and the specifics of how to queue in the waiting area, for example.
    So much to think about! Great piece 🙂

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