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The Old Vic’s gender-neutral toilets leave women worse off

7 October 2019

7:46 PM

7 October 2019

7:46 PM

This article appeared briefly on the Stage website before it was unpublished following ‘strong responses’ online. Here, with Sarah’s permission, The Spectator republishes her piece:

If you need to confirm that we live in a world built on men’s terms, take a look at the toilets in any public building. The chances are that, while men are freely swanning in and out of their facilities, women are left shuffling uncomfortably in line, waiting for a cubicle. That’s not because women are frivolously lingering in there. While men can unzip and go at the urinal, women have to partially undress and sit down inside a stall, which takes longer – and because of periods, pregnancy and higher incidence of UTIs, women have to use the toilet more often.

For men and women to have equal wait times for toilets, a good rule of thumb is that women should have access to twice as many toilets as men. But few public toilets put that principle into practice, and the disparity is rarely more infuriating for women than when trapped in the queue at the theatre with the bell summoning you to your seat. So when the Old Vic launched a fundraiser to double provision for women, a lot of female theatregoers were very keen to give it their support.

But now the Old Vic has completed the refurbishment, it’s clear that something has gone very wrong. Yes, there are more toilets, with 44 where there were once 22 – but not more toilets for women. Instead, there are 26 toilets and 18 urinals, and all new toilets have been turned “gender neutral”. Patrons are, in theory, free to “self-select” from blocks labelled stalls-only and blocks containing urinals. The problem is obvious: women cannot use urinals. That means there are 44 toilets for men, but only 26 for women, and only that many for women who are willing to run the gauntlet of penis to get to the stalls alongside the urinals.

So provision continues to favour men, but in some ways the situation is even worse than it was before, because now men have free access to the only toilets that women can use. Without wishing to malign men as a whole, the ones who use the stalls-only blocks will be putting themselves through a tedious queue, and some of them will be tolerating that inconvenience for an unsavoury reward: mixed-sex facilities have been a boon to voyeurs wherever they’ve been tried. For women who will not take that risk, the Old Vic’s toilets have gone from “not enough” to “none at all”.

Though the Old Vic’s change to gender neutral toilets has been pitched as an act of consideration to trans and non-binary people, in reality it offers little help at a great cost to women, who are still stuck queueing, only now with their privacy compromised. Why this, rather than keeping men’s and women’s and adding a third option for those uncomfortable with choosing? The Old Vic has made an incomprehensible decision here, betraying the terms of the original fundraiser, and women are angry about it. A theatre with inadequate women’s toilets, or without women’s toilets at all, is a theatre that doesn’t care whether there are women in its audience.


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