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What Are Unisex Toilets, & Are They The Answer For All Gender Washrooms?

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It seems that there are many things people feel passionate about, especially ways in which we can improve the world so that it can be navigated by all inclusively. Yet, one thing that has probably come as a bit of a surprise topic is that of the public toilet. Namely, who can use what and when.

With recent news that it will soon be law for all new public buildings to provide single sex toilet facilities, with gender neutral if there is space, it has reignited the argument that everyone deserves the dignity to use the most basic of facilities without having their entire identity questioned.

So, we thought we’d take a deeper look at what the options are and whether unisex toilets may hold the answer to the debate.

What are unisex toilets?

Generally, the debate around gendered toilets involves two options:

  1. Separate rooms with cubicles and/or urinals and shared sink facilities for one gender.
  2. A washroom with shared sink facilities and cubicles or urinals that can be used by all.

But, there is another option. The unisex, self-contained toilet – a room with a lockable door that has the toilet, sink and hand dryer (and usually baby changing facilities and disability aids included too) all within the same space.

Unisex toilets are not a new concept. Many public toilets are actually unisex if there is no room for single-sex rooms. Go on a train, or a plane or a public space where there are only porta-loos on offer, and the issue of gender-based toilets all but disappear. So, maybe instead of redesigning public washrooms to be gender inclusive, could unisex toilets be a simple solution to a constantly debated problem?

The argument for and against gendered toilets

Many argue that the case against the status quo – the gendered toilet – is a moot one as only 93.5% of Brits asked identifying with the gender they were assigned at birth. The basis of their argument is that this is one campaign (and inciting discussion) that has grown out of all proportion to the amount of people it will benefit/impact. 

Yet, gendered public toilets are really a relatively new concept, a few hundred years old at best, and came about as a way to preserve the weaknesses that men perceived in women back then. Originally the female-only toilet space was proclaimed to serve four purposes: privacy to those using it, sanitary reasons of not sharing spaces with others, maintaining high moral standards and the protection of (weak) women from (strong) men. Does this really sound like a concept that we want to continue well into the 21st century?

Equality, up until this point in toilet design, has been that men and women should have the same amount of facilities (something that is a lot more recently implemented than you may think) but even that has its flaws. Women statistically spend more time in public toilets for a variety of reasons, so in some cases, it could be argued that there should be more toilets for females, not fewer.

And it is the rights of women that are being heralded as the reason for keeping public toilets as single-sex – privacy and safety from men. This is the issue that gender neutral campaigners take umbrage with: the implication that women need protection over all others (when statistically, non-binary and transgender people have some of the highest rates of abuse when trying to use the bathroom)and that men will inherently abuse the system. 

The bone of contention for gender neutral toilets is the shared space and is generally linked to the visibility of the sink area (usually shared) from the entrance/exit of the room. When attacks in public toilets do happen, it is in this area, before moving into a cubicle.  Architects are working hard to come up with designs that can alleviate this worry, while still providing ample privacy to those using the facilities.

 It is wrong to assume that all men will attack women if given the chance, but we cannot ignore the fact that when using the facilities we are at our most vulnerable, regardless of gender. This is only heightened when out in public and we are needing to share a room with strangers. Some will feel more comfortable with their own sex, both for safety reasons but also for embarrassment that is still sadly evident with bodily functions (in some instances, even to the point of not being able to urinate – shy bladder anyone?), especially in more religious societies. Simply put – in some instances women will simply not use the public toilets if they have to share the space with a man that they do not know.

Washrooms have also long been a place of escape as well as a space to socialise.

Wrong or right, social situations also take place in toilets – in business men continue chats over urinals, women gather in restrooms to chat and support each other. It may sound sexist and stereotypical but the stats support them. How important are these secondary uses for gendered toilets, and will we lose them if we switch to a more inclusive model?

The pros and cons of unisex toilets

Unisex toilets, whether self-contained or not, will help alleviate a lot of the stress that people who need to use the facilities, but who may not conform to the expectations of others using them. As well as non-binary and trans people, this will include anyone with small children who are the opposite sex to them or anyone who has a carer, such as the elderly or disabled. By allowing everyone in, you are doing away with any question being needed in the first place.

The biggest barrier to self-contained unisex toilets is the demand they would have on space and the impact they may have on meeting demand. If you have a large building with many people needing the toilet all at once – 4 single self-contained units will just not serve as well as two gendered rooms with 4-8 cubicles (plus extra urinals for the lads), leading to queues and unhappy members of the public. 

Maybe what we need is a redesign of the self-contained unisex toilet – one that has all of the space-saving features of an airline washroom, making it easy to use and easy to maintain. The flaw seems to have been that, as unisex self-contained toilets have only really been considered for places with minimal space, so they have been designed as the only toilet, thus need to be spacious enough to also be inclusive to the less able, elderly, parents of young children and others who need space for carers.

By having toilets that are shared by all, we will also be doing away with the huge queue outside the ladies’ toilets, while the men breeze in and out. 

Tips for your unisex toilets

We’ve got a few blog posts that can help you create the perfect public washroom and keep it an experience that people remember for all of the right reasons.

Here are our top tips for if you have unisex toilets in your premises.

  • Sanitary bins are for everyone: Bins are used for disposing a wide variety of waste types, not just menstruation. Men need them for incontinence pads, for example. With the extra usage, make sure you have regular sanitary bin collections to keep up with demand.
  • Regular cleaning schedules: Everyone wants to use a nice clean bathroom with regularly cleaned surfaces. Now that you have twice the amount of people using the facilities, you may need to up your cleaning schedule and checks, especially during busier periods.
  • Regular restocks: As well as keeping the area clean and inviting, make sure that you have all the essentials for both sexes, as well as a few little extra to make the experience memorable for all the right reasons.
  • Consider space-saving designs, such as a hand-washing sink that sits in the back of the toilet.
  • Think about the other senses too – air quality is the most commonly remarked upon reason for customers having a poor washroom experience. Make sure your toilets smell as fresh as possible with wonderfully scented air freshener options!

However you set up your public washroom, make sure that it is performing at its cleanest and best, with regular sanitary collections and services. VR Sani-Co provides these services, without the need to be tied into a contract, meaning that you can maintain your toilets without having to commit for the foreseeable future.

a sign showing directions to a unisex toilet

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