The Recent controversy over trans people and bathroom use has exposed a subject we usually prefer to keep the lid on – the humble toilet.
The practice of sex-segregated pooping and peeing as a”natural” phenomenon is scarcely more than a century old, hardly registering on the scale of human history. Yet, for most of us choosing the “Gents” or “Ladies” is as natural as – well – pooping.
Let’s dive into 10 strange facts about the history of the toilet and gender.
Toilet for 50
Ancient Rome is famous for its multi-seater bathrooms where people sat side by side on benches, without partitions, to perform bodily functions. In Hadrian’s Villa, a second-century site in Tivoli, Italy, there were multiseat facilities for Nero’s servants and staff, according to a 2003 paper in the Journal of Roman Archaeology. A stone bench that wraps around the room would have housed some 50 soccer ball-size holes, but no dividers. They also shared the same wiper – a sponge on a stick.
There are hints that a concept of privacy might have existed – at least, for the rich. The emperor and high-status guests seem to have had access to relatively private single-seaters. Even here, there was no notion of gender segregation.
“The provision of single-seaters, especially for guests, shows that, when space and money were no object, [the elite] preferred single toilets,” wrote study researcher and independent archaeologist Gemma Jansen.
Valets And Chambermaids
The first gender-segregated public restroom on record was a temporary setup at a Parisian restaurant for a ball in 1739, said Sheila Cavanagh, a sociologist at York University in Canada. The ball’s organizers put a chamber box (imagine a chamber pot in a box with a seat) for men in one room and for women in another. The actually enforced the use of bathrooms by gender by specifying (male) “valets” to guard the men’s and (female) “chambermaids” for the women’s toilet area. This design was meant to indicate class standing and genteel respectability. Before this, public restrooms were unmarked or marked for men only.
“Everyone at the ball thought this was sort of a novelty — something sort of eccentric and fun,” Cavanagh said.
For the most part, public facilities in Western nations were male-only until the Victorian era, which meant women had to improvise. If they had to be out and about longer than they could hold their bladders, women in the Victorian era would urinate over a gutter (long Victorian skirts allowed for some privacy). Some would even carry a urinette, a tube-like apparatus that was tied around the waist and hung between the legs so that women could urinate. They were made of glass, leather or ceramic.
Strangely, these urinettes were sometimes shaped like the male genitals.
As late as 1900, Canadian store owner Timothy Eaton was insisting that providing public toilets for women specifically was necessary to his business since peeing on the go would enable them to shop for longer.
Around 1898, a short-lived experiment was attempted in London when so-called urinettes were installed (yes, they used the same name). Smaller than average water closets, with curtains instead of doors, they automatically flushed like a man’s urinal. What was progressive is that they were charged a halfpenny. At the time, men could use urinals for free and paid a penny for a WC. Women paid a penny every time. As George Bernard Shaw noted this was an “absolutely prohibitive cost” for a poor woman. Although urinettes continued to be installed into the 1920’s, they never took off.
In 1887, Massachusetts was the first state to pass a law mandating women’s restrooms in workplaces with female employees. By the 1920s, most states had passed similar laws.
The advent of urinary segregation was part of a push for total gender division in public life, as a paternalistic means of “[protecting] women from the full force of the world outside their homes.” This led to ladies’ reading rooms at libraries, parlors at department stores, separate entrances at post offices and banks, and their own car on trains, intentionally placed at the very end so that male passengers could chivalrously bear the brunt in the event of a collision. Sex segregation was seen by regulators at the time as “a kind of cure-all” for the era’s social anxiety about working women.
The Urinary Leash
The lack of female facilities reflected a notable attitude about women: that they should stay home. When women did venture outside the home, it was usually for a short enough time, that they were expected to just hold it. This “urinary leash” remains a problem in some developing nations, said Harvey Molotch, a sociologist at New York University.
Women in India today, for example, often have to avoid eating or drinking too much if they have to be out in public because there is no place for them to go, Molotch told Live Science.
Gonorrhea and The Toilet Seat
Between 1890 and 1940 doctors and reformers covered up evidence that white, middle- and upper-class American men were sexually abusing their daughters. Doctors had known for a long time that children could contract gonorrhea, but they believed that infections were confined to poor and working-class girls who had been sexually assaulted. In the 1890s, new technologies allowed doctors to discover that gonorrhea infection was so common among girls that they feared it was epidemic. Doctors found concurrent infections in fathers and daughters from “respectable” white families particularly strange.
Although they had no other theory, doctors refused to consider the possibility of incest. Persistently ignoring the obvious, health care workers and reformers revised their views about the susceptibility of girls to infection, not incest. By 1940, medical textbooks relied on untested speculation to put the blame on toilet seats. “Scientific advances,” ironically, obscured rather than illuminated the source of girls’ infection.
The Seat of Power
It took until 1992 for the first women’s bathroom to be installed on the U.S.Senate floor. Previously, female senators had to make use of the public restrooms for the tourists, one floor downstairs. (Link 10) Even when a restroom for female senators was finally completed in 1993, it had only two stalls. 20 years and 20 female senators later, long lines were a daily nuisance. In 2013, when a few of the senators spoke up about the inconvenience, two additional stalls were added to their restroom.
Meanwhile, in the House, congresswomen also had to schlep to the tourist bathrooms in Statuary Hall until the 76 female members of the House finally got their own restroom in 2011.
The Toilet Predator?
Two North Carolina lawmakers have said that eliminating separate bathrooms would “deny women their right to basic safety and privacy.” Research shows that trans people may be at risk in bathroom situations. A 2013 survey by the Williams Institute found that 70% of trans people reported experiencing denial of access, verbal harassment or physical assault in an attempt to use the bathroom. The idea that all women are in increased danger in mixed or gender-neutral bathrooms doesn’t make sense, as predators “are not waiting for permission to dress up like a woman to go into bathrooms.” (Link 10)
Today’s bugbear of the queer sexual deviant is directly preceded by the profoundly racist assumption, after World War II, that black men would prey on white women should they be allowed in the same public restrooms. As Gillian Frank detailed last November for Slate, the perceived sexual threat of sharing bathrooms with black people was coupled with a sanitary one — white women “emphasized that contact with black women in bathrooms would infect them with venereal diseases.”
No thanks we’re British
British women being most likely to find sharing unisex bathroom unappealing.
Men are less phased by unisex bathrooms in all countries looked at – the biggest gender gap was in Britain, where 56% of women said they are NOT comfortable with the thought of using a unisex toilet, but just 27% of men. French women are the females least likely to feel uncomfortable sharing with the other sex – 40% said they are comfortable with using a unisex toilet in public, 38% of American and British women agreed.
Higher earners in America tend to be more accepting of using unisex toilets. 64% of Americans earning $80,000 or more in a year said they are comfortable with the thought of using a unisex facility, but just 43% of people earning less than $40,000 agreed.