Whether you call it the loo, the bog, the bathroom or the WC, the toilet is a strange kind of sanctuary: it’s a place to fix your makeup, share a secret with a friend, psych yourself up before a big meeting, soothe a panic attack, take refuge from a bad date or borrow a tampon from a stranger. The average human will spend 3 years of their life on the toilet – but what do you do if you don’t have access to one that works for your needs – or even at all?
Today is World Toilet Day, created by the UN to draw attention to the 4.2 billion people – more than half the global population – who live without safely-managed sanitation. What’s more, at least 2 billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with faeces and 1.1 billion people have to defecate in the open air.
Women and children pay the heaviest price for poor sanitation. Having to go outside to defecate makes them vulnerable to abuse and assault, while about half of girls worldwide attend schools without toilet facilities, leading to a high dropout rate when they reach puberty and start their periods.
Far more than just an embarrassing inconvenience, living without access to clean and safe toilet facilities robs you of your dignity, endangers your health and restricts your ability to go to school and hold down a job, whether it’s due to poverty, gender discrimination or disability.
It’s an urgent issue – and one that, in the west, most of us are privileged to avoid. Yet, closer to home, we have our own toilet trouble. Even for those of us who technically are able to access a clean toilet, there’s no guarantee we’re safe to do so.
“How can anyone lift themselves out of poverty without sanitation?”
In 2016, the Obama administration issued guidance to US public schools that allowed transgender students to use the bathrooms matching their gender identity – something hailed at the time as a victory for transgender rights. After sparking a backlash across the country, in 2017 President Trump revoked the guidance, to the dismay of trans activists and allies everywhere.
This is just one example of the ways in which public bathrooms across schools, offices and venues of all kinds are being politicised, turned into a battleground between clashing ideologies. Another example: in London earlier this year, The Old Vic Theatre unveiled the results of its major refurbishment, earning headlines for its decision to make its toilets gender neutral, with pictures of cubicles or urinals replacing the symbols for male and female. In a statement, the theatre said that the new facilities “allow people to make their own decision about which loo is suitable for them” – a policy reflective of modern audiences and their needs. Yet the decision sparked an enormous backlash from certain corners of the internet and led to multiple media columns berating the theatre for what they saw as the ‘needless’ choice to get rid of women’s-only spaces, likely to cause increased queueing and inconvenience.
TEDxLondon is an inclusive platform and supports removing the gender binary from public spaces – especially from toilet facilities As TEDxLondonWomen’s previous speaker, Amelia Abraham, says: “This isn’t just a philosophical debate about gender. We can argue all day but trans people are dying and I don’t want to be part of a feminism that allows that to happen, let alone encourages it.”. We all must protect transgender people from surveillance, interrogation and abuse, and prevent the erasure of non-binary people.
While trans people are at the centre of the current toilet debates, it’s not only non-cis-gender people who would benefit from more a inclusive toilet policy. People living with invisible disabilities like Crohn’s or Colitis also experience discrimination for using the accessible toilets they badly need. Campaign’s like “Not Every Disability Is Visible” highlights the urgent need for us to reconsider our assumptions around how individuals use toilets and to not jump to incorrect conclusions. Then there’s the fight against period poverty in the UK, led by organisations like community-based The Red Box Project, which provides free period products to local schools. With 1 in 7 girls still struggling to afford sanitary wear, public bathrooms and school toilets have a vital role to play in helping girls to thrive during their education and beyond.
The theme of World Toilet Day this year is ‘Leave no one behind’ – and it’s a message we should be taking seriously. When it comes to creating toilets that are safe, clean and inclusive, it’s time we all gave a shit.
Celebrated on 19th November every year, World Toilet Day is about inspiring action to tackle the global sanitation crisis and help achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6, which promises sanitation for all by 2030. Established by the World Toilet Organization in 2001, World Toilet Day was made an official UN day in 2013.
To the Woman Crying Uncontrollably in the Next Stall
If you ever woke in your dress at 4am ever
closed your legs to a man you loved opened
them for one you didn’t moved against
a pillow in the dark stood miserably on a beach
seaweed clinging to your ankles paid
good money for a bad haircut backed away
from a mirror that wanted to kill you bled
into the back seat for lack of a tampon
if you swam across a river under rain sang
using a dildo for a microphone stayed up
to watch the moon eat the sun entire
ripped out the stitches in your heart
because why not if you think nothing &
no one can / listen I love you joy is coming
How much of this toilet slang did you know?
- Jimmy Riddle
- Powder one’s nose
- See a man about a horse
- Spend a penny
- Talking to grandma slowly
- Taking a Chinese singing lesson
- Turning the bike around
- Shaking hands with the vicar
When Nature Calls:
- What’s your toilet privilege? https://www.worldtoiletday.info/privilege-race/
- Meet ‘Mr Toilet’ – https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidebanis/2019/11/15/meet-jack-sim-the-eccentric-entrepreneur-fighting-for-clean-and-safe-toilets/#f74ae766c24d
- Are ladies loos a feminist issue? https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/nov/14/queue-ladies-loo-feminist-issue-public-toilets
- Gender Neutral toilets are better for everyone – https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/dec/01/gender-neutral-toilets-better-everybody-rage-latrine-trans-disabled
- Why toilets are a battleground for transgender rights – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-36395646
- Amelia Abraham’s TEDxLondon Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rk1NO1BB7KQ