Privacy, Politics, and the Public Washroom

-Tanaya Ramani

Urine, excreta, bodily waste – these are phrases that do not feature in everyday conversations, even though they are an inescapable, part of everyday routines. Bodily waste has acquired the meaning of dirt – it is seen as polluting, and the visuals, sounds and smells associated with it are perceived as having the ability to cause psychological and social unease (Barcan 25). This connotation of dirt, and privatisation that the act of using the washroom necessitates combined with the social nature of the public washroom fuse together to create a discourse about the public washroom as being a culturally ‘dirty space’ – no matter how clean the facilities may actually be (Barcan 25). In addition to being a dirty space, the public washroom is also an eliminative space – which is inherently gendered, working to emphasise a heteronormative gender binary through accessibility and design (Zurn 670). 

The gender binary policed through the operation of an invisibilized power where it is least apparent – in the ‘everyday’. Moreover, the power that operates in these private sites, is causally linked to the creation and wielding of legitimized state power (Enloe 447). Macro level concerns such as sovereignty and militarized security are steeped in these micro level ‘domestic’ politics – and the politics associated with going to the washroom, thus, become extremely pertinent. Feminist scholars have argued that states believe sovereignty is not guaranteed without controlling women’s sexuality and protecting their modesty (Enloe 448). Women, in nationalist discourse, are seen as symbols of motherhood, and that of the national domestic sphere of the home. They are also perceived as instruments of the biological reproduction of the nation and thus, need to be protected by the men and kept out of the national public sphere (Nagel 256) – and sex-segregated public bathrooms arise out of this need to relegate women to the home, as well as, to reify norms of demureness and virtue. Further, militarized security requires that the male citizens of the state ascribe to an aggressive, dominant notion of male hegemony (Enloe 448) – again, reiterated in male washrooms and through urinals. This article aims to draw out how larger systems of patriarchy are constantly reiterated – through the construction and design of public bathrooms, the discrimination that gender policing leads to, and through the language used in graffitiing the walls of bathroom stalls. Further, this rigid gender binary also hampers bathroom access and discriminates against gender non-conforming peoples, especially transgenders – further highlighted in the graffiti that comes to adorn the bathroom walls. 

An increased foray of women into the public sphere in the Victorian era led to sex-segregated facilities becoming the norm. A greater female presence in the public sphere was a source of worry to Victorian men who viewed women as physically and intellectually inferior to men – implying that women had to be relegated to the domestic space of the home for their own protection (Blumell et al 368). Sex-segregated spaces were thus a way to emphasize the gender status-quo, with cis-gender males at the top, functioning via forms of benevolent sexism – a concept which views women positively, but also simultaneously implies that they are weak, vulnerable and in need of protection from men (Blumell et al 369). Moreover, imposed ideals of a virtuous and docile woman are evident in the spatial design of the women’s washrooms, wherein the presence of stall partitions and cubicles suggests that the female body must be suppressed and minimized (Leong 307-308). This seclusion and individualisation of women protects female ‘modesty’, but also means that a lesser number of women can use the facility at any point of time, thus reducing the availability and accessibility of washrooms for women. This ultimately discourages women from entering the public sphere. In contrast, urinals take up relatively less space and can accommodate a large number of men. Standardised rules mandate that floor space in men’s and women’s washrooms be the same, but this effaces other female biological processes and needs – menstruation, reduced bladder control during pregnancy, childcare needs – which results in women requiring significantly more time in washrooms and long queues outside women’s facilities (Barcan 29). 

Men’s washrooms are also relatively freer, with open urinals as well as closed stalls. This signifies that men’s bodies do not need to be contained or concealed; instead, they provide the freedom for men to make territorial claims through a display of bodily aggression via urinary output (Leong 307-308). Urinals, in addition to providing men with greater access to public facilities, also provide them with an opportunity to take part in collective effigial resistance. Symbolically, urinating on something strips it of any power it may possess, as well as pollutes and demeans it (Saunders and Crilley 11).  For instance, the men’s toilets in the Lismore Pub in Partick, Scotland have urinals dedicated to three perceived culprits of the Scottish Highland Clearances. The plaque above these urinals says, “Please feel free to pay them the respect they are due” (Saunders and Crilley 19-20).

Fig 1: Plaque above urinals in the men’s washroom at Lismore Pub. Source: @anne_theriault, Twitter,

 Thus, while urinating, men look down upon the urinal, and also simultaneously look down upon the culprits of the Clearances (Saunders and Crilley 18). However, these opportunities of resistance through urination are confined to men – women’s washrooms at Lismore do not have the same plaque. Since women do not stand but sit down while urinating, they cannot look at their own urine coating the culprits (Saunders and Crilley 22). Thus, sex-segregation denies women the opportunity to partake in forms of resistance available to men. In the case of Lismore, this leads to a ‘guying of the enemy’ (Saunders and Crilley 4) and a complete effacement of women’s experiences in the Clearances – implying that the only experiences that matter are those of men.

The establishment and rigorous policing of sex-segregation also oppresses those who do not conform to a heteronormative gender identity. For instance, the free space of the urinal in men’s washrooms both promotes, tests and polices the norm of heterosexuality through a technology of surveillance based on visuals and spatiality established by the man’s gaze. While using the urinals, men are obligated to appear unconcerned towards the display of genitalia by other men – they adopt an air of ‘vigilant nonchalance’ or ‘ritualistic indifference’. The men’s facilities are constructed in a way that allows for the possibility of error – the error being the breaking of the unspoken rule of not looking at others’ genitals. However, this is an error that goes against heteronormative ideals, and is percieved as abhorrent. Thus, washrooms police and avow heterosexuality, while simultaneously disavow and act as a test to detect homosexuality (Barcan 39). 

Furthermore, trans-people find it increasingly difficult to access public washrooms. There is, in a sense, an exclusion within these already exclusive places, which functions through an eliminative logic (Zurn 676). This eliminative logic functions through the mechanisms of iterated segregation, purification of a perceived social centre, and a reduced relationality of people at the margins. The pure social centre in this case takes the form of cisgender women and children, and the perception of transgender people as posing a threat to this pure social centre is the playing out of a reduced relationality (Zurn 677). 

Public washrooms are a space where disciplinary power, to uphold a heteronormative gender binary, operates through discriminatory practices against trans-people. This disciplinary power operates through firstly, the division of space, through iterated segregation, secondly, through a panoptic design that enables heteronormative policing and surveillance and lastly, through the production of docile bodies that subscribe to the gender binary. Sex-segregated bathrooms combined with the functioning of disciplinary power force people to choose either one gender or the other, which acts as an impediment to safe access of washrooms for trans-people (Bender-Baird 984). Surveillance is internalised, and people start regulating, both themselves and others, through a surveilling gaze – they check the signs on the bathroom doors, and enter the appropriate one without external aid. Moreover, washroom-goers become increasingly defensive and wary in the presence of those who seem out of place. The increased vulnerability leads to reduced shyness about speaking up when someone of an apparently different gender enters a previously homogeneous space (Bender-Baird 985). 

Trans-women especially are perceived as inherently ‘male’, deviant and predatory, endangering the pure social centre of cisgender women and children. There is an emphasis on ‘males’ suggesting that it is biological genitalia, and not gender identity, that leads to worries about the wrong bodies polluting the pure social centre or ‘penis panics.’ This idea that women are weak and in need of protection further propagates fear and misunderstanding around trans-women, who do not deserve the same protection accorded to cisgender women and children (Schilt and Westbrook 27). In contrast, trans-men are relatively overlooked in these debates – since they are inherently ‘female’, they do not pose any real threat to cis-gender men or women and children in a public space (Schilt and Westbrook 30). 

This disciplinary power, and discrimination against trans-people in public washrooms, thus forces the production of docile bodies – bodies that are ‘aptly’ gendered, and that adequately ‘pass’ for one of the two gender binaries. In light of these difficulties in accessing public washrooms, trans-people adopt various techniques of situational docility to ‘pass’ for their chosen gender. For instance, trans-women may attempt to emphasize their breasts through an adjustment of clothing, or ask a female friend to accompany them (Bender-Baird 985-986). Washroom-goers, thus, come to believe that there is a correlation between birth-endowed genitalia and outward gender representation, which leads to trans-people being coerced into either adopting docility methods, or forgoing their use of public facilities (Bender-Baird 986-987). 

Along with this, public bathrooms also provide an insight into how language and forms of communication are inherently gendered through wall graffiti (Leong 306). Graffiti is highly participative, and presents the artists with an opportunity to vent, present societal and cultural beliefs and values, and to contest the status quo. The real appeal of graffiti lies in its anonymity, wherein the artist can be profane, verbally critique or attack others, without the fear of sanction. Sex-segregated bathrooms bely specific expectations associated with each binary gender which shapes behaviour – like in the case of trans-people – and is exemplified in the graffiti washroom-goers produce as well (Leong 308). Leong’s findings from a regional university in the USA show that graffiti in the men’s washrooms is more political, sexually replete, insulting and competitive, while that in women’s washrooms centres more around love, advice and relationships, and tends to be more supportive (Leong 309-310). This highlights the extremity of policing of gender-conformity where even with the anonymity associated with graffiti, men are expected to be macho and display masculinity through aggressive comments, or verbal insults that allow them to exert power and dominance and reject the slightest display of ‘weakness’ or ‘femininity’. Men’s bathroom walls hierarchize aggressive comments, insults, sexual drawings over other ‘weaker’ graffiti, such as those that express hurt, or reveal a secret – brought out through a graffiti that said, “…everyone’s either a pussy or a picklesmoocher” which berated all commenters seen as weak and cowardly for being effeminate, displayed by the use of the word ‘pussy’ or homosexual as highlighted through the use of ‘picklesmoocher’ (Leong 320).  Women, on the other hand, are supposed to exemplify motherhood – be loving and nurturing – which is highlighted in the supportive, uplifting and solidarity-infused graffiti in women’s toilets (Leong 321). Scott Kelly’s study of toilets in London further supports this and Fig 2 and Fig 3 show examples of his findings (Kelly). 

Fig 2: Supportive graffiti in the women’s bathroom in Shoreditch, London. Source: Scott Kelly, the Toilet Study,
Fig 3 (i): Graphic, sexual graffiti in the men’s bathroom in Peckham, London.
Source: Scott Kelly, the Toilet Study,
Fig 3 (ii): Insulting graffiti in the men’s washroom in Soho, London. Source: Scott Kelly, the Toilet Study,

Thus, sex-segregated washrooms are a medium through which ideas of sovereignty and militarized security are promoted, through a rigorous policing of the heteronormative gender binary. Appropriate bodies are constantly produced in public washrooms through self-regulation by said bodies – that is, societal and behavioural norms associated with each gender, are further reinforced by washroom-goers themselves. IR’s engagement with bodies is often limited to dead bodies, or bodies in conflict zones, often overlooking the bodies present in the ‘everyday’, such as in these public washrooms. The act of using these spaces, while seemingly private, gains an ambiguous connotation: while urinating is inherently a private act, the use of the public washroom also necessitates encountering others, thus making it public. In addition to being both public and private, the regulation of the self and of others to produce appropriate bodies, also makes this process inherently political. 

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