Toilet talk

Today I wrote to Ms Kate Varah, the executive director of the Old Vic following its announcement yesterday that its new refurbishment now provided 42 toilets, but none of  which were for women only.  In the letter I set out the specific background to this announcement before asking some questions.

In 2018 the Old Vic announced loudly and proudly that it would be doubling the number of women’s toilets  and stars including Joanna Lumley, Glenda Jackson and Bertie Carvel  backed the campaign, and appeared in a video in which they plea for more women’s toilets.

The Old Vic launched a £100,000 public fundraising campaign to help it carry out major works, including doubling the number of women’s toilets.

Yesterday, October 2nd 2019, the theatre announced that the numbers had indeed increased. There was now one facility with eighteen toilets which also have urinals, making it unlikely that women will go in there, and then another set of 24 cubicles which are mixed sex.  So in fact it announced a removal of all women only loos – the opposite of the campaign in fact.  Men have access to all 42 whereas the 24 that women can use are also open for men to use.

“Our loos now offer ‘self-selection’ rather than being labelled male or female. This takes a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, approach following advice from surveys conducted with focus groups,” it said.

Who does this actually work for? The problem was a lack of women’s loos in the first place, that was all.

The announcement said that there had been consultation with focus groups but failed to say which ones. Indeed it failed also to provide any concrete reason at all for removing women’s sex segregated facilities. All previous surveys show that women prefer  women only toilets. On the positive side the theatre has asked for feedback – if only this had been asked for before the decision to do this.  I had a few questions for Ms Varah:

What happened…?  It is clear that you changed your mind on provision of women’s only  loos over the course of a year.

Why was this?

There is a mention of focus groups – what kind of focus groups?

Were you advised by any external consultancy?

What percentage of your theatre audiences is male?

What percentage of your theatre audience is female?

Did you consult your theatre goers?

Which of these wanted mixed sex toilets?

Who did want mixed sex toilets?

Why do you think sex segregated toilets existed in the first place? Are those reasons not applicable in 2019? What has changed?

There is an insufficient number of toilets for women generally throughout the UK because many were built at a time when women were more confined to the private sphere.  I suggest that the Old Vic was presumably very familiar with the reasons women require more toilets than men otherwise it would not have pledged to provide more.   Yet the reasons for the sex segregation of toilets are exactly the same today as they were fifty/hundred  years ago. A Parliamentary Committee Paper over ten years ago (on which Emily Thornberry sat) sets out the rationale and the recommendations – that women require twice the number of toilets than men do – which the Old Vic ( even though not a local authority, the advice should still apply)  has seen fit to disregard (particularly page 18 and 19)

And the reasons that mixed sex toilets do not work for women were more recently given in an excellent blog .

Someone who may have provided some advice to the Old Vic is Professor Clara Greed, Professor of Inclusive Urban Planning at the University of the West of England, Bristol, and a specialist in toilet provision with particular emphasis upon women’s needs. You can watch her here.

Any organisation that has been advised by Stonewall will know that they can earn extra brownie points by changing their toilet facilities to mixed sex. This is not done because of demand but because it looks progressive. This was not something even considered five years ago. But for whose benefit are these changes?  Fewer than 1% of the population are trans and that is on the widest definition given (this includes cross dressers, non binary etc.). Most organisations will have fewer than 1% of trans people for whom using a male or female toilet is problematic. Personally I have no problem sharing female toilets with a MtF trans but I, like many women don’t want to share them with men generally. And some women for reasons of past trauma, or for religious reasons do not want to share a facility with biological males, whether they are transgender or not. There is no point pretending biology is irrelevant – hence men use urinals.   So is there another way to include the potential trans person who may be embarrassed? Why not have one separate cubicle that is mixed sex? This is not always possible in old buildings but it certainly is in new developments such as the Old Vic. A year ago the Lyric theatre in Hammersmith made the downstairs toilets mixed sex but kept sex segregated ones upstairs.  So I am eager to hear the rationale for the decision to remove all  women only toilets whilst retaining men’s.

Sometimes and increasingly in this case, one very small minority group’s demand for rights disproportionately impact another’s in a negative way.  But women are half the population and their needs and concerns for sex segregated spaces are currently being dismissed and ignored in a shocking and distressing way.