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Potty Talk

I don't like unisex bathrooms, some guys pee all over the place so I'd rather not share a bathroom with them. I also don't like airplane bathrooms and train bathrooms, but that's a sort of phobia and too weird to explain. One more thing I don't like about public bathrooms is having people in the stall next to me, it feels too intimate. That I think is common, I remember reading some study a few years ago, researchers would stand at certain distances from subjects (all males, who had no idea their peeing was being studied) and found that the smaller the distance, the more difficult it was for people to pee.

Anatomy and culture conspire against women in public toilets

Whether they call it a victory for porcelain proportionality, squatters' rights or potty parity, wait-weary women--and their impatient male companions--are greeting a new city restroom-equity law here with a deep sigh of relief.

New York City is the latest in a lineup of several municipalities, including Chicago, and more than 20 states where problems with public privies have prompted politicians to provide facilities for women that still may be separate but, finally, are more equal. In this case, equality means making access to toilets as timely for women as it is for men.

Going beyond an earlier state parity law calling for a 1-1 ratio of facilities for men and women, New York's City Council decided that restroom redress requires a 2-1 ratio of women's stalls to men's urinals and stalls. It applies to such public facilities as sports arenas, concert halls, theaters, bars, nightclubs and other entertainment venues. The Philadelphia City Council will consider a similar measure this fall, and Florida's Palm Beach County is studying the issue.

For reasons of anatomy and culture, women take at least twice as long--and as much as five times longer--to complete a bathroom visit as men, according to studies. Men generally zip in, zip down, zip up and zip out, according to John Banzhaf, professor of law and legal activism at the National Law Center of George Washington University.

"For several reasons, the deficiencies in restroom design affect women even more adversely than men," said Kathryn Anthony, a professor of architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who has written extensively on the subject of restrooms.

"Only women must always come in direct contact with toilet surfaces; unlike men, we don't have the option of urinals. Only women must attend to feminine hygiene needs, such as menstruation. . . . Only women become pregnant and breast-feed babies. Women are more likely to accompany small children to public restrooms," Anthony said.

And, she noted, delaying urination may cause or exacerbate many medical conditions, including cystitis, an inflammation of the bladder, and urinary-tract infections.

Anthony, a founding member of the newly created American Restroom Association, discussed such topics in May in a presentation concerning gender and family issues in restroom design at the World Toilet Forum in Shanghai.

But when it comes to design, neither an equal number of square feet in a restroom nor the same number of so-called water closets guarantee equal timely access to "excreting opportunities," said Mary Anne Case, a University of Chicago law professor who has studied the potty predicament.

"Traditionally men's and women's rooms were made the same size--300 or 400 square feet," Banzhaf said. "The problem is that toilets take up an awful lot more space than urinals."

NYC code has limits

Like most potty parity laws, New York's Women's Restroom Equity Bill, signed last month by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, pertains only to new construction and to renovations involving more than 50 percent of a structure. It does not apply to hospitals, restaurants, municipal buildings, offices, schools or prisons, where long lines for women's restrooms are rare.

Smaller establishments can comply with the law by designating gender-neutral or unisex bathrooms. Such facilities also are favored by the transgender community. Transvestites and transsexuals often feel uncomfortable selecting a restroom by sex, Banzhaf said. And, as in the case of a man dressed as a woman in the ladies' room, it often is illegal for men to be in women's restrooms and vice versa.

Gender-neutral, single-occupancy restrooms increasingly are popping up on college campuses, such as the University of Vermont, the University of New Hampshire and the University of Chicago.

"I think it's coming on quicker than many would have expected," said Banzhaf, who also sees the provision of a gender-neutral bathroom as an additional way for facilities to cope with high demand, such as theaters during intermission.

Another new frontier in lavatories is the "family-friendly" or "companion care" restroom. Typically large single bathrooms that can be used by parents with children or caregivers of opposite-sex charges, such facilities are beginning to appear in airports, such as Chicago's O'Hare, as well as large entertainment venues including beaches.

With the aging of the Baby Boom generation, more people will find themselves with the need for assistance or the need to provide it to an elderly or disabled companion, said Anthony, the U. of I. professor.

"I think the lack of availability of that kind of bathroom keeps a lot of people home who wouldn't necessarily want to be home," she said.

One well may wonder why it has taken so long to begin to rectify the inequities posed by public bathrooms, one of the last frontiers legally separating Americans by sex.

"In a lot of situations around the country where women still don't have adequate facilities, part of the problem comes from the law," said Case of the University of Chicago. "Some of the older plumbing codes, perhaps on the theory that men were out and about in public more than women, provided more excreting opportunities for men."

California led the way in '87

Except for California, which led the way with potty parity legislation in 1987, it wasn't until the 1990s that many states, including Illinois, even addressed the need for more women's restrooms.

The Equitable Restrooms Act went into effect in Illinois in January 1992.

The state standard, like Chicago's 2001 restroom parity ordinance, uses a formula based on maximum legal occupancy of a venue to compute the number of facilities for men and women.

While potty parity generally is a win-win issue for politicians, American political history is peppered with instances in which the bathroom became a battleground.

More than two decades ago, during the bitter fight over the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, conservative Phyllis Schlafly and her anti-women's rights cohorts included the prospect of unisex restrooms, along with gay marriage and women in combat, among the dire consequences of ERA passage. By 1982, the ERA found itself flushed from the legislative agenda.

"Historically, in the United States, public bathrooms have discriminated in terms of class, race and physical abilities," Anthony said.

Lavatories long were used as means of exclusion. In the segregated South, public restrooms often were designated for "Men," "Ladies" and "Colored."

Until 1956, women were banned from serving on juries in West Virginia, a distinction they shared with convicts and insane people, as well as drunks and vagabonds. But the prime reason cited for women's exclusion was not their lack of competency but the lack of restrooms for them in county courthouses.

In 1973, flamboyant feminist, lawyer and civil rights activist Florynce Kennedy stunned Boston by leading women in a "mass urination" at Harvard's Lowell Hall to protest the dearth of women's bathrooms at that university and throughout the country.

Her demonstration also protested the national ubiquity of pay toilets in ladies' rooms, an inequity reportedly expressed by posters declaring: "If God had meant to have pay toilets, we would have been born with exact change."

And it has been argued that the longtime lack of a lavatory designated for female U.S. senators symbolized the exclusion and, later, grudging inclusion, of women from that body.

Until 1993, when a senatorial women's restroom was constructed outside the Senate chamber beside the senatorial men's room, female senators were obliged to descend to the first floor of the Capitol building and line up with tourists for a public women's restroom.

"If it were up to me, I would say federal legislation should call for potty parity," Anthony said.

Banzhaf, the George Washington University law professor, agreed, saying, "If women literally could make a federal case out of it, we could revolutionize public toilets all across the country in the next five years."

Posted by zorkmidden on Jul 05, 2005 10:00 am

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