Unisex toilets are a great idea - but certainly not in schools
PUBLISHED: 19:58 21 February 2019 | UPDATED: 19:58 21 February 2019
Have you used a unisex toilet? Nick Conrad says while they work in adult environments, they're not suitable for secondary schools
A fierce debate surrounding unisex toilets has ignited this week. I must confess I have concerns about boys and girls using the same lavatory. Teenagers are often extremely self-conscious over the changes their bodies are going through. For me this just seems to add pressure. A newspaper report has claimed that schoolgirls are too afraid to use unisex toilets over fears of ‘period shaming’ from boys and ‘sexual harassment.’ Campaigners are now calling for schools to think twice before abandoning separate toilets. I add my voice to those who have raised questions about the best way forward.
Schools have faced pressure to rethink how pupils use these key facilities, amid fears the current setup doesn’t accommodate the needs of those who identify as transgender. Listening to all views is important, safeguarding the majority while protecting the minority is a complicated headache. However, I wonder if this latest step of everyone bundling into the same room together is the correct approach. I would like to see the concrete evidence that it reduces bullying in schools.
It is of great concern that some girls are missing school because they don’t like the growing trend of mixed-sex toilets. Let’s make this absolutely clear – no child should avoid school because they are anxious about using the toilet, or stop drinking water so they don’t wee. Girls cannot “hold periods in”. If schools find that girls are reporting they feel like this, then they should reinstate segregated toilets as a priority. One youngster quoted suggested ‘boys are always speculating on whether girls are having their periods according to how long they take in the toilet.’ I hope that the ‘safety and dignity’ of girls at school is not being neglected as we understandably strive to create more suitable environments for all pupils.
I used a unisex toilet in Spain recently that contained urinals for men and cubicles for women. A sign on entry invited both sexes. Apart from the obvious issue arising with being so prescriptive, the whole experience felt invasive. Women standing parallel to the urinals to wash their hands would see the backs of the boys relieving themselves. In turn the women’s cubicle had ‘short doors’, allowing all-and-sundry to inspect a line of shoes and lowered garments. For me, it felt voyeuristic and uncomfortable. Is this progress?
There is much to be said about men and women sharing spaces and being respectful of, forgive my crudeness, our ‘biological’ differences. It’s another for young women to feel they can’t use a facility for fear of reprisals or verbal abuse. As adults, most of us have the life experience to understand the sensitivity surrounding what one might need to do in the toilet – juveniles may not. What might appear to be a harmless jibe actually could have severe consequences for an individual’s mental health.
A friend of mine runs an excellent charity in Kenya. In a country where the educational attainment of girls, sadly, isn’t a priority, the menstrual cycle plays a key part in attendance. In schools around Kilifi, Kenya, this charity has built separate-sex toilets, ensuring the girls have their own space. The benefits of such a move is proven by the rising attendance and improving academic results.
Creating unisex toilets might be ‘politically correct’, but I question if it’s truly progressive. All of us should reimagine ourselves going through the awkward and, at times, confusing adolescent years. Only this week a BBC investigation uncovered a dramatic rise in the amount of sexual offences happening in schools. In Norfolk, there were over 250 cases recorded by the police since 2015 – rising by nearly 85pc between 2015 and 2017.
I concede that more must be done to support the transgender community, enabling them to access facilities safely. Transgender people face absolutely unacceptable intimidation and harassment in gender-segregated facilities when they are perceived by others to be in the “wrong” one. But the benefit of the few shouldn’t trump the security of the majority. We need to find a solution for all parties.
I support the introductions of gender-neutral toilets, but alongside the traditional ladies’ and gents’. I am passionately all for equality and respect between the sexes, and support for those who are transgender. But when it comes to spending a penny or two, please let’s keep things separate.