Thursday, 24 September 2015

Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing: Book Review

Edited by: Harvey Molotch and Laura Norén 
Published by: New York University Press ©2010

Paperback: 328 pages        Product Dimensions: 2.5 x 15.2 x 22.9 cm        Language: English

There is a stigma surrounding bathrooms. It is a topic which is usually brushed under the carpet. But, in fact, this dirt should be taken out and examined. Atleast in a country like India, Public Sanitation is staring into our faces and requires immediate intervention.

Harvey Luskin Molotch is an American sociologist and a professor of Sociology and Metropolitan studies at New York University. He has helped in the development of environmental sociology. Laura Norén is a Moore/Sloan Postdoctoral Associate at the Center for Data Science at NYU where she also holds adjunct professorships in the Stern School of Business and the Department of Media, Culture and Communication.

The book- Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing discusses the sociological, cultural and physical aspects of a bathroom. Public restrooms separate the private (natural) functions from the public, reinstating our idea of the natural and social. They have been recognized as a focal point drive to create a barrier free community. The following points have been covered in detail in the book.

Spatial Design Proposals and Access

The daily footfall at various locations such as shopping malls and market places should be considered before deciding the number and ratio of male to female toilets to be constructed. At shopping malls, women constitute 80% of the footfall, therefore a kind of specific planning is needed which requires some subtlety to bring about correctly. Suggestions for constructing toilets at places that are open 24x7 such as fire stations, police stations, etc. have been made which can significantly reduce the risk of rape and help in the surveillance of drunk citizens at night.

In the olden Roman world, open latrines were installed near bath houses and public fountains which had a two pronged advantage. People knew invariably where to find them and there was an adequate supply of water for use and reuse. According to the book, sewers and flood defence systems should be designed to accommodate the maximum possible volume and not the minimum or average.


Adrian Forty, a professor of Architectural History at the Bartlett has argued that the forms in architecture are explicitly or implicitly based on the male body. In contrast, when not compared to the decorative appliqué, women are associated with the interiors and fittings of buildings such as urinals.

A city wise toilet strategy should mainstream gender into an urban planning policy, taking into account the travel and activity patterns of women. Today, women have to carefully their day in advance to take into account the very few places legally available for them to excrete. If the government wants to get people out of their cars and back onto public transport, walking and cycling, then the missing piece in this daunting puzzle is public restrooms. The water intake of people would go up and they would start using public transport even more when they have the assurance of a clean and hygienic toilet when on the move.

Doors offer visual privacy. In areas with an intravenous drug abuse problem, public toilets often have dark blue lighting, as this makes the location of veins much more difficult. However, some people prefer the seclusion provided by the shadows rather than stark white bathrooms as pointed out by Junichiro Tazaki from Japan.

Cultural Variations and Design

The design of public toilet facilities involves a whole lot of education that mandates orienting the different cultures as to how to use a facility. Japan for instance provides pictorial step by step instructions to use their squatting toilets. Electronic faucets provide the convenience of hands free operation and also helps to conserve water. In developing countries like India, this might not work since the flush is electricity dependent.

Design for Special Needs

When the ladies and disabled toilets are grouped in the same area, the disabled males are invariably linked to the category of dependency while the rest of the population maintains its identity as separate creatures. Innovation in toilet design has lagged due to the exclusion of the disabled from all corners of public life. Research sciences such as ergonomics, anthropometry and industrial design have adopted a rather rigid design sense using data from the U.S. Military's young recruits as a standard source in creating appliances and artifacts. The ergonomic data of the older population or a wide group of population is usually not taken into account while dealing with the design of toilets. The proposed reforms for toilets include grab bars, lower sinks and toilets built at a slight incline so that the wheelchair users can navigate and position themselves easily within the stall and the visually impaired can feel the slight incline to distinguish the stall from the rest of the toilet.


Women take twice as long as an average man to urinate due to their mode of dressing and biological reasons such as pregnancy, menstruation and higher level of incontinence in old age. Additionally, women are likely to be accompanied by babies, small children or old relatives all of whom need the toilet more often and require more space within stalls to accommodate multiple humans. But what we see in real life is that men have twice the number of places to pee even when the floor area available for both is equal. Too many people assume that behind the restroom door they cannot enter, the facilities available are equal to the ones available to their own sex.

Probably due to lack of females in the sanitation administration, menstruation is assumed to be such a minor issue that can be dealt with by a temporary plastic bin rather than as an integral component of toilet plumbing and waste disposal. Alexander Kira has pointed out that females indeed hover over toilets instead of sitting on the seat due to fears of dirt and disease. Toilet design has not taken into account the management problems posed by women's undergarments, therefore he proposed a modified women's urinal. Many women are suffering from false toilet consciousness (entering bathrooms in front of males).

Cleaning Staff:

The cleaning staff for both male and female toilets are usually females. Cleaning is generally assigned to the lower most in the caste system of the society. Therefore it is proposed that toilet facilities should rely more on the architectural layout to maintain cleanliness.

The Gender Debate & Unisex Bathrooms

Laws mandating sex separation often create difficulties in real life for trans-sexual and trans- gendered people, persons with disabilities and parents with children of the opposite sex in deciding which toilet facility they should use. A social understanding that women are inherently vulnerable and males are inherently predatory is fostered by these laws. There is also a debate on how males will react to the menstruation and its by - products in a unisex bathroom. Additionally, 2 restrooms in public spaces send out a message that there are only 2 sexes. It is very difficult to enter toilets of the wrong sex no matter how pressing the need. People who do not appear traditionally male or female are vulnerable to face harassment in sex segregated public sanitation facilities.

This book has dealt with opposing and contradictory views on public sanitation with a subtle balance whilst presenting an unbiased view supplemented by pros and cons. The views expressed in the book are strongly feminist, seeking to upgrade the social, political and economic stance of women in society. The book is indeed a study of a very complex system which is closely interlinked with architecture, the evolution of public sanitation facilities and other aforementioned points.

Actions are more powerful than words. The words written in this book will hopefully instigate people, communities and organizations to take action, take responsibility for a better tomorrow.

- Harshika Jain, July 2015
  total words: 1317

This book review was written after an internship with a Delhi based company which specializes in manufacturing waterless urinals- Ekam Eco Solutions. The internship made me aware of the difficulties faced by women in sanitation and what all steps are being taken around the world in this field.

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