What flows through the undercurrent of our everyday lives, often unspoken but never free from mind? It grows in volume and pushes at your insides; it’s foreshadowed by the man facing a building wall as you approach from behind. It’s the stench that permeates stairwells and damp tunnels, sometimes a trickle and other times a puddle. The presence that is only realised once it's too late, as vital to life as blood, sweat, or tears: the urge to urinate.
Everybody pees. As mundane as it may seem, peeing has long been a topic of discourse and political debate. Ideas of hygiene, safety, and even morality are discussed in regards to bathrooms and exemplified by the laws that govern them. Alongside a pandemic that has periodically limited access to public facilities, many people have been confronted with the complications of peeing. While ducking into the nearest pee curl or open public bathroom is an option for some, peeing is not so simple for others. Coming from my experience growing up in the United States, I always envisioned the Netherlands to be a utopia of social services and public infrastructure. However, I have come to understand that across both Europe and America, political debates consistently make peeing a contested right.
Go piss girl
The women’s bathroom in particular has been a locus for bathroom discourse. An article from the Atlantic by Joe Pinsker addresses ‘Potty Parity’, the recent movement for equitable availability of women and men’s toilets. The article also highlights the anthology, Toilet: The Public Restroom and the Politics of Sharing, in order to chart the debates surrounding peeing related politics. Historically, women’s restrooms have been treated as a non-necessity in male dominated spaces. The science, technology, engineering, and maths departments of many universities have fewer women’s bathrooms, as well as many old pubs and restaurants. In the realm of outdoor spaces, public urinals are present throughout Amsterdam, as well as in other major European cities. It is a common sight to see men making a quick stop in the urinal, by the canals, or anywhere else on the street after a night out. While the practice of public urination is common, it may result in a fine in the Netherlands and criminal charges in other places. Along with the lack of restrooms, the space inside women’s restrooms in the U.S. has been found inadequate, as they are modelled off of men’s restrooms in which urinals take up fewer space. Disparities in access to restrooms not only limit women’s options to pee, but reinforce gender hierarchy by building facilities that accommodate men and actively choosing not to update them. So, the next time you notice a disproportionate line for the women’s restroom, consider this as part of the cause.
Another key element of the gendered bathroom discourse is the transgender bathroom debate. Frequently regarded along the lines of ‘bathroom hysteria’, the political tensions were spearheaded by the 2014 North Carolina legislation that prohibited people from using public bathrooms that differed from the gender they were assigned at birth. While the debate continues to insight fear and moral panic, academics in an article by Maria La Ganga in the Guardian draw attention to gendered bathrooms as one of the few remaining segregated public spaces. Tracing the history of segregated toilets emphasises bathrooms as a place of vulnerability, but also a site of moral panic. Discriminatory logic has historically been used to segregate bathrooms based on race, in which the protection of white women was again central to the need for bathroom divisions. Throughout the history of public restrooms, we see how gender intertwines with racial and biological essentialism to create discourse that values the protection of women’s purity, yet makes no effort to reevaluate accessibility. While safe spaces for women are certainly necessary, bathroom debates that center women and their need to be protected from sexual assault reveal the way underlying structural inequalities are reenforced through moral panic.
In addition to public and political debate, accessibility is mediated by capitalist ethics and economic conditions. The University of Amsterdam itself has very limited gender-neutral bathrooms aside from the disabled bathrooms, which are also scarce. While women’s restrooms have been treated as a luxury in the presence of men’s, disabled bathrooms are even more of a rarity. Accessible bathrooms require alternative dimensions, added safety measures like railings and emergency signals, as well as additional space and doorways that can accommodate mobility devices. Avoiding the cost of these features is often an economic motivation for public venues, especially when accessibility regulations are not strictly enforced. In the U.S., for example, guidelines such as the Americans with Disabilities Act Standards for Accessible Design set regulations for public venues; there is no formal or standardised mode of enforcement. Thus, people with disabilities may be prevented from using the restroom due to cost cutting or public planning oversights.
The cost and profit of peeing also limit access in the realm of labour laws and bathroom breaks and access to public restrooms for the homeless. While labour laws differ by place, bathroom breaks are generally accounted for in an employee's work schedule. However, in doing so, employers exercise power over the amount of time and frequency at which breaks are taken. Under capitalist conditions, peeing is unproductive. The phenomena of Amazon workers and mail delivery people skipping breaks and peeing in bottles in order to meet merchandise quotas unveils the dehumanisation of workers and unethical working environments that regulate bodily needs.
Dehumanisation or devaluation of marginalised people’s autonomy is topical in the New York Times opinion piece, America Is Not Made for People Who Pee by Nicholas Kristof. Many so-called public facilities are not free for all; shops and cafes require purchases to use the restroom and outside of the U.S. many larger spaces require a small fee for the restroom. The article quotes various homeless people living in the U.S. who reflect on the loss of dignity and pride that comes from inability to access the restroom. Urination once again becomes a symbol of self-worth, and a reflection of how the state and corporate systems dictate notions of belonging within social structures. Ultimately peeing, as a right, is only granted to people who can afford it.
As much as I’d like to believe that eliminating a select group of Republican senators would solve pee inequality, the problem is with the plumbing; i.e., it runs deep. In the U.S. and beyond, infrastructure is reflective of the inequalities, morals, and values we contest every day. Equity is not achieved through discourse or debate; cities need to be constructed for the people who live in them. Stricter enforcement of accessibility standards, ethical urban planning, and architecture that accounts for population diversity seem to be the most productive steps in making the act of peeing a given for all.