“We have a son of 7 and daughter of 4 and a problem has arisen, that we know must affect other parents. Up until now, when I took the children out by myself I could take both of them to the women’s toilets. My son now feels embarrassed doing that and says he is too old. At least I have some choice. If my husband takes the children out he cannot take our daughter into the men’s toilets because of the urinals. At least women’s toilets feel safer for a small child on their own. However, I am not happy about my little son going into the men’s toilets on his own.”
Basic biological facts of life - eating, drinking, urinating, defecating, sleeping, menstruating, mating, reproducing and dying- can often be sources of difficulty or narcissistic injury. In an affluent society we have huge varieties of shops, restaurants and drinking venues which almost succeed in hiding the embarrassing fact that if we did not eat and drink we would die. Late night shops, entertainment and shift-work can cover-up our need for sleep and according to our cultural heritage we can conceal or reveal childbirth, sexual relationships, menstruation and death. However, when it comes to “spending a penny” (and we have a myriad of euphemisms), outside of our own protected environments there is no easy way of concealing this in built-up urban areas. This urgent need can be particularly difficult to cater for and parents with opposite sex little children have a real predicament.
There is a dearth of public conveniences and many of those that do exist are in isolated areas and with a design that lends itself to delinquent activity. Dr Chris Cordess commented that designs often include a concrete primitive psychological link between the lower half of our bodies and subterranean sites. One attendant commented that architects rarely asked the views of attendants who would be able to comment on the bush-screened paths or the nooks and crannies. Toilets in public places are also segregated according to gender. Outside of children’s playgrounds little thought is given to children. There is an assumption that if small children do use the toilets they will always be with a same sex adult. Such an assumption fails to consider and catch up with contemporary patterns of child-rearing. As Dr Kingsley Norton of the Henderson Hospital comments. “There has been a major increase in single parent families in the last decade. There are also times when a parent takes opposite sex children out without their partner as Mrs B does. Planners do not appear to have considered that”.
Economic costs have led to a cut in staff manning public toilets so many areas do not have an appropriate adult attendant whose presence can aid a small child. Where there are attendants they might not be present at the times most useful to children due to cuts. One attendant pointed out that in his area lunch-hours were no longer paid for since privatisation.
This raises several issues. Firstly, there is anxiety. Small children can find using a toilet outside of their own home or a friend’s home a worrying experience. In public areas the toilets are sometimes too high, dirty, wet, lacking adequate paper. Bolts on toilet doors can be hard for little children or can evoke a fear of being locked in. Remember the popular song for school children on the three old ladies locked in the lavatory? “They were there from Monday to Saturday and nobody knew they were there”. Such humour deals with real anxiety. Younger children can have a more primitive fear of toilets linked to concern about the fate of what leaves their body. The act of flushing a toilet can, for some small children, be experienced as an act of self-injury.
Some children, therefore, need an adult to accompany them. Although, as Mrs B points out, there is a point where small boys get embarrassed at being taken by their mothers into female toilets at least that exists as a possibility.” Fathers,” as Peter Wilson of Young Minds points out,” do not have any choice. They just cannot take their little daughters into the men’s toilets because of the urinals.”
The problem is anyway more acute over little boys out with their mothers. Whilst the work of Dr Estela Welldon has brought home to us the existence of female abusers the main concern about lack of safety in toilets is connected to men. Why are male toilets so often a centre for dangerous sexual activity?
It was only a few years ago that I considered I had part of the answer. Male child patients I treated in different clinical settings, in telling me they were faced with urinals rather than cubicles, made clear they often found these experiences worrying and humiliating. Some had been involved in writing graffiti to cover up their fears. All commented on the discomfort of feeling watched by strange adults and “sized up”. Some resorted to jokes about penis size to cover up their embarrassment. I wondered whether perhaps something of the ubiquity of those jokes had its base in the chronic and underestimated male experience of exposure or near-exposure. Should male urinals exist at all?
Men’s toilets are indeed strange places. As Dr Gwen Adhead, Lecturer in Victimology at The Institute of Psychiatry comments,” If a man took out his penis in the high street it would be indecent exposure yet within the public toilet it is allowed. The first time a small boy goes alone to a urinal with grownups looking at him provides a curious message about urination. “
Consultant psychiatrist Sebastian Kraemar comments “A men’s public toilet is not a very nice place. There was graffiti in one that said “ Why don’t you look down at it -are you ashamed it’s too small?” Some toilets have a kind of screen but others are a straight line where you are completely exposed. When I went into one with a straight line I just could not use it. In some toilets men go into the cubicles to urinate just to get more privacy.”
However, the major worry for parents is focused on that small group of men who are not seeking privacy. Dr Estela Welldon comments that the men who are specifically frequenting toilets for sex (cottaging, as it is called) rather than for their designated purpose are turning normal values upside-down. Dr Adshead comments “A lot of people are referred for loitering or making sexual contact in lavatories. It is designated as a place for exposing yourself. Why are there not unisex lavatories that are all cubicles. If men, women and children were in the same toilets they might become healthier places.” Dr Eileen Vizard pointed out that because of both male anatomy and economics male toilets include only a few cubicles. “Perhaps if there were cubicles for everybody more architectural thought would be given” Her final point- “Why not children’s toilets?”