Talking about Toilets

1992_regOlga Gershenson and Barbara Penner, editors of Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender, discuss their motivations behind their new book, which looks at the culture, meaning, history, and ideology of  public toilets.

Olga and Barbara, what is your fascination with toilets?

Barbara Penner: I stumbled onto the subject in 1995 as a graduate student of architectural history in England. I was in search of a space that demonstrated how architecture shaped women’s experience of cities. Finally, I found it. On a walking tour through Camden Town, the tour guide stopped before an unassuming and (truth be told) somewhat grubby Edwardian female toilet at the intersection of several main roads. “This,” she pronounced with a flourish, “was the only monument George Bernard Shaw ever wanted to his service as a local councilman.” I was struck by this image of Shaw as a proud champion of female public toilets. I was sure there was a story there. But the story turned out to be about much more than Shaw’s efforts to have this one public toilet for women built: it was a window onto the ongoing struggles of women to have access to and to move comfortably through London’s city streets as a legitimate part of the “public.”

Olga Gershenson: Well, for me the subject of toilet was a complete accident (no pun intended). I was teaching a course on gender, and in the process of my preparation bumped into a totally unexpected subject—toilet accessibility for folks who are transgender, gender-variant, or just plainly don’t look their sex. I was stunned that for all these people using a public bathroom—that I took for granted—was a hurdle and a risk. It seemed particularly unfair that most people, like myself, just don’t think about it. So, I tried to do more research on the subject, couldn’t find much material, and realized that there is a need in a book about toilets and gender. Five years later—here we are.

And now with the publication of Ladies and Gents, what are your thoughts on toilets, and/or how have they changed?

Olga Gershenson: To be honest, now my preoccupation with toilets is different. For the last few months I’ve been living in Moscow, doing research for my new project. And the public restrooms in Russia are still—how should I put it?—a work in progress… But seriously, I am really happy that Ladies and Gents is being printed as we speak—it was a long process and sometimes it looked like it might never happen. I am particularly happy that the book talks not only about social justice issues—that are really important—but also about art, film, theater, and literature, in short, about the realms of representations. It was crucial to us to show how this both ordinary and taboo subject is perceived, imagined, and reflected. I think we succeed: the great Peter Greenaway (director of The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover) wrote an afterward to our book.

Barbara Penner: The subject is finally being taken more seriously and hopefully this book will help shift things further. But we’d be naïve to think that a book on toilets won’t still shock and offend in some quarters (amuse is okay!). In 2005, when we sent around a Call for Papers for this book, we were accused of triviality, immorality and worse. Although there’s a noble lineage of people who use toilets or scatological humor to deliberately provoke from Jonathan Swift to Marcel Duchamp, this was never our intention. But toilets offend anyway because they threaten to transgress so many well-established boundaries and reveal the way in space, society, etiquette, and academe work to keep certain things in their place. This is something that the archest provocateur of all, George Bernard Shaw, understood full well. And with his keen eye for human foibles, he wouldn’t have been surprised at toilets continuing ability to upset in the noughties. Despite the importance of very real practical issues in toilet design, the discussion of public toilets rarely turns on such issues. It is shaped precisely by those things that we can’t see or touch – social ideas about decency and cleanliness and attitudes towards the body and sexuality – and is a powerful index of status and of belonging (or not). This is why questions about toilet provision, design, and representation continue to be important for those interested in the creation of dignified and genuinely inclusive cities, now more than ever.

For more information on Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender edited by Olga Gershenson and Barbara Penner visit:

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