Sugarhouse on the bandwagon and down the pan

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Photograph: Sakib Rahman

On the announcement of the highly anticipated gender-neutral toilets in our LUSU owned nightclub, I think we must pause a second and reflect on some fundamental principles of design (yes, design) before we rave and shout about being one of the safest and most inclusive universities in the UK. The anxieties of non-binary students often stem not from our own concerns but from an assumption about others; a fear of facing rejection, alienation, or even bullying, should someone be identified as an outsider in a space reserved for a specific gender clan. Now, since the gender-neutral toilet is a communal non-binary area, and there is no longer a gender-related ownership of space, we have a safe and inclusive loo for everyone, right?

Taking a shit is one of the most private of human activities, and this is important to remember. Yet the design of the public toilet is not as simple as we might think, since it acts both as a very public and a very private space, a space that we acknowledge as a safe zone for dropping our knickers. Of course, gender-neutral loos will not affect this assumption, and history teaches us that neither are entirely safe. A lot of us will remember the incident from the first term of the year in 2013 when sexual assault was reported in the Sugarhouse ladies, and a similar incident happened only weeks later in a gender-neutral security-manned toilet in a Huddersfield night club. Clearly this is not an issue that can be easily solved by a toilet watchman. Of course the new gender-neutral toilets were designed to be more inclusive, not more safe, but improving safety here seems to have been overlooked in LUSU’s £40,000 refurb.

In an ideal world, gender-neutral loos are great. Yet in a not-so-ideal world, bad design can mean that gender-neutral toilets create a larger moral hazard zone for everyone, insofar as these spaces make it easier for perverts who might exploit the space for their own purposes. The Sugarhouse’s new gender-neutral toilets have significant design failures which clearly are a result of little design consultation; failures which endanger the knicker-dropping-safe-zone and create a potential danger-zone for all students regardless of their gender identity.

In a gender-neutral toilet with several cubicles exists a central area which is both private and public, a space where you wouldn’t want a CCTV camera but also a space where you are vulnerable not only to abuse but to accusations of being the abuser. Even if gender-segregated bathrooms only presented an illusion of safety, in an environment where people are likely to be drunk and thus particularly vulnerable to sexual assault, should we not be spending money on making safe toilets rather than just plonking in new ones with a different sign? This isn’t about victim-blaming, its about failure to design; what a poor design does here, is make it much easier for accusations to be made, much easier for incidences to occur, and even if everyone in an ideal world was a good person and safety is not compromised, then the assumption of that compromise still exists and still conjures a fog of fear. Yes, the rapist causes rape not the toilet, but in the same regard dangerous drivers cause road deaths, yet we all have airbags in our cars. A car without an airbag would be a badly designed car, and likewise, a toilet with a danger zone needs a fundamental redesign.

Correct, you shouldn’t change your lifestyle or the way you dress because of fear, because you shouldn’t allow bad people to effect the way you livel But a toilet is different. Having a safer toilet will not effect the way you chose to live your life – you can still do whatever you like and wear what you like, and that is something that good design can achieve. Yes, LUSU are offering a step towards breaking an architecture of exclusion, which has already been broken in many places such as university accommodation, where gender-neutral spaces are the norm. But design has the ability to reduce specific crimes (and fear of them) by manipulating environmental variables.

Whilst I advocate the flushing out of the gender binary code in toilet culture and beyond, I cannot insist more pertinently the dire need to redesign the public nightclub potty. LUSU had a real chance to lead the way with this, but how disappointing is a duplicate shit hole with a different sign?