The Nordics Get Toilet Equality (Almost) Right

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As my family and I toured the Nordic countries over the New Year’s break, we noticed a very basic difference from most other places: Almost all the public restrooms, especially in Denmark and Sweden, are unisex. That eliminates some nasty problems that don’t really belong in the 21st century. It also creates new concerns.

Americans familiar with bathroom-law controversies will appreciate the Scandinavian practice. A Nordic toilet will sometimes have three signs on the door: figures that are male, female and both at once (a somewhat awkward image of a person wearing half a skirt). In Oslo, I saw a bathroom with pictures of a centaur and a mermaid under the caption, “Whatever you are, remember to wash your hands.” More often, however, there’s no gender-related sign at all. This arrangement removes the entire controversy over transgender access, which has caused an uproar in the U.S. in recent years. A person of any gender can use any bathroom.

Unisex toilets also do away with a discrimination issue that has long plagued women in movie theaters, at nightclubs and in other crowded locations, where they often have to line up to wait their turn because of the way the restrooms are designed. According to one survey, 59 percent of women and only 11 percent of men say they often have to wait in toilet lines. Women take twice as long as men in the bathroom, but many buildings, especially older ones, have more or bigger men’s bathrooms, or more “stations” for men, including urinals. The U.S. has tried to introduce federal legislation for “restroom gender parity” and there has been a congressional debate on the subject; “potty parity” rules exist in many states’ building codes, but they don’t provide a wholesale solution.

The Nordic approach does. Typically, there are stalls with floor-to-ceiling doors for privacy, and no urinals. Although a leftist party in Sweden made headlines a few years ago by pushing for a local bylaw that would make male government employees urinate only while sitting down, the current set-up doesn’t result from activism or any special laws; it’s just common sense and accepted practice.

As we made our way across Scandinavia, though, my admiration for the local strain of toilet justice faded somewhat. The Nordic toilet architecture doesn’t eliminate the lines: It just means everyone has to wait. Setting up unisex restrooms like old-fashioned women’s ones enhances equality, but, in typical socialist fashion, by spreading the inconvenience around rather than removing it for everyone. 

Nothing can be done about this in a small restaurant, which can only remove the gender signs from toilet doors; but a stadium, or even that gas station, should try to do better. 

An optimal solution would probably involve some technological progress, such as a workable urinal for women. Many attempts to devise one have failed. There are, however, perfectly workable recent inventions such as the Danish-designed Pollee, used at numerous outdoor festivals, or the Weestand from the South African start-up LiquidGold, successfully tested in South African schools this year. 

The ideal, line-free public restroom would likely have separate areas for urinals for men and women and a single bank of unisex stalls like the ones we saw in Scandinavia. It would take care of some “potty parity” activists’ hygienic complaints about unisex toilets, too.

But until the owners of crowded public buildings wake up to the beauty of this set-up, the Scandinavian approach can work quite nicely. At the very least, it would put an end to a lot of silly discussions about an issue that should be simple and uncontroversial.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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