It’s here. Womankind has waited with baited breath and crossed legs for this joyous day. Now, finally, the world’s first retractable urinal for women has risen.
Retractable urinals for men have long been a feature of most capital cities. Stored underground during the day and rising to pavement level in the evening, they are designed to counteract the traditional night-time narrative of – man goes out, man drinks, the nice toilet at the back of M&S is shut, man floods streets of city with piss.
Now a rumour that women have bladders too has finally reached Amsterdam. The city council has installed a (one! singular! for all the women who go out after hours in one of Europe’s most densely populated capital cities!) night-time urinal for women. It's part of a unit that comes with two standard issue retractable urinals for men; the women's side of the installation includes a lockable door.
The company behind this towering tribute to the female urethra is Urilift. “During the day there are plenty of opportunities to visit a toilet,” director Marco Schimmel told Dutch broadcaster NOS. “[But] at night they are often locked. Men in dire need quickly resort to public urination, but for women it is more difficult. The urinal for women offers a solution”.
— NL Times (@NL_Times) March 24, 2016
Schimmel’s statement was accompanied by a video, demonstrating the corrosive effect of late-night urination on Amsterdam’s old churches, and a booming voice introducing the twin academic disciplines of Indiscriminate Urination and Peak Urination. (The video also showcases all my favourite bike parking spots around Dam Square, so that’s delightful.)
This is the first time that any city, anywhere, in the world, ever, has acknowledged that women going out in the evening might need somewhere permanent to piss. Many councils install portable toilets on Friday and Saturday nights; but their temporary nature implies that women needing to use the toilet late at night is somehow unusual.
A marketing image of the women's urinal. Image: Urilift.
The suggestion that men are more susceptible to Indiscriminate Urination than women can be seen in the ratio of male to female public toilets in the UK today. Victorian health boards believed that men spent more time outside the house than women did (busy fighting wars and denying us the vote); and so, public toilets were distributed accordingly.
Legislation now requires that public toilets allocate an equal amount of space to men and women – but this usually results in long lines for the ladies, while the gents remain tauntingly empty. In 2015 Soraya Chemaly responded to this blatant provocation by tweeting the British Museum about the #everydaysexism of women having to queue for the toilets.
Chemaly was immediately asked why some of the women didn’t use the (empty) men’s toilets, a fun and practical suggestion. But even once we remove the social taboos around such an action, there’s the fear of assault to contend with, and the fact that most public toilets are designed to exclude people who don’t “belong” there.
After her tweet Chemaly pointed out in Time that current legislation ignores the fact that a lot of older public toilets were built for men and have not been adapted to suit women’s needs. Women traditionally sit down to urinate, they wear more restrictive clothing, are often responsible for young children – and, on an ideological level, no woman should have to live out the best years of her life queueing to change a tampon.
The question of how many public toilets for women a city should supply is partly tied up with how a city council chooses to invest its money. If the majority of a city’s public transport network is not wheelchair accessible then that city clearly doesn’t value disabled people. Likewise, if there are limited or inadequate facilities for women, then the women’s ability to access public spaces is not a priority.
But accessibility isn’t the only reason women need more retractable urinals. By providing women who go out after 6pm with somewhere safe, discreet and permanent to urinate, Amsterdam city council has acknowledged that women’s bladders are not some SS16 fad: they’re here to stay.
In creating a permanent, public, facility for women, city councils endorse women’s right to be out after dark. It’s 2016, and the question of whether women should be going out at night is apparently society’s Stone of Sisyphus.
There are, however, practical things cities can do to keep their female population safe. Start by acknowledging that they exist and that their biological needs are worth consideration.