February 16, 2022 | 15 minutes read | Tags:

On the Toilet

Red Fightback views the toilet as a site for a wide variety of political and liberatory struggles. We view it as necessary to organise and work for the widespread provision of free, gender-neutral, universally accessible toilets, access to which is not policed, charged or gated.

Our Position
Red Fightback views the toilet as a site for a wide variety of political and liberatory struggles. We view it as necessary to organise and work for the widespread provision of free, gender-neutral, universally accessible toilets, access to which is not policed, charged or gated.  Red Fightback understands that the matter of public toilet access cuts across many oppressed peoples’ struggles for liberation. We are calling for actions directly targeting individual political and administrative figures, with slogans that make clear that toilets are a universal need, threatening to associate their name with toilets and their non-provision.

How to read this article.  If your aim is:

  • to understand more about our goals and campaign: read the above position statement, the toilet demand document Toilet demand document and the section Strategy and tactics of toilet campaigns.
  • to understand more about the specific ways the toilet is used as a tool of oppression: read the section The contemporary British toilet scene.
  • to understand how the toilet functions within the broader contemporary British social formation, why these oppressive uses occur, and the derivation of the above position: read from the top.

At first glance, a toilet might easily be taken as a non-controversial item. We could lay out a rough formal-legal professed theory of the toilet in society based on the following basic principles:

I. Use of the toilet is a universal need,
II. Use of the toilet is not judged morally.

Under this theory, use of the toilet is a technical and non-political need. This need is provided for by private individuals in private spaces and is provided socially in public spaces.  Additionally, state capacity may be used to remedy defects in private access to toilets, in line with some minimal standard of universality.

On its face, this is not a totally ridiculous theory. Certainly it is a widely propagated piece of ideology which explains many peoples’ outward opinions on toilets as well as much of the official policy on them. However, peering beneath the lid, this theory does not explain everything that is going on. Indeed if toilet use was a “technical and non-political” need (allowing for a moment the possibility of such a thing) then we would not expect toilets and their use to be the site of contemporary and historical struggle. But this goes completely against our experience, in which a huge variety of radical and liberatory movements have engaged in political struggle over the use of the toilet. In Great Britain alone, public toilet provision was a feminist cause from the 1850s through the start of the 20th century, as public toilets had originally only been provisioned for men, greatly limiting public life for others1.

A photo at a Red Fightback stall of a toilet that has been decorated with colourful posters with various toilet campaign messages, print outs of the demand document are on top of the bowl to be taken. The poster on the lid reads "Haringey Council should know, everyone's got to go!"

So there is more work to be done providing a theory of the toilet that explains how it comes to take this role, and how we should intervene. Below we discuss the social function of the toilet, work out how this function fits into the broader social formations of a class society, and apply this understanding to contemporary Britain. This is used to discuss the aims of communist politics involving the toilet, and the tactics used to achieve these aims. Ultimately we aim to comprehensively justify the line set out in the position statement above.

The toilet as vanishing cabinet
The first point to critique the above formal-legal theory of the toilet is, reasonably enough, point I. The manifestation and experience of the need for the toilet is not universally distributed or experienced, a point that is of particular relevance for toilets as a site for the politics of disability. Bearing this in mind, it is still fair to put forward:

I’. Use of a toilet in some forms is a universal need, though these forms vary.

To put it another way, we (almost) all have to take a shit sometimes, though the facilities needed to provide for this need will vary from person to person.

The difference in connotation of “take a shit” compared with the previously very sanitised “use of the toilet” is immediately noticeable. This suggests that the formal-legal theory of the toilet founders immensely on point II. Indeed many or most people would explicitly describe the purpose of the toilet as for profane, anti-social, or impolite acts which carry a moral judgement of mild revulsion. So in fact a more accurate theory of the toilet has:

II’.    The toilet makes the acts committed in it morally un-judged.

If you want to take a Lacanian framing, the toilet is a space in which the big Other cannot see you shitting. Of course you are shitting in there, but it is not “socially known” information, or “socially judgeable” in the same way that shitting anywhere else would be.

Now there are very good practical reasons to have controlled spaces for defecation - in terms of disease or sewer management if nothing else. However this itself is quite irrelevant to the theory of the toilet: what matters is that this control is implemented by a generalised revulsion and state of profanity around the topic, and the view of a toilet as a shield of (social) judgement, as obscuring or masking-off the act. This can be seen even in the language used: a person “goes to the toilet”, to commit linguistically unspecified acts.

The toilet within the whole of society
The social function of the toilet, expressed in II’, does not come about as some kind of agreement within society about how toilets should work. Instead it is continually reproduced by concrete practises and social relations: considering how toilets and defecation are explained to young children, the cultural status of sanitation workers, the physical design and location of toilets, and a host of other examples makes this clear. Now these social relations that reproduce the function of the toilet are of course not isolated from the totality of relations making up a social formation.  For this reason in a class society the social relations creating the function of the toilet (typically2) do so in a way that reinforces the class relations. A class society is furthermore divided into strata, created by position with respect to the various state apparatuses that materially act to reproduce its relations, and the social relations creating the function of the toilet (typically) do so in a way that reinforces these strata.

The fact that the social relations creating the social function of the toilet are (typically) subordinated to this end are of course independent of the actual nature of this social function.  However the particular theory of the toilet expressed in I’+II’ means that we can work out how toilets function politically within a class society, and so understand the form of struggles over them. Some of these consequences are:

  • A. Because of the universality in I’, the toilet must be present in some form throughout much of society. This means that as long as class and stratum-based oppression exists, and the toilet exists in its current form, they will (typically) be implemented in oppressive ways. For this reason, it is not a complete exaggeration to say that you can tell who is oppressed by looking at who must struggle for the toilet.
  • B. Because, by II’, the toilet is a space where profane acts take place but remain “socially hidden” or unknown, the toilet will (typically) be and be viewed as a space where oppressed people carry out particular repressed acts.
  • C. Because of A and B, the public toilet will (typically) be repressed to the minimal level needed by the preferred (unoppressed) subject, and this minimum policed and gated to prevent and obstruct use by oppressed people.
  • D. Because of C and the variance of form of need in I’ there will (typically) be a struggle to guarantee sufficient provision of toilets, especially for people with needs beyond the “ideal minimum”.
  • E. The toilet, by II’, only obscures the acts within it socially - they still take place! For this reason the toilet (typically) remains a space of vulnerability, especially in terms of observation or judgement within it.
  • F. Because of C and E the toilet when policed, gated, and observed will (typically) become a space of vulnerability and humiliation for oppressed people.
  • G. The toilet will frequently become a space for direct surplus abuse of oppressed people. This is because of both their vulnerability, by E, in this space, and the function, by II’, of the toilet in masking off the abuser’s actions.
  • H. Because of B and E, the toilet will (typically) be viewed as a space in which oppressed people can carry out attacks and acts of revenge on their oppressors: the source of vulnerability felt in the toilet (per E) is mis-recognised as coming from oppressed people taking forbidden actions (per B).
  • I. Because of B the toilet to some extent becomes a radical space in which oppressed people can carry out repressed acts; because of A it is frequently one of the few such public spaces. This radicalisation of the toilet is in tension especially with C and E, as the use of the toilet is policed and contested.

The contemporary British toilet scene
We’ve now worked out some of the consequences of our understanding of the toilet when it is part of a larger class society. Do these explain the actual place of the toilet in contemporary British society and the struggles around it?

A red and black toilet campaign poster, showing a drawing of someone in a wheelchair above the slogan "Inaccessible public toilets prevent disabled public life!"

Manifestations of point B abound. Consider some of the many otherwise repressed social phenomena that are characteristically found in or associated with the public toilet but have no link at all to its basic use: illegal drug use (particularly by homeless people), rough sleeping, cruising, tampon vending machines, condom vending machines, sex workers’ adverts on stall doors, nearby baby changing facility, and many more. All of these epiphenomena of the toilet are only understood in terms of the material theory unpacking I’+II’: in the strictly formal-legal view one would expect to find condom vending machines outside of toilets more often than inside!

With many of these examples we can see the tension between C and I: the toilet is in part a radical space allowing otherwise repressed acts such as cruising or living homeless, but this use is a standard justification for repressing the public toilet itself as much as is feasible3, and then policing its remaining use4.

Regarding D, the struggle for sufficient toilets is widespread: one in five people5 is impacted by a “urinary leash” or “loo leash”. As mentioned this issue disproportionately affects people with health conditions requiring more frequent toilet use6, with the frequency jumping to two in five people7. This restricts the ability to participate in social life, and requires dangerous adaptation:

“Deliberate dehydration is practised by over half (56%) of the public, and is known to seriously affect health and exacerbate existing medical problems.”8

Beyond the problem of insufficiently many toilets, there is the problem of insufficiently accessible toilets. Many people may need additional space or equipment, or modified facilities such as altered sink basins that allow wheelchair users to reach faucets or approach the sink basin with space for their chairs, and the provision of such toilets is insufficient and actively struggled for9.

Point D has relevance beyond the politics of disability. The insufficient provision of public toilets disproportionately affects workers who do not have a permanent place of employment, such as independent contractor drivers, couriers, and “gig economy” workers10, public transit drivers11.  The attachment of changing facilities to the toilet, mentioned earlier, and the scarcity of mother-and-child toilets acts to tether mothers to the home.  This is one tiny example of a social relation used to reproduce the family structure, but it keenly shows the limitations of bourgeois-legalist feminism.

The points E and H are most evident whenever they are used to justify a system of segregated toilets. By this point it is probably superfluous to add that the resulting segregation and its enforcement becomes an especially keen tool for repression along the lines of points C and F. There are of course abundant historical examples, some mentioned above. A contemporary example of these phenomena are the attempts by the “Gender Critical Movement” to prevent transgender women from using women’s toilets in public or semi-public (e.g. private office) settings.  The justification for this is exactly along the lines of point H, a belief that transgender women present a specific threat to cisgender women within the toilet. As has been argued in many places, this is an entirely ideological construction based on the social function of the toilet12 13.

In fact, following F and G, we would expect the toilet to frequently be a site of vulnerability, humiliation and assaults on LGBT people, which is borne out historically14. Furthermore the widespread presence of (binarily) gendered toilets leads to oppression specific to trans and non-binary people. Indeed we can see that the existence of gendered toilets implies the existence of social relations to enact this gendering and therefore implies the enforcement of adherence to a gender binary: abuse of trans and non-binary people is frequently carried out by people policing the “correct” use of gender segregated toilets15.

The dynamics present in points E,F, and G are not just experienced by these groups. As the above references to the provision of insufficiently accessible toilets makes clear, the result for disabled people is frequently humiliating and at times unsafe. For an extremely widespread example, consider the inadequate provision of accessible toilets for elderly people in the care system, and the consequent embarrassment and distress many people go through16.

Communist politics of the toilet
The above analysis has provided the tools to understand the position of the toilet within contemporary British society. The real purpose and test is whether it illuminates the tools to change this position, and how this position should be changed. Specifically we consider this from the Communist position: our aim is to establish a classless society with abundant socially owned and operated means of production, and our method is proletarian led workers’ struggle.

A photocollage of people washing their hands, cleaning surfaces, a mother holding her baby and a side shot of a building. Image reads !"Regarding rural toilet revolution, General Secretary puts forward new requirements!" Image source: 新华 - 厕所革命 - http://www.xinhuanet.com/politics/2021-07/25/c_1127692726.htm
Image reads: “Regarding rural toilet revolution, General Secretary puts forward new requirements”

From this we see that Communist politics of the toilet breaks naturally into two parts. When the primary struggle involves insufficient productive forces the most important campaign is increasing the availability of hygienic toilets to meet the demands of the people. See for example China's public bathroom blitz goes nationwide as Xi Jinping rallies forces in the 'toilet revolution' | South China Morning Post and17 'Loo-dicrous' : China's government weighs in on why there aren't enough public toilets for women | South China Morning Post, or Vietnam sets up toilet association to raise hygiene awareness | Tuoi Tre News.

In the contemporary British context the primary issue is not an economic problem of making toilets available. Instead it is to stop the toilet being used to reproduce the current capitalist relations of production. This means addressing the ways the toilet is used to carry out oppression as detailed in points C-H above. From this we can see an immediate minimal programme:

Min: Communists must organise and work for the widespread provision of free, gender-neutral, accessible toilets, access to which is not policed or gated.

This is an ultimately reformist position which alleviates the oppression linked to toilets while leaving unchanged the basic reasons (the theory I’+II’ plus existence in a class society) that this oppression came to be. As such achievements in this minimal programme must be constantly defended and re-won - which is not to say that such victories are not important or beneficial to many.

The maximal programme is a little less obvious. We know that it must involve removing the toilet as a tool for the reproduction of capitalist social relations, and not preventing or alleviating just its use for oppression. This means either changing the social role of the toilet, described in I’+II’, or removing the class structure of society that leads to the points A-I described above. Of course in a pre-revolutionary context the latter is not possible, so the maximal programme must be

Max: Communists must do ideological and cultural work to reframe use of the toilet as something not judged morally, to be provided as needed and in a maximally accessible way.

In other words, the maximal programme (in a pre-revolutionary context) looks like changing use of the toilet from something described by the theory I’+II’ to something really (and not just legally) described by the theory I+II. Of course, such a change cannot be accomplished without the actual provision of the toilets provided, and thus encompasses the minimal programme. But this larger goal shows the importance of campaigning around toilets widely and loudly, rather than accepting quiet upgrades.

Strategy and tactics of toilet campaigns
Now that we know what Communist politics aims to do with the toilet, we can ask what the best way of doing this is. Again the starting point is the material theory of the toilet embodied in I’+II’, and the understanding of the toilet in a class society worked out from that. It is also useful to consider that the outward opinions of people we want to influence are likely to be outwardly given by I+II and inwardly given by the points worked out in A-H (that the public toilet is a target for drug use, cruising, assault, or non-specific profane acts).

a photo of a toilet decorated with the red toilet campaign poster at the top of the stairs down to Seven Sisters Station.

The first point to note is that a bourgeois politician or administrator will typically view the politics of the toilet and the provision of toilets as a somewhat embarrassing matter, because of this association with unappealing or profane subjects. Certainly a reputation as “the toilet person” is not a desirable position for such politicians. This suggests that campaigns around the toilet should be loud, be visible, involve humour and potential embarrassment, target and tie to individual politicians and administrators, run for an extended period, and involve a concerted propaganda effort. In particular media associating the targeted figure with toilets and the inadequate toilet situation should be generated and spread widely. These tactics are also useful in promoting the recognition of the toilet as involving political struggle, the goals of the minimal programme, and the reframing involved in the maximal programme.

The second point is that the purported universality of need for the toilet makes for useful sloganeering. This includes pointing out the variety of forms that need for the toilet takes, per I’, especially when organising for accessible toilets. However it is useful more broadly, such as pointing out how policed, charged or gated toilets prevent universal access, or how gender-segregated toilets fail to provide for non-binary people, and necessitate policing of gender. Slogans along these lines include:

Inaccessible public toilets prevent disabled public life!

Workers on the move need public toilets!

Why do we pay (Insert name) to shit?

(Insert name), without toilets where do we shit?

(Insert name) should know, everyone’s got to go!

Thirdly we must note possible deviations a toilet campaign can undergo. We must be careful that a call for high quality and accessible toilets is not captured by a gentrification effort and used to make toilets more gated or policed. To do this we must keep a focus on genuine universality of access at all times. We must also avoid making “safety” a focus of campaigns or slogans: such calls are used to justify policing toilet access, in particular of oppressed groups. In so far as such concerns are raised, we should focus on the use of toilets as a space dominated by persecution of rather than by oppressed people, and the purely ideological justification of the concerns raised.

a photo of another toilet decorated in blue toilet campaign posters, beside a wall that has a !"We demand toilet access!" QR code poster.

Finally we see why campaigning around the toilet is useful for small and forming parties aiming to build community presence and penetration. This is because the actions taken will be publicly visible, address a mass issue (public toilet provision in any capacity, which is repressed as noted in point C above), can result in short term and visible change, and are of particular benefit to oppressed groups in the ways detailed above. For these reasons campaigns around toilets should prominently invoke Red Fightback’s presence and activity, should communicate our politics more broadly, and should provide avenues for mass involvement and membership.

Footnotes and references

1 https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/History-of-Womens-Public-Toilets-in-Britain/

2 The use of “typically” throughout this list is intended as a reminder that like all social relations these are dynamic and contested. This point will be returned to when we consider political intervention into the social position of the toilet.

3 http://www.btaloos.co.uk/?p=2038

4 E.g. the justifications in https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-ouch-22602836

5 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-59335957

6 E.g. https://www.crohnsandcolitis.org.uk/news/public-toilets-in-london

7 RSPH | Taking the P***: the decline of the great British public toilet

8 ibid.

9 https://www.changing-places.org/

10 https://tribunemag.co.uk/2021/05/public-toilets-are-a-workers-right, or the depiction in Loach’s Sorry We Missed You

11 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-59335957

12 https://twitter.com/bogofflgbt

13 Queering Bathrooms: Gender, Sexuality, and the Hygienic Imagination

14 https://www.stonewall.org.uk/lgbt-britain-hate-crime-and-discrimination

15 https://wedc-knowledge.lboro.ac.uk/ resources/conference/40/Benjamin-2649.pdf

16 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-32399008

17 Image source: 新华 - 厕所革命 - http://www.xinhuanet.com/politics/2021-07/25/c_1127692726.htm - image reads “Regarding rural toilet revolution, General Secretary puts forward new requirements”