Women’s toilets in Australia: the writing is on the wall

A toilet wall has more than meets the eye. Flickr/ukslim

La Trobe University’s Dr Jan Schapper recently completed a study into signage and writing on women’s toilets in Australia. The research, just published in the international journal, “Gender, Place and Culture”, has come under fire from some sections of the media.

Schapper explains the reasons behind her research, and what toilet walls say about our society, our views on gender and on race.

Many European toilets are shared by men and women. Those countries tend to have “toilets”, not “the men’s” or “the ladies’”. In many parts of Asia, Africa, and to some extent in southern Europe, squat toilets are part of the culture, with various toileting practices prescribed by custom and religion.

A toilet sign directing those unfamiliar with western toilets at Victoria University, Melbourne. Author

Australia is now an extremely multicultural nation. We value the tourist dollar and invite international students to join us, creating greater understanding and links between nations of the world – and a substantial boost to the national economy and tax base.

People go to the toilet many times a day, like we go shopping, to the library, cinemas, to school, catch public transport, and so on. Extremely useful knowledge has been gained about activity at all these places over the years, revealing much about the world we live in. Toilets, too, can give us insights into broader social practices, for example those related to organisational, cultural and gender tensions.

I guess we can try… Author

For example, my study found much signage in women’s toilets is racist and many foreign students are uncomfortable and confused with how western toilets work. Cultural prejudices that no longer find voice elsewhere can be expressed in our official prescriptions of toilet practices.

A sign in a toilet in a Melbourne office building. Author

Graffiti on toilet walls, while this was not the immediate thrust of my study, has in the past also told us many things about attitudes and responses to the world we live in. Today, with an increasing emphasis on uncluttered and hygienic physical space, much of that comment has moved into social media, such as twitter and face book, and online media comment.