by Dawn Shoemaker — Originally published in the February 2016 issue of ISSA—In the book Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing, editors and noted New York University sociologists Harvey Molotch and Laura Norén share images of a second-century public restroom excavated in Ostia, Italy. They note, “Dozens of individuals (male and female) relieved themselves in communal facilities where social interaction could continue during acts of elimination.”
In other words, this was a unisex restroom, and by all appearances, those using this restroom 2,000-plus years ago had no qualms whatsoever about sharing it with whomever walked in the door: man, woman, or child. This has definitely changed over time, however, initially at least, it may not in the way you may think. For literally hundreds of years, public restrooms were built for use by men only.
But once again, social change occurred: After campaigning tirelessly for years, by the 1870s, England’s Ladies Sanitary Association was finally victorious in getting separate women’s restrooms installed in London stores and restaurants and other public facilities. And because London in the 1870s was the world’s trend setter, what was good for London was good for the rest of the world. Women’s restrooms were soon installed in many public locations in North America—stores, restaurants, offices, factories, and other work locations—even private men’s clubs to serve the wives or female escorts. Soon, installing a women’s restroom, especially in a workspace, became legally required.
So we can see two things happening over the past two or three centuries:
(1) Women were recognized as full and participating members of society and, accordingly, needed restrooms to use.
(2) A strong ethical and moral belief developed that separating men’s and women’s restrooms was necessary for several reasons, including avoiding potentially embarrassing situations.
Did You Know?
The first separate toilet facilities for men and women appeared at a ball in Paris in 1739.
Everything seemed honky dory until 2001. That year at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, a student group calling itself the Restroom Revolution began advocating for unisex restrooms. Although there was considerable uproar from school administrators, educators, and students concerned about safety and other matters, the Restroom Revolution slowly got its way. One reason for this was that university administrators soon found out that other colleges such as Hampshire College, Amherst College, the University of New Hampshire at Durham, the University of Minnesota, the University of Chicago, Reed College, and Wesleyan University, had quietly installed “gender-blind” unisex restrooms that were readily accepted by students and staff and were problem free.
In time, the whole idea of sex-segregated restrooms came under greater scrutiny. What about the single father with his young daughter? Can he help his young daughter in the ladies rooms if necessary? And how about a person with disabilities who needs assistance in the restroom but whose helper is of another gender? While many states and communities in the United States do have laws and codes prohibiting unisex restrooms, several legal issues and situations have developed that have caused public officials to rethink these laws. This has slowly opened the door for more unisex-type restrooms to be installed in more types of facilities.
Unisex Restroom Style
One of the early complaints about installing unisex restrooms was that they would add to a building’s costs. However, that has not necessarily been the case; in fact, the opposite may be true. Some hotels, for instance, have found installing one unisex restroom instead of two sex-segregated restrooms to be less expensive.
One difference, though, is that unisex restrooms are often larger than traditional gender-segregated restrooms. In addition, they usually do not have urinals, or if they do, the urinals are separated from the rest of the restroom. They do tend to have many more single-stall toilets as well as more sinks, which also means longer restroom counters and likely longer wall mirrors and more soap dispensers as well. Furthermore, depending on where they are located, they are often busier; after all, they have many more people using the same restroom.
Another issue that must be addressed, especially for those in the professional cleaning industry, is whether unisex restrooms remain cleaner or get dirtier than single-gender restrooms. So far, there are no studies that answer this question. One might assume that everyone would be on his or her best behavior in a unisex restroom—especially now because they are still a rarity—so possibly for now they would stay somewhat cleaner. Nevertheless, studies going back to the late 1990s do indicate that women’s restrooms tend to get germier than men’s, which may cross over to unisex restrooms as well.
If this is true, then adding it all up, a bigger restroom plus many more single-stall toilets, more sinks, more counter space, longer mirrors, and more soap dispensers equals longer cleaning times.
Cleaning Unisex Restrooms
Because they likely are larger and busier and have more toilets and private stalls, we can assume unisex restrooms will take more time to clean. Therefore, cleaning contractors and distributors with clients where unisex restrooms have been installed have to advise their clients on how to make sure unisex restrooms are hygienically cleaned, eliminating as many germs and bacteria as possible and doing it in the shortest amount of time.
One option is to have CIMS-certified cleaning workers. ISSA’s Cleaning Industry Management System will help ensure cleaning workers use best practices that can help streamline restroom cleaning operations while also effectively cleaning to protect human health. Distributors and cleaning contractors also should suggest to their clients that when cleaning unisex restrooms, they use color-coded microfiber cleaning cloths, according to Matt Morrison, communications manager for Kaivac. “I would even suggest developing a color-coded cleaning system just for unisex restrooms, such as using red cloths for toilets, green for counters and sinks, yellow for ‘high-touch’ areas, and blue for mirrors, glass, and similar areas.”
The color-coding system will help reduce cross contamination and the misuse of chemicals, enhance cleaning consistency, and promote safety. Using a “multifold” microfiber cleaning cloth may also help by providing a fresh surface as the microfiber becomes soiled.
Another necessity, according to Morrison, is to develop a restroom cleaning plan, such as the one suggested by Process Cleaning for Healthy Schools® (PC4HS) program, one of the programs that meets the ISSA Cleaning Industry Training Standard (CITS), or another step-by-step cleaning plan that does not endorse products, equipment, or cleaning systems.
Using what ISSA calls a spray-and-vac or “no-touch” cleaning systems also can prove effective for hygienically cleaning surfaces in unisex restrooms. Also, studies by ISSA indicate that these systems are about one- to two-thirds faster than traditional or manual cleaning methods, thereby addressing two of our unisex restroom concerns.
Those who have been in or observed the professional cleaning industry over the past two or more decades have seen many changes. Cleaning has gotten greener; cleaning has gotten more automated; buildings have gone from private offices to more open work-spaces.
So do not be surprised if unisex restrooms are another change that is on the way to becoming the norm. In fact, it might be better to expect them. This is because in 2014, there already were more than 150 college campuses in the United States with unisex restrooms, which will be reflected in the businesses where these young people work.
Key source: “The Restroom Revolution: Unisex Toilets and Campus Politics” by Olga Gershenson in Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing.
Dawn Shoemaker is a frequent writer for the professional cleaning and building industries.