WOMEN
08/02/2019 05:45 EDT | Updated 08/02/2019 06:18 EDT

Why Cities Need To Install Female Urinals

Peeing in public is not only stressful and difficult for women — it also exposes them to the risk of assault.

A recent addition to a music festival in France is giving women everywhere hope for solving a common, awkward problem: how to pee in public. For the 2019 Summer Vibration reggae festival held in Alsace, organizers had the practical (and novel) idea of installing four portable female urinals.

Easy to spot thanks to their bright pink color, the “Lapee” stalls allow three women to pee at the same time. The walls are designed to prevent women from seeing each other or being seen from the outside. Even the access is easy — you simply climb two small steps and squat. The walls are there for balance. 

Colin Anderson Productions pty ltd via Getty Images
Waiting in a long line is just one barrier women face when looking for a public restroom.

The inventor behind this innovation is Gina Perier, a 25-year-old French woman. Working in conjunction with Danish architect Alexander Egebjerg, she aims to make her creation — already in use in several spots in Copenhagen — a standard fixture anywhere there’s a lack of toilet options for women.

“The urinal is the only object in the world specific to men that, so far, does not have a version for women. A woman peeing remains a fairly taboo subject and in French, women are often pejoratively called ‘pisseuses’ [pissers], a misogynist term referring to urination,” Perier explained during a presentation of her work at France’s Lépine Competition for inventors in May.

The Hunt

Men may not realize that for a woman, finding a place to urinate while out and about is an uphill battle. Public bathrooms are available in many cities, but they tend to be dirty and the line to use them can be long. The feeling of being trapped in a closed space can also make users uncomfortable.

This means that some women prefer to hold it until they get home (which can result in health complications, such as cystitis). Others simply put up with the inconvenience and wait their turn. A final group throws caution to the wind and sets out in search of a small hidden niche on a street corner or between two cars where they can relieve themselves.

This practice is what Sarah Bourcier Laskar calls “wild peeing.” Bourcier Laskar, a student in the final year of a master’s program at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, has been part of a program for the last six months that studied and supported potential developments of urban diet/excretion systems. The program studied everything from alternative sewage management options to the behavior of “wild peeing” practitioners.

For the entire duration of her internship, Bourcier Laskar visited three Parisian spots known for their nightlife: Saint-Martin Canal, Ourcq Canal and the Seine quays near Jussieu. There, she interviewed male and female revelers to better understand what drives them to pee in public.

Modesty And Mounting Stress

The reasons were diverse, and they didn’t allow for sweeping generalizations about humans in general or one specific sex. Nonetheless, certain patterns emerged. Focusing on women’s experiences, Bourcier Laskar discovered the particular difficulties women encounter when trying to urinate in peace.

“For women, the urge to urinate is accompanied by increased stress,” Bourcier Laskar explained. “But why? Because they must find somewhere to go, whether that’s a public restroom, a restroom owned by a nearby business, or a sheltered spot on the street.” 

A sense of modesty prevents many women from going on the street, and they’d prefer to wait their turn for access to an enclosed space. Others facing a more urgent situation saw no reason to wait when so many men have no qualms about simply urinating in the street. Those women were willing to find a discreet location.

The researcher framed this decision-making process in terms of a cost/benefit analysis, a sort of hierarchy that comes into play. Women will determine which takes priority: speed, safety, cleanliness or modesty.

The last of the criteria, modesty, is not innate. According to Bourcier Laskar, it’s tied to how we are viewed by others.

“Some men cannot fathom the concept of a woman peeing in the street,” she explained, referencing statements she collected. “They subscribe to a stereotypical view, by which women are not supposed to undress in the street.” 

Herd Behavior 

However, these are not the only elements that can affect or change someone’s priorities. Many of Bourcier Laskar’s subjects were in more of a festive atmosphere — many were drinking. For some, alcohol can contribute to breaking down barriers that would normally inhibit wild peeing. “They might not have done it in another context,” she noted.

The time of day (nighttime, in this case) must also be taken into account. People likely behave differently in the middle of the day than they do at midnight, under the dim glow of the last few streetlights.

Bourcier Laskar has one more element on her list: the phenomenon of “herd behavior.” 

“If everyone is going to pee in the street, we allow ourselves to participate as well,” she said.

This “communal peeing” behavior differs for men and women. Men share the best spots or act as lookouts for each other. As demonstrated by sociologist Erving Goffman in “The Arrangement Between the Sexes,” bathrooms serve a more socializing function for women. They chat, touch up their makeup, engage with each other. According to Bourcier Laskar, this model still applies to behavior in the street, in the form of mutual assistance.

Protection From Voyeurism

With this in mind, when it comes to urinating in public spaces, asking someone to provide company is a matter of security. Many women pursue this option as an act of solidarity. A sense of insecurity can emerge when it comes time to urinate, especially because of the intimate nature of the act.

During her visits to the Jussieu quays, Bourcier Laskar heard about potential voyeurs lurking about, the majority of whom were men.

“They wait until a girl gives up on waiting in line for the bathrooms and then follow her,” she said.

There have been incidents of sexual assault, including a case in which a woman says she felt a hand touch her backside while she was urinating in the bushes. 

The officials of the Paris city hall unit responsible for combating antisocial behavior are aware of these incidents. They try to raise awareness of the voyeurism issue whenever a person is booked for the offense. But the incident would never have occurred if women were also provided with their own public facilities, Bourcier Lasker argued.

In addition to Lapee, two other female urinals have emerged in the last year. One of them, Madame Pee, is currently open to use at the edge of Paris-Plages. The other is called Marcelle and serves two complementary purposes: It’s a urinal geared toward women, and it also collects urine for the production of agricultural fertilizer. Bourcier Laskar welcomes these social innovations and the feminist spirit that underlies them. She said she hopes they are here to stay.

When asked about her urinals’ potential permanence, Perier of Lapee told HuffPost France that considerations are underway, but that she first wants to get the public at large accustomed to their presence.

“Getting women to understand that the device is in fact a urinal is no easy task,” she said. “It’s unprecedented and tricky.”

Before installing Lapee in outdoor spaces more permanently, she wants their use to become the norm. She is currently in touch with the mayor of Paris, but has no plans to stop there.