Changing signage won’t alter lived reality of why women go to toilets in groups

Published in the Irish Examiner, Wednesday 19 May 2021

On any busy night in any busy pub in Ireland (we remember them) there was one question that you can be sure was asked: Why do the women go to the toilets in pairs? This question was generally asked in derision, with a knowing wink – and always rhetorical. A voracious curiosity regarding this behaviour to do with the women’s loos, followed by an entirely contradictory display of disinterest.

What is acknowledged is that there is something peculiar and beyond the mechanisms of toileting and toiletry that happens behind that closed door. Some mystery ‘other’, important enough to remark upon endlessly, perhaps terrifying enough to never speak it.

It is into this subject that the School Design Guide for Sanitary Facilities (SDG) ventured. This guide for schools is intended to assist in the planning and design of both new buildings and retrofitted old buildings and is tasked with five objectives, one of which is the minimisation of bullying. On their own terms these recommendations make a lot of sense. But there might be a problem with the terms.

The definition of bullying by the Department of Education referenced in the SDG is ‘unwanted negative behaviour, verbal, psychological or physical, conducted by an individual or group against another person (or persons) and which is repeated over time.’ But while these correctly defined bullying behaviours inform the guidance, at no point are the characteristics that might be associated with who gets targeted, where and how, explored or named.

For illustration, one might argue that the single biggest change proposed (there are many) is to move away from single sex facilities to unisex facilitates. Yet at no point is sex itself (or indeed other intersectional characteristics) and the impacts they have on adolescents’ lived experiences, referenced. It is as if bullying happens equally to everyone regardless of characteristics – surely a working definition that is the antithesis of what we know about bullying.

As the Ombudsman for Children, Dr Niall Muldoon said recently, reflecting on the 400 serious bullying complaints his office has dealt with in recent years, the Department remains reluctant to collect bullying data and certainly not disaggregated bullying data. Data needed to answer the questions, what type of bullying is happening in our schools, how much of it is happening, to who, by whom? ‘We need to start drilling down into that and investigating whether it has related to racism or homophobia, for example… We have lost seven or eight years of that sort of data-gathering because the Department did not do it.’

In fairness to the SDG team therefore, they had no disaggregated national data on bullying in schools when tasked with designing facilities that would ‘minimise the risk of bullying’. In the absence of this data or public consultation, it is unclear what assumptions they utilized to underpin their recommendations.

For RCNI we are specifically interested in one form of bullying, sexual bullying which is characterised by being highly gendered. Gender matters when it comes to sexual bullying. According to the SAVI Report (2002), 93% of all sexual violence is perpetrated by men, 25% of child abuse is perpetrated by children (predominantly adolescent boys) and around 80% of victims of sexual violence are women and children. In recent CSO crime figures CSO figures, one in five (20%) cases of detected sexual violence which were reported in 2019, both the victim and suspected offender were under 18 when the offence occurred and almost all (99%) suspected offenders of detected sexual violence which was reported in 2019 were male. Numbers so compelling they cannot be ignored, except when they are.

We echo the Ombudsman for Children’s lament regarding our ignorance of what is happening in schools, how sexual assault is minimized and invisibilised. It should also be noted that the recent horrifying Howth incidence of gendered violence, seen by many on social media, happened in a setting of ‘passive surveillance’. This would seem to put in question the effectiveness of such measures as sufficient to minimise this form of bullying and violence. The silence on the difference between bullying behaviors and experiences, by children with different characteristics means it is hard to trust recommendations based on this myopia. It is also hard to see them working.

For as one teacher remarked reflecting on the SDG, “sure it doesn’t matter what they call them, within weeks the kids will have decided which one of the unisex toilets are for the girls’ and which are for the boys’.” She may be right. Girls will still go to the toilet in groups because changing the signage won’t have changed their lived reality – the reality they get to escape for five minutes in the girls’ toilets before they reenter the fray of a culture that is violently misogynistic; five minutes to armor themselves again to run the gauntlet that is everyday sexism, five minutes respite to build mental health resilience because, whether we name it or not, perhaps one of the most compelling reasons girls and women go to the toilet in gangs is not because of what happens inside these places but because of what is happening outside of them.

Dr Clíona Saidléar is Executive Director of Rape Crisis Network Ireland.