We’re sharing smiles as we squeeze our thighs together. That knowing look that says we feel each other’s (literal) desperation. There’s a queue, there always is. But we’re in it together, a fleeting kind of sisterhood shared between strangers as we stand on sticky floors, our faces illuminated by the dodgy strip lighting. There’s the sound of hand dryers, toilets flushing, chatter. The heady thud of a baseline as the door allows another one in to join us. Our secret space. Our escape. Women’s toilets mean safety. It’s a sanctuary, urine scented, but ours. And we need it.
Because we’ve all been there. The panic in our eyes as we tell our mate with a desperate look: Now. In the toilets, please come… The loos provide temporary respite from hot and sweaty dancefloors filled with wandering hands, groping, barging. Clubs, bars, gigs and festivals where sexual harassment has become commonplace. Unwanted attention, lingering stares, someone’s hand on your arse. A world seemingly unaware of #MeToo, where leering predatory men see the darkness as their cloak, a disguise to be someone they’d never be in their day-to-day real life. Get off me, leave me alone.
“Women’s toilets in nightclubs symbolise community. I don’t think I have experienced womanhood as much as I have in nightclub toilets,” says Bea Bennister, one of the founders of Girls Against, a group of intersectional feminists who fight against sexual harassment and assault at music gigs, festivals and concerts – where a recent YouGov poll showed that more than four in ten women under 40 have experienced unwanted sexual behaviour. “They have a sense of safety. An escape from a potentially threatening arena of predators. I’ve spent many hours with female friends in nightclub toilets, accompanying some too afraid to leave the crowd on their own, accompanying others just because we can, because going to nightclub toilets is fun, it’s safe and it’s a break from the intensity that clubbing can bring. Women’s toilets are a space for women to be women, for all different kinds, shapes, sizes and types of women. This idea is a rarity in nightlife culture, and I think that’s what makes it so special.”
It sounds like a cliché, but I can mark my favourite nights out by the time I spent inside a cubicle or at the mirrors applying lipstick. I adore the ephemeral moments of camaraderie when tampons or toilet rolls pass hands under stalls. When I was 16, I snogged my best mate inside a toilet cubicle. Locked behind that door, we explored the map of teenage sexuality and female friendship in all its complexity. What was I feeling? Obsessive friendship, love, lust… I wouldn’t have done that on the dancefloor of the nightclub we were in, in a small town with heteronormative attitudes that would have turned us into a sexual spectacle. Stared at us if we were doing it for the cis-men who outnumbered us, who called us slags if we kissed them and frigid if we didn’t.
And I’ve lost count of how many times I have cried, or a friend has held my hair back when I am being sick from too much booze. To the woman in the nightclub Bed in Sheffield circa 2003, you didn’t have to rub my back as my stomach churned from the acid of the pills that I should never have taken. You didn’t have to bring me water. I don’t know you, but I have never forgotten you.
“Last year my mate came down from Leeds. We had glugged so much red wine that we decided dancing was on the cards. On our walk in, My friend started wobbling down the street so I took her into the nearest pub and got her some water. But while at the bar, her eyes bulged and she said: ‘Sam I’m…’ She didn’t have to say anything more, I knew exactly what was coming,” says photographer Samantha Jagger, who has created a photographic series, Loosen Up, which captures candid moments in women’s loos. “I grabbed her hand and we went straight to the toilet. Out came the pinkest vom I’ve ever seen. I held her hair as she hiccuped. Afterwards, we danced on the street and were home by midnight.”
I spent a lot of my first ever Glastonbury in a queue for loos with my sister, our weak bladders and my anxiety a potent and destructive mix for a festival. “It’s always us together in the toilet queue,” we joked. But we loved it. It was our time to chat, to have a break from the crowds. We struck up friendships and gave out loo roll and hand sanitiser. It’s a magical place where conversations and compliments pass freely. Yes, the portaloos are kinda gross, but a quick break from the pushing and shoving of crowds is sometimes just what you need.
“I used to work in a music venue and we’d put nights on. I saw a chick come in and I thought she looked incredible, fierce as hell – and I thought she was giving me evils,” Samantha says, when I ask her for more of her memories. “A few hours later, in the queue for the toilets, she came up behind me. ‘Babes you look f***ing spicy, let me take a pic of you’. We got in a picture together and have been best mates since.”
“One time I went to this awful awards event with work and spent most of the evening sitting on the floor in a cubicle with a girl I worked with,” says Hetty, who is the creator of Leim, jumpsuits that you don’t have to take off to go to the toilet. “I didn’t know her very well but always thought she was sweet. We spoke for two hours to avoid the rest of the event and it genuinely made my evening. Warm and friendly and lots of laughs. Those gorgeous two hours were fleeting but they reminded me of school – I’d not spent that long in a toilet since school, and definitely haven’t since!”
This is what toilets should be. Always. A safe space for everyone who needs them. Recently, Sheffield University turned its existing male/female toilets into gender neutral spaces. There was a backlash. And rightly so, because you can’t just rename existing spaces and expect them to adapt to contemporary notions of gender. Putting a different sign on the door doesn’t change what’s behind it. To be truly gender neutral, toilets must be follow a new model, be rebuilt, rethought. The single toilet model means everything you need – toilet, wash basin, hand dryer – is one space. Open urinals and exposed men don’t equal a safe space for women (I mean all womxn) and non-binary people.
“I could write a whole book on the altercations I’ve had in toilet spaces. I manage to get by, using disabled facilities where possible, due to the lack of other safe options for me,” says writer Ben Pechey, who identifies as non-binary. “In 2020 should anyone have to accept merely getting by? There has never been more need for gender-neutral toilets and by that, not some new age scary concept. Merely single-use spaces containing all that you would need, that anyone can use, where you can go about your business uninterrupted, without the anxiety or fear that so many other toilet experiences have left me feeling.”
Our toilets need to move with our times. “I firmly believe toilets should be a safe space for everyone and inclusive for who they identify as,” says Samantha, whose continuing work on Loosen Up will seek to capture this shift as it happens. “From what I’ve seen in gender neutral loos in clubs, it works well. However, I’ve heard from women who have suffered horrendous experiences in toilets – for example miscarriage – so it’s a topic that needs to be talked about and we need to work out how we can make them a space safe for absolutely everyone. It’s not just gender neutral toilets that need improvement. People living with disabilities suffer on a daily basis with a lack of toilets.”
But more than that, the rules for nightclubbing, gigging and festivals need to be rewritten. Grabbing, groping and staring is not, and never will be, okay. Things need to change. And toilets will, and must, catch up, too. But for now, I am glad that the ladies’ loos, no matter how grotty they are, provide a sanctuary for women when they need it most. See you at the mirrors? You look bloody gorgeous, babes. What’s that shade of lippie?
Samantha Jagger’s ‘Loosen Up’ photo series is on display at Outlaws Yacht Club in Leeds on March 5 from 7pm. “Nan Goldin is a proper inspiration for me. She didn’t have enough cash to show her work and print her thousands of photos, so she showed them on slides to her mates. I also don’t have the cash, my exhibitions have all been DIY and in dark grungy basements. This time, I’m chuffed to be showing in a lovely bar, but I wanted to be able to show hundreds of my photos, rather than a select 100. I’ve sorted them to the tracks on a playlist I’ve created,” Samantha explains.