Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Go Where?: Sex, Gender, and Toilets

an average looking washroom sign where the men's and women's washrooms are indicated with stick figures

Women's and men's washrooms: we encounter them nearly every time we venture into public space. To many people the separation of the two, and the signs used to distinguish them, may seem innocuous and necessary. Trans people know that this is not the case, and that public battles have been waged over who is allowed to use which washroom. The segregation of public washrooms is one of the most basic ways that the male-female binary is upheld and reinforced.

As such, washroom signs are very telling of the way societies construct gender. They identify the male as the universal and the female as the variation. They express expectations of gender performance. And they conflate gender with sex.

I present here for your perusal, a typology and analysis of various washroom signs.

The Universal Male

One of the ideas that supports patriarchy is the notion that a man can be representative of all humanity, or "mankind", while a woman could only be representative of other women. For example, in politics we see "women's issues" segregated from everybody issues.

Washroom signs illustrate this idea by depicting the male figure simply, and the female as some kind of elaboration on the male figure. This sign expresses in words what many do with images:
two washroom doors adjacent to each other. One reads wo, the other reads men

The most common type of washroom sign, pictured at the top of this post, is another example. Typically, these signs depict men as people, and women as people in skirts:

the male figure is standard but the female is shaped like two circles balancing on top of an umbrella
Apparently, McDonald's has a separate washroom 
for umbrellas
Two rectangular stick figures, one with legs, another with a triangle where the legs should be
Men have legs, women have triangles
the male is drawn very simply with perpendicular lines but the female is more complex with extra lines to indicate her bust and a skirta slightly more stylized version of standard washroom signsthe man is a rectangle with legs, the woman is a rectangle with legs and a bulge around her hips to indicate a skirt

In Iran, men are depicted as people, and women are people in skirts and hijabs:
the male figure is standard but the female figures silhouette extends over her head to imply a hijab

Occasionally, we see that men are people, and women are people with waists:
the male has a simple rectangular silhouette but the female has an hourglass shape the male is indicated by horizontal vertical lines topped with a circle and the female is a similar design but one of the lines is hourglass shaped
Which highlights the absurdity of the construction of gendered bodies because, well, men have waists too.

In this sign, we see that men have torsos, and women have floating, disembodied boobs:
the man is indicated with a circle for the head, a rectangle for body, and two tapered oblongs for legs. The woman has a circle for a head with a tentacle-like extension representing hair. Under her head are two circles, attached to nothing. After a gap, her legs appear.
Women also sprout tentacles from their heads

Finally, we have a sign that, while patronizingly insulting, is interesting in that it takes the assumption of the universal male to its logical conclusion. That is, if "men" is interchangeable with "people", and women aren't men, then women can't really be considered people at all, can they?
the man is indicated with the standard stick-figure. The woman is indicated with a flower.
Who wants to be a person when you can be a delicate, 
beautiful flower instead?

Opposite Sexes

There is another kind of washroom sign that, although based on the men-are-people/women-are-people-in-dresses trope, doesn't quite fit. These signs depict men and women as triangles. 

A downwards pointing triangle with arms and legs and a triangular head represent the man, and an upwards pointing triangle represents the woman
two elongated triangles, one pointing down and one pointing up, both with circles hovering over them
two equilateral triangles, one pointing down and one pointing up, each with circles attached at the top
like the signs above, only the circles are no longer attached to the triangles
headless triangles

One is not an elaboration of the other. They are both simply triangles. These signs remain problematic, though, because they construct men and women as fundamentally opposite to one another. It also assumes that the viewer understands that the triangle side signifies either shoulders or a skirt, and that is not a given. Which becomes apparent when you consider this sign:
two obtuse triangles, one with the smallest acute angle pointing downwards, the other with the smallest acute angle pointing upwards. Both are topped with circles to indicate heads, and both have a single line coming out the bottom to indicate legs
Unlike the previous signs, here the downwards pointing triangle identifies the women's washroom, and the upwards pointing triangle signifies the men's washroom. I assume that the angles are supposed to represent torpedo boobs and a pitched tent. 

Update: Commenter Roza's anecdote further illustrates that the significance of certain shapes to the viewer cannot be taken for granted:
In Poland, men are represented by a triangle (most often pointing down', and women by a circle:
 This caused me some embarrassment, since I am used to women represented by a triangle, but after a few times and a lot of peeing men in shock, I learned :P

Gender, Sex, and Sexuality

In controversies over who is allowed to use which washroom, a recurring theme is the conflation of gender, sex and sexuality, as cis women insist on treating trans women as some kind of threatening sexual predators. This conflation is illustrated by washroom signs themselves, which sometimes designate washrooms by gender, and sometimes by sex, sometimes accompanied by assumptions about sexuality.

Gender Performance

Many washroom signs do not depict the male as a universal stick figure. Instead, the distinction is made by playing up differences between how masculinity and femininity are performed. In doing so, the signs communicate essentializing notions about what makes a man or a woman. Most often, it is style of dress.

photos by eszter

This pair of signs is interesting, because it might not immediately be apparent to the modern viewer that the individual pictured on the sign for the men's washroom is, in fact, male.
photos by eszter

It shows that the styles we associate with masculinity are not universal across time and space. 

Then we have these signs which universalize gender performance to apply it to the insect world:

Butterflies are naturally feminine because they're pretty, and beetles are naturally masculine because they're not pretty. 

Even more suggestive of the notion that "clothing makes the man" and woman, are the signs which do not show people at all, but just gendered apparel.

Some signs incorporate gendered posture: the woman is canting, or has her eyes demurely cast downward, while the man has his feet firmly planted on the ground, displaying his physical strength.

These are also suggestive of the behaviour we expect from men and women - women should be coy and submissive; men brash and dominating.

Alternatively, in these signs we see that the man is canting, while the woman is facing the viewer:
However, it is not a role reversal. The man is in a mobile, fluid, active position; while the woman, rather disturbingly, looks like she's pinned against the wall.


After stick-figures, signs showing different styles of dress for men and women seem to be the most common way to designate men's and women's washrooms. However, like transphobic people, some signs focus on what's under the clothes. A couple of the following photos might be mildly NSFW.

These signs are of several kinds. All are essentializing and erase trans people and people with atypical sex organs.

The first is men-have-penises/women-have-breasts. I believe that these are indicative of the degree to which breasts have been sexualized in our society as, like the sign below, they seem to be oblivious to the fact that women have genitalia, and hence construct breasts as the female equivalent of the penis.

How is she supposed to pee?
Without that little bit of hair on the woman, you wouldn't
be able to tell the difference.
Men have penises, women have a boobs and gaping chest
At first I thought the graphic
designer had a grotesque, distorted
understanding of vaginas. But no,
that's her bum.
This one might actually go with the men-have-torsos/
women-have-floating-disembodied-boobs sign from earlier

The second group is men-have-penises/women-have-vaginas.

I like the majesty radiating off of these
It's almost insulting how little effort went into drawing
that vulva. Also, I don't think it's typical for them to be so

It seems that vaginas are shown attached to women to a far lesser extent than breasts are.

Somewhat related to the last category are the signs that pose the question: do you stand or sit when you pee?

So do the men who sit to pee not get a washroom? And
where did those puddles come from?
In case you can't tell, those signs show beer being poured
Because women are cute and men... are like apes?
In pun form, rather than graphically depicted
photos by eszter
(A note from an anonymous commenter: ...the photo of the pointers/setters is from a restaurant in Philadelphia called the White Dog Cafe, where I worked for many years. There are four single bathrooms, all named after types of dogs (punny, I know) - and all explicitly non-gendered. Those bathrooms were designed in part with the West Philadelphia queer community in mind; when I worked there I had many LGBTQ coworkers, including someone who was transitioning, and it was an incredibly supportive environment. Duly noted. )

Other signs use the secondary sex characteristics of animals:

No "hens" - just "chicks".

This illustrates the way we assume the universality of the gender binary, when it is not universal. For example, hens have been known to behave like roosters, and then develop male secondary sex characteristics, making the news in Sweden and China. There was also a rooster in Italy who started to lay eggs after a fox killed all the hens.

This sign is even more essentializing, specifying the chromosome pairs you need to use the washroom:
It also universalizes the gender binary to alien races (whose legs conveniently seem to abstractly represent human sex organs) and robots.

Conflating Sex, Gender, and Sexuality

Signs can vary between designating washrooms by sex and by gender because most people assume that they are the same thing.

Her thought bubble: "shopping"
His thought bubble: "football"
This sign covers all the bases. Male as universal/female as variation: He's a simple egg-shape, she's wearing a dress and lipstick. Biological sex: He has a minimalist penis, she has minimalist vagina. Gender performance: He's thinking about football, she's thinking about shopping. It's almost funny that the graphic designer felt that so many different elements were necessary. It's also interesting because it illustrates how total the conflation is and the rigidity of the resulting dichotomy. Women must meet standards of femininity. Men can't wear lipstick or enjoy shopping. And they certainly can't have vaginas.

There's an element of absurdity to it. We don't segregate washrooms because people have different interests. Nor is it because of people's wardrobe choices since, obviously, women wear pants. And, as this sign from Utilikilts points out, it's not unheard of for men to wear skirts.
I know, I know, "it's a kilt, not a skirt!" Tell
that to Catholic school girls. And the people
who fetishize Catholic school girls.
We segregate washrooms because of sex. Because of  the presumed sexual interest of the opposite sex. That is, because of sexuality.

Specifically, because of male heterosexuality, which is assumed to be predatory. Heck, it's expected and accepted as predatory, to the extent that it's joked about.

This might just be a comment on the relative cleanliness of
the washrooms
This is unfair to a lot of men. And it becomes an excuse for those men who are predatory. 

The segregation of washrooms is based on an assumption of heterosexuality, predatory in men and passive and vulnerable in women; the association of sexuality with sex, and the conflation of sex and gender. In other words, it is nonsensical. One thing we don't segregate washrooms by is sexuality.

Except for that one place in Amsterdam...


Finally, here are some signs that I just found confusing:

In Germany, women are represented by fire, and men are
represented by water. Why? Don't ask Brazilians...
... because in Brazil, fire represents men. Women are
represented by flowers, natch.
It took me a while, but I eventually figured this one out.
Can you?
This one is from Sangunburi Crater, on Jeju Island in
South Korea. I'm assuming there's an explanation for
why the woman has a scuba mask on her head, and why
the man is golem, but I don't know what it is.
(ETA: It would have been easy to do research myself on this sign, and I should have done that instead of include it in the section with absurd stuff. At any rate, several people responded with explanations on threads where this post has been linked. Here is one of them:  The woman diver is a haenyeo, or pearl diver - there is an independent haenyo subculture that is actually pretty kick-ass and unique to Jejudo. Only the women dive. ... The golem male represents a traditional totem of men wishing the pearl-divers good luck and safety on their journeys.)


  1. Also, it reminded me of something that happened at works a while back. There used to be a trans woman who worked at my call centre and whenever she (I forget her name, let's call her Simone) needed to use the washroom one of the female monitors had to check to make sure that no one was in there and then Simone could go in and lock the door (that is, the door to the whole washroom, not just the stall).
    One day while Simone was in the washroom, either a newly hired interviewer or a temp tried to enter and found the door locked. She knocked on the door and asked if anyone was in there, and when she heard a manly voice answer, she proceed to cuss out Simone, assuming she was a cis man.
    The newby/temp ended up being fired for this.

    So, yeah. The problems of binary bathrooms.

  2. Interesting read on how pervasive and "invisible" sex/gender differentiation, is. Thanks.

    I confess I can't make out what's happening in the third to last picture there.

  3. When I first saw it, I assumed the sign with a spear was the men's washroom, though I couldn't put my finger on why. Then I remembered that the circle-with-arrow symbol we use to indicate men is actually the symbol for Mars, a shield and spear. And the circle-with-plus-sign symbol for women is supposed to represent Venus' mirror. Which explains what the other figure is doing - holding a mirror and combing her hair.

    Though that still doesn't explain why she has no legs.

    Thanks for reading! :)

  4. Thank you! It's a really detailed categorisation. I've posted the link with credits on my blog, hope it's alright.

  5. I don't mind at all! Thanks for reading! :)

  6. Hi Marissa,

    We'd love to re-post this, in its entirety with a bio, credit, and links, at Sociological Images. If you'd be amenable, please email us at


  7. Very interesting post!
    Thanks for sharing! :)

  8. Loved this, but needs one small correction: the photo of the pointers/setters is from a restaurant in Philadelphia called the White Dog Cafe, where I worked for many years. There are four single bathrooms, all named after types of dogs (punny, I know) - and all explicitly non-gendered. Those bathrooms were designed in part with the West Philadelphia queer community in mind; when I worked there I had many LGBTQ coworkers, including someone who was transitioning, and it was an incredibly supportive environment.

    Don't get me wrong, over all I think this post is witty and right-on. But White Dog (at least in its inception - its currently under new management) was in fact doing its part to break down the binary with those bathrooms, and that deserves to be known.

  9. Anonymous,

    I added your comment about the White Dog Cafe to the main text of the post.

  10. (Here from Soc Imgs. Great post!)

    I actually read your last triangle example the opposite of you. I see the left-hand figure as a man (perhaps in coat tails, with a puffed-up chest), and the right-hand figure as a woman in a swingy dress. I think the colors -- teal and magenta-ish -- are part of it. Obviously a sign that none of this is as essential as society would like us to think.

    I still don't understand why we can't all share unisex bathrooms...

  11. On the webpage I got the images from, the files were labeled with an "m" and an "f". But then, I don't know for sure how accurate that person's reading of the signs were, so...

    Thanks for reading!

  12. Trans community aside, I like the signs with boobs and other bodily bits and always wondered why that wasn't more universal than the skirt (especially boobs). I like it because:

    * At least it's what you ARE, rather than what you DO (like wearing a skirt)
    * It shows that boobs and organs aren't dirty

  13. The woman in the third to last picture has a comb and a mirror and no legs because she's a mermaid. Mermaids were historically seen as seductive sirens and were often depicted with these symbols of vanity. Here's one example pic:

  14. This is fascinating. Thanks for the collection, I will almost definitely be linking to this in a discussion I plan on having regarding trans issues and bathroom safety.

  15. was "hysterical" chosen specifically for the content? :-p

  16. Love this.

    I have seen Pointers and Setters at any number of dog clubs. Also Amelia and Charles at airports....

  17. That "universal" sign is factually wrong, ZZ should be on the "male" sign, ZW on the female one. In birds, the homogametic sex is male, the heterogametic sex is female, which is the opposite of the mammalian sex determination system. Otherwise, there'd be no need for different nomenclature.

  18. What is the solution? Make all bathrooms unisex?

  19. In the post I conclude that the segregation of washrooms is nonsensical, so...

  20. Can you suggest a solution? Especially given that bathrooms are set up differently for logistical reasons, not to mention I'm yet to meet anyone other than guys who would put up with the usual state of guys toilets...

    The world has been built with male/female toilets because that is clear and workable the vast majority of people. Transgender people, on this one, must make a choice I don't envy, but I suggest they will not have the time to wait around for a solution that's not "pick one and get on with what's increasingly urgent".

    It would be nice if all toilets were unisex, except of course intermissions would have to go twice as long while the entire audience waited in a queue (not necessarily a bad thing of course...).

  21. If washrooms were unisex, that wouldn't affect the amount of space that could be devoted to washrooms.

    In the comments on Sociological Images, someone wrote that in their experience, it is the women's washroom that is usually messier.

    I fail to see how unisex washrooms would be less workable than segregated washrooms.

  22. Just a comment: I've always liked the triangle signs, but when the wide part is at the top (for men), I interpret it as big shoulders. When the wide part is at the bottom (for women), I interpret it as big hips. That's a real difference in secondary sexual characteristics between most biological men and women and doesn't have anything to do with gender performance. Simple and intuitive (I thought).

  23. i'm quite confident that the German sign (fire/water) doesn't refer to some cosmic gender essence (f.e. women are hot as fire, men deep as the sea or something). in my opinion, the semantics are more graphically: the sign for fire might refer to women pubic hair, while the sign for water might look like an erect penis (or, if look at it from the other angle, like a hanging one).

    by the way, most German toilet doors refer to the sexes by letters only: "D" (dames) and "H" (gentlemen).

    1. In my area...I see mostly the "person" male and skirted female symbols (though it is more like an upside down umbrella than the American triangular dress). I haven't been here long...but "Toileten" is something I look for in every place I go...b/c I have a pre-schooler who still on occasion will wait until the last possible second before she is about to burst to let me know she has to use the toilet. What I found a putting? at first was that I would see one door with the symbols on it together...and assumed it was unisex (there are some all-use bathrooms in the US, especially in smaller stores that have only 1 public toilet). But when you push through the door, there are separate facilities. The only reason it was really off putting was b/c we were in large enough places, that I assumed would have more than 1 toilet available to the public.

  24. That was hilarious! I've never been to your blog before, but came here off of a link from Loved all the different bathroom signs!

  25. Your conclusion that making all bathrooms unisex isn't clear at all. I didn't know that it was your point behind the article until I read the comments.

    With the emphasis on restroom signs themselves, you just came off as surly. If you're separating restrooms by traditional gender roles, exaggerated clothing or anatomy is extremely clear as an iconography. For most of these you can figure out what they mean without knowing the native language. You also pointed out images that were obviously meant to be artistic or whimsical as defective signage, when they serve their purpose well in most cases.

    Are there actually more cases of non-binary gendered folk being harassed in restrooms then binary gendered? I know there are plenty of lawsuits filed for people looking under/over stalls in general. I could easily see the overall amount of harassment dramatically increasing due to easier access to the gender that gets random perv's rocks off, so to speak -- especially since the majority of public restrooms consist of a large chamber with many stalls, and, for men's rooms, an unseparated area with urinals.

    It would be nice if unisex became a larger trend with designing for it, but in the mean time, most gender variants can figure out which one is the best to use.


  26. @Tiki Idyll

    My conclusion isn't clear because I didn't really plan out this post much. It's not academic-level writing. It's just something I did for fun and it caught on. The conclusion was a bit of an after-thought.

    A sign can serve it's purpose but still be silly, or outright ugly (like the men-have-legs/women-have-triangles one).

    I'm not arguing that these signs are "defective". It's precisely because these signs are broadly understood - despite the different approaches they take, and despite the silliness of some - that makes them worth analyzing from a sociological perspective.

    It's not so much about the signs, as about what the signs say about how we as a society understand sex and gender. Which I believe I stated at the beginning of the post.

  27. Being the devil's advocate here, but it's written more in the form of a article than a sociological viewpoint, especially with the increasing cynicism as the article goes on. Many of your criticisms are based on insulting signs which have representations of traditionally gender-specific clothing or the anatomical plumbing which is, in a variety of forms, present in everyone.

    I don't find the "women are people with waists" variants very convincing. You could just as easily say "men are people without waists". It would be a more persuasive post if positive things were pointed out as well, i.e. pointing out the same character model sitting or standing being a more progressive view, where the "most men, all women" one is derogatory, as well as making it clearer what sociological aspect you're focus is in each section, such as sexism, or the binary toggle assumption.

    Clarity on a stepping-stone solution to get to a more perfect world would also be great, such as a mention of what, in your view, would be more welcoming sign to a more gender ambiguous person in a situation where there will be multiple stalls next to each other.

    And as I neglected to mention it before, it really is an interesting collection of signage and the resulting discussion of how they're interpreted is entertaining. Thanks!

  28. I am just coming back from a trip to France, where on most camping sites, wash rooms are not segregated at all. You can easily make out the foreigners from afar: They look for the segregation signs and run around the place totally irritated, not knowing where they are supposed to go to…

  29. I think you make some good points, but it is a little unclear what you are arguing against. Is it that
    a) binary-gender-divided toilets are inherently unfair and should be done away with (a point with which I'd agree), or that
    b) within the system of gender-divided toilets, representations of women are typically sexist or indicative of a problematic view of gender?

    You seem to make both arguments, but to conflate the two. On the first, I have no comment but to say that I think unisex toilets would be the ideal solution, as you do. Or to simply divide toilets by type, as with the 'Pointers' and 'Setters' example -- that one really does just translate to me (and, according to the commenter, actually means) 'Stand to pee' vs. 'Sit to pee', and does not necessarily indicate the gender of those using them.

    On the second point, though, I think you are being a little unfair. If one is to have gender-divided toilets, then one must represent them somehow, and making some visual signal for people who speak other languages or are illiterate seems simply polite. For such situations, I would think that the class of images you call 'Gender Performance' are the ideal solution. (Not in general, mind, but to answer these particular needs.)

    After all, gender is performative, and if someone were in a position where they had to designate toilets by gender (required by law in many places), to judge by your post there seems to be no acceptable way of doing so. So, while designating toilets with performative elements of 'masculinity' and 'femininity' is obviously less than ideal -- and there are obviously more and less offensive ways of doing so -- it's certainly better than many of the examples posted, better than using images or indications of genitals and certainly better than images that conflate the two. Even the classic 'two legs person' and 'skirt person' can be interpreted as 'person wearing socially typical men's clothing' and 'person wearing socially typical women's clothing'; it's just that in the last 50 years those clothing patterns have become less typical, which I think actually contributes to our modern eyes seeing them as 'person' and 'person in a skirt'.

    Finally, on a different point, I have to say I was quite disappointed to see that, even in a post like this one, you felt it okay to make a quip implying that men's toilets are often much dirtier than women's. That's a harmful and -- I can tell you from much experience cleaning both types of toilets in different establishments -- totally untrue stereotype. As a general rule, when they receive the same level of use and cleaning, women's and men's toilets are exactly as nasty as each other (though often in somewhat different ways; men seldom smear blood on the seats, for example).

  30. Great blog, had much fun reading it ... As a rather butch-type woman I have suffered from "confused reactions" from other toilet goers on occasion of "public toilet visits" all my life. Someday I'll write the best stories down in a book.
    After years of annoyed feelings I have now come to be amused rather than feeling harrassed, but still I cant get over how focused the gendering of society is in these places.
    I strongly opt for unisex toilets ... just to have my (emotional) peace in a place so often direly needed.
    The best experience I ever had: Closing party of the Amsterdam Gay Games (1998), where the "toilet segregation" was immediately abandoned by all users: In one and the same toilet space there were leather guys, lesbians, drag kings and drag queens ... the latter drying their feather boas under the blow-dryer. Lovely. And nothing "predatory" to be found about it ;)

  31. Just Some Trans GuySeptember 8, 2010 at 6:15 PM

    Very nice post, and highly entertaining!

    Tiki Idyll,

    "It would be nice if unisex became a larger trend with designing for it, but in the mean time, most gender variants can figure out which one is the best to use."

    I'm guessing you're lumping all trans people under the general umbrella of "gender variant," and assuming that's the case ... no. I really don't.

    I've been on testosterone for about nine months now, and I'm in a very gender ambiguous/androgynous state. I have some facial hair--but not the amount most adult cis men would. I have a voice deeper than most cis women's but not as deep as most cis men's.

    I went to a restaurant this past weekend. The waitress addressed me as "ma'am" throughough the meal. When I went to pay, the cashier addressed me as "sir" throughout the transaction. Then I had to use the restroom, and when I got to those two separate doors, I paused and hated that I had to choose which bathroom would be less likely to get me beaten, raped, or killed.

    Because that's what all-too-often happens to trans people who are read as trans. It's not just uncomfortable for us; it's dangerous, sometimes deadly.

    The totally flippant disregard for the physical safety needs of trans people is really depressing. Unisex bathrooms have so few costs compared to the safety and comfort provided to trans and other gender variant folks.

  32. I just discovered that I could check for comments stuck in the spam filter! Sorry about that!

  33. @ Tiki Idyll

    Actually, the tone of articles is pretty much what I was going for. Snarky and informative.

    What would I have been more successful in persuading readers of if I had pointed out positive things about some signs? The point was to illustrate problems with how we understand gender, using bathroom signs. It's expository, not argumentative.

    I'm glad you found the post interesting and entertaining.

  34. @ mhuzzell

    I think you make some good points, but it is a little unclear what you are arguing against.

    Probably because the post wasn't organized around an argument, just the idea that bathroom signs are illustrative of broader social attitudes.

    Is it that
    a) binary-gender-divided toilets are inherently unfair and should be done away with (a point with which I'd agree), or that
    b) within the system of gender-divided toilets, representations of women are typically sexist or indicative of a problematic view of gender?

    You seem to make both arguments, but to conflate the two.

    Those are both points that I wanted to make. The first ended up carrying more weight because it is more urgent. I wouldn't say that either of them were my thesis.

    On the second point, though, I think you are being a little unfair. If one is to have gender-divided toilets, then one must represent them somehow, and making some visual signal for people who speak other languages or are illiterate seems simply polite.

    Yeah, the fact that they are designed to be broadly understood is what makes them interesting, and what makes it fair to say that they are illustrative of broadly held notions about sex and gender, rather than just a reflection of the beliefs of the designer.

    After all, gender is performative, and if someone were in a position where they had to designate toilets by gender (required by law in many places), to judge by your post there seems to be no acceptable way of doing so.

    No, there is no acceptable way to do so. Because the gender binary is arbitrary and harmful to people. There are better and worse ways, but ultimately anything that takes that binary for granted is going to be inherently problematic. That's not the fault of the designers. Their signs are going to reflect the assumptions and biases of people in their culture, in order to communicate quickly and simply. Again, that's what makes washroom signs really worth analyzing.

    So, while designating toilets with performative elements of 'masculinity' and 'femininity' is obviously less than ideal -- and there are obviously more and less offensive ways of doing so -- it's certainly better than many of the examples posted, better than using images or indications of genitals...

    But they're still illustrative of problems with how we understand gender, and that was the only point I wanted to make.

    Even the classic 'two legs person' and 'skirt person' can be interpreted as 'person wearing socially typical men's clothing' and 'person wearing socially typical women's clothing'; it's just that in the last 50 years those clothing patterns have become less typical, which I think actually contributes to our modern eyes seeing them as 'person' and 'person in a skirt'.

    That's a valid reading. But I don't think it invalidates my reading. Especially when you consider that non-gendered stick people in signs ("WALK", "CAUTION: Wet floor," etc.) tend to look like the stick figure indicating the men's washroom.

    Finally, on a different point, I have to say I was quite disappointed to see that, even in a post like this one, you felt it okay to make a quip implying that men's toilets are often much dirtier than women's.

    Yeah, that's fair. I shouldn't have done that.

  35. @ Anne from Germany, and Just Some Trans Guy

    Thanks so much for your comments, and sharing your experiences on here.

  36. In a somewhat related note, if you visit YouTube anytime in the near future, you may see their new ad for playing Trivial Pursuit online. Now, I understand that they use triangles as people because they are representing the "wedgies." However, just as we've seen in the bathroom signs, the "boy" wedgies have upside-down triangles while the "girl" wedgies have right-side-up triangles making a skirt/dress. Not cool.

  37. Please write a piece on the sign(s?) depicting disabled people as well! Apparently we have no gender at all... ;-)

  38. @Sissel

    Good point. I definitely have some thoughts on the subject. Just give me a couple of days to put a post together. :)

  39. Great blog, had much fun reading it ... As a rather butch-type woman I have suffered from "confused reactions" from other toilet goers on occasion of "public toilet visits" all my life. Someday I'll write the best stories down in a book. After years of annoyed feelings I have now come to be amused rather than feeling harrassed, but still I cant get over how focused the gendering of society is in these places.I strongly opt for unisex toilets ... just to have my (emotional) peace in a place so often direly needed.

  40. i want to thank you for writing this! i am so new to this though about gender binary (i'm a baby feminist) that i am still grappling with the concepts you speak about.

    side note: i was at a pirate museum yesterday and i noticed that the restroom signs were a male pirate and a female pirate (anne bonney, i believe). whereas i would only have seen them as a cute way to label, i now don't even know what to think. (not looking to you to tell me).

    this is a place i like to be in: sort of standing in the middle of brand new language and thoughts and figuring it all out. so again, thank you!

  41. this post is bad and you should feel bad

  42. Very funny, when the "captcha" was display before validating my comment, the "internatational symbol of access" (the man in the wheelchair) appeared near the form. It is for people who can't read the captcha. Not for people in a wheelchair...


  43. Oh no, my comment has not been posted...
    The symbols like rest room pictograms are defined in an international standard : ISO 7001
    They are schematical, because they are the result of intenrational negociations.
    So, they cannot be "politicaly correct", as their aim is to be understandable from New York to Calcutta (especially in airports I think).
    The symbol meaning food depics a knife and a fork, not a spoon, nor asian chopstick. Soe could see that as "occidentalism", but I presume this is the "more universal" way of depicting food in the XXth and XXIth century world.
    And the same thing prevails for rest room symbols. Of course, women are not mainly wearing dresses nowadays, but when you see this image, you don't have to think during 5 minutes while your bladder is on the verge of exploding...

    Mathieu (from France)

  44. @ Mathieu

    I understand why the symbols are chosen. That doesn't mean that I can't analyze them too. As I've mentioned in other comments, the very fact that they are intended to be universally understood is what makes them interesting to analyze.

  45. Thanks for this post. It's been rather entertaining and thought-provoking. I found it through a blog on one of our major newspaper's website (the Dutch paper NRC Handelsblad, see where it'd been re-posted/linked. So much for its reach ;)

  46. Finally! I seemed to be the only one getting all wound up about this, but now I know I'm not alone!

  47. A fun bit about the sign with aliens: apparently male birds and snakes should go to the toilet with female mammals, and vice versa :-)

    (Female birds & snakes have ZW sex chromosomes, males have ZZ sex chromosomes. They're called that way by convention, they're equivalent to mammals' X and Y, except "reversed".)

    I guess it goes to reinforce your point about universalising the gender binary...

  48. ...of course, once I read the comments, I saw that someone else had already noticed the ZW thing. Ah well. My attention span is short, especially at this hour (coming up to 5am): I wanted to post before I forgot...

  49. Not only entertaining but also interesting.

    Perhaps somebody can help me with the following: when I was in Austria, fifty years ago, toilets frequently had a combination of zeros for men and women, but I forgot which was which and what combinations were used, 0, 0-0 or 0-0-0. Perhaps somebody remembers too?

  50. Very nice!!
    When I was in university I was a member of a student association. In our building, we had separate toilets near the dining area and a unisex bathroom near the party area. I don't know why this was, but it was always very funny to see the shocked/surprised faces of boys 'from outside', peeing at the urinoir, when I came out of a stall...

  51. Hey, A friend of mine linked this blog to my Facebook! I like your analysis of the different ways to make clear who should use which toilet. I have some additions for you:
    - In Poland, men are represented by a triangle (most often pointing down', and women by a circle: This caused me some embarrassment, since I am used to women represented by a triangle, but after a few times and a lot of peeing men in shock, I learned :P
    - This is a toilet especially for transgenders, how great is that?

  52. As Simone de Beauvoir said:
    From the moment we are born, we are MADE into men and women.
    We are created by our environment!
    And latest scientifical research shows that biologically there are NO DIFFERENCES between men and women.
    We are all nurtured! We BELIEVE that there's a difference, but in fact there is none!

    @Milkshake: you should read this article:
    Patterns of Culture by Ruth Benedict!
    It is rather old, but will give you a first insight in the fact that there is not much difference between men and women!

    @ Histerical Marissa: I am going to use your blog to write a paper about gender constructions!
    Thank you for inspiring me!

    From Holland

  53. @ Roza

    Thanks for those! I added the Polish signs to the post. I think I might do a separate post on the transsexual sign.

    @ A. from Holland

    I'm very flattered. Good luck with your paper!

  54. It is really my first time to know the other signs, better that I've launched at your blogs and I know now the different signs. By the way, do you also aware on what to do when having a low sex drive?

  55. What a fascinating and thorough review! This was excellent morning reading and will certainly make me notice and think about what I'm seeing out there as far as gender portrayals. Thanks for bringing this to us, I'm sure it required a lot of work.

  56. That can be come to know from the pictures of the toilets and somewhere it is written about the ladies and the gent’s toilets and hence that should be interpret in proper language.

  57. Fun article, but I hope it was tongue-in-cheek!

    I thought some of the author's interpretations were a bit off (eg. the woman "alarmingly pinned" to the door I thought was exhibiting her spectacular strength and independence by breaking through it!) Perhaps the author was jumping to these incorrect interpretations because of their own bias and preconceptions of male/female gender stereotypes?

    Also, the author of this article was (disturbingly) upholding and reinforcing the male-female binary by their _continual_ use of the words "man" and "woman" to create a dichotomy between people who happen to have different sexual characteristics.

    Shame on you! ;-)

  58. Very interesting - I just discovered your blog (because someone sent me an article in the french "LeMonde Magazine" about it). It must have been a lot of work to collect all these different signs !
    It must have been a lot of work, too, to analyze them. Most of the time, we see the signs (not just toilet signs), notice them roughly and don't think much more about them.... But they really influence our minds, don't they ? Seeing them again & again makes it normal and acceptable to think about women as 'persons in skirts' or 'person with boobs'.

    In french restaurants and even sometimes public bathrooms, they still have bathrooms for everybody (if available, because you might even find places with no toilets at all... arrgh). This seems to be shocking to most tourists, not just surprising, but shocking. They seem to question the modernity of the country...

    Change of subject, but related: Gender differences are made very often, one that is very shocking to me is the fact that women always have to pay (much) more for a simple haircut than men. Is there a difference in the quality of the hair ???

    Thank you for this again. Ah yes, I nearly forgot to tell you, but you probably know that already: there is a photo exhibition about toilets in Paris (until 20th of october): (the site is in french, but there are some interesting pictures).

  59. I always thought that toilets were separated because men often miss piss.
    Sometimes, no need pictogram on the door, you can recognize by the smell which is that for men.
    And in the unisex toilet that sometimes exist, you must hold your nose and pay attention to the puddles ... in fact it is better in this case not to wear a long skirt! That is why there is a pictogram with a skirt to the toilet where you can sit without getting wet clothing.:)
    Do not get angry gentlemen, I know you're not all dirty, but unfortunately, it only takes one drop to be there on the edge ...

  60. Okay, that last comment was offensive.

  61. It's nice to see this topic being picked up again. I first posted about it back in 2006:

    I see that some of my photos have been reproduced in this post. It would have been nice (and legally correct) to add attribution since the licensing under which they appear online requires that.

  62. @ eszter

    My apologies. I added attribution. You might want to contact some of the websites listed at the end of the post, where I got the photos from in the first place.

  63. One thing that always bothered me about gendered bathrooms is that only the female ones have baby change stations. What happens to a single father, a gay male couple, or a man who's taken the kids on an outing to give the wife a break?

    That said, I do think many straight, cis-gendered men should be kept away from peeing women. Call me what you will, but I simply do not see the disproportionate number of male predators changing until society has already changed a great deal in various other ways, and until then I'd rather face a potential predator with my pants on than off.

    Rather than full-on segregation, it might be best to have two washrooms, one for people who identify as "mostly female" and one for people who identify as "mostly male". Safer than a single unisex room while offering more freedom for trans folk.

    Alternately, one might consider having three designated washrooms: female, male and those who don't want to be pinned down as either. I see a lot of potential problems with this one though, not the least of which being that people outside the gender binary might feel as though they're being treated like freaks. People who do identify as one gender but transitioned to that one or don't have what society considers the "matching" parts might also find themselves pressured to use the third option bathroom when they would rather use the one for their chosen gender. And of course there is the extra floorspace and extra maintenance cost.

    Or, if we had some reliable way of determining such things, we could simply split the washrooms into "inconsiderate" and "considerate" people rather than by gender. Let the former be covered in piss, stray sanitary products, and used condoms, while the latter stays usable for all. But until we develop some sci-fi sorting device that would just open a whole new can of worms.

  64. All kilts are skirts, but not all skirts are kilts and a Catholic school-girl uniform is not, despite being plaid.

  65. I can't find it now, but someone suggested restrooms be divided into courteous and discourteous. The problem is that everyone would use the courteous restroom and it would be filthy.

  66. In my highschool, we wore real kilts.

  67. Great post - read it when picked up on Sociological Images. After reading the comments here, I'm saddened to see that, as always, so many are written defending the male privilege - the "oh, you're overreacting", etc. comments. And to the people who say, "oh, we have to show difference in gender somehow, so since women can be identified with breasts and skirts, etc, it makes sense to do it this way", blah, blah - you are missing the POINT: if we have to show "differences", they are, however, almost always what's different from MAN, not each other. He's a person, she's a person in a skirt (we see this in "women's" issues, "women's" movies, etc. (when 'for' men, they are just issues and movies, period. So, if you don't think it's sexist, on the most base level, then ask yourself why the female symbol is not a plain stick figure, and the male wearing a tie or a mustache, universally understood to be accoutrements of the male?

  68. Thanks- found this via facebook it's really good and btw, i think you could publish as a coffee table book of a tiny subset of folk art. The variety and strength of the symbolism is really amazing. Write John Waters a letter and see if he'd back you...
    Anyway, after reading all the posts and the original text, it seems to me the problem that needs to be solved is one of physical violence. I assume that's a large part of why our bathrooms are segregated, and that's also the threat every non-gender-normative person who has to take a leak in public has to gamble with. I don't really have any ideas for large venues who have to deal in volume (Metallica concert, anyone?) but many smaller businesses in my home city of portland seem to be going towards having two bathrooms that may or may not be labeled but are interchangeably usable b/c they're both single-use units. Thanks for listening, maddie

  69. What a great post!!
    very interesting and informative signs of the male and female washroom.

  70. OK, so I study birds for a living and I find the XX/ZZ and XY/ZW signs absolutely hysterical!! In ornithology we use the ZZ and ZW dichotomy to represent the sex-determining chromosomes of male and female birds... where the MALE is the homozygous ZZ and the FEMALE is the heterozygous ZW. So to me those signs specifically state that one bathroom allows male humans and female birds and the other bathroom allows female humans and male birds, nevermind the aliens. The assumption that homozygous sex chromosomes are always female and heterozygous sex chromosomes are male is totally false! Hell, the platypus has TEN sex chromosomes!!

  71. Lols few of the signs are really funny. Nice to see them

  72. Amazing analysis and collection of comfort room signs! This is equal parts humorous and insightful.

  73. At last! I found a good post like this.. Thanks for this informative post! By the way, can you write a post about myspace seo factors? Thanks again!

  74. I have one fundamental reason why I do not agree with Marissa. Marissa does not understand the social context of all of these symbols and pictures, as well as the reality behind the pictures. Men could just as easily be pictured wearing hijabs and dresses, but it is not in any societies’ engrained culture that men wear dresses and hijabs, as these garments are rooted deep within religion and ancient social traditions. Marissa was able to recognize what washroom to go into while in Iran because she knew that culturally women in Iran wear hijabs. If both symbols are wearing hijabs (which is “acceptable” as technically men can wear hijabs too) she would have no idea which washroom to go into. The same applies, if both figures were both stick figures. Both men and women can wear pants and t-shirts, except Marissa would have no idea what washroom to use. These signs use what our society uses to identify women, in order to identify women and men’s washrooms.

  75. This comment has been removed by the author.

  76. I agree with A. Blackmagic's above comment. Because gender roles are concepts that are not universal, I believe that something as simple as a symbol cannot accurately represent an entire gender. Although the above symbols aren't universal, they are totally necessary for the single purpose of identifying bathrooms. In general, women wear skirts and men do not. Although there are many, many exceptions to this rule, there needs to be some distinction between washrooms. These generalizations are absolutely necessary in order to lessen confusion and potential issues that can arise with bathrooms.

  77. I completely agree with what has been said in this blog. Even though we can laugh at the various signs, this shows a fundamental issue in our society. Men and women are constantly defined by symbols that have surrounded them their entire life, and these symbols shape our perspective and our opinions. This can be seen as negative and positive however , this enlightening post sheds light on how symbols even as insignificant as bathroom signs can be detrimental to individuality and culture. I believe that A. Blackmagic and Georgia are missing the point of this blog which is to demonstrate a larger concept in a more simple context. If I understand correctly Marrissa is trying to demonstrate how there is a negative side to using symbols that are based around stereotypes.

  78. What I found to be most interesting about this post was the amount of variety in different signs. Mainly, I have only seen the standard male and woman with a triangular dress. Yet, despite the fact that I had never seen some of these signs before I was able to identify the gender. For example, one of the more abstract signs was simply an upwards and a downwards triangle. Immediately I understood the upwards one was a female, and the downwards one was a male. This is because men naturally have broader shoulders, while women have wider hips. I do not think that these triangles were based at all off of clothing or opinions in our society of how male/female bodies should be, but completely off of natural biological fact.

    Although many of the signs may have aspects that many would consider to be sexist or a bias of our society, I actually think that some of them have deeper significance.

  79. Theory of Knowledge...December 7, 2011 at 4:22 PM

    I agree with the recent responses to this blog. I also agree with an original response, that by using a symbol of sitting vs. standing, one is actually being courteous in not discriminating or offending others because it is simply a fact that some people sit and some people stand in the washroom. The difference is that a person of either sex, I believe, should be able to go into either washroom under the account that standing does not necessarily mean that you are a man, and sitting does not necessarily mean that you are a woman, as there is the in between which must be acknowledged.
    It is important however to acknowledge that while such symbols may be offensive, a symbol is generally necessary as identification, unless words were to be used. On the basis that words are not used to identify which washrooms are for which person, it must be acknowledged that with symbols, which can be compared to a single word, it is virtually impossible to eliminate ambiguity or room for interpretation. Some of the pictures on this blog were obviously discriminatory; others however could be seen by many as perfectly okay, but analyzed by others as to find a certain deeper meaning. As with describing something in one word, a symbol is always going to leave room for interpretation, and unless every aspect of the symbol were to be explained by using little or no subjective words, a symbol will always be somewhat subjective, and it is just a matter of creating the symbol with the least subjectivity but that will still be able to communicate to people which washroom they should use.
    It is true though that this blog uses the examples of washroom signs to display a much larger issue in the world that the author feels must be addressed and acknowledged.

  80. Georgia brought up the idea of whether there is a universal idea of gender. In many of the symbols on this blog there are huge generalizations made about gender, that are not necessarily true; for example, women wear skirts and have long hair. Today, there is no universal idea of what a women would look like, so these generalizations are constantly being made that are evident in restroom symbols. I think to avoid all of these generalizations, we could write "men" and "women" on restrooms, instead of using these symbols, which often make assumptions about gender.

    1. "Women wear skirts" how often is this true? They've progressively abandoned skirts since factory work in World War 2 sent 17 million USA women into factory work, where they wore pants for the first time---pants belonging to their brothers and husbands! Long hair and short hair is another sex typed bugaboo. Not a sex difference! Short hair tradition for men traces largely to medieval European military regulations mandating that soldiers keep their hair short. Head lice was a problem, and a soldier could not afford distractions; therefore short hair was mandated. But centuries later, male leaders of society in the Colonies were still wearing pigtails, long since abandoned. A momentum starts with an overriding social force, then carries the majority to an extreme where nonconformity is demonized.

  81. its the truth that man toilets are much dirty then women toilets

  82. Don't you think that unisex toilets will only give men more opportunity to harras and seksualy assault women? Or women men for that matter? Why should you want to want to have a unisex washroom? Men and women are different. And why can't transgenders just go to the toilet of their chosen gender? If they want to be a man, go to the men's. If you want to be a woman, go to the women's. I do believe that the way women are depicted subdued and fragile (like a flower) and men dominant and strong is not helping in the equality of them both. Although men and women are different, one is not better than the other.

    1. we do have a problems with unisex toilets because we have always known them, they were there before we were born and they'll continue to exists. but what if it would be different? women would feel offended by men's views because they LEARN to feel so. it's always a question of socialisation. Why do we differentiate people on there genitals? in most minds exists only men and women, but people who think like that preclude all humans who don't want to subdue themselves under this norm. and what is with homosexual? nobody would feel offended of a lesbian woman in a women's toilet, but espacially she would find what she desires. so the question we're supposed to ask, is why do everybody assume people are hetero???

  83. I have always been of the understanding that trans people should use the toilets appropriate to the gender in which they are presenting as at the time. I have never had any issues in the UK regarding this and I think that in most of the world it would be the same. Obviously there are exceptions.

  84. Propello Innovations Private Limited,the innovations of modern technology brand products like kitchen chimney in kolkata,kitchen chimney dealers in kolkata.we also provide (RO)reverse osmosis water purifier in kolkata ,orrisa & guwahati.

    water purifiers in kolkata

  85. This is a worthwhile study. It shows how superficial people's thinking is. On the trouser/skirt matter, skirts make more sense for male bodies, because they can justify a need for more free space where it's needed. I suggest a companion study on bicycles, because this cult of invented sex differences knows no bounds. Designs are less extreme today than when I was a teen, but making bikes with a high crossbar and calling them male because they don't wear dresses, is absurd. Bicycles made for girls have much lower down dip to the cross bar linking front & rear tires. This was so that there would be space for their dresses/skirts. Yet, girls largely don't wear these today (while some males have reasoned it out as just fabric, and want to wear them, but are socially prohibited). Making bikes assigned to boys with a high crossbar invites painful injuries, whereas, if all bikes were designed as what they actually are (sex neutral, as riding is sex neutral), they'd be manufactured with low down dip crossbars. Psychiatry, the "mental health" movement, and religious zealots are culpable of fostering all these farcical, arbitrary differences, which they mendaciously term "sex differences."

  86. I realise this post is now quite old, but I had to comment because I loved it! I'm glad I'm not the only one to have had thoughts on this (pretty much in line with yours).

    I'd be interested to know your take on this set of signs from India, which I blogged about (in a manner far less intelligent and comprehensive than your own!):

    There's also a cafe near me in Delhi that has a picture of a peacock on the gents and a cat on the ladies. It took me a while to choose the right one, and even now I'm uncertain why they chose a cat...

  87. I really enjoyed this post. It is quirky and thoughtful. I think we forget sometimes how programmed we are by images and expectations in life. And as a few people have mentioned, you do get thrown when you are met with an unexpected/different/unusual toilet sign. You don't want to get it wrong...neither do you want to wee/pee on the floor while trying to work out the imagery.

  88. Your Jeju images are dol hareubang or Grandfather Stone, and a Haenyo or seafood diving woman. Both are symbols of Jeju-do.

  89. Just pick a pisser and go in! I agree that the world is horribly insensitive, unfair, and sometimes downright brutal, but you have to make a decision about how much time you’re going to dedicate to being offended by it and how much time you’re going to spend living your life despite it (and peeing in whichever room has the sign that you prefer). I am sincerely supportive of everyone’s right to live life as the people that they truly are and want to be regardless of society’s ideals, but I’m also supportive of business/restaurants/individuals to have their own opinions and preferences as well, even if they’re ignorant and offensive.

  90. Thanks for this posting!

    These bathroom signs are sometimes witty and fun riddles, but I do not agree to the silent understanding that they express simplified, wrong or even suppressing attitude towards females.

    Instead, I suggest to see it this way: it is a bow to the female sex that we have bathroom separation AT ALL! It is not really needed, and men usually have to live with females entering their bathroom anyway (e.g. cleaning personnel or women who don't want to stand in line in front of their bathroom).

  91. Well said..I am exactly looking for the same post that I have got at your blog, I am not sure if someone can let me know, is

    their any way to book Escorts Barcelona or may be one in Escorts Madrid , please help

  92. I love your blog, Cliff, and have been reading it for years. But just wanna say that I miss the days when you'd post frequently about your own life. Reading your advice columns/editorials are really interesting and useful, of course, in their own right. However, I do miss the aspect of blogging on here lately that comes from gaining insight into someone else's personal experiences, and not just their personal experiences as aggregated into a more general advice/editorial piece.
    non premium sex chat

  93. XXX vids porn freeyoupornhub movie. Free porn movie xvideosvid videos. High porn videos pornmovieswatchvid porn.

  94. Hi Marissa,

    like ur article about public toilets, it supports the notion that heteronormativity is all over our daily-lives. I'm a german student (gender studies)and I write a term paper about that subject using ur article as example. so thanks for ur work and best regards from germany!

  95. Another for your collection:

    Fabulous analysis!

  96. For template & make your photo more attractive and good looking

  97. ADDERLink INFINITY lets you build a variable national infrastructure, famous brands that have not necessarily also been feasible prior to. Locate desktops everywhere that suits you, reveal internet connections to be able to desktops, view this connections people possess together with desktops, reveal control, collaborate, switch desktops, and many others. The particular ADDERLink INFINITY can also be the primary product involving it's type allowing multicasting around your current community.

  98. Good Bloggin ....
    The good Implications of Digital Technology on Online Business


Comments = rainbows, kittens and hugs.
No comments = sad bloggers.

Don't be an obvious troll!

I would prefer if you don't post as "Anonymous". You don't have to sign in to comment, so just pick a name and stick with it. Just so that I can have a better idea of who's commenting. Thanks!