A picnic on the Seine and public urination: standing up for women’s rights in Paris
It all started one Spring evening with a picnic on the Seine among friends. Wine, cheese and good conversation quickly led to full bladders. A small but courageous toilet search-party was formed. Our findings were disheartening.
No public toilets were in sight (#WelcomeToFrance). Of course, there were toilets in the establishments dotted along the Seine, but the lines for admission into those places were snaking Disneyland-like for several meters. We started to regret our decision to picnic by the Seine, which says a lot about the urgency of the situation.
While loitering beside one of these establishments, I had an idea which says even more about the urgency of my situation. “I’m just gonna go in the bushes,” I declared. “OK,” my friend consented, before hanging back to give me some privacy.
So when I say “bushes”, I really mean “wall of carefully manicured rectangular flower pots”. I proceeded to squat, while grabbing hold of one of the flower pots for leverage. In what must have been one of my least elegant manoeuvres, the flower pot refused to support me, gave way, and led the entire wall to sway precariously and nearly fall on top of me. Don’t try this at home, kids.
So there we were, hopes dashed and bladders just as bursting (what’s more, my friend was now laughing uncontrollably as a result of my near-death public urination attempt, which really can’t have helped much).
It was at that point that I remembered the steady stream of men I had seen throughout the night making their way behind a particular dumpster stationed alongside the edge of the walkway before unabashedly taking a sneaky piss. By this stage my bladder was about to burst, so it was totally worth a try.
On approaching the dumpster, my previously mentioned theories were confirmed by a group of gentlemen standing against the wall and issuing a steady stream of urine before adjusting their pants and getting on with the rest of their night. My friend and I looked at each other and exchanged unspoken words. This was happening.
As we made our way to the wall, without any warning, a security guard materialized from the shadows and stopped us in our tracks.
“I need to stop you there.” He didn’t need to specify, his meaning was clear: “Sorry, no pissing on the wall for girls.”
“You have to be f*****g kidding me?” So sorry guys, but I really needed to pee, which produces a grumpiness in me that is unsurpassed even by hanger.
“In the past half an hour, I have seen at least a dozen dudes piss against this wall, and it would appear not to be a problem for them!”
“I can’t let you do that here.” The shadow-lurking security guard was holding his ground.
“This is absolutely sexist. The only difference between them peeing on the wall and us peeing on the wall is that we’re girls.” I was incensed. At this point I’m pretty sure my friend mumbled something to do with a vagina.
“There are public toilets 500 meters down the road on your left.”
And so we sauntered those 500 meters to that public toilet (which admittedly was probably the largest and most developed public toilet I have ever seen in Paris) in outraged and indignant conversation.
I think the only thing that kept us from completely losing our minds was the fact that this dude’s entire job was to prevent people from publically urinating on a wall. I mean, that can’t rank very highly on the World’s Most Fun Jobs list (Public Urination Warden?). But what completely got us going was the fact that his interpretation of public urination only included female urination. Male urination was apparently not offensive at all - it was just, well, normal?
I don’t want to diminish the #MeToo movement by associating it with this story (least of all with a story about public urination!). In any case, let’s not forget that the #MeToo movement is specifically targeted at exposing sexual abuse, rather than moments of petty everyday sexism.
And yet to me the #MeToo movement represents women rising up together and declaring that they will no longer accept different conditions, different expectations, or different treatment to their male counterparts. My experience is in a totally different category to the many brave women who have stood up recently to share their stories with the context of #MeToo. But don’t you think it is these little moments of everyday sexism that combine to create a world where #MeToo needs to happen? A world where women feel resigned to different or abhorrent treatment; where women hold back from calling out their aggressors due to shame, or fear of recrimination.
Equal rights to pee in the street may seem like an undignified right to defend. I’m not about to go and get some signs created so that I can demonstrate for it on the streets. And yet I really do believe that, if we are serious about equality, everyone of us has a role to play in calling out seemingly banal everyday discrimination. This is where the tipping point is, if you ask me.