Should you ‘spend a penny’?

One of the things I love about Europe vs Australia is how much cheaper it is to buy relatively healthy drinks. Flavoured water or milk, for example, compared to soft drinks. It might only cost you a handful of cents for a bottle of water. Yet it’s important to remember it might cost you as much – if not more – going out as going in.
Over the last three years, we’ve visited more than fifty countries throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas.
And one of the cultural differences that never ceases to astound – and alarm – me is that of toilets.

The Little Pisser

We recently spent a couple of weeks in Belgium.
One of the most famous symbols of Brussels, the capital of Belgium, is a statue of a young boy urinating. He’s said to embody the people of Brussels’ sense of humor. People from all over the world gather to take selfies with the aptly named bronze ‘Manneken Pis‘ (Little Pisser). The street this humorous statue is on is even named for him. It’s lined with stores selling (expensive!) chocolate pissing boys. (A single box will set you back 49.90 euro, or $79.58 AUD)

Dressing the pissing boy is a tradition in Brussels. He’s had over 1,000 costume changes to date, and there’s a museum dedicated to his wardrobe. The original was put into place 300 years ago, in 1619, but the current replica dates from 1965.

{Prefer to listen? Click here!}

Everyone’s pissing in the street…

The little boy also has a ‘sister’ – a pissing girl statue, ‘Jeanneke Pis’. (She is, in my view, even more notable than the boy. Statues and fountains of urinating boys are hardly rare, but girls are rarely depicted in this manner). And you’ll even find a statue of a pissing dog (Het Zinneke, sometimes called ‘Zinneke Pis’. The dog doesn’t actually spout water. But someone has sprayed yellow paint onto a nearby pole to add to the effect). The city loves pissing things, it seems.

But in Brussels, it’s unlikely you’ll only see bronze statues pissing.


Throughout Belgium, I was struck by the fact that you have to pay to go to seemingly any toilet.
I’ve become fairly used to so-called “public” toilets throughout (particularly Western) Europe that require payment to the tune of around 50c. But in Belgium, even visiting the toilet in a McDonald’s will cost you.

Rather incredibly, you will even have to pay to use the toilet at the cinema. Yes, after you’ve bought your ticket and passed through into the theatre area.
The only public toilets that appear free of charge are the pissoirs or urinals on the street. (These urinals are rarely fully enclosed, and remain both visible and odable*)
*This is a word I have invented to meet a lack in English. Visible = can be seen, Audible = can be heard, but what is can be smelled? Or tasted? Or felt?

Women and public toilets

In many countries, including Australia, public toilets were usually built for men long before similar facilities were established for women. This had the additional effect of restricting women’s movement. Imagine how far you could travel or how long you could remain away from home if you needed to return home every time you felt the call of nature?

I’d argue the provision of free urinals for men, but a lack of free public toilets, does the same for poor women today. In addition to needing to return home to defecate, women also need to find somewhere to urinate, and attend to menstrual hygiene.

All of this presumes that you have a home to return to. What are those without homes to do? Especially when many public toilets close outside of business hours?
The answer appears to be make do.

Homelessness and public toilets

On our last night in Brussels, we visited the area underneath the main station. At least fifty people were sleeping rough there. And toileting rough, too, using a grate as a makeshift toilet.

There is, of course, no water to wash one’s hands, no soap. No privacy to speak of. The grate is located in a corner of a carpark, and directly in front of the city’s main bus stop. Unless you look down into the semi-underground concrete space, you might miss it. Most who see someone go there to relieve themselves would, I imagine, look away. But you’ll certainly smell it.

Look away

Looking away is, of course, a natural reaction. None of us would like to be observed in the privacy of our own bathrooms. If you discovered a hole or a hidden camera in a hotel or store bathroom, you’d rightly expect the police to investigate. A great deal of taxpayer money would be made use of to bring the perpetrator who robbed you of your privacy and dignity to justice. But when it comes to protecting the privacy and dignity of those who cannot afford the fee to enter a supposedly ‘public’ toilet? We look away. Perhaps to try and give the person using the space some privacy. Perhaps to assuage our own discomfort. But while we can look away from the individual and afford them some dignity, we shouldn’t look away from the problem and allow this situation to continue.

Even if we only consider the issue from the selfish perspective of how if affects everyone other than those most directly affected – those who are forced to toilet in the open – there are strong arguments for change. Public health is an important one. Belgium is not a “developing” country. 2019 is hardly the middle ages. Why, then, should we expect people to pay to go to the toilet?

Socialist police, fire… and toilets?

Certainly, Belgium is a capitalist country. Therefore, you might argue, people should pay for the goods and services they desire. To have public toilets would be a form of socialism.

But imagine, for a moment, that similar artificial pay barriers were erected for other currently public services. If, in order to sit on a public bench, an old woman must insert a few coins to retract the spikes that will pierce her skin otherwise. If, in order to throw away some rubbish, a young man must swipe his credit card on the park bin.

There’s a very good reason we don’t charge people to use bins. We want them to dispose of their litter properly. In fact, many countries even encourage people to separate their waste and recycle by paying them to do so.

Indeed, I witnessed a young man in Brussels depositing cans into a machine in exchange for money.

Incentivise – or at least don’t penalise – desirable behaviour

Think of how ridiculous this is. He is paid to dispose of aluminum cans, yet in order to hygienically dispose of his own waste, he will have to pay.

Sure, you might say, the seemingly unstoppable tide of garbage is causing all sorts of damage to our planet.

But streets soaked with urine and piled with faeces, toilet paper, and hygiene products is a definite public health risk.

Not to mention the impression it gives tourists when they step off a bus or train to be greeted by the pungent aroma of urine.

Across Europe, there is one member of society whose toilet needs are looked after above all others. Canines.

Toilet services for dogs

Dog owners are encouraged to take care of their dog’s business via both carrot and stick approaches. Sure, you risk being fined if you don’t clean up after your dog. But in order to make it as easy as possible for owners to do so, councils in most districts provide plastic bags and special bins. There is, of course, no charge for the provision of these bags or the collection and disposal of the waste. Everyone agrees that a poo-free park is a good idea. In Belgium, special areas of parks are even fenced off for dogs to do their business. Again, the use of these facilities is free.

When it comes to humans though, there’s only a stick. Toileting in public and indecent exposure are illegal, yet so is entering a toilet without paying.

If you’re destitute, you have no choice but to break the law one way or another.

How is it we can recognise that the goal of a dog poo-free park is in the public interest, but not that people poo-free public spaces are too?

An ode to public restrooms

Bathrooms, of course, aren’t only spaces for taking care of one’s eliminatory needs.

How often have you been into a bathroom to wash your hands? Brush your teeth? Check a mirror? Fix or change your clothes? Wash off bird poo? Check there’s nothing in your teeth? Fill a bottle of water? Use some mouthwash? Change a baby’s nappy? Take some medication? Dry your hair or clothes after a sudden downpour or  a car speeding along a wet road has soaked you? Get some tissue to wipe your nose? Change a tampon or napkin or cup, or check that you haven’t bled onto your outfit? Buy contraceptives? Rinse off something you’ve dropped? To be sick?

And remember, it’s not just drug addicts and drunks that need to vomit. So do people with morning sickness and chemo sickness and food poisoning and myriad other issues.

Not that we should want people under the influence of drugs or alcohol to have to be sick in the streets either. Not only is it unpleasant for them, but vomit on the street is unsanitary no matter whose mouth it comes from.

Public bathrooms at their best provide a place of relative safety for people to attend to all manner of health and hygiene matters.

In effect, they facilitate the personal upkeep we frequently associate with dignity.


If, like me, you’re lucky enough to live in a country in which you can do most of these things for free, imagine for a moment of you couldn’t.
Recently in our travels, we’ve been moving once a week on average. This means that, for one day a week, we experience that awkward period of time where you’ve had to check out of one accommodation, but cannot yet check in to the next. Sometimes, we’ve spent the night on buses or in stations or airports.

On such occasions, in Australia, the solution would be relatively simple: when necessary, visit a public toilet. If one can’t readily be found, or their condition is sub-par (this is a problem occasionally in Australia… I’m certainly not claiming it has everything perfect!!) just pop in to a fast food chain or a department store and use their toilet. For free. No purchase necessary. Why pee or poo in the street when you have the opportunity to do so in a private place with flush toilets and running water? Given the choice, I’m sure that’s what most people would choose.

Yet in Brussels, you can go to McDonald’s, buy a full meal, and still have to pay the lady at the door to use the loo. Which is presumably why I just saw someone vomiting in a bin at a fast food restaurant.

Toilet attendants

That’s another argument I’m sure some will bring up. Having a bathroom attendant keeps the bathroom clean, and provides someone with employment.

I see nothing wrong with someone being charged with the responsibility of keeping an eye on bathrooms and making sure users are safe and the facilities are kept clean. But all too often, what you find instead is someone merely paid to collect coins at an entrance that smells, well, of a public toilet. I can’t imagine that it’s the most enriching, enthralling or confidence-boosting job.

This is not to say that people cannot be employed to work in bathrooms as a dignified profession. One of the biggest instances of culture shock I had in my life occurred not in India proper, but in my traveling between the airports in Bangalore and Singapore. I was astonished at the difference between the humility and servitude of the toilet attendant in India, who sat in a semi-permanent state of bowing, her head pressed against the none-too-hygienic floor of the bathroom, crouched over and never making eye contact with the toilet’s users, and the relative pride of the bathroom attendants in Singapore, who greeted me cheerfully and whose faces were displayed on electronic screens crediting them for their work.


Regardless of our attitudes towards people attending toilets, it looks to me a good deal like a job that could easily be automated away. And certainly, corporations seem to be taking this route. Many shopping centres in Europe now have high-tech toilet entrances with security cameras and change machines and ATMs and ticket vending machines and automated barriers and self-cleaning toilets, with not a single human employee in sight. And of course, they have drink and snack vending machines too, so you can start the whole cycle again and give them repeat custom.

Even in the absence of machines, it is hard to justify full-time toilet attendants. In other countries, the staff at fast food restaurants go in and check everything is in order. Sure, there may be a trade-off in standards, but that’s one I’d gladly pay for basic dignity to be afforded to all.

Accessibility for all

Timeliness and accessibility are also important considerations, especially when it comes to automation. When visiting the UK, my mother and I came across toilets you had to insert money in the door of in order to use them. And the coin slots were installed so high, we had trouble reaching them. While not tall, neither of us is unusually short either. How would someone of shorter stature get in? Would someone using a wheelchair be able to access these toilets at all? What about a child? Or someone trying to assist an elderly or ill loved one? While some toilets in Europe have dedicated facilities for those with disabilities, or free entry to children (ie those who can fit under a particular height) it is far from all of them, and when you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go.

Speaking of which, while some places now accept card payments, you still often need the correct change to “spend a penny”. And who has time to muck around with change machines or, heaven forbid, withdraw a note from an ATM and then insert the note into a change machine to get the right coins when they really need to go?

And all that is assuming you’re lucky enough to have a bank account with money in it in the first place!

Spending a penny

When I was a child, I occasionally heard adults refer to going to the toilet as “spending a penny”. Little did I know this odd euphemism referred to the actual practice of having to pay to use toilets in history. In 1850s Australia, ABC Radio National reports, public defecation was de rigueur, and washing your hands afterward unheard of. Is it any surprise then, that by 1900, Sydney had an outbreak of the bubonic plague, which led to the construction of some of the country’s first public toilets?

While spending a penny was phased out (along with pennies in Australia), some have called for the practice to be reinstated. Sarah Harris of the Daily Telegraph points out that 2.5 billion people in 2015 had no access to a proper toilet – yet her solution to the problem of smelly and sometimes unsanitary and unsightly toilets in Sydney is to reintroduce ‘the user pays dunny’. In Europe, she says, ‘For one or two euros, tourists can buy a few blissful minutes of pristine privacy to do their business.’

Yes, tourists can. (For the record, 1-2 euro is $1.60 to $3.20).

But while tourists, and employed locals, can enjoy these ‘few blissful minutes’, those who are homeless are given little other option than to use a grate.

The cost of a ‘few blissful minutes’

A tourist, or someone who has a home, may be able to afford a euro or two when they’re out and about. Because then, they get to go home to their hotel or home, and use the much cheaper toilet there.

But imagine if you had to rely on paid public toilets for all of your ‘business’.

Healthy people, according to the Bladder and Bowel foundation, urinate 6 or 7 times a day, and defecate between 3 times a day, and 3 times per week. That’s a total weekly toilet usage of between 45 and 70 times per week. If you have to pay one or two euro for the privilege, that’s 45 to 140 euro ($72-$224AUD). And this is assuming you’re healthy and have healthy bladder and bowel function, and have no need for the bathroom other than urination or defecation, or can combine uses. If you’re sleeping rough, especially with lots of other people, with limited ability to shower or bathe, or wash your clothes, eating poorly, and drinking non-sterile water, it’s quite likely you’ll have less than stellar health.


Imagine how many times you might need to go to the toilet if you had diarrhea or vomiting or a hyperactive bladder? Or how frustrating it might be to pay to go to the toilet when you are constipated, thinking you needed to, and sacrificing something else its stead, to no avail?

Tourists, can also, Sarah Harris fails to mention, see (and smell) a lot more than they might ever without going to the red-light district, simply by walking past an area in which people with few other choices go to the toilet. And they can enjoy seeing pee streaks and toilet paper (or worse) as they walk around town. Because that is inevitable when you make this most basic of human functions unaffordable for some.

In some places, like London, you’ll find even the most popular of tourist attractions marred by their use as impromptu toilets. People, whether drunk or poor, find it easier to go in one of the city’s iconic red phone booths. If you’ve ever tried to take a photograph in one, you’ll know that, more likely than not, you’ll have to hold your breath while doing so, and watch where you step.

Who can afford to spend $100 a week on going to the toilet?

Not going to the toilet when you need to can contribute to all sorts of health issues, from urinary tract infections to toxic shock syndrome. But how many homeless people can afford 45 to 140 euros per week on toilet usage fees? If you’re careful, you can do a lot with a euro or two. With one euro, you could get yourself a cup of coffee from the supermarket to warm up on a cold night, or a hamburger when you’re craving a hot meal. For two euros, you could buy some vegetables and rice to make enough for a few people to eat (provided you can light a fire and find some water, of course).

Even if going to the toilet costs ‘only’ 50c, to someone who is already struggling to feed themselves (or their kids) that is a lot.

As Richard Stallman writes, ‘Pay toilets are nasty, and ought to be illegal. Those of us who are not poor can afford the price, if we accept the practice; poor people can’t. To deny people access to a toilet when they need one is nasty and degrading.’

You are not a dog

This brings me to the last piss-related photo I took in Belgium: posters saying ‘You are not a dog’ with pictures of a woman, a man, and a dog toileting.

Yes, people are not dogs.

Dogs in Belgium (and many other countries) have a designated, walled-off area to go to the bathroom for free.

It’s a global issue

While I’ve used Belgium as a convenient example here (and largely because of its three pissing statues!) access to improved sanitation is a global problem. (Somewhat ironically, the Manneken Pis was a UNICEF ambassador for access to potable water a decade ago). The featured image for this post was actually taken in Germany.

As Radio National reports, many of Australia’s own indigenous community lack access to proper sanitation. India certainly has well-documented toilet problems. In Fiji, I was horrified to learn that one of the schools we volunteered at not only had no soap, but staff and student toilets in rather appalling condition.

Hygiene and dignity are human rights

It’s often hard for those of us who have grown up with free universal healthcare to understand how a country like America doesn’t afford that right to its citizens. I’d say the same of the right of using a toilet.

The benefits for free access to public toilets for all of us are clear. I strongly believe that countries fortunate enough to have public toilets should work to make them, or keep them, free.

If you agree, please share this post – and you might like to consider supporting WASH – the UNICEF water, sanitation and hygiene program we became aware of in Fiji.

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