Natasha Bright watched in horror as she saw her friends drinking beer after beer in the park. She had gone out to meet them as lockdown restrictions eased and maybe have a drink herself. But one thought plagued her: what if I need the toilet?
It was the same when she went to walk her dog in the Peak District near her home in Sheffield. With the already dwindling numbers of public toilets closed, and pubs and cafes shuttered, the options were to hold it in or find a bush. “There’s a lot that can go wrong when you’re squatting outside,” says the 33-year-old charity communications manager. “It takes longer to get your trousers up than it does for men, there’s nettles and the fear of being caught … oh God. If the choice was to have a drink and have to go in the bushes, or not have a drink and wait until I got home, it was easy.”
A friend had told Bright about something she had used at a festival: a cardboard funnel that women can pee through, aiming into a urinal. “It was a laugh at the time,” she says. But when lockdown happened, she bought herself a Shewee; a plastic contraption that comes with its own carry case and enables the user to pee standing up. “This way I can wee as easily as my boyfriend does,” she says.
Bright was not alone in finding this solution. Sales of Shewees have boomed, with the company reporting a 700% increase since the beginning of lockdown. Other companies have reported the same: the Pee Pocket, a cardboard design, has seen an 800% spike in sales. The Tinkle Belle and P Style have also confirmed marked hikes in demand.
It has been something of a stand-to-pee revolution, says Sam Fountain, who invented the Shewee in the late 1990s when she was a product design student. “Men don’t have a problem with using public toilets, but women do: having to get their bottoms out and touching everything, the massive queues. I was looking at a tampon applicator one day and thought: ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you could just wee down that?’” Fountain turned the rudimentary idea into a funnel that could sit under the vulva with a tube pointing the urine away from the body.
She thought the Shewee would appeal to clubbers, but it became a big seller among outdoor types, people with bladder problems, with mobility issues who found it hard to sit down, or those who spent time on the road. “Now, with the pandemic, we’re outside more than we ever have been before. But with that comes the thought: ‘Where am I going to go to the toilet?’ A quick Google and Shewee comes up,” says Fountain.
Even now, when many toilets have reopened, there remains still a lingering fear of using them. Jade Gebbie, 30, is a standup comic and office worker from Tunbridge Wells. She takes her Shewee on long journeys or camping. “I’m not keen on using public toilets anywhere,” she says. “I don’t like the idea of sitting on them. And now, with the pandemic, I just feel a lot safer standing and using it. It probably doesn’t make any difference but I just feel in my head it’s more hygienic.”
According to the gynaecologist Dr Jen Gunter, there is little evidence to suggest that using a stand-to-pee device is safer in terms of coronavirus. “The issue with toilets is what you touch with your hands,” she says. “Which is why good hand hygiene is so important. But you are not going to get Covid vaginally, or via the skin on your bottom. The virus causes a problem because it goes straight into your lungs.”
A more rational fear around public bathrooms is ventilation. According to research published in the journal Physics of Fluid, droplets containing coronavirus could potentially linger up to a metre in the air after a toilet is flushed, to be inhaled by the next user. Hence, the importance of ventilation and wearing a face mask.
Being caught in public with your knickers down, however, is a much more pressing problem. “I often hear girls saying: ‘I’m not going in a bush because people will see my bottom,’” says Fountain. “Especially now: people take photographs and put them on the internet and laugh at you.” Photographing and shaming people urinating in public on social media became something of a sport for some local communities as lockdown eased, with those living near parks understandably rattled by the hordes of people using their bins, alleyways and even doorsteps when they were caught short. Newspapers even featured images of girls, faces and bottoms blurred, squatting behind bins and in bushes.
It could have easily happened to Hanna-Beth Scaife. The 24-year-old from Teeside works as a courier for Stuart, which provides drivers for restaurants on behalf of Just Eat. Her experience shows how seriously some women were affected by the closure of public toilets and the need for innovative solutions. Usually on a shift, Scaife would use the loos in the restaurants she worked with. “But then the staff started refusing us entry,” she says. “We were having to go to the toilet behind bins, change tampons in alleyways. We were told to wash our hands before and after every delivery, but how could we do that?”
Scaife, who is also a rep for the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, which represents casual workers, works in fixed shift blocks of two to three hours. For every 10 minutes she works, she gets a minute’s break. A two-and-a-half hour shift, for example, adds up to a 15-minute break. “Usually, you would use that time to grab some food and a drink, have a rest,” she says. “But in lockdown, I would drive home to use the loo, and then try and be back in the allotted time.” If she took even a minute longer, she would lose her hourly rate for that shift and instead get paid per delivery, which could be a lot less if it was a quiet shift. Some female colleagues who lived too far out of town to pop home stopped drinking fluids. “If you came on your period, or have diabetes, it made it very difficult to work,” she says. Scaife suffers from myalgia, or chronic fatigue syndrome, and uses a wheelchair on days when it is too difficult to walk. Accessible toilets with the facilities she needs are a rarity at the best of times. When there were all shut, she says, “it was the biggest kick in the teeth”.
Yvonne Taylor bought her stand-to-pee device when she was diagnosed with interstitial cystitis, a chronic bladder condition that made her need the toilet about every 15 minutes. The device she bought came with a bag attached to it, like a portable urinal. While it got her out of a few tight spots, she found it difficult to use. “You still have to take your trousers and knickers down, because it drips everywhere, so everyone can see you going anyway. You might as well squat behind a tree,” she says.
Trying to pee standing up “just didn’t work for me”, she says. “It’s OK for men, because they’re used to it, but as a woman it’s just not built into your mind.”
This is the main problem Gunter has with these devices. “Voiding is such a complex reflex,” she says. “When you’ve been doing it one way for 30 years, changing it is very hard for your brain to comprehend. It’s not a good idea to mess with that.
“Standing is not a natural position for women to be emptying their bladder in,” she continues. And while, like many areas of women’s health, research on the ideal position for women to urinate is lacking, the general consensus is that “the optimum position for the pelvic floor is squatting”, she says. Standing is a tricky position in which to relax the pelvic floor, which when tensed can lead to residual volumes of urine staying in the bladder. “For people with bladder urgency, these devices might get them out of a tight situation. But I really wouldn’t want anyone to be doing it on a regular basis.”
So why in Britain do men urinate standing up and women sitting down? “Practices vary so widely across cultures, there is really no one uniform way of urinating,” says Barbara Penner, professor of architectural humanities at the Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL, and author of the book Bathroom. “Generally, these things have very little to do with anatomy and are culturally and socially determined.” Before the industrial revolution, it is believed that all genders would just squat. The development of the crinoline dress, favoured by the Georgians, for instance, could have doubled up as a portable toilet cubicle, when out and about, especially without cumbersome modern undergarments such as tight-fitting knickers.
And while the Shewee may sound radical and modern, there have been similar devices dating back to the 1700s. “They were discreet objects that women could tuck into purses and make use of when travelling. It’s even claimed that they were used in churches when preachers went on for too long,” says Penner.
The Victorian era brought with it a new prudishness and the division of the public and private sphere, with men in the former and women confined to the latter. “The ideal Victorian woman did not go charging about the city streets and would certainly never admit to needing a toilet,” says Penner. So while public toilets for men appeared in Britain in the 1840s – in the service of disease prevention – it was the late 19th century for women, and even then they were wildly controversial. “It was said that women who needed such a space were themselves public women, which was essentially saying they were prostitutes,” says Penner.
Today, there may be no moral imperative for women not to be out in public, but the demise of Britain’s public toilets due to cuts to council funding has meant many people are still kept on a “loo leash”; chained to the house for fear of not being able to relieve themselves. Is the Shewee a viable solution? Mary Anne Case, a professor of law at the University of Chicago, who has worked extensively on equalising public toilet provision, says that the problem with many of the alternatives for women “is they are not thinking about the female body, customs and habits. Most of the people inventing these devices are trying to allow females to urinate in the way males do.” The fly on women’s jeans, for example, is not positioned for the female urethra.
In many ways, the Shewee and devices like it could be seen as a “lean in” feminist approach to a public health problem: the “if you can’t beat them join them” approach to equality. “There is this notion that whatever men have chosen for themselves must be good, because men are powerful,” says Case. “And it so often isn’t the case.”
For instance, research has suggested it may be better for men’s prostate health to urinate sitting down. The idea became so popular in some countries – such as Germany and Taiwan – that it was introduced as a public health message. There is even a German word for a man who pees sitting down: Sitzpinkler. But the backlash was so vehement that in 2000 the sociologist Klaus Schwerma wrote a book, Stehpinkeln: Die Letzte Bastion der Männlichkeit? (Peeing Standing Up: The Last Bastion of Masculinity?) on the subject.
For the trans community, however, the devices have been helpful. Searah Deysach has been selling them for 19 years via her store FTM Essentials. “We sell both non-representational ones – like the Go Girl and the P Style that are designed for and aimed at a cisgendered female market – as well as ones that are made to look like penises, designed for the transmasculine market.” She has seen a sales spike in both.
“Not every trans person wants to pee standing up,” says Chase Ross, 20, from Montreal. “Lots of people don’t want to conform. But others feel they need to pee standing up or their gender dysphoria is absolutely horrible, so whether it’s just a medicine spoon or a full on $500 prosthetic, it really helps people feel more comfortable.” When Ross was transitioning there was little information on these devices, but he now makes educational videos on YouTube and reviews new ones.
Being able to feel a bit more comfortable is what Shewee fans say it is all about. Soma Gosh, a 39-year-old writer and performer from Hertfordshire, says it was an “essential item when I was pregnant, because I needed to go a lot more”. And now it makes her feel “unshackled. To be able to stand up and go for a wee quickly and safely is the male privilege that I want”.