The Wedding Bug: Hetero and cisnormativity in the Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds (the first of two blog posts)

As most people that I’ve spoken to recently will know, I can’t stop watching The Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds. If you haven’t seen the Channel 4 Series, the crux of it is this: take a group of cute 4, 5 or 6 year olds, rig them up with cameras a mics and pop them into a school/playgroup-like setting with a couple of teachers who stay pretty quiet, aside from setting them a few tasks. Every now and then we get a little more information about their family background, etc. The children also have their moves watched and narrated by a group of psychologists.

Watching it is a guilty pleasure – partly as I’m putting aside ethical concerns around gaining ‘informed consent’ from 4 year olds in appearing on such a public platform – but also as I find myself simultaneously cross and fascinated about the way that the programme is set up. Although I can’t deny that I find the antics of the kids cute and funny, my particular interest in this two part blog is how the children’s moves are narrated and analysed. The first blog post discusses the how the show reinforces hetero and cisnormativity, and the second discusses dis/ableism in the programme.

Although I’ve composed these as two blog posts (basically because they were getting a bit long!), hetero/cisnormativity and ableism shouldn’t be thought about as distinct concepts, but, as Robert McRuer reminds us, are wrapped-up and implicated in one-another. I discuss this a bit more in the second blog post (also see my use of McRuer’s work in this paper).

I’ve tried to link only to open access research in the blog. If you have trouble accessing anything that I’ve linked to get in touch and I’ll do my best to help out.

The Wedding Bug: Hetero and cisnormativity in the Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds

Has anyone else noticed that in pretty much every episode of The Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds, there is some kind of proposal/wedding happening?

For the psychologists that narrate the show, the regular ‘weddings’ are often put down to the children mirroring/playing at adult relationships. That it may well be. However, the heteronormativity of the weddings (I’ve yet to have seen one that wasn’t between a boy and a girl) also tells us a lot about what kinds of adult relationships the children have been exposed to. I also want to propose that the compositions of the show itself is inherently hetero and cisnormative.

By heteronormativity, I mean that assumption, normalisation and prioritisation of heterosexuality. By cisnormativity, I mean the assumption, normalisation and prioritisation of cisgender identities (those that identify with the gender that they were assigned at birth) and the gender binary.

Where are the queer families?

It’s long been noted that schools are microcosm of society. Until 2003 in the UK (2000 in Scotland) a piece of policy called Section 28 stated that that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. This meant that queer relationships and ways of being couldn’t be discussed within educational settings.

Since this time, however, we supposedly have a more diverse/inclusive way of being when it comes to LGBT relationships in educational settings. Yet, there is much work out there that suggests otherwise. El Formby’s work discussing sex education with LGBT young people, for example, highlights that there’s a long way to go to make PSHE inclusive of all genders and sexualities. She also suggests that in order to prevent LGBT bullying the discourse needs to be widened to not only think of bad individual bullies and passive (LGBT) victims, but to address wider hetero and cisnormative practice in education and wider society (an argument mirrored by The Queering Education Institute working in a US context).

But what’s this got to do with The Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds? For me, much of what is shown in the show, and the way that the children’s actions are analysed and read-into by the psychologists, perpetuates hetero and cisnormativity.

It doesn’t take much communication/friendship between a girl and a boy in the show for a wave of excitement and insinuations that the children are in some kind of romantic relationship. For example at the beginning of the 5 Year Olds (2016) Episode 1, Jude is the first to enter the playgroup and take a seat. Shortly after, Ellie arrives, and chooses to sit next to Jude. The show then cuts to the psychologists who, pointing out that the children have sat next to one-another, say “we’ve got our first love in”, before the camera moves poignantly to a shot of the children’s feet next to one-another. I don’t here want to deny the children’s right to understand their relationships with other children in whatever way they choose. Indeed, it should be acknowledged that Jude and Ellie, like many other children featuring in the series, do indeed go on to refer to each other as boyfriend and girlfriend and discuss (when asked directly) being in love, before Ellie ends their relationship as girlfriend and boyfriend as the programme comes to an end. Furthermore it could be argued that the comments from the psychologists about such romance between the children happen in a fairly tongue in cheek way. Despite this, never do we see adult claims of romance based on a friendship or relationship between two boys, two girls or other groups of children. Thus, a norm of heterosexuality is maintained and the children’s possibility of understanding themselves outside of a heteronormative framework is restricted.

School’s OUT, an organisation working, campaigning and researching within schools to support LGBT students, offer an approach a two stage approach to making school settings more LGBT inclusive. They call the first stage ‘usualising’. On their website, The Classroom (which is full of useful lesson plans and resources for teachers) they describe usualising as consistently making learners aware of the presence of LGBT people, and argue that this should start in Early Years classrooms. Stage two, actualising, means discussing LGBT lives in some fuller aspect. Whereas usualising should happen across the curriculum, actualising takes place in specific lessons where the objectives are to have greater understandings of LGBT lives. Although perhaps the ‘actualising’ wouldn’t be appropriate in The Secret Lives of 4, 5 and 5 Year Olds (as the children are generally left to play) ‘usualising’ could happen through the toys, books and activities that are used in the setting (see this suggested resource list in the right-hand side ‘downloads’ column from Liz Chapman). Although I don’t know for sure that books such as The Great Big Book of Families aren’t sitting around somewhere in the Secret Lives of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds school, the lack of queerness elsewhere in the show makes me doubtful. The programme has yet to include, for example, a discussion of queer parents. Perhaps even more tellingly, in the same episode discussed above, a task involved the children having to act as parents for simulation (dolls that cry, need feeding, changing etc). To complete this task, the children were matched up to parent in boy-girl pairs, thus mirroring the nuclear family (there was some dodgy disability politics in this too, which I’ll come back to in blog post number two).

Examples such as the above perhaps most explicitly demonstrate heteronormativity. Yet there is cisnormativity hidden within them. Throughout the programme, the differences between boys and girls are consistently reiterated: not explicitly, as in restricting which toys the children can play with, but implicitly by setting up, for example, ‘girls vs boys’ challenges, thus perpetuating the myth that girls and boys are binary opposites, and nobody can bridge or live outside of those two categories. One task in the latest episode required the girls to dress-up as their dads, and the boys to dress-up as their mums. Perhaps this was meant to liberate the children from their gender roles and norms, but without any pedagogy/discussion behind it, it in fact reiterated the gendered categories, as the children policed each others’ responses to the task. Julia Serano’s work on the devaluing of femininity came to mind, as whereas for the girls it was a task taken lightly, the boys reactions were much stronger, with some crying and refusing to take part. It was sad to see one boy, Nat, go from enjoying the task, and liking the dress that he had chosen, to saying that he looked silly and hated having to wear the outfit.


Perhaps one of the things that I feel The Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds is missing is a pedagogy which opens up space for discussion with the children. Rather than just leave the laughter and upset about ‘boys dressing as girls’ hanging, wouldn’t it have been nice to talk about why it should be such a big deal for a boy to wear a dress? Perhaps this conversation did happen, but didn’t make the final cut. Maybe it is inevitable in a TV documentary, probably more interested in funny sound bites than a space to talk and reflect. Or maybe it is the influence of approaches to research coming from psychology – claiming objectivity and a lack of influence on what goes on (as I think the discussion above suggests, I would argue that any such claim is always false). Whichever, if any, of these are true, I do wonder what it’d look like to have sociologists, rather than psychologists, narrating the show.

Toilets & Utopian Educational Futures…

I’ve been quiet on here recently – mainly because it’s been a really busy semester both teaching, and with the Around the Toilet project. There’s lots more information on the Around the Toilet blog, but here’s a bit of a summary, along with a recent talk I have given on Utopian Educations.

The summary:

In February we found out that we’d been given some more funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to extend the Around the Toilet project. We spent the money making:

  • Travelling Toilet Tales – an animated film which documents journeys taken/not taken due to in/accessible toilets.
  • Toilet Toolkit – an interactive website, which translates some of the stories collected in the project so far to practical design solutions for architects and design professionals.

Access to the film and toolkit will be available via the Around the Toilet blog soon. We hope they will be useful to those campaigning for more accessible toilet spaces and to influence design practice. Our next step is to think about how we can get these out and being used… we’ve got some ideas up our sleeves, but would love to hear from anyone with ideas!

People passing through Somerset House, London, last weekend were given a sneak preview of the film and toolkit, as we were invited to take part in a ‘Utopia Fair‘. Despite the fairly distopian mood following recent political events, we spent the weekend talking Utopian toilets to visitors and got some really exciting ideas, toilet stories, and positive feedback about the project.


Utopian Toilet Model Making at the Utopia Fair

I was also honoured to be invited to give a 5-minute provocation about what a utopian education could look like alongside Keri Facer, Professor of Educational and Social Futures, and Rachel Roberts, Director of the Phoenix Education Trust and democratic education campaigner. Here’s a picture of Keri and I during the discussion, and below I have included my full 5 minute provocation.


Keri Facer and I during the Utopian Educations discussion

The Talk:

What do we learn, not through formal teaching, but through the spaces that we inhabit and the things that are around us?

What do we learn if there are two toilet doors in our school – a pink one, with a princess on, and a blue one with a rocket on?

What do we learn when, because we like blue and rockets, we choose the blue, rocket toilet, and our teacher tells us off, because we are a girl, and have gone in the wrong toilet?

Do we learn that space, adventure and exploring, science and technology, are things for boys, and girls need to concentrate on being and looking pretty like a princess?

What do we learn if actually, we don’t identify as ‘boy’ or ‘girl’, ‘man’ or ‘woman’ and we’re not represented at all within the binary gender categories on the toilet door?

As a non-binary, or gender queer person (someone that doesn’t identify as a man or a woman), neither do we have a box to tick on a form asking for demographic information, when the only options that we are presented with are ‘male’ or ‘female’.

Neither is there a sports team that represents us in our local area.

What if the symbol on the toilet door that we’re taught to use is a blue wheelchair sign?

Do we feel separated from the ‘girl talk’ that’s happening with our peers in the ‘girl’s’ toilet around the corner (Allan, Smyth, l’Anson, & Mott, 2009)? Do we feel that aren’t understood as a girl?

What do we learn if we are a trans girl or woman, who neither feels safe or welcome in the woman’s toilet?

What if we need to use that accessible toilet, with a wheelchair symbol, because we need the extra space to change a colostomy bag, or we need to use the handrails, but actually we don’t use a wheelchair, so people shout at us, telling us that this isn’t the space for us?

Is this similar to the lesson that we learn when we go to university, to find that the lecture theatre is stepped? When all our new classmates, that we’re trying so hard to make friends with, move to the back, and we’re left on our own, looking like a geek at the front.

It’s not a very utopian picture that I’m painting, but as feminist, utopian scholar, Lucy Sargisson (2000) tells us, we can’t reimagine the future, without first critiquing the present.

So how could these things be different?

We learn what bodies and minds are meant to do and be, how they relate to identity, how we are positioned and understood in society, through the most mundane of spaces and circumstances.

We learn through TV and the media

through teen magazines

through aps which count calories and steps

through children’s toys,

through hills, slopes and cobbles that aren’t accessible to us

through the bodies that advertise ‘beach wear’ – or the cereals we’re meant to eat to get our ‘beach body’

through being told that by now our child should no longer have an imaginary friend

or that we’re meant to have learnt our 9 times tables before we leave primary school

through the ways that we internalise what it means to be a man, to be productive, to be useful.

How could these things be different, in my utopian land?

I am part of a project called Around the Toilet. In Around the Toilet, we’re thinking about how toilets can be different, to teach different, more inclusive, lessons about the people that are welcome in certain spaces.

And really, although we’re starting with the toilet, we’ve been led to think much more widely about the relationship between space, and what we learn about our bodies and identities.

We’ve found that gender neutral toilets can be beneficial for many, including non-binary, gender queer and other gender variant people, some trans people, some LGB and queer people, a parent with a child of a different gender, some disabled people, some people with carers or personal assistants of a different gender.

We’ve spoken to disabled parents about the importance of having accessible baby changing facilities. It is about architects and designers imagining their potential user group differently –  let’s assume that some disabled parents will be in this space, and structurally include them through toilet design.

Through the provision of accessible toilets, we learn different, more utopian lessons, about which bodies are welcome.

We’ve learnt from Disability Arts (e.g., who think of accessibility as something creative, rather than a bureaucratic, box-ticking exercise.

Places of education could learn from this – what do we lose when we teach children, young people and adults, in closed-off, age-based, exclusive environments?

What could it do to education, for example, to have BSL as a language embraced, and histories of Deaf culture explored, within school settings?

What would if mean if rather than learn implicit lessons of gender and sexuality through pictures of  slim, white and ‘able’, heterosexual couples, we were exposed to imagery much more inclusive of a whole range of bodies and ways of being?

What if disabled bodies, queer bodies, fat bodies, bodies of colour, bodies that have been continually taught that they don’t fit and aren’t ‘right’, were the bodies that we learnt from? Bodies that were welcomed as parents, teachers, dancers, artists?

A utopian education to me means thinking both inside and outside of formal learning institutions. It means listening to and learning from those currently marginalised. It means thinking about those implicit lessons that we’re currently taught, through the most mundane spaces and instances, about what bodies should do and be.


Allan, J., Smyth, G., l’Anson, J., & Mott, J. (2009). Understanding disability with children’s social capital. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 9(2), 115-121.

Sargisson, L. (2000). Utopian bodies and the politics of transgression. London: Routledge.



Storying School Toilets – Workshop Summary from the Sheffield Hallam Primary and Early Years Conference

On the 12th January 2016, Lisa Procter (University of Sheffield) and I ran a workshop as part of the Storying School Toilets project, at the Sheffield Hallam University Primary and Early Years Conference. The workshop was based upon work we had done for theESRC Festival of Social Science late last year; working with Primary aged children and artist Nicky Ward from The Bower Wirks to create comics of children’s toilet stories.

We had really interesting conversations with practitioners at this conference, and with their permission have summarised the workshop on the Around the Toilet blog here.

Funded PhD Advertised – Exploring the body in education: Gender and Dis/ability

Sheffield Hallam University are advertising funded PhD places across the university. These include PhDs in my (education) department, and within this a couple that are ‘disability’ related (but also lots of others that look interesting – critiquing marketisation, autonomy and ‘teaching excellence’, for example).

Below is the one that I will be supervising alongside the brilliant El Formby and Julia Hirst if somebody is successful in their application. Get in touch if you fancy applying!

More info here (click on the ‘education’ link on the right to get to all the ‘education’ projects).

Project 3: Exploring the body in education: thinking through gender and dis/ability

Although the place of the body within education has been theorised in relation to gender and sexuality (e.g. Paechter, 2004), rarely does it engage with the views of disabled children and young people. Yet, disability is an embodied phenomenon which mediates relations to the world (Titchkosky, 2011; Slater, 2015). This research would use ‘the body’ as a place to bring together disability studies, and theories relating to gender, sexualities and education. The student would be joining a team experienced in working creatively with disabled and non-disabled children/young people through scholarship and research. The research would be qualitative and could use creative, participatory and/or arts-based methodologies. For further information, or informal discussion, please contact Dr Jenny Slater (

School Toilets, ‘Development’ and Queer Disabled Bodies – new paper!

I’ve just uploaded a paper that I presented at the annual conference in the department at my university last Wednesday. It’s called ‘School Toilets, ‘Development’ and Queer Disabled Bodies‘. I’ve pasted the abstract below, and you can read the full paper from my ‘conference papers and presentations‘ page.

School Toilets, ‘Development’ and Queer Disabled Bodies

In this paper I interrogate entwined discourses of ‘health’ and ‘development’ that dominate literature around school toilets. I argue that this literature works from a normative position which implicitly perpetuates dominant and oppressive ideals situating ‘normal’ childhood as (amongst other things) ‘able’, heteronormative, conforming to gender binaries, and inferior to ‘adulthood’. Furthermore, I use data from Around the Toilet, a collaborative project between academic researchers and queer, trans and disabled people’s organisations (, to show that the built environment of the (school) toilet itself supports such discourses and teaches around normal/abnormal ways of being in the world. School toilets therefore act as one device for Othering those that do not fit into normative discourses of ‘childhood’ and there is work to be done to integrate literature on school toilets with more radical and socially just activist-academic toilet work.

Youth and Disability: A Challenge to Mr Reasonable – London Book Launch! 7th December

It’s not too often that I venture down south, but…

When? Monday 7th December, 1-3

Where? Department of Education, London South Bank University, Room V203, K2 Building, 103 Borough Road, SE1 OAA

Free to attend and everybody welcome, but please  email if you are coming from outside LSBU

You are warmly invited to join us for the ‘London Book Launch’ of Jenny Slater’s book, Youth and Disability: A Challenge to My Reasonable, published by Ashgate in February this year.

Jenny will present a paper based upon one chapter of the book, Young Disabled People, Gender and Sexuality. There will be a time for questions and conversation, and half price vouchers for the book available.

Information about Youth and Disability: A Challenge to Mr Reasonable by Jenny Slater. Published by Ashgate as part of their Interdisciplinary Disability Studies series (series editor: Mark Sherry).

In this ground-breaking book, Jenny Slater uses the lens of ‘the reasonable’ to explore how normative understandings of youth, dis/ability and the intersecting identities of gender and sexuality impact upon the lives of young dis/abled people. Although youth and disability have separately been thought within socio-cultural frameworks, rarely have sociological studies of ‘youth’ and ‘disability’ been brought together. By taking an interdisciplinary, critical disability studies approach to explore the socio-cultural concepts of ‘youth’ and ‘disability’ alongside one-another, Slater convincingly demonstrates that ‘youth’ and ‘disability’ have been conceptualised within medical/psychological frameworks for too long.

With chapters focusing on access and youth culture, independence, autonomy and disabled people’s movements, and the body, gender and sexuality, this volume’s intersectional and transdisciplinary engagement with social theory offers a significant contribution to existing theoretical and empirical literature and knowledges around disability and youth. Indeed, through highlighting the ableism of adulthood and the falsity of conceptualising youth as a time of becoming-independent-adult, the need to shift approaches to research around dis/abled youth is one of the main themes of the book. This book therefore is a provocation to rethink what is implicit about ‘youth’ and ‘disability’. Moreover, through such an endeavour, this book sits as a challenge to Mr Reasonable.

Contents: Introduction: theoretical perspectives; Disabled people in (neo)liberal times (or, disability as unreasonable); Youth as border zone, disability and disposability (or, challenging youth as becoming-reasonable adult); The making of un/reasonable bodies at the border zone of youth; From adulthood independence to continuing relational autonomy; Negotiating space and constituting ‘problems’: access at the border zone of youth; Dis/abled youth, bodies, femininity and sexuality: having difficult conversations; The limits of ‘sameness’: goodbye Mr Reasonable; References; Index.

About the Author: Jenny Slater is Lecturer in Education and Disability Studies at Sheffield Hallam University, UK.

Reviews: ‘With this book Slater announces herself as a rising star of critical disability studies. This impassioned, politicised and engaged text alerts us to the possibilities that emerge for reimagining the human at the intersections of dis/ability and youth. Written with verve, humour and accountability, Slater illustrates that critical scholarship can be both theoretical and biographical in equal measure. A wonderful book.’
Dan Goodley, University of Sheffield, UK

‘Jenny Slater goes straight to the “heart of the matter” to interrogate the “unreasonability” of “reasonable” neo-liberal discourses that enact violence against disabled youth. Slater writes lucidly linking theory with first person accounts by disabled youth and with her own insightful reflections to foreground ableism masquerading as a “reasonable” discourse at the intersections of race, class, gender identity, and sexuality.’
Nirmala Erevelles, The University of Alabama, USA

World Toilets Day, neocolonialism and the Yorkshire Post! #cctoilettalk

Today (November 19th) is World Toilet Day. It was initiated by the UN, to draw attention to global problems of lack of sanitation and suitable toilet facilities around the world. Last week I was asked to write a piece for the Yorkshire Post (a regional UK newspaper) on the issue of toilet provision, to be published to coincide with World Toilet Day.

Having written it, however, I was told today that the piece concentrated too much on ‘minority issues’, so wasn’t suitable for the Yorkshire Post. After some ranting and outrage from friends on Facebook (to summarise: even white cis hetero non-disabled men use toilets! And this isn’t even the point!!!), I have been asked to replicate the article here, which I have done below (although fuller and more articulate piece covering the same subjects can be found written by Charlotte Jones on the Connected Communities blog).

Before I reproduce the article as a blog, though, I have also decided to use this as an opportunity to reflect on some thoughts that I’ve been having around World Toilet Day.

Understandably, in the Around the Toilet project, we have been asked a few times if we are doing anything for World Toilet Day. Up until this point, we haven’t really engaged with it. This was partly to do with having other stuff going on (e.g. our Re-Imagining Toilets event next week!), but I’ve also felt wary of doing a World Toilet Day Thing for other reasons.

1) Our project is small scale and UK-based concentrating particularly on UK – based queer, trans and disabled people’s experiences of accessing toilets, and most our conversations have revolved around the UK. This isn’t to in anyway deny the importance of global issues around toilet access, but currently we are thinking fairly locally.

2) I am always wary narratives around ‘international development’ and of charity as a way of solving problems of poverty caused by colonialism, white supremacy, oppression and global capitalism.

‘Toilet Twinning’ (i.e. paying for your “twin your loo with a latrine halfway around the world, in a country of your choosing“) seems to be one of the major initiatives of World Toilet Day, and very much works from this charity model. Like all forms of ‘charity’, this requires, among other things, the recipient of charity to be grateful of the more powerful donor, and therefore remain in this position of relative powerlessness. The roots of global inequality; capitalism, colonialism etc. are left unchallenged (or indeed, strengthened). (This is an illuminating blog post about the colonial taxes that some African countries are paying to France, and how colonialism and charitable discourses – i.e. you should be grateful – are so intertwined).

There’s also this message from Ban Ki-moon which heads the UN’s World Toilet Day site.

We must continue to educate and protect communities at risk, and to change cultural perceptions and long-standing practices that hinder the quest for dignity

It’s message of ‘educating’, ‘changing cultural perceptions and long-standing practices’ and a ‘quest for dignity’ reeks of colonial discourse – ‘civilising the uncivilised’ and so on.

3) The Around the Toilet project considers the provision of toilets to directly relate to issues of whose bodies and ways of being in the world are allowed, and whose are violently denied. Around The Toilet’s engagement with global issues of sanitation, therefore, should always bear in mind neo-colonial discourses under which World Toilet Day functions, as colonialism and white supremacy continue to devalue and dehumanise people of colour. Our place in addressing global issues of sanitation, therefore, would require much more thinking through of these complex issues in relation to our own position and privilege, and stepping back to consider how we can be allies in a wider struggle.

Despite the above, when I was asked last week, I did agree to write the piece for the Yorkshire Post, as I felt it was a good opportunity to get wider coverage for our toilet campaigning.

I was aware that we would have to jump through some loop holes, the first of which was that it had to have a single authors name on it, when it was actually a piece written collaboratively between Charlotte Jones, Emily Cuming, Lisa Procter and I. We also knew that we’d have to appeal to a broad audience and not appear ‘too radical’ (we haven’t mentioned the word ‘capitalism’ once, and refrained from any explicit thoughts about World Toilet Day, such as the above). This is the resulting piece that is ‘too focused on minorities’ (I’m sure the Yorkshire Post will regret rejecting it when they see all the hits coming to my blog!)

“World Toilet Day takes place on November 19th every year to recognise the lack of sanitation facilities in the majority world (or ‘developing’ countries). There are global problems around sanitation, poverty and water quality which current campaigns seek to improve.

But there are issues that affect us closer to home as well. Led by me, a group of university researchers in the north of England have been assessing what state our public  toilets are in – if we can find them of course.

What do you do when you’re in your local town centre and need the loo? Do you nip into the closest fast food outlet or coffee shop – hoping that you won’t have to buy anything, need a key code, or be asked to leave? Do you take the five-floor trek to the top of a department store?

What if you’re in the park?  Are you lucky enough to be in one of the few parks which still has functioning public toilets – and fingers crossed, they’re clean and don’t require spare change?

In the Around the Toilet project, people have shared stories many of us can relate to.

From wobbly experiences in cramped, dirty train carriages, to worries about being overheard or walked in on when toilets don’t offer enough privacy, especially in schools.

We also learnt that toilets can be a lucrative business – the 30p it costs for a trip to the loo in most train stations mounts up to millions in profit.

Generally there seems to be a consensus that it can be a struggle to find a space that meets the needs of the most unifying of human experiences.

Yet for some, accessing a suitable toilet is more difficult than for others. A key theme of our workshops centred around facilities for transgender and disabled people.

Trans people spoke of the difficulties in finding a gender neutral space in which they could go to the toilet without others making assumptions about their gender, or being accused of being in the ‘wrong’ toilet.

Disabled people, too, planned journeys around suitable loos. They told us that even those toilets labelled ‘accessible’ often weren’t suitable – too small for some wheelchairs, not containing Changing Places equipment such as an adult hoist and changing bed, or used as a storage cupboard with the assumption that ‘no disabled people actually come here’.

Access for disabled people means more than wheelchair access and ramps, although these are important too.

We’ve discussed how the recent closure of public toilets due to funding cuts impacts particularly strongly on homeless people, who are often wrongly viewed as ‘dangerous’ or ‘a nuisance’ when they use a public toilet, but equally ‘anti-social’, and even fined, when they’re forced to use the streets as a toilet.

The conclusion of the project is that public toilets aren’t currently suitable for the diverse population of the UK. The buildings, designs, and signage of toilets implicitly include some of us, whilst excluding others. The lack of accessible toilets for disabled people illustrates the expectation of an ‘able’ body. Presumptions that only women will require baby changing facilities leads to difficulties for people of other genders caring for children.

As participants pointed out, restricted access to toilets also has an impact on the ways people plan their days, making some feel unsafe or excluded from their communities, and sometimes unable to freely leave the house.

Although we started with the apparently mundane issue of  toilets, the discussions highlighted a much broader range of social issues of inequality and prompted questions about toilet access and specific requirements for parents, children, older people, and people from various ethnicities and faiths, amongst others.

The project ends at the end of November but you can still make your views known at our website:, and Twitter: @cctoilettalk.”

Reflections on talking toilets with children, bodies and queerness in the classroom #cctoilettalk

Recently I’ve been running some workshops (with Lisa Procter from the University of Sheffield and Nicky Ward, artist from The Bower Wirks) talking to primary-aged children about toilets.

We approached this through fictional story writing (leading to comic making), giving the children starting sentences such as, ‘you’re adventure started in the middle of nowhere’, ‘the toilet was particularly grumpy today, why was it in a bad mood?’ and ‘you go into the school toilet and something unexpected happens…’ Children chose their starter, then worked in groups or on their own to create a story.

We were very loose with any remaining direction we gave – wanting the children to be able to work and create as they wished. This led to stories ranging from chickens being chased by foxes and falling down a loo in the woods, only to realise the toilet was a portal to a talking toilet in Manchester, to ‘cleaner elves’ going on strike as the mean ewok boss was making them work for free.

Yet, although all the stories made were fictional, they nevertheless lead to some really illuminating conversations (we can already see an important debate around the value of work above). Gender came up straight away with one group. We began by sitting around on cardboard cut-out toilet seats, and asking, how would you feel if we were all sitting on the toilet right now? (A workshop activity also used with adults in the Around the Toilet project, which you can read about here). Like the adults in our sister project, the children all agreed that it’d be awkward. However, there was a very gendered divide as to why the situation was awkward. Whereas the boys said that it was because there were girls (or as they put it ‘people of the opposite sex’) in the room, the girls said that it’d be awkward even if only girls were present. This highlights a perhaps obvious divide in the ways different we are socialised to be ashamed of our bodies, dependent upon assumed gender.

One of the things that we’ve noticed in the Around the Toilet workshops with adults, is that talking about toilets has always led to talking about sex. Although this wasn’t so explicit with primary aged children, later in the same workshop I was reminded of Catherine Atkinson’s work on gender and sexuality in the primary school classroom. We were coming to the end of the day when I got casually asked, ‘do you have a boyfriend?’. My reply ‘no, I have a girlfriend’, led to some interesting back and forth between three children debating whether or not this was ‘weird’. Catherine’s research highlights that although some children may know what to say about LGBT (or, more likely, LG, perhaps B) issues in the classroom, when teachers aren’t around, they become much more normative in their thinking around the ‘correct’ ways that boys and girls and meant to act. An undergraduate student of mine, Sam McDonald, found similarly – in his research, although children thought it was okay for two men to get married, two men holding hands or kissing was ‘gross’ and ‘weird’. I read the children’s debate around whether my queerness was something that was okay or not at least in part as working out whether my status was one of teacher or of someone else with whom they could be more honest.

The workshops so far have been one-off pilot events in order to help us work out the usefulness of doing workshops with children around toilets. Like much research with children, the above discussion points to the importance of thinking about the role of adults in the room. This both relates to our role as researchers, but also the role of other adults such as teachers, teaching assistants and parents. There’s always been other adults present when we’ve written these stories – either teaching assistants or parents. It’s been really interesting to see both the reaction of adults to a project talking to children about toilets (including some quite direct questions around what the point of our project is), and the ways that the adults have praised, nudged and directed the children to think about certain topics.

The adult topic of choice so far has undoubtedly been hand washing. Although this perhaps isn’t particularly surprising, it is telling of the kinds of pedagogies that most explicitly circulate the toilet space for children. Most academic research around school toilets also focuses on the subject of hygiene. However, as we see from the other conversations that have emerged during the workshops, there are other lessons also going on here. I’m particularly interesting in the ways that we learn about our embodied selves through the toilet, and how this relates to gender, sexuality, dis/ability, ‘race’, faith and so on, something that hasn’t really been explored in school toilet research. Furthermore, most workshops so far have mainly included children aged 7-11, and it’d be interesting to see if there was a different favoured adult topic with smaller children.

There’s a conversation for us to have as a research team now about where we take this research from here. I feel like there’s loads of potential in it. As has happened in Around the Toilet, talking about toilets can and has led to many more conversations. Yet as toilets are such an embodied space, and the subject of bodies can be one that worries schools, we’re always having to think carefully about our ethical and methodological approach. So far, using fiction as a starting point has worked well – allowing children some autonomy about what they choose to share. One question that will be important will be the role of adults with the room – whether we want to go with and think about the relationship between adults and children in talking about toilets (and accepting that the children may be directed back to hand washing!), or try to create possibilities of more child-led scenarios.

Some of the comic books created, along with further exhibits and talks about research with adults in Around the Toilet will be on show at Re-Imagining Toilets: Adventures into the Design of the Public Loo. 27th November, Manchester. It’s free and everybody is welcome, but please book a place, here.