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The Long, Strange Saga of the Female Urinal

People have been trying to make lady pissoirs a thing for decades, but they keep getting flushed. Will the female urinal ever rise again?

I peed in a urinal once. All adventurous women have. I was 15 and on a church trip, and my friends and I somehow ended up with a huge urinal in our hotel room. I was still building my brand as The Gross One, so I dropped my shorts, lifted my leg and attempted to aim my pee stream directly onto the urinal cake. It didn’t work, and I soaked my friends, myself and the bathroom wall in stray drops of Numero Uno before slinking off into the shadows and cracking open the ol’ Word of God.

I have a vagina, which makes peeing in urinals a pretty challenging party trick. To me, urinals represent a peculiar brand of gendered Pee Privilege, allowing penis-havers to Live Más and whiz at hyper-speed while on the go. Meanwhile, those of us with vaginas are stuck waiting in endless bathroom lines. Why can’t the uterine gang enjoy the same speedy piss action?

That’s the big question behind so-called “female urinals,” or urinals specifically designed for people with vaginas. Turns out, waste management experts and vagina owners have been trying to make these a thing for decades now, and in doing so, they’ve discovered that urinals are faster, cheaper and more eco-friendly than toilets, no matter your gender. So, why aren’t we all using urinals? Who, pray tell, killed the stand-up pee basin, and is there any hope for its redemption?

To find out, we have to journey back to the urinals of yore. Urinals have been around in some form or another since man learned how to pee in a straight line, and the oldest waterless urinal — which dates back to the ninth century — was recently found in Sri Lanka. But the modern interpretation didn’t become popular until the Industrial Revolution, when factories needed cheap, quick bathroom facilities that allowed scores of male workers to return to the factory floor as quickly as possible. Around the same time, the French introduced pissoirs, public outdoor urinals meant to reduce the number of blustery Frenchmen urinating in the street. Once again, pissoirs were targeted toward Frenchmen, leaving women without a viable public urination option.

Fast forward to 1886, when one Andrew Rankin filed the first official patent for an “upright flushing apparatus.” Interestingly, a custodial industry publication claims that the first male urinal was actually designed by a woman during the Civil War, but since women couldn’t register patents at the time, Rankin slithered in to collect. (I couldn’t find any other information to back up this claim, but it does seem wonderfully ironic.)

To this day, people with vaginas are pretty limited in terms of public piss options — but that’s not for lack of trying. In the 1970s, Cornell Professor Alexander Kira began research on urination behavior in an attempt to break with conventional toilet design specifications and revolutionize the pee scene. To start, Kira investigated the body positions people use while urinating “in a natural state” (see: taking a leak outdoors). He found that vagina-havers prefer to take a squatting position, spreading the labia and sending the urine stream downward and slightly backward. 

If you have a vagina, you know that squatting dramatically minimizes The Splash Zone — which was the idea behind the now-defunct Sanistand, a female urinal produced by Japanese toilet maker TOTO until 1971. The Sanistand was little more than an elongated toilet bowl shaped roughly like a wine bottle, requiring users to drop trou and squat over its drainage hole. Since its demise, a few other brands have taken a crack at the female urinal with little success thanks to unimaginative design, cultural roadblocks and a certain level of user discomfort. 

In the mid-2010s, this lack of options culminated in a worldwide call for “urination equality,” or potty parity. One such campaign took place in the Netherlands after a 23-year-old woman was fined for urinating on the street. In protest, Dutch women formed leagues of self-described Zeikwijven (“wild-peeing women”) and peed all over urinals in men’s toilets.

Despite their relative obscurity, female urinals have a ton of benefits. For specifics, I chatted with Danielle Dong, the social media manager for French female urinal brand madamePee. The company bills its product as a urinal by women, for women, with urinals currently operating in France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal and the Ivory Coast. Encased in a slim cubicle, madamePee urinals are shaped roughly like the Sanistand — that is, they’re essentially long toilet bowls without a seat attachment. The brand’s website describes the design as “ergonomic and patented,” with a splash-free guarantee. 

“Female urinals are important for women, social equality, global health and the environment,” Dong tells me. For one thing, they take up less space and speed up public bathroom lines. Having access to bathrooms is also a matter of public health. “In cities like Paris, urinals for men can be found pretty much everywhere,” Dong explains. “Women, on the other hand, often have to go to restaurants and coffee shops to urinate when they’re not home.”

That’s become a lot harder since the dawn of COVID-19. “Because of the pandemic and the closing of these establishments, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for women to urinate while outside of their homes,” she continues, arguing that some women opt out of drinking water during the day to avoid the urge to go. 

Urinals also have a place in more gender-inclusive public restrooms, says Loren S. Schechter, a plastic surgeon who works with transgender patients as the medical director at the Center for Gender Confirmation Surgery in Chicago. “Accessibility to a urinal in bathrooms that are designated ‘women’ is a frequent issue I hear about from my patients,” he explains, a problem that could be solved with genderless bathrooms complete with both male-oriented and female-oriented urinals. 

Mira Ebalo, a physician’s assistant at the Center, agrees. “As we build facilities, whether it’s a gym, a locker room, a restaurant, a hospital, a grocery store, a place of worship, etc., it would be ideal to have urinals and stalls in all multi-use public restrooms,” Ebalo says, adding that inclusive public spaces require not just architectural updates but a grander social shift. “We should encourage all people to think about how many times they go to the bathroom everyday. Now imagine what it would be like if bathrooms didn’t exist. That’s what it’s like for gender-diverse people. Imagine not being able to change in a locker room before a workout, or not being able to take a bathroom break during an 8- or 12-hour shift. Some will dismiss our fight for equity, but the simple act of going to the bathroom impacts the quality of our daily lives, our safety, our livelihoods and our health.”

Finally, the female urinal is environmentally friendly. According to Ludovic Chung-Sao, a mechanical engineer in fluid systems (read: toilet genius), a lot of female urinal models are essentially waterless male urinals (read: Porta-Potties). “The female urinal works exactly like a male urinal,” Chung-Sao says. “Technically the only difference is the shape of the container and its height to the ground. The height will define how high or low the squatting position will be.” 

Manufacturing female urinals doesn’t require reinventing the wheel either, and unlike public toilets, they don’t produce a lot of wastewater. In fact, according to Dong, madamePee female urinals saved about 900,000 liters of water in 2019 when they were deployed at outdoor events.

So if female urinals have all these benefits, why aren’t they more popular? 

“For a manufacturer to go for a massive production depends on global demand,” Chung-Sao says. Hypothetically, lower demand means female urinals are more expensive to make, even though they’re nothing more than reconfigured versions of male urinals. And while exact demand for female urinals is tough to track, my former-life experience in nonprofit event planning proves that no one — at least not in my North American circles — is asking for this.

Demand aside, a lot of female urinal designs seem pretty damn uncomfy. Most require the user to either hover awkwardly (the way you might in a particularly nasty gas station bathroom) or to bring one’s genitals into uncomfortably close contact with the fixture, which seems like a recipe for serious splattering. For that reason, Kim Langdon, an OB/GYN for online diagnosis resource Medzino, argues that anatomically specific female urinals are little more than a pipe dream. 

“Female urinals would be very difficult to design for both practical and hygienic reasons,” Langdon explains. “First of all, to stand up and urinate a straight line or even an arc is impossible due to the female anatomy and the location of the urethra in relation to the vagina and labia minora. The stream of urine would hit one or both labia and be deflected — usually to the perineum and down the inner thigh. You really need to squat so that the labia retract from each other to let the urine out without hitting them. And there is a great deal of variability in the size, shape and length of the labia minora. Furthermore, since you can’t urinate any other way except straight down, there would be a lot of splatter at the feet unless you straddle the urinal and the collection part has walls to protect from that.”

There’s also the issue of, well, pants. Penis havers can whip out their junk at a moment’s notice, but until vaginas evolve periscope-like urethras, we’re stuck unzipping our jeans and pulling them down to our knees to pee. Speaking as someone who’s totally cool with dropping trou and splattering pee all over my peers, it still feels weird to partially or completely remove one’s pants in front of total strangers, especially in a unisex restroom, and especially if I’m yeeting out a tampon. To that end, female urinals could be placed in booths like the madamePee model. In lieu of that option, unisex group restrooms could also install privacy walls between urinals — but there’s still that pesky, largely female-oriented idea that one’s peeing habits are ultra-private.

Implementation issues aside, brands like madamePee are bent on dominating global bathroom culture with their revolutionary models. “When you think about the lack of evolution in public toilets in over 200 years, we’re convinced that female urinals are filling a huge gap and contributing to bringing more equality in women’s lives,” Dong says. 

Still, it seems unlikely that female urinals will make their way into public spaces anytime soon — at least in the U.S. But it sure is nice to dream about penis-havers, vagina-havers and everyone in between enjoying a shame-free bathroom uto-pee-a.