Beware the Sanisette

La SanisetteMy mother always told me to beware of public toilets. I was never quite sure what I was supposed to be wary of – bad smells, germs, lurking perverts?

Still, her warnings left me with a vague sense of discomfort that continued to haunt me as an adult every time I used a public washroom (‘washroom’ being the preferred euphemism of Canadians for toilets – aka loo, bathroom, lavatory, WC, etc).

Until I moved to France and discovered la Sanisette. When that vague discomfort was transformed into an outright fear of public toilets.

The Sanisette was originally designed to replace the public ‘pissoirs’ or urinals in the streets of Paris. They’re the French answer to clean, modern and readily available sanitation in public places. Its success has been limited, as anyone who has ever taken the Paris metro can attest – pretty well every nook and cranny still smells like a pissoir.

Sad to say, access to such facilities is often restricted so as to discourage the homeless from setting up housekeeping. Although they decided to make the Sanisettes free of charge (they used to cost 1 French franc or 40 euro cents), they have a 15-minute limit so as to prevent illicit activity like drug deals, prostitution and overnight stays.

These self-contained, self-cleaning structures are situated on busy street corners and city squares, so your private moment still feels a little public. They’re also unisex – not unusual in the old world where a single ‘cabinet des toilettes’ (water closet) often serves as both the men’s and ladies’.

The real problem I have with the Sanisette is the fact that you are forced to rely upon technology to keep your private business private. It is a nightmare for the excessively modest, the claustrophobic and the phobic in general (in my case, all three).

Here is how it’s supposed to work. You press the button and the doors open. You enter and the doors automatically shut. You do your business, wash your hands and press on the button to open the doors. You exit, the doors close and the unit begins a self-cleaning cycle, during which it is temporarily ‘hors service’ until clean and ready for the next user.

At least in theory. My fears are:

  1. The doors will randomly open at an inopportune moment, revealing me in extremis to a crowd of bystanders
  2. The doors will not open when they’re supposed to, and I will go through the complete wash and rinse cycle (possibly drowning amidst my own filth)
  3. The doors will not open at all, and I will be forever fossilized in a Sanisette

Think I’m paranoid? Shit happens.

Check this out:

To be fair, there are over 400 Sanisettes in Paris and most of them work just fine. I’m sure the tourists are grateful to find a functioning toilet when lining up to see the Eiffel Tower. There’s even an app for that.

But you won’t catch me in one.


  1. Tess · November 29, 2013

    I had that same feeling in Paris so I made my husband stand guard outside. But we took trains to smaller towns, and there were, well, not quite open sewers, but almost. Squat. And in Spain, well. The open sewers would have been better than liquid “slush” on the floors. In towns, the amenities were usually in the basement. And it was always an adventure to figure out what to push, pull, or leave very quickly because you couldn’t figure it out… I sometimes had the think to myself: no one who sees me here will ever see me again.

    • MELewis · November 29, 2013

      Oh dear….this makes the Sanisette sound quite civilized! Great idea about having someone stand guard. Thanks for sharing!

  2. · November 29, 2013

    Once in Annecy, my daughter couldn’t figure out how to get out before the cleaning cycle started, and yes, she ended up getting “cleaned” along with her “business”. It was terrifiant! Indeed, shit does happen. She has been scarred for life.

    • MELewis · November 29, 2013

      Wow, what a horror story! This is what I feared but somehow I didn’t really believe it would happen. Guess that explains why you’re not supposed to let children under 10 unaccompanied in those things….hopefully she was old enough not to be in a life-threatening situation.

  3. · November 30, 2013

    She was 16, poor thing. She was fine. A bit soggy. In the end we laughed about it…and still do, but it didn’t do much to help her phobia of public bathrooms!

    • MELewis · November 30, 2013

      Your daughter should be proud – at 16 she has already survived the worst fears of the bathroom-phobic. With a baptism like that, she’ll be ready to conquer the world!

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  5. christineforth · September 7, 2016

    Just found this website. I share your paranoia and avoid these automated coffins like the plague. However, I once had no choice in Leiden station in Holland. I was desperate and the regular loos were closed so with trepidation I entered an automatic one. There were various buttons but NO instructions in either English or Dutch so I had no idea what to expect. The doors closed automatically, I did my business, and then couldn’t figure out how to get out. I pressed all the buttons in sight, red, green, yellow, whatever. Nothing happened. I pressed the buttons again. Nothing. I began to panic. At least 10 minutes had gone by. I had visions of being sealed in this metal tomb forever. Eventually, the oxygen would run out and my shrivelled bones wouldn’t be found for years. I began to pound on the door, yell, scream, Help, Let me Out. Nothing. More door pounding, more button pushing, more yelling. I was close to tears. Then suddenly, miraculously, the door slid open. Never have I been more scared or more relieved to see daylight. I will NEVER use one of these things again. Oh, and a friend of mine had a similar experience in one of these automated toilets on a train. Eventually, in full panic mode when the doors didn’t open, she pulled the emergency lever and stopped the train!

    • MELewis · September 8, 2016

      So glad to know that others also share my distrust of such contraptions -but sorry to hear of your terrifying experience! And rather frightening to imagine the train toilet leading to an emergency stop. 😉 Nice to have you along, and looking forward to reading you soon.

  6. Kiki · February 20, 2018

    Made me laugh out loud 🙂
    I see these contraptions and yet have never ‘visited’ one…. They seem, even though they close all on their own, so PUBLIC…!
    And yet, I’m the worst – let me out of the house and ‘I need to go’…. Anywhere anytime, anyhow! Don’t talk to me about skiing holidays – a nightmare!!!! My X used to say I shouldn’t buy a ski-pass but a ‘coffee-pass’ as I had to go to the loo the moment I had pulled up my gear from the last stop!
    But it has to be said: They are intruiging and (probably) very helpful ‘restrooms’ (which goes well with Christine’s term of Automated Coffins…. RIP 🙂

    • MELewis · February 21, 2018

      I hadn’t revisited that post in awhile — yes, you and Christine are right to call them automated coffins and ‘restrooms’ as I am always afraid of resting eternally inside!

  7. Gus Fergusson · June 12, 2018

    Here the absence of open loos twixt 6pm and 10am means the streets and gardens are contaminated with excrement, urine and syringes. As a holiday centre it is visited by old and young alike and despite the imposition of a “public space protection order” people still have to answer nature’s call. Council workers refuse to be exposed to the potential danger of late opening loos.
    Who’s health is most important? And how do you reconcile the absence facility with the exposure of our young to this vileness?

    • MELewis · June 13, 2018

      That is a shame. People with and without homes should be able to find a safe, clean and private spot to their business at any hour of the day. I’m sure there would be a solution to be found if the council or other public authority was truly motivated – where there’s a will and all that.

  8. John · September 12, 2018

    Umm while I sympathise with folks that are phobic about getting caught in these contraptions I think there is an Elephant in the corner that continues to be ignored. Before I start just let me state that I think Paris is a beautiful city and I’m a man.

    Now the elephant in the corner is that large parts of Paris stink of urine. In the main, I believe that there is some sort of historical “acceptance” of men peeing in the street. This problem has become endemic. In the past there were Pissoir’s scattered around Paris that helped alleviate some of the problem but Pissoirs weren’t all that acceptable in some quarters because some folks didn’t like seeing what the men were doing even if they weren’t actually exposing themselves. In its wisdom the city of Paris decided to remove the Pissoirs and replace them with the hygienic Sanisette’s. These were to be marvellous structures offering privacy and hygiene because and would be cleaned after every use…Ou la la!! Every citizen would be very happy…

    Only problem is that the theory is entirely broken:
    As noted above many people feel uncomfortable with the possibility of being exposed or trapped in the things.
    Most of the ones I’ve used are filthy (a) because various members of the public seem to think the place for excrement is in corner rather than the pan; (b) the cleaning cycle total fails with the various levels of abuse that happens within the Sanisette.
    The cycle time between fast users eg. a man having a pee is at least five minutes so Sanisettes often have long queues outside. Because of this, I have waited with female friends (and for myself) for outrageous amounts of time eg. twenty minutes. In such situations we have been forced to buy a drink simply to use a private toilet. In the months/years leading up to my Prostate surgery I often found myself HAVING to go! Getting stuck outside a Hygenic Sanisette for twenty minutes was not an option. In fact, in those situations, even on a policeman’s leg would have been a relief. Even without a Prostate problem, a wait of twenty minutes is just too long in anybody’s life. The reality is that Sanisettes just don’t have the throughput that public facilities demand.

    So what should the facilities be? Well I can only make the observation that at least the Pissoirs went some way to stopping men peeing in EVERY doorway, EVERY lamp post, and EVERY metro platform – perhaps there should have just been more of them. For men and women that wanted to do a more complete toilette perhaps there should have just been more plain old simple toilet blocks with doors on hinges, multiple cubicles and grated floors that could be hosed out. There just needed to be plenty of them… What’s so hard about that Paris?

    • MELewis · September 12, 2018

      I could not agree more! There is a terrible lack of public WC facilities everywhere in France (not just Paris) and the result is streets and remote corners that reek of urine (and sometimes worse!). Toilets just don’t seem to be the priority in France that they are elsewhere — even in nicer restaurants, on trains and in shopping malls, they are often neglected and far from the sparkling clean facilities other countries have. I don’t have the answer, but I do know they recently introduced a new experimental ‘pissoir’ in Paris called ‘L’Uritrottoir’. I am going to do a post about it one of these days. One problem is the high cost of labour in France makes any kind of manned facility or space requiring cleaning unappealing to urban planners and elected officials.

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  10. Ellen Hawley · June 15, 2020

    I have a vague memory of reading, some years back, that Paris was going to install public toilets that, at some hour, disappeared below street level and then re-emerged at whatever other hour. I imagined some hapless soul disappearing with them, which adds an extra level of oh-my-gawdness to your terrors.

    Having said that, I don’t trust my memory and neither should anyone else. That can’t possibly be right. If nothing else, the realities of plumbing would, surely, make it impossible.

  11. Miles Bourne · July 14, 2021

    One of my lasting memories of the first time I was in Paris was the smell of urine in every public space. When I visited Notre Dame I saw these concrete or stone benches but no one was sitting. I found out why. The planters next to the benches reeked of urine so bad I could not stand it. Oh, the sweet smell of Paris.

    • MELewis · July 14, 2021

      I have a similar memory of Paris when I first arrived there back in the 80s. Now it’s a bit better with more public toilets but that smell still pervades certain areas. Fortunately for France it does not seem to stop the tourists from visiting!

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