The Princess and the Pee: Bathrooms and Gender Roles

At the bookstore I work at part-time, my co-worker Deb discovered a lecherous pervo skulking about in the women’s bathroom last week.  Apparently, this was not the first time he had done so.  This naturally led to several of us gossiping and ultimately turned into a discussion about gender and bathrooms.  I asserted that I don’t believe in segregated bathrooms.  I’d prefer unisex bathrooms as I don’t like things defined merely by gender.  Deb mentioned that she wouldn’t want to be trapped in a bathroom with a sketchy stalker.  But I countered that having a women’s room doesn’t protect women from assault.  It certainly didn’t stop the jackass who sauntered into the women’s room at the bookstore.  Who’d have thought a discussion over bathrooms would spark a debate?

When it comes to segregated bathrooms, I have a problem with the symbols.  Why does the woman have a skirt?  Not all women wear skirts and not all men wear pants, as demonstrated by a high school classmate of mine who frequently wore his sister’s skirts.  (Sidebar, he was kicked out of school once for his skirt, not because he was wearing a skirt but because the skirt was too short!  At least the school was equal.)  Don’t get me wrong, I love wearing skirts and dresses.  But the signs subtly imply that in order for a woman or girl to be feminine, she must be wearing a dress. I don’t like anything that’s deemed for women only or men only, including bathrooms.

But Deb’s not alone in her fears of mixed bathrooms.  Amnesty International lists sex-segregated bathrooms in schools as one of their suggestions for protecting the safety of young girls.  Avoiding harassment for women is also the impetus in gender segregation in transportation.  In Israel, they will instate some women-only trains, a practice already implemented in Egypt, India, Taiwan, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, Belarus, Japan, Dubai and the Philippines.  In India, women face “eve teasing,” which officials hope to avoid with women only train cars. Do gendered bathrooms also protect women from assault?  Perhaps, but other issues arise with gendered bathrooms.

Unisex bathrooms (for both men and women) aren’t a new concept.  On my college campus, and on many other campuses around the country, students and the LGBTQQI community pushed to install unisex bathrooms.  Some corporations have also installed gender neutral (single-stall private) bathrooms.  The 90s TV show Ally McBeal famously explored gender roles and stereotypes as characters shared a unisex bathroom.  Why is it that many of us feel so strongly about gendered bathrooms?  Is it simply a matter of protection?  Or is it viewed as a sacred space a la Sex and the City where women can go to dish about men and swap tampons?  Even men seem to be sensitive about this as I abruptly discovered at a concert.  When the line for the women’s room was too long for my aching bladder, I ducked into the men’s room, not thinking anyone would mind a lady visitor.  But I was sorely mistaken as a few men yelled at me in surprise.  Perhaps people yearn for gendered bathrooms because we are at our most vulnerable and we don’t wish the opposite gender to see us.  Or it might be that some people are comfortable with the separation of traditional gender roles.  Law professor Mary Anne Case told the New York Times,

“Bathrooms have become a cultural ‘fault line’…Very few spaces in our society remain divided by sex.  There’s marriage and there’s toilets, and very little else.”

Now you might be saying shouldn’t people just be able to go pee in peace??  Yes, damn it they should!!  But it’s not so easy for some.  Difficulties may arise when parents with children of the opposite sex need to use the restroom, particularly fathers with daughters as women may feel uncomfortable with a man entering the women’s room.  For people who are transgender or intersex, the decision to choose either the men’s or women’s room may be painful and even dangerous. Trangendered individuals often face harassment as they may not “look” like they’re self-identified gender.  The website safe2pee.org provides a directory, including maps, of unisex and gender neutral bathrooms nationwide as well as resources for transgender or intersex individuals.  As their site states,

“Gender variant people face frequent harassment, discrimination and violence in public restrooms. Something as simple as trying to use a toilet can become a nightmarish ordeal, being forced to show ID, detained or even arrested. Some may not identify within the male / female binary and feel alienated in public bathrooms. This site offers a community-driven resource to allow people to locate safe bathrooms within their communities. Gender neutral and single stall bathrooms can benefit others as well: parents with children, those with access or mobility needs and those who desire extra privacy are a few who may benefit.”

The Transgender Law Center asserts,

“Many transgender and non-transgender people have no safe places to go to the bathroom – get harassed, beaten, and arrested in BOTH women’s and men’s rooms. Many avoid public bathrooms altogether and develop health problems. This affects not only self-identified transgender people but anyone who is perceived to not fit our society’s strict gender norms.”

Luckily, more gender neutral and unisex bathrooms are being installed in businesses and on college campuses as awareness for transgendered and intersexed individuals grows.  Going a step further, legislation has also been submitted to protect transgendered people, including a transgender rights bill in Massachusetts supported by Governor Deval Patrick and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a federal bill in Congress that would protect transgendered individuals’ jobs.

There’s a problem regarding our society’s binary gender structure.  Not all people easily identify as male or female.  And even those who do, like myself, feel uneasy about such delineated gender roles.  A basic function like going to the bathroom shouldn’t be a human rights issue.  But it is, while simultaneously increasing the dialogue regarding gender norms.  Hopefully, we can all eventually support a myriad of gender identities and all pee in peace.


10 thoughts on “The Princess and the Pee: Bathrooms and Gender Roles

  1. In my defense, i explained to Deb that i was merely “curious…”
    (Just kidding!)

    Seriously, Unisex bathrooms would lead to huge problems.
    Like locker rooms & changing rooms, both men & women NEED to have their own spaces.

    Personally, i even feel vulnerable at the Men’s urinal, with my back to strangers, as they walk in and out.
    Ideally, in the workplace, we would have two private restrooms (which is why all of us favor the coded, office bathrooms).

    But can you imagine a woman, pants pulled down, seated on a toilet, then a group of drunken men walk in?
    In essence, she is trapped, if these people are sickos (and there are a lot of them out there).
    Why increase the chances for these sorts of encounters?
    Why make the victims more accessible for stalkers & pervs?

    The guy in the bookstore was ultimately booted from the mall, because of his creepy behaviour.
    But what if we DID have unisex bathrooms?
    He’d be free to roam to his heart’s content, claiming, “All i was doing was using the facilities…”

    The reality is that men & women are different.
    Mixing the two in an enviornment as exposed as a restroom, is a recipe for disaster.

  2. I have no problem with unisex bathrooms if they’re single occupancy. Otherwise, I agree with Julian. For me, it comes down to sounds. I don’t want to hear the sounds women make in the stall and they don’t want to hear the sounds us guys make. It’s hard enough listening to other guys!

  3. It’s interesting. I spoke with a woman who went to a very liberal college where there are unisex bathrooms. She mentioned a very interesting anecdote.

    Women, apparently are used to having conversations with each other while using the facilities. Men don’t exactly do this. At first male students were freaked out by women who were having conversations with each other across the stalls, but in time, they adopted the practice themselves!

  4. I can get behind the idea of unisex bathrooms, though obviously these things wouldn’t become natural to people overnight. Lots of awkwardness and such. However, I’m not sure I can get behind your claim that even bathroom signage is biased. The signs depicting men and womens bathrooms were designed so that they would be easy to differentiate at a glance. True, not all women wear skirts or dresses (nor should they be required to) and I understand there’s no sign for transgendered or other sexuality types. However, these signs were designed with the vast majority of people in mind, not a scant confused minority. If these different people wanted their own bathrooms, how many different bathroom signs would have to be created? Besides, you could say the same thing about a bathroom’s handicapped sign, which depicts a man in a wheelchair. Does this mean only people in wheelchairs count as handicapped? Of course not.

  5. I will have to pass on this idea. Men are not known for their cleanliness when it comes to public restrooms. I’ve had the displeasure of using a men’s room before and it is quite disgustiing. Not to say women are saints but compared to the men’s room, we are OxiClean.

    Also, women are already told as it is that we brought crimes like stalking, rape or any random attacks on ourselves. We don’t need to give them any more leverage.

    Besides I’ve always considered the bathroom sacred. I get uncomfortable when other women takes the stall next to me and we’re the only one in there. I’m all for equality but this is one issue that seems to be picking for a fight that isn’t there.

  6. Thanks everyone for your comments! @Kaya, I think you raise a great point about personal space. I always feel weird when someone takes the stall next to me too. @Comrade Kevin, I’m SO glad that you shared the bathroom conversation anecdote! I always wondered if men chatted in bathrooms like women do. It’s nice to see that women’s socializing rubbed off on them!

  7. Late to the party, but it makes no sense to me that men’s or women’s noises while going bathroom are grosser to the opposite sex and I also think, from experience, that much of the difference in cleanliness is due to some places feeling men don’t care as much as women if their bathroom is clean and thus they clean the men’s room less often. I would think that women, who frequently have to wait in much longer lines than men to use the restroom, might enjoy the opportunity to share a bathroom and share the differential efficiencies in using the restroom. Also, pervs can be arrested wherever; I have seen plenty of stories where pervs were arrested in mixed-sex spaces, so they can’t just always hide behind, “but I’m allowed to be here.” Finally, wouldn’t a perv be more scared in a mixed-sex restroom than an all-female restroom? I mean, in an all-female restroom, he knows no one who is larger, etc will walk in and hurt him. In a mixed-sex restroom, another large guy might walk in (maybe even the husband/boyfriend of the woman he is spying on), and he is liable to feel a lot of pain.

  8. Socially saying, men and women are societies’ creation. Biologically saying, yes they are different so what? Does it mean to force a person to wear a skirt because she has a vagina or panties because he has a penis? We are oppressed beings. “This is for girls and this is for boys.” We are tagged. No one knows exactly one’s desires and feelings. We learn to live in a society/societies accordingly to a society/’societies’ rules. The result is that when we go to a restroom and see a symbol representing women and another representing men we have to fit in one or the other, never both or none. Why? Because we are not what we want to be but what we were told to be: boy or girl. If we decide to be something in between or both or none we are excluded, discriminated, misunderstood and even killed.
    Penises and vaginas are not enemies they are just different and they do not define one’s way to be. Looking as girl or looking as a boy has nothing to do with us but with a human being creation. We should stop tagging human beings. Let us be free. We can be free.
    as Lacan suggests, we imitate others. Let our future generation be free and be what they want to be and not what we tell them. My daughter is almost 4 and she still does not know what the heck is a man and a woman. She knows that mom has a vagina and papa had a penis and we love her and that is enough. Why complicate.

  9. I think it is important to have simple bathroom signage differentiating which bathroom is which. It helps people who can’t read, children, mentally disabled, and foreigners who don’t speak English (of which there are many) be able to determine the bathroom to use. I look at it as, not a put-down or label about femininity, but a helpful assist to those who cannot interpret more complex signs.

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