The Gender Politics of Restrooms

by | October 17, 2013
filed under Feminism, LGBT

Woman Restroom symbol

by Chanel Dubofsky

Let me start by declaring that public restrooms are one of my personal nightmares. It doesn’t matter if there are a million stalls, like in an airport bathroom – I’m perpetually nervous about getting walked in on, and self conscious about the length of time I spend in them. More than once, I’ve moved something (a trashcan, a shelf) up against the door of a single stall bathroom, to make extra sure that no one can come in. A good public restroom for me that locks from the inside (preferably there’s a bar that slides into the lock, so there’s no question as to its locked status), and in which the toilet is close enough to the door so that you could act quickly, should the lock fail.

Now that I’ve established the terms of my neurosis, here’s what happened the other night. Another female friend of mine, R, and I went to find the bathroom in a restaurant. There were two doors, one designated for men, the other for women. There was a line for the women’s bathroom (insert annoying and potentially sexist joke about how long women take in the bathroom here), and none for the men’s room. Because the door to the men’s room was closed, it was hard to tell if how many people, if any, were in there, although in retrospect, it was probably safe to assume that it was a single stall room, because the women’s room was.

So the line was long, and everyone had to pee, and waiting is annoying in that situation. I checked to see if the door to the men’s room was open, and if the room was empty, and it was. The other women in line waved me into it, and when I came out, R went in. Everyone else stayed in the seemingly unmoving line to the women’s room.

Why, if both bathrooms are single stall and contain exactly the same equipment (toilets, no urinals), do they have to be designated for different genders? Can’t there just be two bathrooms? And in places where there are two single stall bathrooms for men and women, why is there still a line for the women’s room?

The act of designating a space as being for a specific gender causes all of our policing mechanisms to kick in. Trans folks face issues with bathrooms every day-can you go in that bathroom that reflects the gender that you are, even if others question or are afraid or confused by your outward appearance? Will someone tell you to get out? Will someone call the police.

I don’t know if men use the ladies’ room in this restaurant, I didn’t hang out to see. Maybe they do, but I would wager that we’re so held hostage by gender norms that going into a space that’s not “ours,” especially if we’re women, is not only unfathomable, but scary. Sexism is at work here, of course, and it hurts everyone, as sexism does. Bathrooms are a big deal. It doesn’t get more real than having to go to the bathroom, and still, we follow the rules and police those who don’t. There was a moment when I felt weird going into that bathroom marked for men, even though there was no reason not to. The other women in line were watching me do it. It felt brazen, taking the space that was not designated for me. I did it anyway, because I could.


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  • Roxanna Bennett

    Good for you Chanel! It’s a ridiculous system, I started using the unoccupied men’s room in college (I have a tiny bladder). My reasoning has been if you’re in someone’s house, there’s one bathroom everyone shares one at a time. It’s silly to be doing the peepee dance when there’s a toilet free. So glad you pointed out the fears trans* people face in public communal spaces like changing rooms and bathrooms.

  • brandon

    You felt weird because it is illegal. It is illegal specifically to protect people (mostly a concern for women) from falling victim to “accidental” encroachments on their personal space while in a compromised position. It’s not a big deal if a guy walks in on another guy using the restroom. It’s a big deal if a guy walks in on a lady using it. It’s not sexism, it’s rational law based on the desire to protect privacy.

    Sexism IS slightly at play in the sense that your ability to walk into the men’s room without feeling afraid of being arrested or at least pepper sprayed is not a privilege shared by men, because women catching men in compromising private positions is not seen in our society as bad or dangerous as men catching women in these positions. And really that’s fine with me. Men and women are…are you sitting down for this?…different. I’d much rather live in a society where people recognize, appreciate, and respond to those differences appropriately, than point out every acknowledgment of those differences as “sexism”. There are legitimate problems that women face today simply because of their gender. Save that word for those issues.