In the spring of 2006, there was a crucial -- albeit unexpected, for some -- campus issue floating around my alma mater, Scripps College: Bathrooms. Specifically, who could use the bathrooms on campus, and who couldn’t.
Considering that Scripps was (and is) a women’s college, you’d think this would be one of those “non-issue” things. A women’s college, with women’s bathrooms. No-brainer, right? Wrong. The problem was that Scripps had no gender-neutral bathrooms. And while the majority of Scripps’ students openly self-identified as women, some identified with no gender whatsoever. There was an entire segment of the student population that had nowhere to “do its business,” if you’ll pardon the euphemism.
And while bathrooms are a decidedly unsexy activist issue, the debate that I witnessed on campus has extended itself far beyond the confines of my school in the last six years. If feminist -- or, more accurately, gender activist -- issues are occasionally pigeonholed as frivolous and too “thinky,” potty parity is a practical concern par excellence. It’s a final frontier, the porcelain ceiling, if you will.
Yet the debate over bathrooms has long been ignored by psychologists who, as this recent Minnesota Post story explains, have “examined the psychobiology of eating, sleeping and sex,” but “largely ignored traffic in the other direction.” This needs to change -- as does our approach to gendered bathrooms as a whole.
Put simply, bathrooms have long been set up in a way that’s advantageous for self-identifying dudes. (You’re doing it, aren’t you? The eyes, they’re rolling, I know. Just listen.) So why do we corral men and women into separate bathrooms anyway?
For starters, those crazy long lines outside the women’s bathroom are no coincidence. The steady stream of men’s-room tinklers flows a little more smoothly. For men, it’s as simple as zip in, unzip, zip out. Not so for women. Consider this 2006 story from the Christian Science Monitor, which helped unearth the issue of potty parity:
When it came to restrooms, architects (and lawyers) used to think in terms of square footage rather than number of outlets – or physiology. But studies show that because women have different needs, on average they spend twice as much time in the bathroom as men, causing longer lines… Sure, it may seem fair to give men and women equal-size bathrooms, but the result will always be longer lines for women – especially when you factor in stockings, small children, and feminine health issues.
Bottom line: The bathrooms are separate. And while they may look equal, they’re anything but. After all, it was just a year-and-a-half ago that Congress finally copped to its own bathroom inequality.
And, beyond the men’s versus women’s room lines, there are other problems that come with gender-divided restrooms. Consider Jennifer Braly, a transgender student at the University of Arkansas, who late last month finally won the right to use the women’s restroom. A woman, allowed to use the women’s room. Radical stuff.
I point to Braly, a woman who had to file a complaint with the Department of Justice just so she could use the can, as an example of what’s a larger phenomenon around the country. Our attitudes and lavatorial options are deeply discriminatory. We don’t even (immediately) let people use the restrooms they’re supposed to use. Bathrooms as they stand today have a way of making people feel, well, crappy. In cases like Braly’s, they force transgendered individuals into “unisex” facilities (or, worse yet, facilities that don’t match their gender). They force women into long and untenable lines that men don’t have to deal with. And they force public facilities to choose between installing expensive gender-neutral bathrooms or (horrifyingly) turning away gender-neutral individuals.
So why do we still put men and women into different bathrooms? This is stupid and outdated.
At Scripps, the big concern I overheard from some students was safety (Note: while I’m pointing to the opposition, it’s important to establish that the vast majority of the student body, as I saw it, was in favor of gender-neutral bathroom options). “If we let men into the women’s rooms, they’ll assault all the women!” was a frequent line. But this argument seems illogical at best. Last I checked, the little plastic sign that says “women” doesn’t physically bar men from entry. There is no dude-detecting forcefield at the threshold of the ladies’ latrines that “keeps women safe” in the bathroom.
There is, of course, the “ick” factor -- that feeling that, in some folks’ estimation, guys being in women’s rooms is somehow “wrong.” But I’d argue, as with so many things that once seemed scandalous, that time would eventually erode that sense of impropriety. People have a way of losing their outrage once things become part of the norm. Well, some people at least.
Scripps has, at least according to this blog post, established gender-neutral bathroom options since I graduated. And I’m thrilled. But we all could avoid the hurt feelings and hurt bladders if we did away with the antiquated boys-over-here, girls-over-there approach to potty time for good.