Why Separate Bathrooms Are Still A Thing

Toilets_unisexToday Buzzfeed put up a satirical piece called How To Shower In The Presence Of A Gay Athlete. The point of the article is to say that you should just act as normal because a gay athlete is not going to do anything creepy or weird with regards to your nudity, anymore than a straight athlete would.

The piece seems to assume that the reader is male (although it could apply to females as well) and that the showering is going on in a same-sex environment. Given that part of the masculinity box requires a denial of gayness, there’s often an ongoing fear of being ogled or harrassed by gay guys, especially in bathrooms. But this rarely happens.

Still, it got me thinking about whether the same could be said to women with regards to men. Could you ever have an article with the headline: How to shower in the presence of a male stranger? And I have to say, I don’t think we’re on a level playing field here.


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In theory, it shouldn’t be an issue. I’m sure there are nudist clubs and other social groups for whom stripping off in front of others is not an issue. But if we’re talking straight-up, unknown, public areas like, say, the changeroom at the pool… I don’t think so. And I found myself pondering why this is. Why am I in agreement that straight guys have nothing to worry about from gay men in changerooms but I don’t feel the same way about women and men?

I realized that it’s not the sex of the person or their orientation or gender that gets in the way here. It’s more about a patriarchal sense of entitlement. That and an unexamined approach to gender. Our society says that straight men have a right to ogle at and comment on women’s bodies. It casts men as the hunter, women as the hunted. And it blames women for rape because of what they wear.

This means that the common courtesy of same-sex bathrooms (respect privacy, be polite, don’t openly stare) might not apply if it was a mixed space, most likely because some men would assume they are entitled to behave differently in the presence of naked women (or women attending to other private needs). The result of that sense of entitlement is creepy behaviour (or worse) that will make women feel unsafe. It’s not all men who do this but there’s enough of them out there for the idea to be currently inconceivable.

So why doesn’t this apply to gay men with regards to other men? Well, firstly, gay men know that the construction of masculinity requires them to hide their sexuality – which means acting creepy in a bathroom may result in threats or violence. Obviously that’s a big reason for restraint. Secondly, I think that a lot of gay guys don’t have that sense of entitlement with regards to possible partners. There’s no masculinity payoff for them in behaving that way.

The same goes for trans people. I would have no problem with a transwoman using a female bathroom space because that person is not occupying the masculinity box which requires abusive behaviour towards women. I also find it bizarre that the bathroom issue is apparently the core reason behind many radical feminists’ dismissal of trans people.

What I’m saying here is a bit clumsy but I think this issue is one that reveals how society organizes itself around the construction of masculinity; the desire for separate bathrooms encompasses the ongoing fear of rape and the way that society accepts that there’s a baseload of bad behaviour from men towards women. If we can ever get rid of that, then maybe we can all start showering together.

* Although I will say this: I’m a fan of separate toilets because in my experience of sneaking in to the men’s when desperate to go at concerts… the men’s is always smellier. Maybe if we can get the guys to not be so splashy about it, I’ll change my mind.

** Edit. Someone said that this piece was dismissive of the experience of trans and intersex people. It’s not. I understand why same-sex bathrooms and the dichotomy they present are problematic. I simply wanted to write about why same sex bathrooms are still feasible in the context of a society that tolerates men’s abusive behaviour towards women.