Sex-Segragated Bathrooms: Any Good Reasons?

That’s the question I’m asking in response to TIME’s “Why Do We Have Men’s and Women’s Bathrooms Anyway?”. The question they ask is a mostly historical one. The question I’m asking is a philosophical one, although I will talk about the history by way of a starting point.

America instituted sex-segregated restrooms during the 1800’s. Their reasoning, according to professor Terry Kogan, was rooted in a deep-seated sexism.

Women, policymakers argued, were inherently weaker and still in need of protection from the harsh realities of the public sphere….with the advent of indoor bathrooms that were then in the process of replacing single-person outhouses, separate loos soon followed….[Ladies’ rooms] were adopted to create this protected haven in this dangerous public realm

According to Maya Rhodan, separate facilities persist due primarily to building codes. That doesn’t mean, however, that philosophical reasons are never given for their persistence. When confronted with the idea of eliminating sex-segregated bathrooms, two North Carolina lawmakers worried about the impact such a decision would have on women’s safety and privacy.

This sounds suspiciously similar to the reasoning of the 1800’s, but let’s leave that alone for now. The question we’re concerned with is whether or not we have any good philosophical reason to keep sex-specific bathrooms around. Let’s consider some.

Different Anatomy Calls for Different Facilities

There’s a certain level on which that proposal makes sense. Well, okay, it doesn’t. I was trying to be charitable, but I just can’t. This makes no sense at all. Penis, vagina — urine comes out of both of them. We also drop a deuce out of the same place. Anatomy is no good reason, then.

Sexual Safety

If one group is particularly at-risk from being assaulted by another group when using public bathrooms, they should have separate public bathrooms. Women are particularly at-risk for sexual assault by men, as is evidenced by their higher sexual assault rates. Therefore, men and women should have separate public bathrooms.

Or so the argument goes. The second premise is somewhat weird, as it seems to mean that women in general are at-risk from men in general. Statistically, that’s false: most sexual assaults are committed by someone familiar to the victim, and nearly half of all rapists consider themselves a friend or acquaintance to the victim.

The first premise is also weird. I suppose the grounds of its acceptance are that having separate restrooms would reduce the incidence of sexual assault. If the statistics I cited above are anything to go by, that might not be true. Let’s disregard that for a second. The painfully obvious fact is that rapists don’t care about the law. Laws about rape obviously don’t worry them. Why would laws regarding bathroom use concern them? If they want to commit sexual assault and/or harassment badly enough, they’ll just ignore the bathroom rules.

What about the premise itself? Does it automatically follow that we should have separate public restrooms based on one’s being at-risk? Setting aside the fact that it’s unclear what it means for someone to be “at-risk”, or even what warrants that label, I don’t think it follows. If it’s true that at least some women are at-risk for sexual assault/harassment from at least some men while using the restroom, it seems like you could also justify having uni-sex bathrooms. If it’s true that human males tend to be more physically powerful than human females, then it seems like the best situation to have would be one where another male is able to easily intervene. It seems like that’s best accomplished with uni-sex bathrooms.

I don’t like that argument, though. Let’s consider another implication. It could just as easily follow from one group’s “at-risk” status that security measures should be put in place within bathrooms. An obvious one is the presence of security cameras. Another obvious one is the presence of security guards at bathrooms at all times. The overall point I’m making is that separateness is not the only solution to being “at-risk”; being “at-risk” does not automatically imply “separateness”, and doesn’t seem to be the most logical consequence, either.

Someone could reply that the locks on bathroom stalls would render any help inoperative. However, it hardly follows therefrom that uni-sex bathrooms are a bad idea. That problem more naturally lends itself to the idea that women should keep an eye out whenever they enter a restroom, so such a situation does not occur. It’s hardly a reason for separate bathrooms.

Sexual safety is not a good reason, then.

(To be absolutely clear, I’m 100% in favor of taking measures to make sure people are protected from sexual assault while taking care of business. It’s just a question of whether sex-segregated bathrooms really are the best way to do that.)

Privacy

It’s hard to understand how privacy can be used to justify the existence of sex-specific bathrooms. There’s a sense in which stalls and urinal dividers take care of the privacy issue. As far as privacy regarding genitalia is concerned, I don’t think there’s an argument here for sex-specific bathrooms.

I think a more interesting argument is concerned with feminine hygiene. It might be that when women are on their periods, and they have to take care of menstrual things in a public restroom, they appreciate having facilities dedicated to women. For my part, I think this is the best argument in favor of having sex-specific restrooms.

I do think there are some problems with that line of thought, of course. For instance, if the only reason this privacy is desired stems from an ingrained belief in the grossness of the menstrual cycle, the belief is misogynistic and therefore not a good reason. If another reason is something like “menstrual blood smells bad”, well, I’ve got news for you, so does shit, piss, and farts. Unpleasant odors aren’t a good reason for separateness either.

With that being said, I’m open to the possibility that there is a non-misogynist justification for the feminine hygiene argument. I won’t venture into it, however, since it’s a question that deserves more research (especially if the argument is going to be provided by a heterosexual, cis-gender male).


Those are all the reasons that can come to mind in favor of sex-segregated bathrooms. On balance, it doesn’t seem like there are good reason to have sex-specific bathrooms, unless we’re talking about a more fully developed, non-misogynistic argument from female hygiene and privacy.

What about the rest of you? Can you think of any good reasons to keep sex-segregated bathrooms around?

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