Thursday, September 20, 2012

The right to pee

Male bias is inherent in our society because men have historically written the laws and shaped our institutions.  It follows that a law that treats men and women the same or one that is “gender-neutral” often does not produce equitable results.  As Judith Baer explained in her 1999 book Our Lives Before the Law, “[t]he problem is not how neutral you make it but how you make it neutral.” 

This concept is illustrated in our separate but “equal” public restroom accommodations.  Ladies, we have all experienced long wait times for restrooms at sporting events, concerts and even in more low-key settings like restaurants and movie theaters.  It’s all the more irritating when our male friends and partners cruise in and out of the restroom and wait around for us, looking annoyed.

Disproportionately long lines not only drain our time, but the wait can be physically painful.  I’ll be the first to admit that, on more than one occasion, I’ve said “screw it” and darted into the men’s room where I was greeted by angry stares, eye-rolling or rude comments about how I should use my own bathroom.

If you are not convinced from your personal experiences that the wait time for public restrooms is unevenly distributed between the sexes, consider these arguments:
  • Women have to use the restroom more frequently.  Men have a larger bladder capacity.  Women also have to use the restroom for super fun stuff like changing our tampons. 
  • It takes women longer to use the bathroom.  We have to sit down.  Also, we have to make greater adjustments with our clothing.  Although zippers conveniently facilitate a quick pee for guys, it’s not that simple for us. 
  • Many women (still) have greater care giving roles.  From what I have observed, there are more kids in the women’s restroom.   
  • Waiting in long lines puts women at a greater risk for pain and infections.  Women “tend to get more bladder infections than men… because women have shorter urethras.”  According to Webmd, cystitis is also “most common in women.” 
It is not surprising that gender inequality in public restrooms extends beyond U.S. boarders.  Earlier this year, women in Guangzhou and Beijing, China staged “occupy” protests in male public restrooms.  An article in the Economist summed up the protestors’ argument, 
In an ideal state of public convenience, the thinking goes, women would not have to endure the long queues created by a simple 1:1 allocation of toilet space, female-to-male. It is waiting times, not toilet seats, that should be shared equally. The Occupiers are calling for a corrective adjustment.

Assuming that we are all on the same page that an “equal” ratio of male to female restrooms does not produce substantive equality, the question remains: what is the appropriate remedy for the problem?

Twenty states have enacted so-called “potty parity” legislation to address restroom inequality.  A common solution is to increase the ratio of female to male bathroom stalls to 3:2 or 2:1.  However, the American Restroom Association points out that, for certain venues, ratio mandates have led to the “ironic situation of potty parity legislation reducing the required toilet fixtures for women.”  

A few states have amended or repealed the ratio requirements after receiving complaints from men.  For example, LP Field in Nashville was built in compliance with the 2-1 ratio required by the Tennessee Equitable Restrooms Act.  After men reported waiting in line for up to fifteen minutes the Act was amended to allow extra men’s restrooms at stadiums, horse shows, and auto racing venues.  Florida also repealed their 1992 potty parity law, calling it “outdated.”  Apparently women in Florida have learned to pee faster or hold it longer over the last twenty years.

Another solution is to make all restrooms gender-neutral.  The movement for gender-neutral bathrooms gained momentum on college campuses over the past decade.  Although the movement originated as a remedy for problems facing transgendered students, unisex bathrooms are also a practical solution for the unequal wait times that women experience.

My freshman dorms had gender-neutral bathrooms and showers.  At first it felt a little weird, but I got used to it.  I have also used gender neutral bathrooms at clubs and restaurants in San Francisco.  I always feel comfortable.  However, I suspect that there would be a great deal of backlash to making all bathrooms gender-neutral.

The American Restroom Association takes a middle-of-the-road approach.  They suggest that establishments update the minimum number of toilets for both men and women and “increase the use of unisex toilets where possible.”  The ARA explains that “small restaurants, for example, often have 1 men's and 1 women's toilet.  Making them both unisex would reduce the chance of waiting for everyone.”  

After doing some research, I learned that the ARA’s definition of a unisex toilet is a single-user, private restroom.  While it’s a great solution for small restaurants, it would be expensive and an inefficient use of space to build the number of private unisex bathrooms needed to alleviate the longer lines for women at large venues like AT&T Park.  

I believe that the best solution is to increase the number of multi-stall, gender-neutral bathrooms, like those that exist on college campuses.  We don’t need to mandate that all bathrooms are gender-neutral.  Venues can continue to have separate male and female restrooms for those who do not feel comfortable going to the bathroom with the opposite sex.  Simply mandating that certain venues include large, gender-neutral restrooms will improve lines for women.  It will also produce the added benefit of normalizing the concept of using the restroom with the opposite sex.  

I'm interested in hearing what solutions you all prefer.  Maybe we can even talk about it while we wait in line together tonight at bar review!


Sam said...

“Venues can continue to have separate male and female restrooms for those who do not feel comfortable going to the bathroom with the opposite sex.”

I’m curious as to why you think people feel uncomfortable with going to the bathroom with the opposite sex, and what you think the source of this discomfort is.

Personally, I see no good reason for having sexed bathrooms. The only legitimate concern I can think of is an increased risk of sexual assault. But I don’t see how having separate bathrooms would decrease the risk, as an unlocked door and a sign aren’t going to stop a determined sexual predator.

I would argue that any separation of the sexes – whether it be bathrooms, schools, or locker rooms – leads to one sex viewing the other sex as “the other.” It creates unnecessary mystery and ignorance. It creates unnecessary difference and division. As it says in Mark 1:17, “And Jesus said unto them, everybody poops.”

MC said...

Sam makes a good point that any separation of sexes may create unnecessary mystery and ignorance about the "other" sex. And while I would have no problem simultaneously sharing a bathroom with men, I think that many women would.

I have worked closely with female victims of domestic violence and rape, and usually, my clients were terrified at the prospect of being alone with a man in any circumstance. Generally, women must partially undress to use the bathroom-- for a female victim of rape, having to do so while a man stands on the other side of stall wall could be traumatic. As such, I agree that venues should continue to have separate male and female restrooms.

KSergent said...

I agree that we should get rid of sexed bathrooms. That being said, I think that people are adverse to change and sometimes a strategy of gradual change is more effective.

I think that some women may feel uncomfortable because they view going to the bathroom as a private activity. It's also important to consider the history of violence against women. Some women may feel vulnerable pulling their pants down in a public restroom with men.

Neither of these reasons are logical. If going to the bathroom is such a "private" activity, why is it okay around other women but not men? Also, women are vulnerable to attacks in any public or private space. A man could just as easily rape a woman in a women's restroom.

Regardless of whether these fears are rationale, many women perceive them to be true. I have no doubt that people will come to realize that separating the sexes in restrooms is unnecessary. I simply believe that giving people a choice will ultimately achieve the end sought without the resistance and fear mongering that would accompany a sudden mandate.

KB said...
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KB said...

I agree that there should be both unisex and separate sex restrooms. As KSergent argued, the availability of unisex bathrooms would likely lessen and equalize restroom lines for everyone.

However, I believe that separate bathrooms should remain and we should not gradually shift to universal unisex bathrooms. I agree with MC that for some women being in a restroom alone with a man could be traumatic. Someone who has endured a traumatic experience may think differently, but that does not mean they are any less logical. Traumatic experiences trigger reactions that may not make sense to someone else, but are rational considering what the person has experienced. For some women, no amount of discussion of legal principles of equality will make them feel more comfortable in an enclosed space with a man.

In addition, while it is unlikely a bathroom sign would stop a sexual predator from entering a women’s restroom to perpetrate a crime, someone on the outside of the restroom could notice the irregularity of a man entering a women’s restroom and draw attention to the irregularity before a problem ensued. Some women may feel safer with that extra layer of protection. I do not think women who have suffered sexual assault should have to relive their fear and anxiety when they need to go to the restroom.

Elizabeth said...

I think the reasons behind unisex bathrooms are not just to benefit women. One of the reasons men can get in and out of the bathroom so quickly is because of urinals. The urinal system just would not work with women coming in. I have used the men's bathroom a time or five (at stadiums or at gay bars with no women's bathroom) and the men get very squeamish about using the urinal with a lady present. Plus the obvious trauma this could cause many women. Eliminating the urinal to create unisex bathrooms would actually slow everyone down and potentially traumatize some.

However, I do like the idea of maintaining sexed bathrooms with the optional unisex bathroom with all stalls. But really, can't we all agree that at the very least there needs to be more women's stalls?!

tzey said...
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tzey said...

Restrooms to me set up a sex dichotomy of male or female. The benefit of non-sex bathrooms is that they allow for diversion from that dichotomy. While at UCLA I sat on a buildings board for the Student Activity Center (it’s just a building at UCLA). While on this board the student members began advocating for a gender-neutral bathroom. The overall mission of the building center is to provide a safe space to students on campus. We students felt that in order to fulfill our mission we needed to provide restrooms to all students, especially trans students. 

For over two years the administration was very hesitant to install a gender-neutral restroom. Finally one student suggested rewriting the budget request for a "family restroom". We were given the funds without discussion. The request was exactly the same the only change was the name.