Get used to the idea of co-ed bathrooms

By Greg Stevens

The 1997 movie Starship Troopers, a science-fiction film depicting a near-future society, has a famous scene in which military cadets, both men and women, are bonding and horsing around in the showers. No special point is made about the fact that the showers are co-ed, and no explanation is offered. It is depicted as the most natural thing in the world.

There is no sexual tension. The cadets – all portrayed as men and women in their late teens or early 20s, the standard age for military recruits – are discussing why they joined up and whom they might be missing back home. It is young people bonding, like you might see in a shower scene in any military movie – apart from the fact that there were both men and women interacting together, naked, in the shower.

As a whole, the movie isn’t likely to be an accurate prediction of the future. The plot, after all, involves psychic military programmes and giant intelligent alien bugs. However, the shower scene is most definitely the direction our society is heading.

Does that bother you? Too bad. You can kick and scream all you want, but as sure as women’s suffrage and the end of slavery, co-ed showers will eventually be the simple, unexciting, and uncontroversial standard in society.

The future is now

Actually, Oberlin College in Ohio had co-ed bathrooms and showers in most dorms already in the early 1990s. It was both an attempt to break down gender segregation and to make the bathrooms more of a social extension of the houses themselves. The bathrooms were big group bathrooms, although they did have individual stalls for both toilets and showers.

The stalls locked, of course, and the shower curtains closed all the way. So it wasn’t quite the open free-for-all portrayed in the Starship Troopers shower scene. But it wasn’t far off.

European countries are relaxed about mixed-sex saunas and bathrooms

European countries are relaxed about mixed-sex saunas and bathrooms

At Brandeis University, students are given the opportunity to vote at the beginning of each year on whether or not the bathrooms on their floor will be gender-neutral. Brandeis also includes a “gender neutral” housing option in which students are allowed to share multiple-occupancy bedrooms, regardless of the students’ sex or gender.

And there is now a trend in the United States for cities and counties to require gender-neutral bathrooms. In both Philadelphia and Portland, all newly built or renovated public buildings now must include a gender-neutral option among their bathroom facilities.

The government always moves in baby steps: gender-neutral bathrooms in public buildings are inevitably of the single-occupant variety, rather than large bathrooms containing multiple stalls. And certainly there are no laws yet banning the gendered versions of bathrooms, either: gender-neutral bathrooms are merely a new option, for those who choose to use it.

In many ways, these laws are nothing more than a re-labeling that acknowledges what has been a de facto truth about bathrooms for decades. When it is a single-occupancy bathroom, does anybody really care whether the sign on the door is for men or women? Does it really matter whether it is labelled as a “Men’s Room”, a “Women’s Room”, a “Family Bathroom” or a “Genderless Bathroom”?

Merritt Kopas, a graduate student at the University of Washington, surveyed undergraduate students last year and found that most of them had ducked into a single-occupancy bathroom marked for the opposite sex at one point or another, usually in times of “special urgency”. As long as the bathroom consisted of a single toilet with a lock on the door, none of the students surveyed thought it was a big deal. Many of them didn’t fully understand why single-occupancy bathrooms even have gender assignments at all.

It is important to recognise how common the existence of ungendered bathrooms really is – whether they are explicitly labelled that way or simply used that way in practice.

In gay dance clubs, where the gender ratio is often extremely unbalanced in favour of men to women, men usually use both the men’s room and the women’s room without any distinction being made. The few women who might be in attendance are also free to use either, without anyone raising any question. After all, the doors on the stalls lock just as effectively no matter which room you happen to be in.

There is also, to be fair, the added consideration that cubicles in gay clubs are rarely primarily used for matters lavatorial.

It is important to recognise how common the existence of ungendered bathrooms really is – whether they are explicitly labelled that way or simply used that way in practice. The simple fact that gender-mixing in bathrooms is already common, and has been in some places since the 1990s, stands as a damning refutation of the most popular argument put forward against gender-neutral bathrooms: the idea that they will lead to increased violence, rape or abuse.

The comfort of bigots

The reason that I can confidently predict that mixed-gender multi-user bathrooms will one day be the norm is that the arguments against them are all stupid.

The most common, appearing everywhere from courthouses to Facebook comments when the topic of genderless bathrooms arises, is that somehow the presence of women in the same room with men, albeit in separate locked stalls from those men, will lead to a sudden surge of men attacking, molesting, leering at or otherwise sexually infringing on women.

First of all: why would it? If it is a crowded bathroom in the middle of the day, then it’s just as  likely that a man would come to a woman’s aid if she were being harassed. On the other hand, if the woman is all alone in the bathroom late at night, then her danger is no more than it would be in a gender segregated bathroom: after all, a creepy, criminal man can sneak in to a women’s room late at night just as easily as he can creep into a gender-neutral bathroom.

The simple fact is that most normal human beings know how to act appropriately toward one another and the fact that they happen to be in a room that contains toilets doesn’t somehow switch that off.

Second of all: there is simply no evidence that people behave this way. Despite all of the scary fantasy “what if” scenarios that people conjure up to argue against mixed-gender bathrooms, the fact is that these have already existed for decades without muss or fuss. In colleges across the US there have been dorms with mixed-gender showers and toilets, with no rampage of harassment or rape taking place in these facilities.

Finally, it is creepy and suspicious that the loudest arguments about the safety of women come from men, who declare that it is unsafe for women to be in the same bathroom as a man because in that situation a man may just not be able to help himself!

Honestly, this kind of argument sounds less like concern and more like a veiled threat. You better stay in your place, Missy, or else us men-folk can’t be held responsible for what might happen to you! It’s the sort of argument a rapist makes.

When a man says, “Women shouldn’t share the same bathroom as men because they might get raped,” he is using precisely the same logic as a man who says: “Women shouldn’t wear short skirts because they might get raped.”

By contrast, many of the testimonials of women who have actually experienced mixed-gender bathrooms have been quite positive. At Oberlin, Zoë McLaughlin blogs about the fact that she felt apprehensive at first at the prospect of mixed-gender bathrooms, but soon realized that it was both a relaxing and a safe environment. “There’s really nothing too terrible about walking into a bathroom and seeing a guy,” she writes.

Similarly, Anna North writes on about her experience living in a co-op with co-ed bathrooms. As with Zoë, she says that she was apprehensive at first, but soon learned that there was nothing really strange about it at all. “I don’t totally understand what the fuss is about, since I got used to it pretty quickly… Nobody ever came onto me or made me uncomfortable, and I was generally relatively at peace with the whole thing.”

Moreover, when women did feel uncomfortable, the reasons were – there is really no delicate way to put this – stupid.

Consider Jennifer Weiler, for example, who sued her school for not having gender segregated bathrooms on the ground that she didn’t want to live in fear of accidentally seeing dick.

Essentially, this was the only argument that she had. She made a great deal of fuss about not realising she might be exposed to a situation where she might accidentally see dick, and how lazy and sloppy men were not as careful as they should be about where they uncovered their dicks, and although she always had the ability to look away it was still possible that there may be an unintended Dick Sighting and somehow this would cause her irreparable harm.

Whenever the arguments are well-articulated, it becomes clear very quickly that the so-called “rape and violence” fears are either unwarranted or even logically inconsistent. Then what is left is moral superstition and embarrassment. There is literally no practical or rational reason to be opposed to mixed-gender bathrooms.

Onward, ho! … but, carefully

Just so that there is no mistake, let me say up front: I am not saying that anyone should be forced to use a bathroom where they are uncomfortable. Society will evolve slowly. The first stages are under way: buildings are being required, in more and more places, to have at least one genderless single-stall bathroom available for those who want it.

The next stages will be mixed-gender multi-user bathrooms available in buildings that also have single-gender (men’s and women’s) bathrooms for those who prefer to use them. As society adapts, and more and more realize that the mixed-gender bathrooms are not dangerous or harmful, they will become more commonly used.

Eventually, the gender-segregated bathrooms will simply fall into disuse and will disappear. It will not – and should not – happen because people are forced to use facilities that they don’t feel comfortable using.

It will happen because people will finally realise that there is nothing to feel uncomfortable about.