At the recent American Sociological Association (ASA) annual meeting in Chicago, IL, I was struck by the unspoken social rules governing unisex restroom use. To clarify, I don’t mean unisex single-user restrooms. Rather, ASA tapes paper unisex signs over the usual signs designating multi-user restrooms as for women or men. Such restrooms house several conventional toilet stalls. In temporarily-converted male restrooms, urinals were blocked off. On their website, the ASA explains that unisex restrooms equalize access regardless of gender identity (ASA 2013).
As a gender scholar, I have long been aware that sex-segregated restrooms reinforce cultural beliefs about gender, creating difference where biologically there is none (women and men do much the same thing in restrooms) (Goffman 1977). They also exclude those outside the narrowly-defined gender binary (Lucal 1999). So I understand and support ASA’s inclusive de-gendering of multi-user restrooms.
But in practice, unisex restrooms may have far from egalitarian consequences—at least until the restroom-using public adapts to the concept. While washing my hands in one of the multi-user unisex restrooms, it struck me that all of the other users were also women. Accordingly, I stationed myself in the hallway opposite the restroom door and settled down to observe. Both women and men often hesitated upon seeing the unisex restroom sign, but whereas women proceeded into the restroom, the majority of men turned away. Why, I wondered, did men appear to experience greater discomfort with unisex restrooms?
To gain insight into this de facto gendered exclusion, I asked several colleagues about their attitudes toward multi-user unisex restrooms and whether they had used such a restroom at an ASA meeting. Men expressed far greater discomfort and were more likely to have avoided such restrooms. Their concerns centered on the potential for misinterpretation if they were mistakenly perceived to watch women and the possibility that their presence might make the women uncomfortable. Men who had braved the unisex restrooms stated that gendered restroom cultures only added to their discomfort. Women are more relaxed and chatty in public restrooms and make less effort to avoid eye contact or adjacent stalls(Moore 2012), behaviors which violate strict male norms of restroom etiquette.
These findings are consistent with extant research. Despite paternalistic motivations for sex-segregating restrooms (Kogan 2010), men express a greater sense of vulnerability and discomfort in public multi-user (single-sex) restrooms, in sharp contrast to women’s relative comfort. Concerns about “being watched and being mistakenly perceived to be watching” (Moore 2012) result in strict norms of avoiding interaction and eye contact and respecting personal space (Middlemist 1976). This homophobic fear of sexual assault and stigma (if perceived as gay) might be alleviated by the presence of women in a multi-user unisex restroom, but men recast their anxieties into a heterosexual context. The fear that they might be perceived as watching women and the fear that women might be made uncomfortable or afraid echoes men’s own experiences and emotions in all-male restrooms. In reality, these fears may be exaggerated—women did not express discomfort or concern about sharing restrooms, possibly because sexual assault would be unlikely in a crowded restroom.
Although initially interested in the present-day gender dynamics multi-user unisex restrooms, my investigation sparked an interest in the history—and likely future—of sex-segregated restrooms. Why are restrooms sex-segregated, even when they are single-user? Men and women generally share toilets in private life—there is clearly no biological necessity for segregation. Rather, according to author and law professor Terry S. Kogan (2010), sex-segregated single-user restrooms are a relic of Victorian-era prudery, anxiety over women’s entry into new social roles, and beliefs about women’s vulnerability. Today, the sex segregation of single-user restrooms has actually been codified into law in several states—a rule which proponents of “potty parity,” such as Slate write Ted Trautman, argue is silly and inefficient.
Clearly, there is a movement in favor of de-gendering single-user restrooms, but what about multi-user unisex restrooms? Will multi-user unisex restrooms become the new normal? In my brief google search, I did not find any advocates of unisex multi-user restrooms—apparently, ASA is at the avant garde of potty-parity. In my estimation, we are unlikely to see broad adoption of multi-user unisex restrooms anytime soon. In fact, the controversy over unisex single-user restrooms suggests that we are far from an era of gender-neutral toileting.
ASA. “Access for All at the Annual Meeting.” http://www.asanet.org/am2013/access.cfm
Beck, Julie. 2014. “The Private Lives of Public Bathrooms.” The Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/04/the-private-lives-of-p...
Haslam, Nick. 2012. Psychology in the Restroom. New York: Palgrave MacMillon.
Kogan, Terry. 2010. “Sex Segregation: The Cure-all for Victorian Social Anxiety.” In Harvey Molotch and Laura Noren, editors. Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing. New York: New York University Press.
Lucal, Betsy. 1999. “What it Means to be Gendered Me: Life on the Boundaries of a Dichotomous Gender System.” Gender & Society 13(6):781-797.
Middlemist, R.D., E.S. Knowles, and C.F. Matter. 1976. “Personal Space Invasions in the Lavatory: Suggestive Evidence for Arousal.” Journal of Personal Social Psychology 33(5):541-546.
Moore, Sarah E. H., and Simon Breeze. 2012. “Spaces of Male Fear: The Sexual Politics of Being Watched.” British Journal of Criminology 52(6):1172-1191.
Trautman, Ted. 2014. “Restrooms Are an Outdated Relic of Victorian Paternalism.” Slate. http://www.slate.com/blogs/outward/2014/04/11/sex_segregated_public_rest...
Apparently the author has not traveled much in Europe. Though restrooms in major European airports and tourist spots are more recently conforming to standards which are more widely acceptable to Americans as well as much more conservative religious middle eastern cultures, less traveled areas of Europe have had a variety of different restroom and swimming pool changing room situations. Changing rooms in some places have been entirely unisex, with whole families, children and all, changing in one room. Unisex multi-use restrooms have been around for many years -- one entrance, many sinks where men and women wash up and check in the mirror side-by-side. No urinals, but a room of small closets (not the sparse stalls you see in America) with toilets (door from floor to ceiling like a real closet) and a lock on the door. Essentially you have a private room with a toilet. Nothing is marked MEN or WOMEN anywhere. Just RESTROOM.
It's such a much better solution to make full use of a restroom where women often need more time.
Several times in the US at large public events where the line is very long for the women's room, and a very short line for the men's room, I've seen a young brave woman calmly walk right into the men's room and use it! Funny thing, none of the men appeared to mind at all in either case. In fact, she only got appreciative laughs and comments like, "Way to go girl!" In one case, she was in no hurry after using the toilet in the stall either. She stood by the mirror calmly putting on makeup as a dozen men milled around washing their hands. It was a very European thing to see in the US, but rare.
When she stepped out of the men's room in one case, many of the women in the long women's line clapped and cheered her bravery! But none of the others had the courage to do the same thing!