Public Peeing: A Case for Gender Desegregation

I just wrote a scene about a topic near and dear all our hearts: public bathrooms. Below is an excerpt from my book.

“Yeah, so how come girls and boys have different bathrooms?”
Josh thought for a time. “I don’t know for sure,” she said. “But I read about it in the Twelve’s* books. I think they did it and we inherited it from them. You know we live in buildings they built and use sewer systems they fashioned.”
Garyn shook her head.
“Well, we do. We owe our infrastructure to the Twelves. They were great builders and developers. Not so great at taking care of each other, but you know that…I guess they thought women and men should pee separately.”
“Why?” Garyn persisted. “We don’t eat in separate places.”
“I don’t know, Garyn,” she said finally. “…I do know the Twelves thought a lot about sex. I think they were worried they wouldn’t be able to control themselves if they knew the person right next to them was only half-clothed.”
Lynna snorted. “What about onesex or allsex people? They thought we had more self-control?”
Josh shrugged. “I guess so.” Truthfully, she hadn’t read many books written by Twelves that even mentioned any kind of non-twosex couples. She hadn’t thought much about it before now. Given how much they wrote about sex between them, perhaps the Twelves’ twosex people really couldn’t control themselves.

* We, here in 2013, are the Twelves, in case that’s not apparent.

This is a topic I ponder pretty often. Yeah, welcome to my world. In my defense, this isn’t an idle question; the topic of sex-segregated bathrooms has haunted American history and, in some instances, even impeded gender equality. Ever heard of the Equal Rights Amendment? No worries – few nowadays have. It was a proposed constitutional amendment that simply said women and men shall have the same rights. This wild and crazy amendment (Gender equality? Gasp!) passed Congress in 1972. It required ratification from 38 states but, due to extensive campaigning against it, only garnered 35. It failed, and even though it’s been reintroduced every year since 1982, it has never again passed Congress.

One of the reasons it was so controversial? People were told it would require the elimination of separate bathrooms for women and men. So, yeah, the U.S. has no Equal Rights Amendment in part because people in the 1980s didn’t want to pee together.

Now, 30 years later, bathrooms remain hugely contentious places. Which one should trans* folks, both kids and adults, use? If trans folks use the “wrong” public bathroom, won’t they want to immediately molest children or, at the very least, make kids question which set of genitals belong in which rooms? And what about intersex peeps?

Why, I question all-too-often, is the bathroom such a scary, politicized place? Are we really so scared of our biological functions that the thought of its semi-public semi-nudity sends our fragile psyches spiraling into nail-biting scenarios involving rape, molestation, and public indecency? All because knowing a naked bit is leaking biological fluids only two feet from you? Really?

An example of what has never, ever
happened in a real bathroom.
Not to put too fine a point on this, but how heterocentric can you be? I mean, how often do you think queer sex happens in bathrooms? You think women’s bathrooms are filled with slow-motion pillow fights and lesbian daisy chains on the grimy tile? Shockingly, lesbians, gay men, and bisexual women and men have heroically resisted the urge to spontaneously initiate wanton orgies in the bathrooms. If given the chance, I would like to think straight people in desegregated bathrooms could say the same.  

(Okay, there was the Tearoom Trade book in 1970 and the infamous Larry Craig foot-tapping scandal, but those are examples of closeted gay/bisexual men who sought arenas for their clandestine sexual liaisons. Plus, while none of these men’s wives deserved being lied to and cheated on, these were consensual acts that ultimately harmed no one.)

I have to admit, this sign is disgusting and disturbing.
It’s not me I’m worried about, you might be saying. It’s all those rapists and molesters. Before, they had to hide in bushes and jump out at us. If we pee together, they won’t even have to resort to lurking in shrubs. From my perspective, this is the only semi-legit reason of the bunch. We live in a rape culture, and women (and men) are terrorized every day by the possibility of being sexually assaulted. Men are usually the perpetrators of rape, and frankly, anytime women and men (and sometimes men and men) are alone, the threat of sexual assault looms. Reality may involve nothing more than the awkward conversation of two strangers, but in a rape culture, most women and some men constantly maintain a low-grade fear and distrust of a man alone with them in the room.

I don't mean to make light of anyone's
experience with sexual assault.
If you or anyone in your world needs help,
 here are some resources. <3 
My response to this is twofold. First, I haven’t seen any moves to gender-segregate elevators, public transit, or workplaces. Why would public bathrooms make that much difference? Second, while any event of sexual assault is horrendous, the sad and horrifying fact is that women and men are likelier to be assaulted in their own homes or very near their homes and by someone they know quite well. In spite of all the news stories on stranger rape (and it does exist and is repugnant), most people are sexually assaulted by their spouses, partners, and relatives. So, unless we’re going to start gender-segregating people’s homes, I doubt desegregating bathrooms will put most of us in any more danger than any other situation where two people might find themselves alone in the room at the same time.

Speaking of heterocentric, is it just me, or would you like to see a world where we encounter fewer and fewer gender dichotomies? I mean, segregating bathrooms rests on the idea that there are two separate sexes. Mixed in there is the assumption that those separate sexes want to have constant sex with the other one. That just doesn't reflect the current world in which we live. Gender and sex come in a -- wait for it -- rainbow of possibilities. I'd love to see a definitive end to the angst over whether trans* folks can/should pee in particular bathrooms. I'd be thrilled if intersex, androgynous, or otherwise gendered or sexed folks didn't have to make a choice about which of the two bathrooms fits them best and/or will lead to the least amount of drama and even violence.

Amazing how something as seemingly innocuous as the bathroom can provide a space for discussions of gender equality, queerness, and sexual assault. Is it any wonder I had a precocious nine-year-old ask why straight women and men can eat together, work together, and make love together but, when they’re in public, not pee together? Really, how does this make any sense?


  1. I agree. It's so weird. I love the little sign you have for All Gender Bathroom.

    I really liked how they explored it in Ally McBeal. Did you ever watch that?

    I love how you say we live in a rape culture. I've never heard that bald statement and it's awesome because it doesn't sugar-coat the fact. (Also, I didn't know those facts it being more likely to be raped by someone you know.)

    I had no idea the gender-based bathrooms were what has been blocking the ERA! That is really important info. I'm hoping the younger generation will get this passed and we can take a giant step toward living in a civilized society.

    Excellent argument.



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