8th of May 2016, Middlebury college
To-pee-or-not-to-pee moments are defined by Urban Dictionary as situations “in which you cannot decide whether to pee or hold it in until the next opportunity arises. Usually at a time when the urge isn’t that bad”. This definition excludes various conditions in which the dilemma is not prompted by an ambivalent urge: individuals (and more strikingly: whole groups!) may be discouraged from using public facilities for defecation because of their broadly uncontested and taken for granted demand for sex identification and segregation.
Inspired by Judith Butler’s notion that “What is most important is to cease legislating for all lives what is liveable only for some, and similarly, to refrain from proscribing for all lives what is unlivable for some”, I want to briefly explore the radical concept of a world without gender-segregated bathrooms. Whether you are a trans (or otherwise gender non-conforming) person for whom deciding which bathroom to use requires inevitable consideration of personal safety, gender identity preference and ultimately- other people’s perceptions of and expectations for one’s gender- or a woman debating whether to enter the “men’s” bathroom to minimize time spent in line- choosing whether and where to urinate may prove a complicated matter.
In a world persistently organized by gender and sex, no activity, however mundane, transcends the need for constant reenactment of the dominating patriarchal norms for gendered exclusion and propriety.
While the creation of designated bathrooms for transsexual and gender non-conforming people could be seen as an alternative to sex-segregated facilities, I am rather drawn to a radical reimagining of elimination spaces as gender-neutral or even better: agender. A radical feminist envisioning of bathroom facilities requires the rejection of previously abandoned “separate but equal” arrangements (Overall, 2007). Instead, the feminist imagination necessitates that public urinary spaces be designed with elimination of sex and gender distinction as a primary goal. Such change will not only better address the needs of marginalized groups, but also lead to fundamental societal transformations.
Historically, feminists have diverged in their political and sociocultural agendas in relation to gender and sex difference: sex differences have been emphasized in light of women’s reproductive and nurturing capacities, yet the binary divisions have rarely been challenged themselves (Lorber, 2005). Feminist scholar Judith Lorber contends that few imagine eliminating gender divisions altogether because they, too, “believe in their biological underpinnings.” She instead argues for the “revolutionary goal of dismantling gender divisions” through radical de-gendering. While many disregard this proposition as utopic, it could be easily applied in the case of re-envisioning public bathrooms.
The de-gendering of public urinary spaces can both serve to address existing needs to reject compulsory sex identification on behalf of gender nonconforming individuals and increase safety for all, and to challenge the persistent gender stereotypes and norms in society (Overall, 2007). The use of sex-segregated bathrooms by gender non-conforming and trans people requires their passing as the gender they identify with which further perpetuates the gender binary. Furthermore, “unsuccessful passing” frequently endangers those individuals and makes them vulnerable to physical and verbal harassment (Stone, 1992). Unisex bathrooms, together with the sociocultural metamorphosis needed for the de-gendering of society, will eliminate the need to maintain any particular gender presentation. These facilities will not only provide safety to gender nonconformists, but reduce risk for all: since everyone will have access to them, bathrooms will attract more visitors with higher frequency, thus, ensuring that others are in vicinity and can intervene if needed (Overall, 2007).
Furthermore, de-gendered bathrooms will serve as an example of radical rejection of oppression and thus lay the foundation for broader social equity. Gender neutral bathrooms will eliminate sex oppression by allowing all people to use them no matter what their sex. Notably, these facilities will also discard gender oppression by demystifying gender stereotypes regarding women’s “nature”, needs, desires and inclinations (Overall, 2007). While women often try (and are expected to) to uphold their status as “creatures of mystery”, concealing their biological processes and confining them to women-only spaces perpetuates traditional gender norms and expectations with great negative impact over females (for example, women are expected to be “effortlessly perfect” with dramatic emphasis on their appearance).
The persistence of menstruation taboos shows that menstruation is thought as “contaminating” of men to such an extent that men should be protected from even knowing about it (Overall, 2007). As they find themselves using the same elimination spaces, men and women are bound to debunk many myths about each other and “their own kind”: men might find out that women do poop and that contrary to the sexist assumption that only females are capable caregivers, many men enter the facilities to accompany children, elders or disabled adults (Overall, 2007).
Joint use of the public toilets will not only push against dated notions regarding who is “dirty” and how to prevent contamination (Overall, 2007), but create critical awareness about the diversity that exists within members of each group: while men are stereotypically thought sloppier than women, little acknowledgement is given to the fact that many men are very “clean” and “put together”, and that many women aren’t. Hopefully, through sharing elimination facilities people will become aware of the wide variations that exist among humans and seize to utilize gender and sex in comparing or generalizing about others.
Recent legislation from North Carolina has reenergized the debate around the future of bathrooms. Public toilettes are traditionally associated with intolerable dirt and, naturally: tons of excrements. Yet, as argued throughout this paper, de-gendered bathrooms could be a clean slate for the reimagining and reconstruction of society with equity, respect for diversity, and safety for all as main pillars.
- Butler, J. (2004). Undoing gender. New York: Routledge.
- Overall, C. (2007). Public Toilets: Sex Segregation Revisited. Ethics & the Environment, 12(2), 71–91.
- Lorber, J. (2005). Breaking the bowls: Degendering and feminist change. New York: W.W. Norton.
- Stone, S. (1992). The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto. Camera Obscura, 10(2 29), 150–176. http://doi.org/10.1215/02705346-10-2_29-150