There is nothing progressive about removing women-only bathrooms

The importance of giving women a space in which they have privacy and freedom from the risk of sexual violence has, over recent years, been overtaken by a new political narrative: ‘gender neutrality’. Arising broadly from (or at least gaining traction due to) a liberal commitment to formal equality, this narrative has shunted feminist concerns over women’s dignity and safety, so much so that the Conservative Party — which previously committed to the abolition of mixed-sex wards following a series of highly publicised sexual assaults against women — has felt comfortable in apparently abandoning this promise entirely. Meanwhile, supposedly progressive circles on Twitter are re-tweeting comments like this, suggesting that women’s concerns are a product of silliness, hysteria and paranoia:

On multiple fronts, feminists are finding themselves having to re-litigate battles that previously might have been thought done and dusted, many of which will no doubt be the subject of future blog posts. Here, we will lay out the feminist case for women-only bathrooms.

The risk of sexual assault

As most of us as now aware, the majority of sexual assaults are carried out in a private space by someone the victim knows. Unfortunately, enough assaults against women and girls are indeed carried out in public that women both have reason to fear them and do take precautions against them. A recent report by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee on sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools found that it is endemic in public schools, and often considered — by both students and teachers — as simply a part of daily life. Almost a third of 16–18 year old girls have reported having experienced unwanted sexual touching at school, and far more so had been victims of or witnesses to verbal sexual slurs and harassment.

Is a single-sex bathroom or changing room sufficient to guard against a man or boy who wants to physically assault a girl in such a facility? One common refrain heard against women expressing concern about gender neutral toilets is: if a man was determined to rape you, he isn’t going to care about whether the bathroom is female only or not. But, the numbers say otherwise.

Just under 90% of sexual assault complaints in public changing rooms took place in unisex facilities [1]. One obvious conclusion to be drawn from this is that single-sex spaces at the very least provide a reduction of opportunity for would-be predators. If we see someone in a bathroom who shouldn’t be there, for example, security can be alerted without first having to wait for an assault to take place.

Such arguments have resurfaced over recent days after a female patient who had been in a persistent vegetative state for ten years suddenly gave birth in her hospital bed. The facility in that case has now reportedly implemented a new policy under which male staff are no longer allowed in female patients’ rooms unless they are accompanied by a female staff member. Similar opportunistic abuse has also been seen, for example, at the University of Toronto in September 2015, after two reported instances of voyeurism in a single week resulted in the University reducing its gender neutral bathroom provision. This is the state of the world in which women still live: women in positions of vulnerability are seen as targets by predatory men.

Finally, leaving aside the risk of assault, sex-segregated bathrooms give women the peace of mind of knowing they can use the bathroom, attend to their menstrual needs and to small children, with a degree of privacy and dignity that would otherwise not exist.

Architecture and structural issues: what toilets are we discussing?

Women face an issue of unequal bathroom provision versus men generally. While architects generally allocate equal space for male and female bathrooms, women — for reasons of biology, child-care responsibilities, and clothing — will need to use them both more frequently and for longer; and fewer stalls than urinals can be fitted into the same square footage.

These issues have sometimes been a result of old design — women were previously not part of public life to anywhere near the same degree, and thus buildings did not have to include equal toilet provision — and sometimes a result of male architectures not taking into account women’s different usage of bathrooms.[2] This is also partly an issue of space. A greater number of urinals can be fitted into a given area than stalls. It has not gone without notice, therefore, that many ‘gender neutral bathrooms’ are effectively taking the place of women’s bathrooms, not men’s, because women will not use the urinals.

The de facto result in any event is a smaller toilet provision for women, with both men and women using women’s facilities without women having the ability to use men’s facilities. Indeed, men are able to use both stalls and urinals — and with no increased risk of assault.

Luc Bovens and Alexandru Marcoci have written that if all bathrooms were to be made gender neutral — and not only the women’s — and if urinals were removed and replaced with stalls, then waiting times for all would be equalised. That would absolutely be an improvement upon the sexist implementation of gender-neutral toilets in places such as the Barbican.[3] But the ‘stalls’ question raises its own issues.

One difficulty with this debate is that participants can have very different things in mind. Some people, when imagining ‘gender neutral bathrooms’ imagine enclosed, lockable rooms, similar to the way in which disabled toilets are often organised — an extra addition to standard male-female stalls. This is what now a handful of US States have mandated — that single-occupancy bathrooms be converted to gender-neutral facilities. Where enclosed bathrooms are the only facilities available, one assumes that this could somewhat protect against the risk of immediate sexual violence — though not only does this not address the unequal need by men and women of those facilities, it also fails to address the growing epidemic of crimes such as those that women in South Korea have marched against (discussed below): voyeurism by spy camera. In fact, an enclosed bathroom would likely be the absolute ideal place for such an offender to work.

Nonetheless, enclosed stalls are often inevitably the only available facilities in certain locations for reasons of space and expense, such as restaurants, small to medium cafes, and petrol stations. But such locations are very different environments for women compared to — say — shopping centres, town centres and parks, not to mention pubs and nightclubs. A bathroom in a small cafe is unlikely to have heavy foot traffic, while almost always having bystanders in close proximity (other customers and staff). A shopping centre bathroom, by contrast, is publicly accessible, and may frequently lack bystanders and security throughout the day. Despite this, shopping centres (and town centres, parks, pubs and nightclubs, the latter two posing the addition risk of having inebriated clientele) likely utilise not enclosed bathrooms, but stalls. It is such facilities which pose a particularly high risk for women. The University of Toronto’s experience of gender neutral toilets mentioned above is a case in point. However, by simply searching ‘bathroom voyeurism’ on any search engine, the full scale and frequency of the problem becomes clear. [4]

The impact upon women is compounded for those individuals who — due to having a history of sexual assault, or for religious reasons — do not feel comfortable using a shared intimate space with male strangers. The result is that these groups of women are themselves less able to engage in public life.

If gender neutral toilets are implemented, it should therefore only be in a similar manner to disabled toilets — as an option for those who feel the need to use it, without removal of sex-segregated toilets for women generally. If an additional enclosed room is not possible, then it is the men’s facilities which should be converted only, not the women’s.

Inconsistent narratives for home and abroad

Curiously, the need for women’s toilets is often freely recognised in regards to countries other than one’s own. Amnesty International has called sex-segregated toilets a human rights issue in respect of women housed in refugee facilities, who are leered at, verbally and sexually abused by the men — including security staff — in European camps. [5] In India, inadequate access to private bathrooms for women is similarly regarded. Indian women face the single greatest risk of rape and sexual abuse outside the home when they are forced to go out to use the toilet at night. Women will avoid drinking water, even during heatwaves, out of fear they will need to urinate, because predatory men use the opportunity to assault women in a position of vulnerability. 30,000 women in South Korea marched in June to protest against the epidemic of spy camera technology being used by predatory men to create “molka” porn — an increasingly popular genre involving the filming of women without their consent.

In certain developing countries, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation has reported that the absence of sex-segregated bathroom facilities constitutes one of the ‘primary barriers preventing young girls from claiming their right to education’[6]. An absence of privacy for girls in dealing with menstruation can be a major factor in determining whether those girls stay in school or drop out entirely. Beyond the toilet issue, there are famous examples of sex-segregated facilities that Western media still (so far) passively accepts as a necessary fact of life in patriarchal societies. From 2000 and 2010, Women in Tokyo and New Delhi (amongst numerous other cities throughout the world) have had the option of taking women-only carriages to protect them from the risk of sexual assault when travelling.

In regards to the assertion that ‘if men want to sneak into women’s bathrooms, they already can’, one doubts whether this would be dared against those women who support the above initiatives. The rebuttal is so obvious — in a sex-segregated space, the women do not have to wait until the man has already assaulted her before she can fetch security — that one has reason to doubt whether the criticism is honestly made. Sex offenders thrive on opportunity. Not only do the numbers (mentioned earlier) not lie, but proponents of liberalising bathroom regulations occasionally let the cat out of the bag with regards to their own motivations. A certain Canadian activist[8] had social media conversations leaked in which he mused about whether he could help a 10 year old girl put in a tampon, and asked whether women in changing rooms have their “vaginas and tits” out. Those who claim, like Paris Lees, that women’s fear of sexual predators is ‘all in the mind’, rather than borne from a life-time of living as a woman in a patriarchal society, would do well to read the news more often.

Inconsistent narratives with mixed-sex wards

It is interesting also to compare gender-neutral bathrooms with the issue of mixed-sexed hospital wards. In the UK, the issue of sex-segregated wards has long been regarded as a matter of securing the safety and dignity of female patients. It is worth noting however that it has not always been the case. Louise Hide, examining mixed-sex wards in psychiatric hospitals between 1950 and 1990 found that hospitals allowed mixing for male patients’ benefit, and ignored the reality of sexual abuse until the rise of feminist and patient activism from the 1960s onwards . Mixed-sex wards were condemned by a judge in 2008 after a 81 year old woman was subjected to a horrifying sexual assault by the man in the bed next to her[7], and were formally banned in 2010 (although today, ironically, their prevalence remains higher than ever, thanks to a consistent shortage of beds across an underfunded NHS). Reported sexual assaults in hospital wards rose 17% between 2010–11 and 2016–17, and health charities such as Rethink Mental Illness have in response reiterated the importance of eliminating mixed wards.

It is curious, therefore, that when the issue of bathrooms is raised by feminist campaigners in the UK, even by sexual assault survivors themselves, it is dismissed as a matter of female hysteria, or as Lees called it, “panicking about imaginary fears”. Another popular response is to ask whether these silly women have a gender neutral bathroom in their own homes, like the tweet quoted in the introduction. Of course, this involves brushing over the glaringly obvious fact that the bathrooms in our own homes are used exclusively by our family and invited guests. Not random, unknown members of the public. As the Conservatives have faced criticism over their abandonment of the single-sex ward policy by rival parties, one wonders whether the left’s growing impatience with single-sex spaces might present them with something of an opportunity. As Catherine Bennett has asked: “What if [then Health Secretary] Hunt reimagined his privacy-free wards, washrooms and lavatories, as not so much a system in collapse as a success for the concerned, gender aware progressives who used to be called the Tory party?”

Why the inconsistency?

I suspect a significant reason is simply the fact that it is far easier for Westerners to accept that sex inequality is an issue for other countries. It is far easier for one to suppose that the largely theoretical group of women who live ‘overseas’ might base criticisms of their own country on good sense and lived experience, than it is for many to suppose that women in one’s immediate vicinity (and white, especially Anglosphere countries we see as being ‘like us’) who express concern about the risk of sexual assault they too face might actually have a point.[9] When a woman’s criticisms hit too close to home, they risk challenging the listener’s own impression of the state of the world. Worse still, they challenge the prevailing power structure that situates predominantly white male violence as an ‘overblown’, ‘lied about’ problem, and one which — to the extent it is admitted — is one that women must put up with and shut up about. The emotional damage caused to the male half of society by women saying ‘no’ is simply too great. The debate surrounding gender neutral toilets follows this dynamic closely. Women’s fear of violence is inherently suspect, automatically doubted, and women’s insistence upon their boundaries is recast as ‘cruelty’.

Then again, if the above is all true, how can it be that so many people accusing women of engaging in a ‘moral panic’ claim themselves to be fighting for a ‘progressive’ cause?

The other contributing aspect is the increasing tendency of popular progressive narratives to start with a set of ‘socially acceptable conclusions’, and work backwards, ignoring any and all facts that don’t fit the correct narrative — even resorting to misogynist tropes in order to do so. While feminists of previous generations might have begun with an undesirable fact — such as women’s economic position — and worked on possible solutions to that, much political discourse in Western ‘socially progressive’ circles today seems to reverse that. It begins instead with a series of substantive policy demands (for example: bathrooms should be gender neutral), any deviation from which is automatically suspect, no matter what the factual basis is for doing so. If reaching the ‘wrong conclusion’ is not an option (say, because of a risk of ostracisation), facts become less and less relevant to the discussion — ex ante justifications rather than starting points. Another likely contribution, of course, is the fact that a disregard for women’s safety and concerns permeates society generally, even those circles that regard themselves as socially liberal. It is notable that the only risk of violence mentioned by CUSU LGBT+ in its ‘Implementation Guide’ is the risk “AMAB” (male) students may be the victims of violence. Safeguarding women against male violence is not even paid lip service to.

A common feature of responses to women who are too challenging (even within the left) is for their detractors to retreat back to old-fashioned misogyny as a quick and easy way to dismiss them. The temptation to leverage structures of social power to win a battle that one — genuinely — believes to be morally right is often too strong to resist. It is a phenomenon faced by other marginalised groups as well, not simply women. It is important, however, for us to be alive to that phenomenon, and not to allow narratives of hysteria and ‘over-emotionalism’ to act as excuses not to engage with the substance of what women are saying.

Needless to say, an aversion to the facts surrounding male violence is neither progressive nor is it feminist. Instead, it is a reflection of a developing culture in which people adopt political positions to avoid censure and achieve social acceptability as an end in itself, rather than as principled responses to actual material injustices in the world.

Conclusion

Sex segregation in spaces where women are in positions of vulnerability is a legitimate and important precaution for women. Women exist in society where the risk of sexual assault is a simple reality of their lives — even young girls within UK schools are experiencing what has been described as an ‘epidemic’ of sexual violence from young boys. I could go into these statistics in more detail if it had not already been done countless times before. But the fact it has been done countless times before is the disturbing thing about the entire gender neutral toilets issue. Supposedly progressive commentators and politicians have seemingly decided that publicly supporting a postmodernist view of gender is more important even than these facts. Perhaps it is cowardice in the face of a vitriolic social-media ‘take down’ culture.

But perhaps it is something more simple, and depressing, than that: feminism — and other equality movements — have to deal with the difficult problem of ‘latent prejudice’. It can be tricky to tell when there is a true change of popular attitudes, or when instead there is a understanding that some attitudes cannot be expressed explicitly. Sometimes we only find out once people feel they have been given permission to express those attitudes. We saw that to some degree with the Bernie-Bro phenomenon — certain US leftists felt that their support for a ‘progressive’ Bernie Sanders meant they were able to criticise ‘not-as-progressive’ Hillary Clinton in sometimes violently sexist terms. The gender neutral and gender identity debates seem to represent something similar in the UK. Blatantly misogynistic tropes and a lazy disregard for women’s safety and concerns are being overlooked because it is in the service of a supposedly progressive cause.


The above article was written by a member of the Cambridge Radical Feminist Network. If you would like to write an article for the Network, please get in touch, and please follow us on social media.

Notes

  1. In addition, ‘[i]n 2009, Channel 4 discovered that almost two-thirds of sexual assaults by patients in hospitals (21 out of 33 in 2007/8), occurred in mixed-sex wards’: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jul/30/mixed-sexed-wards-endanger-and-humiliate-women
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/shortcuts/2018/mar/21/why-women-face-longer-toilet-queues-and-how-we-can-achieve-potty-parity. 
    See more specifically: https://americanrestroom.org/potty-parity/
    See also: http://time.com/3653871/womens-bathroom-lines-sexist-potty-parity/
  3. The CUSU LGBT+ ‘Guide for the Implementation of Gender-Neutral Toilets’ recommends a similarly flawed implementation: https://www.lgbt.cusu.cam.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/GN-Bathrooms-Guide.pdf
  4. A couple of examples, among many: https://www.harrogateadvertiser.co.uk/news/crime/harrogate-man-jailed-for-filming-girls-and-women-as-they-got-undressed-in-bathrooms-and-cubicles-1-9451417 https://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/fp/news/scotland/1599842/nightclub-voyeur-spared-jail-after-being-caught-filming-women-in-a-toilet-cubicle/
  5. Amnesty also recommends separate sleeping facilities for women refugees, for the same reason.
  6. See p. 153, Discussion Box 3.13
  7. There were also a number of other cases which made national news. For example: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-124838/Second-woman-raped-mixed-sex-NHS-ward.html
  8. JY. Even the mention of his name has resulted in posts being taken down on Medium and Twitter, but a quick internet search will allow you to find him.
  9. An example of this phenomenon is discussed by Reni Eddo-Lodge in Why I am No Longer Talking to White People About Race (pp.174–175) The ‘surprising’ mention by David Cameron of ‘patriarchal societies’ was — less surprisingly — mentioned in regards to Muslim countries ‘described in direct opposition to our own advanced, so-called egalitarian and meritocratic British sense of self.’