Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Unfairness in Public Restrooms

by Sherry F. Colb

In my Verdict column this week, I discuss Donald Trump's remarks about Hillary Clinton's use of the restroom during the latest Democratic debate.  While seemingly a bizarre outlier, I suggest in my column that Trump's thinking may be shared by other men and may help explain the existence of sex-segregated restrooms.  In this post, I want to respond to an argument that people sometimes make in defense of sex segregation.  The more typical arguments have to do with safety and privacy, and I address those in my column.  A third argument I have heard is one about fairness.

Men who have used public restrooms have certainly noticed that women take much longer than men do, as a general matter.   Some men have accordingly come to view a shorter wait for the restroom as something to which they are entitled.  They may see  men as a group very much like the group of people purchasing "10 items or fewer" at the grocery store, entitled to endure a shorter line since, individually and as a group, they are inflicting a shorter wait on others.  The "first-come, first-served" ethos accordingly yields to those who collectively tax the system the least.

This argument has some surface plausibility, and I myself have enjoyed (and felt entitled to) the shorter wait on express lines at the grocery store.  How is the bathroom any different?  One difference is that unlike having a large number of groceries in one's shopping cart, one's status as female has historically meant (and in some ways, continues to mean) being burdened by exclusion, discrimination, and stereotypes.  As a result, distinguishing between entire groups of people on the basis of sex should trigger heightened scrutiny.

Yet we seem generally to treat sex-segregated bathrooms as a perfectly appropriate setup, so much so that when women invade the men's restroom (which occasionally happens when there's a long line to the women's room and no men at all either in or in line for the men's restroom), some of the men who arrive become outraged to learn that they have to wait their turn behind women.  They believe they should have immediate access to the men's room and that the women should return to the line behind their own room.

Segregated restrooms are probably not the most important form of sex discrimination that one encounters, and proposals for their reform are therefore typically somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Nonetheless, the "first come, first served" ethic that we ordinarily observe should not be suspended in the case of sex, especially in venues where demand exceeds supply.  And as an additional benefit in co-ed restrooms, people who are transgender or who otherwise reject the binary that demands that everyone identify as either male or female can use the restroom without having to declare a gender affiliation.  Though everyone has become accustomed to sex-segregated restrooms (and there has thus developed a sort of "endowment effect" among men), it is never too late to become "unaccustomed" to unfairness.  Having to wait a long time to use the restroom when men can go right in is unfairness, and it ought to be recognized as such and changed.


Eric Charles said...

You seem to overlook the obvious reason why going to the bathroom as a man is much quicker. A row of urinals makes the process much more efficient for men than women. Obviously when you have a small, single one person bathroom, the situation is different but most public male restrooms have many efficient, stand-up urinals.

Joe said...

There can be a separate area for urinals -- the stalls will be first come, first serve. Perhaps, we would in effect have an "urinal" bathroom and a "stall" bathroom. OTOH, there are women urinals out there.

Unknown said...

Mary Anne Case has written about this in some detail, exploring both the pros and cons of gender-segregated bathrooms:

"Changing Room? A Quick Tour of Men's and Women's Restrooms in U.S. Law over the Last Decade," 13 Public Culture 333 (2000).

“Why not Abolish the Laws of Urinary Segregation?”

She has also been collecting data on this subject for years with her toilet survey:

Reuel Schiller

Joe said...

Looked over the /pdf article -- interesting.

There are various factors here including social norms regarding women socializing and fixing their makeup etc. for longer times in the bathroom. The article notes also that beyond the urinal issue that women often take longer, including dealing with pantyhose and the like.

There are exceptions to this as there usually are with generalizations including men with special needs. Also, separation here has various possible negative effects (also a balancing factor in sex segregated schools) plus trans and other issues arise though there "men" and "women" possibly can be defined to address them somewhat.

On balance, I'm inclined to support for large avenues like movies or stadiums a "urinal" type room for quick access and a second catchall stall area.

Paul Scott said...

As someone who definitely gets frustrated waiting in line for bathrooms - well, anything, really - I am more concerned about the "one at a time" bathroom than I am about the sex separation. I'd be very happy with a unisex bathroom as long as I didn't have to wait the way the one at a time bathrooms work.

Aaron Jordan said...

I don't think your informal survey in the article about female bathroom preferences is representative of most women (based on my own informal survey haha).

djg273 said...

Many who favor permitting women to use the men's room seem to lack sufficient appreciation for the unique and valuable qualities of the American men's room. The men's room is a safe haven where all men of goodwill can urinate in peace without the need for small-talk or excessive social interaction. It is an egalitarian institution where every man, regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation can ignore his fellow man in awkward yet blissful silence.

Although there is no biological reason why unisex restrooms cannot share these salutatory qualities, however my personal experience has been that they do not. Unisex restrooms are tainted by the sound of animated conversation which drowns out the calming bubbling of the urinal at the end of the row that will not stop flushing.

I can recall one memorable incident in college where a group of women decided to hold a teach-in addressing this issue in various men's rooms on campus. Unaware(or in deliberate contravention of) cherished cultural conventions, these interlopers sought to educate people by shouting through the doors of bathroom stalls and striking up conversations with defenseless urinaters.

Perhaps these issues could be addressed by an extensive program of social reeducation but I fear that the men's room, a cherished cultural institution may be on its last legs.