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.