Thursday, April 28, 2016

Signs and Symbols

The TV show Ally McBeal began in the fall of 1997. I was 15 years old. I remember watching one of the early episodes with some anticipation, because I'd heard the law office on the show had a unisex bathroom. I found that idea somewhat titillating, I guess. For a 15 year old male, I'm sure the sexual possibilities of such an arrangement were exciting (to the extend that 90's network television allowed). I don't know - it's difficult to intellectually connect with that memory almost two decades later - and I can't remember watching more than one episode, because Ally McBeal is just not all that appealing to a 15 year old kid.

I think about that, though, because of all the bathroom talk this week. I've always considered that notion, that something deeply improper would happen in a unisex bathroom, as the overly-hormonal hopes of a teenage boy. But this week it's dawned on me that this may be more a cultural assumption that was transmitted to me early in life, perhaps translated to all of us, mostly unconsciously.

I don't know if it's a cross over from the locker room. Since locker rooms have bathrooms in them, and locker rooms also have naked people in them, perhaps we're inferring?* In any event, the idea that people of differing genders in one bathroom is inherently dangerous doesn't make actual sense to me. It makes emotional sense - clearly this is something that's been in my brain for 20 years; I'm just not sure it's a good thing.

I mean practically. Yes, for as long as there have been bathrooms, men have dressed up as women to hide in them and take clandestine pictures. Bathrooms have been used for sexual abuse and also for sexual pleasure (I'm sure someone's written a doctoral dissertation on the notion of bathroom sex as a movie trope or a cultural metaphor for excitement - when it's really just gross). Most of this, though, has been because bathrooms are seen as vaguely sexual - and I'm not sure why, other than the fact that people sometimes have their pants down and they're segregated by gender.

I wonder if it's the gender segregation itself that causes the sexualization of the space. You see something similar in say, a sorority house (or a frat house) - someone of the opposite gender being in such a place, where they're not "allowed" creates an atmosphere of the taboo, the forbidden, which, naturally, lends itself to thoughts of other taboo things (and sex has almost always been a cultural taboo, no matter how much we pretend otherwise in the modern day). It seems like the very segregation by gender creates the space for sexualized imagination.

This makes sense when you think about the current hubbub over which bathrooms transgender people use. The real issue for most is fear, but of course the fear isn't of transgender people, but someone pretending to be transgender (even though the sign on a bathroom is not going to help or hinder a predator - shoot, this guy didn't even use it as an excuse for committing crimes AT A TARGET - he missed his opportunity for some real national exposure**).

Predators and perverts aside, ultimately, a trans man, beard and all, is likely far more unsettling to see in a woman's bathroom than a trans women in a dress and heels. This is why these laws skirt# the real issue - with these laws, people are MORE likely to see an out-of-place face in their restroom than without them.

The fear is real, though. That can't be dismissed. I just think the things that people are afraid of and the things they think they're afraid of are different. As I said, the fear is from a criminal, a predator - someone who has no excuse for doing the things they're doing, regardless of the bathroom policy. We should absolutely be having discussions about bathrooms and safety - but the safest thing for everybody is letting trans people use the bathroom they think will be less offensive to people (which is pretty much how it works now).

Even safer, though, is to not segregate bathrooms at all. Part of the reason predators feel bathrooms are a good place to commit crimes (beyond the taboo discussion above), is because they don't expect any men to be in there (and that they can overpower a woman). If you're in a bathroom where anyone might walk in at any moment, the draw becomes less and the danger decreases.

A lot of arguments say open bathrooms give abusers and excuse, but it's only an excuse if someone accepts it - and I just don't know anyone who'd do that. Besides, if a woman in the women's room were leering at people or trying to peek over the stall, they'd be reported. It's the behavior that's offensive and abusive, not the gender.

There is that pesky taboo, though - where people feel uncomfortable in a bathroom with the opposite sex. How do we rid ourselves of taboo? It's integration. In the 1960's bathrooms were beginning to be integrated racially. There were arguments that white people wouldn't feel safe in the bathroom with a black person. Perception and reality are different things. I get that it's different in this case because of gender, but it's not really.

Yes, men and women might feel a little more comfortable doing some things in a bathroom that is absent the opposite sex, but that's not always a good thing. I've got an almost-four-year-old daughter and I hate taking her into a men's room - not because I'm afraid for her safety (unless you count salmonella), it's because they're usually filthy and she's got a penchant to pick things up off the floor in public places.## I'm hopeful a fully integrated bathroom would be both cleaner (because women won't put up with what men generally do) and an overall more pleasant experience.

Of course, the most persuasive argument is the argument from poop itself. Poop is terrible. It smells. We make terrible noises when we're doing it. Most people I know won't even poop in the rare clean public bathroom unless they're the only one there anyway. Me included. It's gross. I'm sure we'd all like some real privacy when pooping. As a man, I can tell you, public urinals are really just a license for men to pee on the floor - they are mighty convenient, but entirely disgusting. Now there is your argument for individual bathrooms - or at least some serious white noise machines and potpourri.

I imagine stores in the future will be built with bathrooms that have sinks and mirrors in one room, with individual locking (and hopefully ventilated) stall doors off of these. In those buildings that have the "old" style bathrooms - let's consider just letting people pee in any of them and work to overcome the cultural conditioning that's ultimately just made us more afraid of each other (and somehow sexualized the place where we poop).

*And, to be fair, I'm fully on board with individual changing stalls for locker rooms - regardless of who's allowed inside. Even in a locker room of 100% heterosexual males, I think we're still all better off changing alone. You'll get no argument from me there.

**Pun intended, although admittedly in bad taste.

#I'm not sure if that one's even a pun, but I'll note it anyway.

##I feel like my daughter would be far more freaked out if she went into a women's bathroom and a trans guy were in there (not to mention the awesome conversation I'd get to have about how that man actually has a vagina and is required by law to creep her out). My daughter is not going to notice the trans women, who looks like every other woman in the bathroom. This same logic responds to the stories of scarred rape victims who've spoken up as well. The face of someone is going to be far more important than their genitalia.

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