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Sunday, November 06, 2011

Sex and the Single Bathroom

I have a confession to make. I’ve recently used the women’s washroom.

Let me explain.  On the 5th floor of Griswold Hall where I have my office, there are two single occupancy bathrooms with locks – one male and one female, not to be confused with the Ally McBeal style unisex bathroom.  Rather, this is a single occupancy bathroom that unlike George Constanza's is not limited to people with disabilities.

It turns out, though, that only the women’s single-occupancy bathroom has Palmolive with which I can wash my glasses before class (one of the assistants who is a woman mentioned this to me one day when I needed to clean them). It is unclear to me why only the women's bathroom has Palmolive,  but I have worried about disrupting something important if I moved it to the men’s. So I’ve started going into the women’s bathroom before class, locking the door, washing my glasses, and then leaving. I have received some funny stares from people who have caught me doing it…but it has caused me to re-examine my single-occupancy bathroom behavior and expand my gender subversive bathroom routine more generally:

If at a restaurant with single use bathrooms there is a line-up for the men’s but none for the women’s, I will walk over to the women’s. This too engenders funny looks, and I’ve noticed I am shyer about doing it when the men in line are more macho … no doubt a form of gender panic on my part.

So I am curious whether I am doing something wrong, and whether all single occupancy bathrooms should be neutered? The strongest argument I can fathom for gendering them is that women and men take different amounts of time in the bathroom, such that separate allocations are desirable. But, if anything, it seems to me that women get the short end of the stick on this one, and both more distributively fair and more efficient then to have both bathrooms be open to both sexes. But perhaps I am missing something?

Posted by Glenn Cohen on November 6, 2011 at 11:28 PM in Culture, Current Affairs, Gender, Housekeeping | Permalink


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I do find the scene pretty funny with single-person bathrooms and only one has a line. I always go use the other one. No sense in waiting.

Posted by: Bobrick | Feb 10, 2012 6:14:51 PM

I don't want to offend (sorry!) but one reason women don't want to share a bathroom with strange guys is that y'all are stinky and you spray. We don't want to smell your urine (there's something REALLY stinky about it -- maybe it's the testosterone making it extra strong and rank) and we don't want to have to clean it off of the seat, the side of the toilet, the back of the toilet, the wall and the floor before we can safely loosen our clothes and do our thing. YUCK. No one wants to drag her skirt, blouse or slacks through THAT. Or walk in it with our dress shoes.

Whenever I see a "unisex" single-room bathroom I sigh, because I know it will probably be super-filthy and disgusting. Gas stations, grocery stores, some hipster coffee joints and bars are notorious for this kind of filth.

The nicest ladies' rooms -- e.g. in high end retail establishments and fine restaurants -- have no soaked-in urine sprays, no odor whatsoever, and a nice, clean place to sit and fix your make-up -- or in my case, check my blood-sugar and top off my insulin. HEAVEN.

Posted by: JeanTheMermaid | Dec 13, 2011 7:38:53 AM

I apologize for my part in heating up the rhetoric. But you're right, this is clearly your most controversial topic. :)

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Nov 8, 2011 11:41:42 AM

In a week where my other posts were on abortion, IVF, stem cells, and global justice I hardly suspected single-occupancy bathrooms would engender 38 comments...amusing, even if the rhetoric has got a bit more heated than I would like.
"Former Secretary" - fear not. I've add a Palmolive bottle to the men's room too so there is no fear of a gendered tragedy of the commons. Still, I will continue (and encourage others) to engage in gender-trangression by using the opposite-sex single-occupancy bathroom, since I have still not heard a good reason why they should be sexed in the 38 comments thus far.

Posted by: I. Glenn Cohen | Nov 8, 2011 11:30:23 AM

If we're just saying that it's possible there could be more harassment, I'll concede the possibility though I doubt it would actually cause any significant change. But the latest anonymous made the same point I did: it hasn't been done enough to gather data, which makes claims like it "WILL" make a "statistically significant" difference irresponsible.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Nov 8, 2011 10:38:30 AM

Anon, I still don't see why a unisex bathroom that happens to be quiet at a given moment is any more dangerous than a single sex bathroom that happens to be quiet.

Posted by: Katie | Nov 8, 2011 8:41:10 AM

The women's bathroom has Palmolive because some woman bought it with her own money, brought it up there, and then replaced it when some man used it all. The lotion too. Hate to break it to you but there is no Palmolive fairy that only visits women's bathrooms.

This is why women have their own bathrooms. Men just don't get it. BUY A FREAKING BOTTLE.

Posted by: Former Secretary | Nov 8, 2011 7:59:38 AM

@ Katie,

The issue is not simply full on sexual assault. It's the kind of things that previous posters referred to earlier-- harassment that can take many forms. We are not likely to have much documentation about public unisex multi-stall restrooms because such venues do not exist in large numbers, for reasons that most people would find obvious. Sure, women are harassed and assaulted in other places. That does not mean that attempts should not be made to create spaces that take reality into account.

As far as empty or non-empty-- few buildings have traffic that is always at the same level. Grand Central Station is quiet at times. So, the better plan takes into account what happens when the fewest people are around, when folks are likely to be the most vulnerable. You don't plan based on the best case scenario. You plan based on what could go wrong. Hence, an elevator than can hold much more weight than it would normally carry.

Posted by: anonymous | Nov 8, 2011 7:58:41 AM

Andrew, what is "the practice" for which you would like statistics? Sexual assault? Is it not good enough for you that women WILL face statistically significant sexual harassment if bathrooms are made unisex - and for absolutely no valid reason? Your male privilege is showing.

I'm neither an underclassmen nor male and I'm confused why unisex bathrooms will open women up to more sexual assault. Most sexual assault is committed by people women know, and a chance encounter in a bathroom doesn't put someone into that category. For the remainder, I am unclear why a bathroom in a public building that many people enter regularly is more open to assault than anything else. I can see why an empty bathroom in an empty building is, but that's true whether the bathroom is officially designated as single-sex or not.

Meanwhile, the risk of assault to trans people who are deemed to have used the "wrong" bathroom by self-appointed enforcers is pretty documented.

Posted by: Katie | Nov 8, 2011 7:29:47 AM

"Is it not good enough for you that women WILL face statistically significant sexual harassment if bathrooms are made unisex"

This is the claim that I find implausible, and I'm wondering if there's evidence behind it, or if it's simply intuitive.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Nov 8, 2011 12:59:42 AM

Nevermind - I googled and you're just a college underclassman. Not going to waste my time on this. At least you're not a law professor.

Posted by: anon | Nov 7, 2011 11:51:08 PM

Andrew, what is "the practice" for which you would like statistics? Sexual assault? Is it not good enough for you that women WILL face statistically significant sexual harassment if bathrooms are made unisex - and for absolutely no valid reason? Your male privilege is showing.

Posted by: anon | Nov 7, 2011 11:49:40 PM

I'd be interested in whether there are any studies of the risk in unisex bathrooms, or if the practice isn't widespread enough to actually study. I'm not denying the hypothetical possibility of what people are talking about; it just doesn't strike me as plausible. Is there any data to address the question?

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Nov 7, 2011 11:31:24 PM

Anon 5:56-- I agree HLS, that's the best solution if it is possible to do. You see that in airports, for example. I think many people are in denial about the kinds of things a certain segment of men put women through in the area of sexually related harassment and violence, from low level to the highest forms.

Posted by: anonymous | Nov 7, 2011 9:06:18 PM

Anon Prof's point may be okay as far as single-stall bathrooms go. However, it would be insufficiently considerate of women's needs and rights if applied to multi-stall bathrooms.

Andrew is partially correct that someone intent on using a bathroom as a way of perpetrating an assault may not be deterred by a sign on the bathroom. Only partially. At present, if a man slips into a bathroom clearly marked for women for the purpose of committing an assault, he may be noticed and reported by people both inside and outside the bathroom. If the multi-stall bathroom is unisex, observers both inside and outside the bathroom would see no reason for alarm at his presence, opening the door for him to assault a woman (especially one who is in the bathroom alone, for instance after others have departed).

As anon 5:56 notes, the more common dangers are sexual harassment, nasty talk, fetishistic behavior, etc. These are very real. In fact, since the original blogger is from Harvard ... I was a student there in the middle part of the last decade. The female bathrooms in the Gropius dorms had consistent problems with male peepers entering, as women were using the bathroom or showering. I see absolutely nothing to be gained by legitimizing men's presence in women's bathrooms in the first instance. And it requires a certain degree of male privilege to deny the harassment and violence of women that is mitigated by single-sex multi-stall bathrooms.

It is difficult for me to accept the argument that fully 50 percent of the population should be put at risk in communal bathrooms in order to relieve a putative danger to a very, very small minority (non-passing trans individuals comprise some small fraction of one percent of the US population). A far better solution is to ensure that a "family"/single-stall room is available for everyone who feels uncomfortable or out-of-place in the multistall bathrooms, including gender-variant/non-passing trans people.

Posted by: HLS | Nov 7, 2011 7:28:33 PM

@ A M-M-- Sure, if someone is intent upon doing something, he/she will do it. There are no 100 percent safeguards under any circumstances. But that does not mean that you go in the opposite direction and set up situations calculated to cause problems. A gender-neutral multi-stall public restroom is the opposite of minimizing problems. Yes, it is "an unfortunate fact, not a laudable aspect of society" that some men rape women, sexually harass them, and say nasty things to them-- even when they are out in public spaces.women are groped on subways. I'd bet that most men who do this are acting on the opportunity; something other than laying in wait in the women's bathroom to assault a person. Imagine what could go on in a closed bathroom. Many of the unfortunate things that happen between men and women do not rise to the level of aggravated assault, which is what you are positing here. It's just through the looking glass to act as if there would be no problems with this.

Posted by: anonymous | Nov 7, 2011 5:56:37 PM

Anon 11:28:02: What safeguards does labeling the bathroom provide? If someone is intent on using a bathroom as a way of perpetrating an assault, I don't see why the fact that it's nominally a 'woman's restroom' rather than a unisex restroom would be an obstacle.

Of course, social norms aren't to the point yet where it would be feasible to implement a unisex multi-person bathroom outside of a specific community. But, for the reasons others have been pointed out, that seems like an unfortunate fact, not a laudable aspect of society.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Nov 7, 2011 3:40:35 PM

I'm with Anon Prof 10:34:03 and Glenn. The most important issue with single gender bathrooms is that they require everyone to select a gender category, but not everyone fits. Many colleges are way ahead of law schools on this. Making college trans-friendly is the main reason (as I've been told) that my kid's college (Oberlin) has mostly all-gender bathrooms. Once I understood why this is so important (see Anon Prof 10:34:03), it helped me get over my, well, squeamishness at sharing w/ guys. It would be good for law schools to have at least one restroom on campus for which one doesn't have to choose a gender category at the door.

Posted by: Mary Dudziak | Nov 7, 2011 2:52:02 PM

It seems that PrawfsBlawg should now definitely have a category devoted to bathroom law and politics. For earlier thoughts on related topics:


Posted by: Dan Markel | Nov 7, 2011 12:03:52 PM

If people agree sure, but the building we are talking about is open to the public. There are many safeguards in a residence hall that do not apply in a more open setting. It's not a good comparison.In some settings one to use a key to use the women's restroom.

Posted by: Anonymous | Nov 7, 2011 11:28:02 AM

Some universities have systems in residence halls where bathrooms which have stalls and individual showers can be unisex if all the residents agree. I see no problem with such a system.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Nov 7, 2011 11:19:49 AM

This goes for single stall restrooms,right? You would not make restrooms where more than one person at a time can go in unisex?

Posted by: Anonymous | Nov 7, 2011 10:55:02 AM

Thanks to all.
Michelle - glad I am still welcome in my old haunt!
Jeff - I am now chastened and will take your wife's advice! Mea culpa.
Anon Prof 10:34:03 - One of the most interesting and elucidating moments for me on this point came when I moderated a panel at HLS LAMBDA's translaw conference a few years back. All bathrooms in the relevant building were made all-gender and thus trans-inclusive for the two days, a tradition they have stuck to even when the topic of the annual conference was not trans-focused. The experience forced me to re-consider why we gender bathrooms at all, and think that maybe Ally McBeal had it right...thanks for the comment and resource.

Posted by: I. Glenn Cohen | Nov 7, 2011 10:40:43 AM

The issue of segregrated bathrooms and toilets is a pervasive one in our society. There is absolutely no reason for any single-stall bathroom to have a gender designation.

The sad reality is that bathrooms are terribly dangerous for people who don't "look" the way other people think they should, in terms of gender conventions. Butch women, fem guys, transgender people, etc.
(An excellent resource on this is: http://srlp.org/films/toilettraining)

Women aren't the ones getting the short end of the stick. People who are prevented from using ANY bathroom or risking violence to do so - those are the people getting the short end of the stick.

We are conditioned to feel "wrong" about using a bathroom with the wrong sign on the outside, and we are quick to use stereotypes to justify maintaining segregation. Yet this set-up leads to rampant discrimination, harrassment, and even assault.

So to answer your question: No, you are not doing something wrong. What is wrong is that in 2011, we haven't ditched gendering our single-stall bathrooms altogether. In fact, if you are helping break down the norm on your floor about which bathroom people "should" use, that's a good step in the right direction (the next step would be getting rid of the labels altogether).

Posted by: Anon Prof | Nov 7, 2011 10:34:03 AM

Why close the door?

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Nov 7, 2011 9:34:42 AM

Glenn, my wife worked for two years at Harvard Square Eye Care on Dunster Street and up at Porter Square. The Palmolive sounds fine, but she would be aghast if she knew you were wiping your glasses with a paper towel. Highly abrasive! Carry a lens clothe!

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Nov 7, 2011 9:32:24 AM

This may not be a big mystery. The law school went green, and instead of providing paper cups for coffee and tea at the coffee machine, faculty must provide their own mugs or cups. They must be washed. The poster will note that there is often a sponge next to the Palmolive.

Posted by: Anonymous | Nov 7, 2011 8:04:13 AM

All I can say is wow! The post goes up at 11:28 PM. By 8 AM there are already 16 comments, and I got four more emails sent to me directly -- by men, vigorously protesting without any desire for attribution based on various sources of knowledge that the women's room was far messier. Who knew you all read this blog in the wee hours?
Thanks all for the comments. For those interested in the "occult," I squeeze a drop of Palmolive on both sides of my lenses. I then rinse with water. I then wipe off with paper towel. I find it cleans my glasses much better than anything else I have tried. Any liquid soup will do, but as Matt notes, only Palmolive claims to soften my hands in the process...

Posted by: I. Glenn Cohen | Nov 7, 2011 8:03:52 AM

I'm with Jeff. The most interesting thing about this post was definitely the Palmolive! I felt as if I'd been casually let in on some occult knowledge.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Nov 7, 2011 7:44:55 AM

Where can I hope to find Lava soap?

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | Nov 7, 2011 7:35:52 AM

There are bathrooms on every floor in Griswold, in the same place on each
floor. They are near an elevator, and not far from a staircase. There are only five floors.
It is easy to duck from one floor to the next. Not every job has bathrooms on
each floor. It is a good setup, I think.

Posted by: Anonymous | Nov 7, 2011 7:33:09 AM

Stereotypes aside, I've been told by a variety of school janitors that the men's room is often cleaner (though maybe by law school, it equalizes; one hopes). I use whichever single seat bathroom is available.

Posted by: Katie | Nov 7, 2011 7:08:51 AM

Can the can stuff. I've been wearing glasses for 47 years and never heard about the benefits of Palmolive. Is this the Madge stuff you are supposed to dip your nails into? Inquiring minds want to know.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Nov 7, 2011 5:35:42 AM

I'm just not sure why you don't buy your own Palmolive and put it in the men's room. Maybe the funny stares include some from the women who bought the Palmolive and can't figure out why you keep using it instead of supplying the men's room with a bottle of its own.

Posted by: Get your own? | Nov 7, 2011 3:12:56 AM

Also, as the article linked above notes implicitly...men tend to put up the seat to use the bathroom...then leave it up. Another thing that I don't want to deal with as a woman.

Posted by: anon | Nov 7, 2011 1:31:22 AM

My guess is that the explanation is something along the lines of the "men-are-messier" stereotype that's been stated above.

My favorite bathroom at our school is this tiny little closet which only has enough room for a single urinal, but which they managed to squeeze two sinks into. Quite logical, really.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Nov 7, 2011 1:15:28 AM

I was going to say the same thing as Michelle. As a woman, I would prefer to have bathrooms designated male and female, because the male bathrooms tend to be far messier than the female bathrooms. While it can be terribly frustrating to wait for women who are delaying overly long in a bathroom, I'd be far more frustrated to deal with the messiness of a unisex bathroom that's often used by men.

Of course, the reason that I have noticed that men's bathrooms are comparatively messier is that like you, Glenn, I will duck into a men's single bathroom when there is a line for the women's but not for the men's. I don't think there's anything wrong with that...as long as you don't make a mess in our bathroom. ;)

Posted by: anon | Nov 7, 2011 12:50:06 AM


Men's rooms in law schools are almost always very clean, which makes that explanation seem rather puzzling.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Nov 7, 2011 12:46:10 AM

No doubt you're an outlier in this respect, Glenn, but I think that most women would say that separate allocations of single-occupancy bathrooms according to sex (as opposed to gender) are desirable because most men are considerably...er, messier than women in their bathroom habits. Such women would rather wait a bit longer for another woman to vacate a relatively clean bathroom than gain slightly earlier access to what looks like a cross between a certain Andres Serrano photograph and a Jackson Pollock painting.

But hey, don't take my word for it. I did a quick Google search to see if there are any data on point, and found instead this Ian Ayres piece in Slate in which he raised the same query as you (complete with Ally McBeal reference) regarding YLS single-occupancy bathrooms and received the same answer: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/jurisprudence/2005/03/looking_out_for_no_2.html

Anyway, if you really miss sex-neutral single-occupancy bathrooms, you're always welcome to visit us, and your old digs, at 23 Everett. Especially if all you do there is clean your glasses.

Posted by: Michelle | Nov 7, 2011 12:38:49 AM

I don't think you're missing something. It just doesn't make sense to have single-occupancy bathrooms that are only supposed to be used by one sex.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Nov 7, 2011 12:34:57 AM

I think that this says more about institutional (or perhaps) coastal norms than anything. We over here in Berkeley have the same set up and the norm is when one bathroom is being occupied you use the other, irrespective of gender. And in fact, even if both are unoccupied and the person seeking to use the bathroom recognizes that someone had previously occupied one of them for an extended period of time, that person tends to use the other, again, irrespective of gender. As you may can tell, my office is right across from the bathrooms so I get to monitor this behavior all day! And no, there isn't any Palmolive in either bathroom, just good old government issued pink soap.

Posted by: BR | Nov 7, 2011 12:34:31 AM

I can't say anything (here) about whether you're missing anything on the bathrooms as such, but I suspect you're missing a great opportunity (and perhaps the purpose) with the Palmolive:


Posted by: Matt | Nov 6, 2011 11:42:14 PM

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