Saturday, September 21, 2013

The sign on the door will not protect you

It seems like every few months I have a discussion with friends about safety, and bathrooms. Whether we should have gender-neutral bathrooms in public places, what this should look like, and so forth. I think whenever such topics come up, others are surprised that I'm in favour of gender neutral washrooms, even if this means not having a dedicated women's washroom. Likely they assume that as a rape survivor, I'd feel safer peeing in a space where men are not allowed.

Now, on one level they are right - I don't like multi-stall washrooms in general, because I don't feel safe there. Often the stalls go only partway to the ground, leaving lots of potential for someone to spy under a door. And that's just weird. So it is uncomfortable, but I've gotten to a point where it is less uncomfortable than a day-long persisting feeling of needing to pee.

So, why don't I mind men being allowed in the washroom? First of all, I don't think it's my right to decide who is a man and who is a woman - these are mutable identity categories. While I am not in a headspace right now to find research on the matter, I do know that many people are harassed or assaulted for not conforming to binary gender norms, and are not safe in any multi-stall public washroom. Gender-policing is more dangerous than the potential of a man in a women's washroom. I would hazard a guess (and please do point me in the right direction for studies on this matter!) that there are more transphobic bigots out there than there are perverts who go into women's washroom for a thrill.

In this statement I am absolutely not denying the violence that women can and do face in public washrooms. However, the sign on the door is not some sort of force field. It cannot protect us from violence. Men can enter the women's washroom in most public buildings fairly easily, and often might not be noticed (I should also acknowledge, of course, that not all sexual predators are men!). I know this personally. I was raped, by a male student, in a women's gym changing room in my own high school. Was he allowed in? Absolutely not. But this did not stop him. The little woman/superhero-in-a-cape sign on the door is meaningless to someone who intends to rape. He cared only that I was alone in a space; a gender-neutral space might actually have been safer, as more students sharing it would minimize the likelihood of me having been alone as the after-class slow-to-dress straggler.

So, an unsolicited element of my own experience, perhaps. But I don't want to see friends boxed into washrooms where they face transphobic violence all in the name of protecting survivors such as myself. We need to crush rape culture, but gender-policing peeing people is not the way to do it.

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