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Why Some Welcome Unisex Bathrooms, and Some Steer Clear

Is this a trend that's too far ahead of its time?

Concept Photo/Shutterstock
Source: Concept Photo/Shutterstock

At the recent American Sociological Association (ASA) annual meeting in Chicago, I noticed an unspoken social rule governing unisex restroom use. To clarify: I don’t mean unisex single-user restrooms. Rather, ASA taped paper unisex signs over the usual signs designating multi-user restrooms as for women or men. Such restrooms house several conventional toilet stalls. In temporarily-converted male restrooms, urinals are blocked off. On their website, the ASA explained that unisex restrooms equalize access for everyone regardless of gender identity (ASA 2013).

As a gender scholar, I have long been aware that sex-segregated restrooms reinforce cultural beliefs about gender, creating difference where biologically there is none. (Women and men do much the same thing in restrooms.) (Goffman, 1977). They also exclude those outside the narrowly-defined gender binary (Lucal, 1999).

I understand and support ASA’s inclusive de-gendering of multi-user restrooms.

But in practice, unisex restrooms may have far from egalitarian consequences—at least until the wider restroom-using public adapts to the concept. While washing my hands in one of the multi-user unisex restrooms, it struck me that all of the other users were also women. So I stationed myself in the hallway opposite the restroom door and settled down to observe.

Both women and men often hesitated upon seeing the unisex restroom sign, but whereas women proceeded into the restroom, the majority of men turned away. Why, I wondered, did men appear to experience greater discomfort with unisex restrooms?

To gain insight into this de facto gendered exclusion, I asked several colleagues about their attitudes toward multi-user unisex restrooms, and whether they had used such a restroom at the conference. Men expressed far greater discomfort, and were more likely to have avoided such restrooms. Their concerns centered on the potential for misinterpretation if they were mistakenly perceived to be watching women, and the possibility that their presence might make the women uncomfortable. Men who actually had braved the unisex restrooms stated that differences in gendered restroom cultures only added to their discomfort. Women are more relaxed and chatty in public restrooms and make less effort to avoid eye contact or adjacent stalls (Moore, 2012); both behaviors violate stricter male norms of restroom etiquette.

These findings are consistent with extant research: Despite paternalistic motivations for sex-segregated restrooms (Kogan, 2010), men express a greater sense of vulnerability and discomfort in public multi-user (single-sex) restrooms than women do. Concerns about “being watched and being mistakenly perceived to be watching” (Moore, 2012) result in strict norms of avoiding interaction and eye contact and respecting personal space (Middlemist, 1976). This apparently homophobic fear of sexual assault and stigma (if perceived as gay) might be alleviated by the presence of women in a multi-user unisex restroom, but instead men recast their anxieties into a heterosexual context. The fear that they might be perceived as watching women, and the fear that women might be made uncomfortable or afraid echoes men’s own experiences and emotions in all-male restrooms.

In reality, these fears may be exaggerated: Women did not express discomfort or concern about sharing restrooms, possibly because sexual assault would be unlikely in a crowded restroom.

Although initially interested in the present-day gender dynamics multi-user unisex restrooms, my investigation sparked an interest in the history—and likely future—of sex-segregated restrooms. Why are restrooms sex-segregated at all, even when they are single-user? Men and women generally share toilets in private life—there is clearly no biological necessity for segregation. Rather, according to author and law professor Terry S. Kogan (2010), sex-segregated single-user restrooms are a relic of Victorian-era prudery, anxiety over women’s entry into new social roles, and beliefs about women’s vulnerability. Today, the sex segregation of single-user restrooms has actually been codified into law in several states—a rule which proponents of “potty parity,” such as Slate writer Ted Trautman, argue is silly and inefficient.

Clearly, there is a movement in favor of de-gendering single-user restrooms, but will multi-user unisex restrooms become the new normal? In my brief research, I did not locate many advocates of unisex multi-user restrooms—apparently, ASA is in the avant garde of potty parity.

In my estimation, we are unlikely to see broad adoption of multi-user unisex restrooms anytime soon. The controversy over unisex single-user restrooms suggests that we are far from an era of gender-neutral toileting.


ASA. “Access for All at the Annual Meeting.”

Beck, Julie. 2014. “The Private Lives of Public Bathrooms.” The Atlantic.…

Haslam, Nick. 2012. Psychology in the Restroom. New York: Palgrave MacMillon.

Kogan, Terry. 2010. “Sex Segregation: The Cure-all for Victorian Social Anxiety.” In Harvey Molotch and Laura Noren, editors. Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing. New York: New York University Press.

Lucal, Betsy. 1999. “What it Means to be Gendered Me: Life on the Boundaries of a Dichotomous Gender System.” Gender & Society 13(6):781-797.

Middlemist, R.D., E.S. Knowles, and C.F. Matter. 1976. “Personal Space Invasions in the Lavatory: Suggestive Evidence for Arousal.” Journal of Personal Social Psychology 33(5):541-546.

Moore, Sarah E. H., and Simon Breeze. 2012. “Spaces of Male Fear: The Sexual Politics of Being Watched.” British Journal of Criminology 52(6):1172-1191.

Trautman, Ted. 2014. “Restrooms Are an Outdated Relic of Victorian Paternalism.” Slate.…

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