Setting aside the usual serious issues of feminism that range from genital mutilation to sex trafficking to career glass ceilings, let’s look at the concept of separated bathrooms and their relevance in the 21st century. I started thinking about the topic when friend Dylan was complaining (and rightfully so) about there only being two toilets at his work for men while there are 4 for women. Considering that his workplace teaches up to a hundred construction workers at a time, the majority of which are male, this seems a little ridiculous.
The idea of separate bathrooms seems to be one that suggests that each sex must be spared the sight of the other performing that most taboo and deeply necessary act: voiding their bowls. While I am still a bit traumatized by the occasional woman who feels the need to leave the door open when she sits upon the porcelain throne, this is a rare occurrence and not enough of a reason to keep the bathrooms separate. Are we so scared of willies and vaginas that we have this bathroom apartheid? Or is it to create a ‘gurlz-only’ space? Its not a thought that occurs to everyone often, but there is an entire mythos around the women’s bathroom as a place of comfort, preparation and refuge. It has developed because there is this one space where men are excluded and most of them are fine with that.
The problem is that we are spitting in the face of equality a little bit by having these separate, gendered spaces. Women’s bathrooms are nearly always pink and smell like cheap lavender. (And contrary to popular belief, are often quite disgusting.) My admittedly limited experience with men’s bathrooms has led me to believe that they are generally quite dire places in need of some light and flowers. By combining them into one space perhaps we can start getting rid of the ridiculous constructs. After all, why can’t condoms, tampons, headache pills and KY jelly be dispensed from the same machine? (Maybe even beer and juice?)
I dream of a world where we are not scared of each other’s genitals, where women and men can share an intimate space and not be ashamed of a little fart here and there. Trendy restaurants in Joburg are starting to scrap separate bathrooms and I have yet to encounter problems with sharing them. Are we implying that every man ever is a sexual deviant who will sit outside your cubicle and wank while you pee, so they can’t share bathrooms with women? Or are women weak, fragile flowers that will faint at the sight of a strange penis? Come on. It’s just a penis. Just a vagina. We seek them so actively in pornography, but accidentally glimpsing one in a shared public bathroom is somehow a million times worse. I also don’t think men run about with willies displayed after the age of eight (at least, not sober) so I imagine it would be quite discreetly handled. And even then flashes of either set of genitals would be quite rare. I just felt that topic needed to be handled (sexily, even).
Men and women might be biologically different, but as long as that remains the basis of reasons to further divide the genders into separate rooms, separate hospital wards, we will continue to generate further reasons to be physically neurotic and mysterious. Both genders pee. Isn’t this enough common ground to quit this splitting of bathrooms? Especially amongst adults?
Besides, who knows what conversations we might strike up when we begin to share this intimate and yet utterly banal space? I know some people feel vulnerable in the bathroom as it is, but we’re vulnerable everywhere. I am particularly jittery in car parking lots myself. Friend Liza suggested that perhaps South Africa is not the kind of place where bathrooms should be shared, considering our unacceptable rape statistics. This is definitely a valid point. South Africa is quite often a scary place, but I don’t think rape is something that is going to be encouraged or discouraged by shared or separate bathrooms. It happens in them regardless of seperation, but I admit this might be more of a problem in clubs and pubs when alcohol starts becoming a problem and then ugly fingers get pointed because “she was drunk and there and asking for it,” as Liza suggested.
I am not advocating that we remove toilet stalls and have merry rows of open toilets where we can swap Pokemon cards or recipes or Playboy editions. Cubicles have their place, if only to safeguard us against those who do enjoy the occasional masturbation while at work. (This has happened to a female colleague of mine, who was using the bathroom and someone else was having, as she said, ‘happy fun times’.) I can understand that maybe kids should have separate bathrooms if only because children generally need supervision and can’t be supervised in the bathrooms all the time. But when we become adults, surely we can handle sharing a bathroom? We share cars, body fluids, coffee mugs, boardrooms, strip clubs and lip balms. Surely it is time we learned to share that one guaranteed space we all have to be in at least three times a day?