(Alyssa Finfer ’19 wrote this with special consultation by her friend, Siena Wise, Wellesley College, ’19 in response to the pilot program to remove locks from the women’s bathrooms on Princeton’s campus.)

I understand that many of you, especially those who are cisgender[1] women, are unhappy or nervous about the deactivation of the passcodes on the women’s restrooms. As a cisgender woman myself, I completely understand the need to feel safe from sexual harassment and assault. However, fighting against the removal of these passcodes will neither decrease nor increase the instances of sexual harassment and assault on campus. Instead, it will actually decrease gender equity by enforcing unnecessary and archaic policies of gender segregation that not only prevent people from using the bathrooms that correctly correspond with their gender, but also perpetuate an antiquated stereotype of women as weak and vulnerable.

First of all, many have agreed with me that it is blatantly sexist for the women’s bathrooms to be protected by a passcode lock while the men’s bathrooms are not. I have personally been in situations where I was visiting a male friend in a dorm I didn’t live in and was denied the basic right of access to a restroom because he didn’t know the passcode. On the other hand, I have also been in situations where I was in a male friend’s dorm and he informed me of the code, which refutes the notion that the passcodes would somehow magically prevent any males from entering the women’s restrooms if they so desired.

The argument that the removal of the passcodes presents a danger to cisgender women overlooks a major historical reality: segregation of restrooms by gender is a social product of the Victorian era and unfounded in concerns about anatomical sex differences or sexual assault. According to a Time article that summarizes the research of Terry S. Kogan, who studies the history of gender segregated bathrooms, as women began to enter the male world of the workplace in the late 19th century,

“often in the new factories that were being built at the time, there was a reluctance to integrate [women] fully into public life. Women, policymakers argued, were inherently weaker and still in need of protection from the harsh realities of the public sphere. Thus, separate facilities were introduced in nearly every aspect of society: women’s reading rooms were incorporated into public libraries; separate train cars were established for women, keeping them in the back to protect them in the event of a crash; and, with the advent of indoor bathrooms that were then in the process of replacing single-person outhouses, separate loos soon followed. The suggested layouts of restrooms,” says Kogan, “were designed to mimic the comforts of home—think curtains and chaise lounges.”

“[Ladies’ rooms] were adopted to create this protected haven in this dangerous public realm,” says Kogan.

As Kogan notes in an essay titled “Sex Separation: The Cure-All for Victorian Social Anxiety,” contrary to common belief, restroom segregation didn’t emerge from “anatomical differences between men and women,” it emerged from the Victorian rhetoric of women as the weaker sex. This sort of harmful and outdated rhetoric has no place on a 21st century college campus.

Although sexual assault is a real and significant problem on college campuses (including our own), and we should always take concerns about sexual assault seriously, the notion that segregated restrooms, let alone passcodes on segregated restrooms, will prevent cisgender women from being sexually assaulted is erroneous. First of all, many cisgender men on campus know the passcodes for the women’s restrooms near them, ruining the point of having passcodes in the first place. Furthermore, as Kogan notes, sexually predatory men lurking in women’s restrooms didn’t bring about the creation of separate men’s and women’s restrooms, but vice versa: the existence of segregated restrooms fosters the all too common notion that “that women are inherently vulnerable and in need of protection when in public, while men are inherently predatory” (164), a stereotype harmful to both genders. Lastly, as the Time article notes, it is not even cisgender women who are at risk for sexual harassment and assault in the bathroom:

Research does show that trans people may be at risk in bathroom situations—a 2013 survey by the Williams Institute found that 70% of trans people reported experiencing denial of access, verbal harassment or physical assault in an attempt to use the bathroom—but Kogan says the idea that all women are in increased danger in mixed or gender-neutral bathrooms doesn’t make sense, as predators “are not waiting for permission to dress up like a woman to go into bathrooms.”

This statement leads me to my final point: since segregated bathrooms are the product of outdated sexist rhetoric in the first place and cisgender women aren’t really at risk for sexual assault even in a gender neutral bathroom, why shouldn’t we give our transgender,[2] non-conforming,[3] and questioning peers the opportunity to use the bathroom they feel most comfortable in? The new housing policy hopefully will enable all transgender students who desire a private bathroom to have access to one, but we can’t assume that our transgender peers will never end up needing to use a restroom in a dorm that lacks private bathrooms. It is unfair and dehumanizing to our transgender and gender-nonconforming peers to force them into single-stall and private bathrooms simply because people in a women’s restroom are too scared to allow people in who may not fit their specific binary notion of “female.” All people deserve to be able to use the restroom that makes them feel the most comfortable and aligns best with their gender identity without feeling unsafe. We shouldn’t strictly confine ourselves to the idea that only cisgender women are welcome in the women’s room and only cisgender men are welcome in the men’s room: instead of forcing transgender students to retreat to the nearest private bathroom (which may not be near at all), we should welcome transgender and non-conforming students into the restroom they feel most comfortable in, even if they do not fit in the narrow definitions of “male” and “female” society has taught us. Instead of relying on Victorian notions of gender in a modern world, we should do the best we can to make Princeton an inclusive and welcoming place for people of all genders, starting by making restrooms equally accessible for all.

Works Cited

Kogan, Terry S. “Sex Separation: The Cure-All for Victorian Social Anxiety.” Toilet: Public

Restrooms and the Politics of Separation. Edited by Harvey Molotch and Laura Norén.

NYU Press, 2010. JSTOR. Web. 6 Feb. 2017.

Rhodan, Maya. “Why Do We Have Men’s and Women’s Bathrooms Anyway?” Time. 16 May

  1. Web. 6 Feb. 2017.

 

[1] “Cisgender” refers to someone whose gender identity is the same as the gender they were assigned at birth.

[2] “Transgender” refers to someone whose gender identity differs from the gender they were assigned at birth.

[3] “Gender non-conforming” refers to someone whose gender identity does not strictly fit into the categories of “male” or “female.”

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