I’m grossed out by public restrooms. I hate using them. And I have to all the time due to the amount of water I drink. I’m that person who’s in-and-out, holding my breath, trying not to to touch any surfaces, flushing with my foot, washing up quickly (with soap!), and using a paper towel or my foot to open the door. You will never see me using these vile spaces to primp, change clothes, or brush my teeth. Too unsanitary. And god forbid I have to wait in line for the privilege of exposing myself to a public petri dish. I will use the men’s, if I have to. I do not make eye contact, I do not look around the room, I do not chat or smile. My objectives are access and expediency.
What grosses me out more than public restrooms is this asinine controversy we’re currently having over who is allowed to use which room. This isn’t about protecting the sanctity of women’s rooms for little girls. I know it’s not, because we’re not talking about the staggering number of boys between the ages of infancy and (I swear I’ve seen this) 10 who walk right into women’s restrooms with their paranoid, overprotective mothers. Well, yeah, when the kid needs your help to pee, bring him in. But when he’s old enough to hold his own penis, send him next door. Otherwise he might create a threatening situation for the little girls we need to protect. Right?
Oh, this is OK? We don’t need to worry about young boys attacking young girls in public restrooms, or creating a threatening environment? It is socially acceptable for a fifth grade boy to be in what should be a gender-segregated room? Why? I don’t like it, but, like I said before, I’m trying to get in and out in as little time as possible, so I’m not really hanging on to this mild annoyance.
I like the unisex concept. Most of the restaurants I frequent in Phoenix do a row of one-seater, unisex rooms. Some have a single door that opens on to a unisex wash space, that branches into two separate hallways of stalls, one for each gender. My experience has been that putting the genders in close proximity to each other for these private acts creates an enhanced environment of common courtesy and discretion. Social mores dictate that no one wants to be the leering creep at the sink, and the traffic flows quickly, as most people work to avoid being “that person”. One time I looked up from washing my hands, expecting my reflection in the requisite over-sink mirror, and instead meeting the eyes of a very handsome man. Startled, we smiled shyly at each other and moved on.
I’ve not been assaulted in a public restroom. I’ve never felt threatened by an individual or group in one. I’ve never sensed someone was in the room with me who shouldn’t be (aside from the 10 year-old boy, meh). In fact, the more people in the public restroom, the safer I feel. I feel tense using a public restroom in an isolated location that is desolate of people. Public park restrooms are probably among the most disgusting and risky (for reasons both microbiological and ontological) and I only use them when desperate.
This is what public restrooms are for–a place to relieve the pressure. And they are for all of us. Period. The social order of how people use these rooms (and there is a strict social order) isn’t going to change, nor does it need to. Every person knows in which room they belong, and they walk through the corresponding door. We all feel the invisible barrier that exists before the room that doesn’t belong to us. No one needs to make that determination for someone else.
The rule is, if you need to use it, you do.
I saw an elegant solution to the problem we’re currently creating last summer when I was visiting Manhattan. I was sitting in Washington Square Park, watching the fishbowl. I’d just used the extremely crowded women’s restroom. I watched as a woman tried to decide which room her four year-old son should use. The women’s was a zoo, so she sent him into the men’s, where she hovered anxiously outside the door, trying to keep watch over him without violating that sacred space. A man washing up at a sink inside noticed and said, “just come in, come in”, beckoning to her. In that moment, he understood that it made more sense for a mother to watch over her child from the inside, than to preserve the social order. Grateful, she went in. Society did not collapse. No little girls were attacked.
How about this–let’s trust the social order and allow individuals to use public restrooms. Period.