Why are single-occupancy bathrooms segregated by gender?
May 17, 2016 8:06 AM   Subscribe

My workplace is in the process of converting all of the single-occupancy restrooms into gender neutral bathrooms. My questions is, why were they segregated by gender in the first place?

More generally, why does anywhere do this? I can sort of understand why multiple-occupancy bathrooms might be segregated by gender, but it just makes no sense to me for single-occupancy bathrooms. This has occurred to me in places as I've waited for the "Men's" bathroom while a perfectly good "Women's" single-occupancy bathroom sat unused. So, why the segregation? Are there laws requiring that businesses have both a "Men's" and a "Women's" room? Is this related to the things that businesses think their customers want? Is it just a "way things have always been done" that businesses haven't clearly thought about? Something else?
posted by Betelgeuse to Society & Culture (38 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
My guess is that it has something to do with urinals, but your guess is as good as mine.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:06 AM on May 17, 2016


Mostly, it's just because it's the way things have always been done. Women's restrooms used to be the only private place to change a baby's diaper, so they had to be bigger.
posted by Etrigan at 8:08 AM on May 17, 2016 [1 favorite]


I think it has to do with gendered cultural norms around cleanliness.
posted by vunder at 8:10 AM on May 17, 2016 [46 favorites]


I'm mystified by this too, and if I needed to use a john, and the men's was empty and there was a wait for the women's, I felt NO compunction about going in there and using it.

In Europe, the stalls in restrooms are completely private, so even there, I'd feel comfortable in my own mini room even if I were next door to a dude.

We are a nation of Puritans, and sometimes because of it, we suck.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:12 AM on May 17, 2016 [8 favorites]


Vunder is correct. I worked in a building where the men's and women's bathroom were both single occupancy, both identical in every respect, but on opposite sides of the building. If anyone used the "wrong" one there was hell to pay.
posted by Outlawyr at 8:13 AM on May 17, 2016


Why are single-occupancy bathrooms segregated by gender?

Because of the splattering, caused by the sit-not-downs.
posted by Namlit at 8:14 AM on May 17, 2016 [12 favorites]


Some (many?) men are uncomfortable with the concept of feminine hygeine products. Potentially some women might be uncomfortable with non-family men in the same rest room (think cameras?). As well, it might be "classier" to have the gendered restrooms (as well as the "way things are done" (on preview, others are also saying this). The reception area where I work has two single user restrooms with the standard gender placards (no urinal; just one toilet and a locking door). I've noticed a number of women just use the men's room if the women's room is locked.

I would not feel comfortable using the (labeled) women's restroom (there's a non-locking "multi user" second rest room ~100 feet away with a stall and a urinal) (for fear of invading a potential safe space). I've noticed one of the company's VIP use the women's room if the men's room is locked on multiple occaisions, but he's the sole person I've witnessed do this.
posted by nobeagle at 8:18 AM on May 17, 2016 [3 favorites]


This has occurred to me in places as I've waited for the "Men's" bathroom while a perfectly good "Women's" single-occupancy bathroom sat unused.

First off, I call shenanigans on your question. It's never the women's loo that's available, always the men's.

But to your point, there's a wiki page that explains how historically only men were expected to/permitted to use public toilets at all, so women's loos were an add-on as they gained more freedom.
posted by headnsouth at 8:20 AM on May 17, 2016 [25 favorites]


I haven't read the whole thing, but I saw this posted on Facebook this morning. From Gender-Segregated Public Bathrooms Have A Long, Ugly History by Shannon Keating:
By 1920, 43 other states had joined Massachusetts in mandating gender separation in public restrooms. Terry S. Kogan, a law professor at the University of Utah, writes in “Sex Separation: The Cure-All For Victorian Social Anxiety” that “policymakers were motivated to enact toilet separation laws aimed at factories as a result of deep social anxieties over women leaving their homes — their appropriate ‘separate sphere’ — to enter the workforce.”

Though women had been leaving their homes to work in factories for decades, Kogan writes, the end of the 19th century saw a conflation of multiple social anxieties, from cholera panic left over from the Civil War to Victorian preoccupations with modesty and privacy, particularly concerning the body and bodily functions, to the mounting task of “protecting” fragile women in the public sphere. At the same time, burgeoning evolutionary biologists were peddling the theory that women were physically and mentally inferior to men. Thus, a collision of Victorian paternalism and junk science birthed the gender-segregated public restroom.

As women became more active in various aspects of public life, they had to be fitted into the interstitial spaces of a world that had not been built for them. (Male) architects and (male) city planners began to section off areas for them to exist out in the world, but without radically disrupting the precious social fabric of Man’s Land. These male decision-makers created separate spaces for women in everything from railroad cars to department stores to post offices. Public libraries, long since “bastions of male status that often excluded women,” began cordoning off women’s spaces as soon as they were provided any access (since some men were concerned that women would be “disruptive to the concentration of serious readers”). These spaces, decorated like living rooms and stocked with women’s magazines, provided discreet access to separate women’s restrooms, precursors to the fancy ladies’ rooms that can still be found today in high-end hotels and country clubs. Apparently, if a woman needed to venture into the messiness of a man’s world in the late 19th century, she had to be placed within a familiar pocket of domesticity.

More than that, however, her weaker body needed to be protected from the bathroom’s threat of dirt and disease. Kogan points out that many of the first laws mandating gender separation in water closets were actually “adopted by states as amendments to and extensions of earlier protective labor legislation aimed at women workers; these laws were not intended as neutral regulations for the mutual benefit of men and women alike.”

But of course, these comfortable, domestic, and hygienic safe havens were only ever afforded to white women. Decades before the “men in dresses will attack vulnerable ladies” ruse would be used to justify anti-trans bathroom discrimination, insinuations that racially desegregating public restrooms would harm white women proved a formidable barrier to achieving civil rights for black Americans. Today’s bugbear of the queer sexual deviant is directly preceded by the profoundly racist assumption, popularized after World War II, that black men would prey on white women should racial parity be established in public restrooms. As Gillian Frank detailed last November for Slate, the perceived sexual threat of sharing bathrooms with black people was coupled with a sanitary one — white women “emphasized that contact with black women in bathrooms would infect them with venereal diseases.” While separate women’s restrooms were indeed the product of sexist beliefs regarding women’s fragility and (lack of) power, white women were still afforded far more favorable restroom conditions than women of color — conditions they maintained for themselves through racist fearmongering.
posted by lazuli at 8:24 AM on May 17, 2016 [90 favorites]


In some localities, it may also have to do with code requirements, though that wouldn't explain why your workplace is able to convert them to gender-neutral bathrooms now. But when my Quaker meeting built a meetinghouse a few years ago, the building code required specific numbers of men's and women's rooms based on building occupancy, with a specific ratio of women's to men's rooms. For our purposes, this meant we had to have two stalls in the women's room, and a single-occupancy bathroom designated as a men's room.

I'm sure that once inspections were over it would have no problem to re-designate the single-occupancy bathroom as gender-neutral. But at the point of construction, this is what we were required to have.
posted by not that girl at 8:24 AM on May 17, 2016 [3 favorites]


Because of the splattering, caused by the sit-not-downs.

Some gobshite will always leave the seat down and then piss all over it.
posted by biffa at 8:35 AM on May 17, 2016 [5 favorites]


You have to have gendered bathrooms in many municipalities, whether those bathrooms are single or multiple occupancy. The fact that they're single-use plays no part in whether or not you have to have bathrooms that are separated by gender.
posted by xingcat at 8:45 AM on May 17, 2016 [3 favorites]


For those who have suggested that there are legal requirements for single-occupancy bathrooms to be segregated by gender, do you have some references for that (even for an individual municipality)? I could find nothing in my Google searches, at least in part because the top results were flooded with stuff about the NC Law.
posted by Betelgeuse at 8:49 AM on May 17, 2016


I just got done reading that Buzzfeed piece, which is pretty thorough. It probably ultimately comes down to "but but but you have to have them separate!" for signage on single unit toilets.

Over the past 5 years, I've seen many of those signs get changed to "Family Bathroom", which generally implies a changing table inside. Often only one of the available single-unit bathrooms originally got a changing table, and it was the "woman" one, because men certainly never ever go out in public with a diapered child and- oh really? oops.

My Target, oddly enough, has men/women multi-stall rooms plus a single-seater that has the traditional pantsdude/skirtlady/wheelchair sign but says UNISEX.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:52 AM on May 17, 2016 [1 favorite]


Pissing on the toilet seat. This was probably one of the only things mandated by consideration for cis gendered women, ever. It is likely, and I have seen this in action, that women's restrooms in work situations are decorated at times, stocked with menstrual supplies, and well maintained. The men's facilities, which I will use in a pinch anywhere anytime, are usually stern and bare, then if you have your car worked on and ask to use the facility the guys are all over themselves apologizing about how gross it is in there, and I always say, no problem, I am not picky. No one is going to question a man, coming out of the singular bathroom with a baby he has just changed.
posted by Oyéah at 8:56 AM on May 17, 2016 [2 favorites]


It's based on experience. Most men do not leave a restroom as tidy as most women would like it. It's gross to follow after some strange guy and have to put the seat down over his splatters. It makes me want to gag.
posted by myselfasme at 9:04 AM on May 17, 2016 [10 favorites]


For those who have suggested that there are legal requirements for single-occupancy bathrooms to be segregated by gender, do you have some references for that (even for an individual municipality)? I could find nothing in my Google searches, at least in part because the top results were flooded with stuff about the NC Law.

New York State 2010 Plumbing Code (currently in use), Chapter 4, Section 403.2 Separate facilities: Where plumbing fixtures are required, separate facilities shall be provided for each sex.

Exceptions are provided for dwellings and small mercantile or tenant spaces.

The 2010 code is being replaced this year, but I haven’t gotten a look at the new code yet.
posted by Kriesa at 9:05 AM on May 17, 2016


Pissing on the toilet seat. This was probably one of the only things mandated by consideration for cis gendered women, ever.

Women piss on the seat ALL THE TIME though. Apparently a lot of women who work on my floor have flower-petal-delicate asses that mustn't ever come in contact with a toilet seat, because I have to wipe piss off the toilet in the women's room about half the time I go in there.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:17 AM on May 17, 2016 [46 favorites]


A bit off topic, but in NY City, when I visit, I note that space costs so much that bathrooms are usually way down underground, with steep stairs to get to them. They often, though, have a disabled small bathroom on the ground level. I note that women often use this for convenience even though not disabled. It is irksome for me, at my age, with a bad knee to use the stairs so that the disabled is very helpful
Much of what you discuss here is simply a result of older conventions. I believe that our colleges are in the forefont of seeing a change. Here is a bathroom. First come, first use.
posted by Postroad at 9:18 AM on May 17, 2016


Seriously, it's not piss on the toilet seat, women who think public bathrooms are "gross" and hover over the seat are terrible offenders. I've probably seen a million piss-covered toilet seats in women's public bathrooms in my lifetime.
posted by stoneandstar at 9:28 AM on May 17, 2016 [7 favorites]


New York State 2010 Plumbing Code (currently in use), Chapter 4, Section 403.2 Separate facilities: Where plumbing fixtures are required, separate facilities shall be provided for each sex.

This is probably arising from the time when certain buildings didn't provide restroom facilities for women at all. A few years ago I saw a BBC documentary on changes in the profession of barrister (who wear, or used to, a distinctive gown and wig in court) and one of the men commented that the changing room provided for men at the court was much nicer than that for women, which had been added/converted later.
posted by praemunire at 9:44 AM on May 17, 2016 [2 favorites]


When I was at library school the women's washroom on my department's floor had a chez lounge just inside the entrance for some reason, and a friend of mine asked "Is it there in case I get the vapors?"
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:49 AM on May 17, 2016 [1 favorite]


I've seen piss on the seat when the new little handle on the edge or seat covers/ample toilet paper have been provided.

The first college I attended had unisex bathrooms on their all gender floors. They were far cleaner than the ones on the all women ones.
posted by brujita at 10:31 AM on May 17, 2016 [3 favorites]


It's not just the seats. It's the sticky floors. The smell (!!!). I've used men's restrooms in a pinch, and without exception they've been nastier, smellier, and unhygienic-er.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 10:35 AM on May 17, 2016 [2 favorites]


I have to disagree with those claiming men's restrooms are grosser. In my experience, women's restrooms are grosser because they are more heavily used.
posted by blnkfrnk at 11:05 AM on May 17, 2016 [1 favorite]


[Folks, the point about one or the other being more gross has been well-covered; maybe let's steer this back toward "are there official rules?" and/or "what are the recorded reasons?"]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 11:15 AM on May 17, 2016 [6 favorites]


The codes that require it are usually in places where some buildings are old enough that they don't have (enough) women's rooms. You can see this sometimes in ancient colleges which didn't go coed until the seventies. If they hadn't been required to put in womens' rooms at parity with mens' rooms they just wouldn't. We just changed the single sex "teacher" bathrooms at the public school I work in to gender neutral (not because of a lawsuit, just because it's a smart idea!) and its been wonderful.
posted by jessamyn at 11:17 AM on May 17, 2016


Purely anecdotal, but in 2002 or so, in NYC, I was part of a small company moving into a new space that had to be built out. There were two single-occupancy bathrooms, and the reason they were initially each gendered was simply because the store that sold the bathroom signs had them in gendered packs of two. Once pointed out, everyone agreed it was pretty silly, so we got new signs.
posted by nobody at 11:27 AM on May 17, 2016 [5 favorites]


So, I just looked at the 2015 International Plumbing Code which will be coming into effect in New York, and chapter 4 has an additional section addressing this: “403.2.1 Family or assisted-use toilet facilities serving as separate facilities. Where a building or tenant space requires a separate toilet facility for each sex and each toilet facility is required to have only one water closet, two family or assisted-use toilet facilities shall be permitted to serve as the required separate facilities. Family or assisted-use toilet facilities shall not be required to be identified for exclusive use by either sex as required by Section 403.4”
posted by Kriesa at 12:26 PM on May 17, 2016 [2 favorites]


I lived in New York City for 12 years, after which I moved to Los Angeles.

It was my experience that, in NYC, single occupancy public restrooms are virtually always non-gendered. It is my experience in Los Angeles that they are virtually always gendered. Even when dealing with something like Starbucks, where theoretically they are the same company with a central real estate/architecture department overseeing these things on a mass scale, nationwide.

This leads me to believe that either it is a matter of local ordinance/building codes, or that there is such a strong cultural taboo against unisex toilets outside of NYC that companies that know unisex is a possibility in certain markets still choose not to do so across the board.

As to why a company could change if it was local law, there may be variations in how building codes are applied for different types of use (public commercial use like a coffee shop requires gendered restrooms, whereas private use may not), or as nobody points out, the bathrooms were originally gendered out of habit/what signs came in the pack and not for any specific purpose.
posted by Sara C. at 12:27 PM on May 17, 2016 [2 favorites]


Looking at the Minnesota building code, for example, they've adopted the 2012 International Builders Code. So for minimum number of fixtures you get this -
1305.2902 SECTION 2902, MINIMUM PLUMBING FACILITIES.
Subpart 1. IBC section 2902.1. IBC section 2902.1 is amended to read as follows:
2902.1 Minimum number of fixtures. Plumbing fixtures shall be provided for the type of occupancy and in the minimum number shown in Table 2902.1. Types of occupancies not shown in Table 2902.1 shall be considered individually by the building official. The number of occupants shall be determined by this code. Occupancy classification shall be determined in accordance with Chapter 3.
The table in question isn't on the state's website as far as I can tell, but this appears to be the table from the IBC. Note the separate columns for male and female waterclosets and lavatories. Also, there's this footnote for "separate facilites" -
[P] 2902.2 Separate facilities.
Where plumbing fixtures are required, separate facilities shall be provided for each sex.

Exceptions:

1. Separate facilities shall not be required for dwelling units and sleeping units.
2. Separate facilities shall not be required in structures or tenant spaces with a total occupant load, including both employees and customers, of 15 or less.
3. Separate facilities shall not be required in mercantile occupancies in which the maximum occupant load is 100 or less.
posted by cnelson at 2:23 PM on May 17, 2016 [1 favorite]


jessamyn: "The codes that require it are usually in places where some buildings are old enough that they don't have (enough) women's rooms. You can see this sometimes in ancient colleges which didn't go coed until the seventies."

Also in high schools and university/colleges that were co-ed but had trade programs. It was so unusual for women to take trade programs that there are often only men's washrooms in theses areas. One of the universities I worked in had complete locker rooms, large wash up areas and change rooms plus toilets/urinals for the men and then a tiny little space for women that was converted from a storage room decades after the trades building was initially built. Before that there was only a single women's restroom next to the main office for the area (because that is where the women in the department worked). The same for my high school built in the late 40s. The trades area only had a mens bathroom.
posted by Mitheral at 3:00 PM on May 17, 2016


I worked for 4 months at a company with a single toilet shared between perhaps 20 people of mixed gender. Despite the cleaner only visiting weekly, that was the cleanest public toilet I have ever had the pleasure of using. The job before that had an excess of toilets almost entirely used by middle aged middle class men. By the end of every day, at least 1/3 of them would be pretty much unusable due to urine or worse.

It was obviously a mixture of embarrassment and accountability that kept that toilet clean. It would be interesting to run some experiments to see to what extent that was driven by the shared genders as opposed to it just being a single toilet.
posted by leo_r at 3:05 PM on May 17, 2016 [2 favorites]


Following up on the above: the way most municipalities adopt building codes is that they'll adopt a specific code (usually a specific year of the International Building Code) and then (maybe) add their own amendments. Because not all municipalities switch to a different code version every year, local building codes can lag far behind the latest editions. The 2015 International Building Code, Chapter 29: Plumbing Systems does not require that family or assisted-use toilet facilities be identified for exclusive use by either sex, so we can expect to see bathroom signs change for new builds. Slowly. (As with the NY examples above.)

For an example of the sorts of things included in municipal amendments to building codes, check out Denver's latest (PDF). It adds a few requirements not included in the vanilla 2015 IBC. Search for "2902" and you'll see the toilet room provisions, such as that Denver requires "a minimum of one hand-drying facility". You can also see that Denver (and other municipalities) don't bother to recreate the whole code themselves.

Simple-seeming omissions (like the exception for signs in the latest code that didn't exist in earlier versions) propagate over decades. It will take a long time for the existing signs to change, unless we make a point of asking building owners (and make sure that they're not actually violating the code applicable to them by making the change.)
posted by asperity at 3:29 PM on May 17, 2016


This will likely no longer be the case in California, BTW. Assembly already passed a bill requiring all single-occupancy restrooms to be gender neutral.
posted by thefoxgod at 4:08 PM on May 17, 2016 [1 favorite]


The fact that older buildings used to have no women's bathrooms at all -- the comments from praemunire and jessamyn reminded me of an example about the U.S. Supreme Court Building (built in 1932-35) that Ruth Bader Ginsburg has mentioned in various contexts: there was no women's bathroom next to the justices' robing room for the first 12 years (!) of Justice O'Connor's tenure. From the recent biography Notorious RBG by Carmon/Knizhnik:
And yet. For years, something had been missing. If Sandra Day O'Connor, the first female justice and the only one for her first twelve years, had to go to the bathroom, she had to scurry back to her chambers. There was only a men's bathroom by the Robing Room. A second woman, RBG, had to join the court for it to get a women's bathroom. The renovation was, RBG said triumphantly, "a sign women were there to stay."
posted by rangefinder 1.4 at 1:32 AM on May 18, 2016 [1 favorite]


Lazuli already got into this but the answer is basically sexism. It's a holdover from when women were not allowed to use public toilets at all because those were for men and it would be a scandal anyway if a women used a toilet or went into the area where men used toilets. And this was also a way to control women--they couldn't stay out of the house the way men could, and their dress made it inconvenient to use the toilet anyway. But when Victorian social reforms started happening and women began to work more outside the house, they had to address this, enter bathroom segregation by gender (single occupancy or not) and we are just now starting to get over this. I can't find the best article on this that I've read before but this one and this one are alright.
posted by Polychrome at 2:58 AM on May 18, 2016


I mean, bathrooms were separated by gender in the first instance as a means to exclude women and that segregation has just persisted. Now you might have some single-occupancy women's restrooms with a baby-changing station where you wouldn't have one in a men's restroom but that's more sexism.
posted by Polychrome at 3:19 AM on May 18, 2016


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