Shelley Bridgeman

Dwelling on injustices, bad behaviour and modern day dilemmas.

Shelley Bridgeman: What's the point of segregated bathrooms?

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Will public toilets become unisex in the future?
Photo / Thinkstock
Will public toilets become unisex in the future? Photo / Thinkstock

We've all been at clubs or functions where the queue for the women's bathroom snakes out the door and down the corridor but there's virtually no one using the men's room. In such instances the vast majority of women remain obediently in the queue and wait their turn in the correct loo but a few have been known to sneak into the men's bathroom instead.

I've done it twice. Once late at night somewhere and once at Newmarket's shopping mall in broad daylight when there were about twenty women waiting for a female cubicle while the men's was vacant. I marched in purposefully, eyes straight ahead, and feeling self-conscious although I was the only one there.

But I'd have felt equally self-conscious in the queue obeying some rule of etiquette that I don't quite understand. I'm not even sure what the point of segregated bathrooms is? Is it to protect young girls from older men? Or is it to protect young men from cougars? Is there some rationale to it or are the origins lost somewhere in history?

All I know is that something seems seriously wrong with the system when the ladies' loos are in hot demand but the men's are empty. It's certainly tempting to temporarily switch genders. I'm trying to get my head around whether that's a bad thing and whether men would find that inappropriate.

Evidently a San Diego man claimed he suffered "embarrassment and emotional distress" when he discovered women using the men's bathroom at a concert in 1995. He was fined for filing a frivolous lawsuit which didn't impress men's rights groups because the women were said to have been squatting over urinal troughs.

Recently, in an airport lounge I entered the women's bathroom only to be confronted by a man hastily leaving. He was very apologetic, muttering "Very sorry, very sorry" as he made his way out. I wasn't offended. The gentleman wasn't threatening; in fact, I found his obvious discomfort kind of funny.

I can see a case for unisex bathrooms - or co-ed washrooms as they call them in the US. And it would solve more problems than asymmetric demand for facilities at concerts and clubs. It would make things easier for parents when they're out with a young child of the opposite gender, disabled people who are cared for by a person of the opposite gender - and transgender people who fear harassment or embarrassment if they're discovered visiting the "wrong" bathroom.

Some fear that unisex bathrooms would become a hunting ground for paedophiles and flashers but countering arguments say that the presence of other men in the bathroom would help curb such dysfunctional behaviour. There are also concerns about cleanliness. It's believed in some quarters than men's bathrooms are not as clean as women's and there are concerns that standards will deteriorate in any merger. But that's the pessimistic view. Who's to say standards won't improve instead?

I predict a future in which unisex toilets slowly take over from segregated ones. There will be a gentle phasing in period during which they move from a novelty to the norm. And I for one will be glad not to face that occasional dilemma of whether to play the role of a compliant, passive female or buck the system in the men's bathroom.

Just one thing: please make sure the urinals are screened off from the main area. There's only so much sharing we can take.

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