Following the latest Democratic debate, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump commented on Hillary Clinton’s long trip to the restroom during one of the breaks. He said, “I know where she went—it’s disgusting, I don’t want to talk about it,” followed by “No, it’s too disgusting. Don’t say it, it’s disgusting.” Clinton’s fellow Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, reflecting on Trump’s words, said Trump “has discovered that women go to the bathroom and it’s very upsetting for him,” adding that “I also went to the bathroom. I’ve got to admit it.” In this column, I will explore the sexism of having a separate “ladies’ room,” an important issue inadvertently exposed by Trump’s remarks.
Why Do Women Take Longer?
Anyone who has used a restroom at a crowded venue knows that the ladies’ room often has a long line of customers, while the men’s room typically has no queue at all. One reason for the disparity—perhaps the main reason—is that men can quickly use urinals without having to disrobe at all, while women must either pull down their pants and underpants or raise a skirt and lower underpants before doing their business. In addition, due to the efficiency of the urinal, men who need only urinate can leave the stalls empty for their bathroom colleagues who need to defecate, whereas women must always use the stalls. The women’s stalls therefore fill up quickly, creating a line, as men’s stalls remain empty.
Having empty men’s room stalls is, among other things, inefficient, especially when there is high demand for stalls just a few feet away, evidenced by a long line outside the ladies’ room. The obvious solution would be to convert bathrooms into a unisex affair. Then there would be no line so long as one or more stalls in either room were available.
When faced with the prospect of a unisex bathroom, opponents typically make two sorts of objections: safety-based and privacy-based. The safety-based objection holds that women are vulnerable to sexual assault when they are alone in a stall, and keeping men out of the area at such times enhances women’s safety. This is an empirical proposition that should be tested before we assume its truth. Installation of panic buttons in the restroom could also help allay this concern. Notably, people have raised a similar objection to permitting transgender women to use the ladies’ restroom, and this objection has proven to be a myth.
A second objection that people commonly make to unisex bathrooms regards privacy. According to this objection, women want privacy from the male gaze when they use the toilet. When I have raised the idea of mixed restrooms with friends, however, it has generally been the men rather than the women in the group who expressed an interest in guarding women’s privacy from co-ed bathrooms. Though hardly a random sample, the anecdotal experience I have had in raising the subject hints at what Donald Trump may have found so “disgusting” about the thought of Hillary Clinton using the toilet.
Some men may prefer to maintain the mystique around women’s bodies, and privacy around their bathroom use can support that mystique. As one male student put it in a feminist theory seminar I taught many years ago, women smell good and are clean and pretty, while “men are gross.” This way of thinking may also explain Donald Trump’s choice to keep marrying younger women as he gets older and his obnoxious comments about Carly Fiorina’s appearance (not to mention his peculiar admiration for his daughter’s body). Using the toilet and aging are both phenomena that Trump (and perhaps some other men) might prefer not to associate with women. They, like my student so many years ago, prefer to think of women as pretty, smiling, eternally youthful goddesses, and a shared experience in the restroom could disrupt the fantasy.
If I am right about what drives resistance to unisex restrooms, then Donald Trump may have performed a service by calling attention to the subtle sexism of separate restrooms. More of us, male and female alike, should demand unisex restrooms in the future. They’re more efficient as well as more consistent with fairness and the “first come, first served” ethic that generally governs access to a scarce public resource. Let us see an end to the long and winding lines to the women’s restroom, while men’s facilities remain vacant or nearly so. And if the sounds and smells of public bathrooms are a turn-off to people (which they presumably are for most, regardless of gender), then we can equip restrooms with sounds that drown out the unappealing sounds along with effective room deodorizers. And if the entire enterprise annoys Donald Trump, then so much the better.