Father Tony

Shared Bathrooms - An Immodest Proposal

Filed By Father Tony | April 22, 2010 10:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: gender neutral, immodest proposal, men's bathroom, shared spaces, unisex bathrooms, women's bathroom

Dear Father Tony,

You should talk about the benefits of unisex public bathrooms for all people and I mean ALL men, women and trans. They would be much safer for everybody except maybe George Michael.


Dear Sherman,

OK. I'll open the can of worms you're handing me.

First off, I'm guessing Mr. Michaels' affection for public restrooms is on the wane. (I've already written about my conviction that many men naturally like to have plein air public sex on the fly and that there ought to be "theme-park-style" facilities for it that would eliminate the usage of public restrooms for that activity. Let's avoid a rehash of that.)

I also watched Antonia D'orsay's recent first Bilerico video in which she talks about modesty in terms of public bathrooms. (Haven't yet gotten to the second two.) I'd like to frame my response with thoughts about what is gained or lost if all public bathrooms become unisex, and more importantly, whether modesty is actually a virtue.

Here is the Merriam-Webster definition of modesty:

Pronunciation: \?mä-d?-st?\
Function: noun
Date: 1531
1 : freedom from conceit or vanity?
2 : propriety in dress, speech, or conduct

For our purposes, the second definition is key. Would universally accessible public bathrooms containing sinks, urinals, baby-changing boards and stalls result in impropriety in dress, speech or action?

With very little redesign, they would not.

I think that many people confuse modesty with privacy.

As things stand today, most public bathrooms do not afford much privacy. Long rows of urinals absolutely invite mutual inspection of exposed penises even when there is no sexual interest. The doors on stalls always contain gaps on both the hinge and latch sides that allow passing but clear views of the seated occupants. The sounds of urination and defecation are amplified by tile surfaces that rival the clear acoustics of concert halls and ancient stone amphitheaters.

No, privacy is not what will be lost. What will be lost is the illusion of sanctuary that many people associate with entering a public or private multi-person bathroom restricted to their own sex.

What will be lost is a feeling of seclusion because the redesign of such spaces would have to eliminate their appeal as places for predators to victimize people. Consider the updated design of stairwells in multilevel parking garages. The newer ones are often walled with glass to increase the visibility and the safety of the user. Redesigned public bathrooms should follow suit. The opacity of stalls should not be eliminated but I see no reason why the exterior walls of public restrooms have to be floor to ceiling concrete or brick or masonry or wood. Clear panels to keep out inclement weather and to contain unsavory odors ought to be sufficient. And as an interim measure for those who feel they will be menaced in a public bathroom thrown open to all sexes and orientations, let there be emergency buttons in all the stalls that would sound a loud alarm and call a policeman. I would predict that those buzzers would give comfort but be very rarely pressed.

I think we should also keep in mind that today, any one of us could don the appropriate disguise that would allow us to enter a bathroom labeled for our opposites. It is entirely silly to presume that the icon on the bathroom door guarantees us protection from emptying our bladders or viscera shoulder to shoulder and thigh to thigh with folks who are supposed to stay out.

If modesty is propriety, what is impropriety? That same Merriam-Webster defines it as an "indecorous act or remark". Not very specific. I think the definition ought to be expanded to include the fact that among the like-minded an act that has propriety might in "mixed company" have impropriety. I'll give you an example. I have been in public venues in which I had sex in the very close company of men, women and the transgendered. No impropriety was involved because everyone present was an informed and consenting participant or observer. I have also been to Christmas parties in private homes in the course of which some guests under the influence of eggnog and mistletoe have acted out sexually in a way that shocked and offended some of the other guests. Those latter occasions ought probably to be classified under impropriety.

I do not think that those who fear opening up public restrooms to all variety of humans have any real basis for their fear. I do not think that unbridled and frenzied nudity and bacchanalian sex will be the result. It's not like we are all going to start playing Twister in airport conveniences.

So, Sherman, I've just written 725 words on a subject that I consider downright ridiculous. I really need to go to the bathroom, but in honor of your question, I'll keep the door open.

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Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | April 22, 2010 11:23 AM

Fr Tony, I would like to chime in with three examples of various peculiarity drawn over three decades. Once I used the facilities at the Florence Train station which assured me that if an atomic bomb would drop I would at least have a place to,,,well, you know. The door was of hardened wood and closed like a vault with a lock that would have kept out an invading army. Within was a squat toilet even with the floor and enough room on either side for a banquet table. My mind was alive with potential possibilities! Looking around, there was no toilet paper.

Years later when suffering from Travelers complaint at a trade show the "gents" single seat was occupied, but the ladies next door was unoccupied (three seats) so an urgent call took me there and shortly after my relief three church lady types entered the room who never stopped talking for five minutes. Having heard enough I double checked my Zipper and walked out of the stall to say: "Sorry ladies, I have been ill." and left. Hours later I heard one of them yell out: "It was him wasn't it?" No legal action and had it occurred I would have presumed a male judge who would have understood.

Yesterday, in the nearby city of Sri Racha I had taken a lady friend to the dentist in a hospital and in the gents was greeted pleasantly by a Thai woman cleaning the floor. Instead of using the urinal I used the stall.

From this I conclude that bathrooms are not the problem. Urinals must be eliminated and the signs should just read "toilet."

I would appreciate the support of my transgender fellow travelers.

Just make sure there are closeable, lockable doors on the stalls.

I forgot to add though that for some reason, men seem to get great joy peeing all over the seat of the toilet. So the style I have heard about where the entire stall is enclosed in a way that it can get a complete washdown between users is the best.

Uh, they don't do it as much, but women pee on the seats too--those 'hoverers' who are afraid to get their *own* butts contaminated, so they just contaminate everyone else's! Personally, if I am anxious about the seat, I just line it with lots of TP...if I used a lot like that (or went to some all-day event where I didn't trust the seats), I'd prolly just carry some wipes with me.

Well, of course, this certainly *isn't* France, and never will be, but there many, many restrooms are unisex. They have little rooms for stalls, completely enclosed with a real, solid door with a lock, and then sinks and mirrors and such out in the common area. Noone makes much a big deal of it. I did feel somewhat uncomfortable doing grooming in the mixed-sex areas, but no more than I do than in a unisex area (I hate for ppl to think I am struck on myself, when the opposite is really the truth).

Carol :)

The most serious lack of privacy I've encountered in public bathrooms are the ones that are designed to make it easier for sevurity guards to catch people "behaving badly". The most common problem cited being drug use.

These are the ones where the stall doors are about half the size of the actual stalls, giving anyone who wants to look over, even briefly, a decent view of the occupant. As an FTM, these stall doors, scare the crap out of me and make me feel extremely unsafe, but I can't avoid them. They're everywhere here in Seattle, especially places where large numbers of homeless people like me have to spend time, like the public library.

So the places I go to stay out of inclement weather, be safe, and have regular access to bathrooms also have stalls that provide a high level of stress for me.

Much more stress than a unisex restroom ever could.

Dear Lincoln Rose,
While "scaring the crap" out of someone in a stall might lead to an expedient turnover in attendance, I empathize with your discomfort. A better solution is in order.

Dear Sherman,

I hope you don't mind me joining in the comments section here to address your question, chiming in with Father Toni, as Dr. Toni.

Unisex bathrooms are actually a fairly good idea, and were the norm in public spaces (and are the norm in households all across the country) up until the early years of the 20th Century, when a wave of what we would call conservativism flowed over the country (the same period also resulted in the outlawry of various drugs and the foundation of modern drug laws, and led to the vast conservative social experiment of "prohibition", and was notable as well for the rise of that whole "women's liberation" thing in the US).

The driving factor there was the persistence of modesty, which Father Tony accurately defined in dictionary terms but didn't explore in terms of the social forces that shape and create it.

Culturally, modesty is one of the factors that ultimately shapes the relations between people, and since the focal aspect of this relation is still based in chastity and sexual modesty, the idea of doing such "personal things" in public became abhorrent.

Were a generation to be raised in such in manner that unisex toilets were all that were available, then there would indeed be much less difficulty, but it would take the resulting 60 or so years to work it's way through the cultural norms. Getting to that point, against a politically, legally, and socially entrenched view is going to be greatly difficult, and one is actually more likely to succeed in creating a third option, which is the single occupancy style approach so often seen under the guise of things like "family restroom".

So it's a great idea, but not immediately practical, as their use can actually be illegal in some venues and situations (an example being stadiums), even if they are infinitely more practical.

As to the notation you make regarding "men, women, and trans", a better statement would have been "people", as trans people are men, they are women, and they are both and neither and various combinations thereby.

Which is interestingly a good parallel for the idea of unisex restrooms -- they would, in the US, go over about as well as people using a unisex pronoun.

Dear Toni-with-an-i,
I did have a lot more to say on this but sometimes you have to let the post go and see what unfolds in the comments.

The way I see it, the crux of the problem is the single-serve lockable public restroom. It is impractical for many reasons, not the least of which is its utilization for purposes not intended including drug use, sex, sleep and all manner of activities that do not intrinsically involve the plumbing of the room or the user.

At our New York City Starbucks, (and Starbuck's is one of the few NYC places that have public bathrooms which are a godsend in the city) there are two single-serve bathrooms that are unisex. There are several homeless people who have lived on our block literally for years. They are known by name. They are part of our integral neighborhood family. When one of them enters one of those bathrooms, we know they will be in there for at least an hour. They are not paying customers and they use the room to get cleaned up and for many additional purposes while those of us who are caffeine reactive are forced to rush home (mercifully across the street). The staff can't keep up with this difficulty and they should not have to. I want to set aside the issue of homelessness which is something entirely separate and requires its own public facilities, and focus on the design of these bathrooms. Glass walls and doors that are not lockable are important. The stall doors should not reach the floor. There needs to be some visibility proving that there is only one occupant and that the occupant can be contacted if the staff becomes aware of misuse or a protracted stay. It is indeed time to get over what you correctly label our Prohibition era mentality. This will involve some major adjustments in the attitude and expectations of the general public.

rapid butterfly | April 23, 2010 8:50 AM

While I am not vehemently opposed to unisex multi-occupant bathrooms, I don't see them as necessary to deal with the reality of trans men and women. Let us use the facility consistent with our lived gender. Period.

I agree with Antonia as well that over time, unisex bathrooms may well lead to net cultural benefits, in the short run the difficulties would be substantial. And I will say as a trans woman, that statistically speaking I'm much less worried about being assaulted by other women than I am by men.

As Antonia did, I note the odd, and denigrating, use of "men, women, and trans" in the original question, and then a reference by the author to "men, women, and the transgendered" in the article. What's up with that? Takes one additional second to say, men, women, and non-binary identified or simply "gender queer." Or as Antonia suggested - "people."

These are subtle, non-argumentative "slanters" that, whether they're meant to or not, cast doubt on the legitimacy of the gender that non cis people identify with and live. These slanters matter. They make a difference. If the article author was unable to tell, in the sexual encounters he was describing, what gender was being claimed by some people nearby, then all he needed to have said was that he had sex in the close proximity of people across the gender spectrum.

I note that, given a chance to comment upon the same, the post author declined; which I do not find especially surprising.


Sorry if I seem annoying but bathroom privacy has been a problem for me since puberty, when I went to my family doctor with a kidney infection and found out I had other problems, as well. I have a severe problem with paruresis - shy or bashful bladder syndrome. I was in a small East Village restaurant in New York City, las fall, with very secure stalls within a unisex common area. There was a guy hanging outside my stall flirting with a woman who came in. It made me feel very uncomfortable.

I don't think humans are that much different than other species. It is well known that animals use their urine to mark their territory. It is also known that someone who is going through masculinizing treatments and is taking testosterone, will develop a different, metallic odor in their urine and sweat. I think this has a profound subliminal effect. There are many subtle differences like that between the sexes which are understood on an instinctual level but not a conscious one. It is not as simple for many people as falling into two unchangeable, distinctly separate sex categories, either. Where transgender people who are masculinizing or feminizing and transsexual people are concerned, there are biological implications. It is not all about presentation.

Urine retention in public can be a nightmare. Glass doors and glass walls sound like a nightmare to me, as someone who has had to place close attention to who is going in and coming out of a public restroom so I can relax in private.

I'm amazed by bathroom concerns. When I need to relieve myself I prefer some privacy but if its not available I'm going to relieve myself one way or the other. If someone is watching I figure they can either cope with it or turn away. Perhaps I've sailed on too many boats.


I used to know a lot of fishermen. The ones who didn't want to kick the living daylights out of me used to say they never had to worry when they had to go. They'd just "hang it over the side". That was one good reason you'd never get me on a fishing boat. Pretty much for the same reason, I would have done anything to get out of the service.

I will clarify what I was trying to say. Men have a need to mark out their territory. Some people are biologically programmed to keep clear of that territory - birth assigned females and others who were mis-assigned.

I've been in lots of bathrooms in which the stalls were actual floor to ceiling walls. Only the toilet was enclosed which would make it difficult to do anything in there but use the toilet.

I've never felt the need for privacy beyond the actual spot where I drop my pants. And maybe that's because I've never had it.

I've always had to go through some awkward social interaction before the other women in the restroom conclude that I'm allowed to be there. I'm so used to it at this point that I mostly ignore it. I put it on the other women in the bathroom to become aware that this space is intended, first and foremost, as a place to relieve oneself. It's not literally intended to be a place to powder one's nose...that's just a secondary use.

Lynn Miller | April 24, 2010 7:51 PM

In the past, when I have suggested doing away with separate bathrooms I was countered by with what was claimed to be their personal experiences. I was told that, in unisex bathrooms with more than one stall, that some men "forget" to lock the stall door, so that if a woman pushes the door open she will see the guy sitting there fully exposed.

I don't know. I haven't experienced this, but it may be a concern which needs addressing.