Thursday 12 August 2021

Sex-Based Privacy


Sex-Based Privacy

When I was a visiting scholar in the Netherlands for six months in 2000, I met a middle-aged “autochtonous” Dutch woman who told me how upset she’d been when she was obliged to share a hospital room with a man. When she asked if a Dutch Muslim woman would have had to share with a man, she was told no, as that would violate her culture. But as she told me, it was her culture too. It’s mine as well. Like probably every other culture in the world, “Western” culture allows women and men separate spaces for intimate physical acts. It also doesn’t expect unrelated men and women to share bedrooms in hospitals or other such venues.

A couple of years ago, my husband and I were on

the third floor of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto looking for a men’s bathroom. We came across two bathrooms with three stalls each, with only partial doors, the norm in Canada for segregated one-sex bathrooms. Both were labelled “all gender.” My husband, a very shy man in his 70s, didn’t know what to do, so I told him to go into the one on the right and I would guard it for him.

A couple of minutes later, two young Middle-Eastern looking men arrived, looked at the signs, and seemed confused. I told them where my husband was, so they went into the same bathroom. Then a family arrived: grandma, dad and baby in stroller. Grandma looked at the signs and decided to go downstairs to the first floor, where bathrooms were labelled “men” and ”women.” Then a grandmother and mother in hijab arrived, also with baby in tow. Grandma wanted to use the bathroom, but looked upset at the signage. I suggested to her daughter that her mother go into the empty bathroom on the left, and that she go in with her stroller to guard her mother from men who might enter. They did that.

Transgendered people want to use the bathroom of their chosen gender. This wouldn’t be much of a problem if bathrooms were clearly labelled male or female, and transgender people could use the one they identify with.  It would be even less of a problem if bathrooms were single-stall and had full-length doors that could be locked.  But what the Royal Ontario Museum did is the wrong way to go about accommodating transgender people, forcing everyone to risk using bathrooms with people of other genders.

Some people dismiss the “bathroom question” as a silly side-issue. But it isn’t. Bathrooms exist for the purposes of urination, defecation, and – for women of child-bearing age—menstruation. These are functions that both men and women usually perform privately or, if not completely privately, only with members of the same biological sex in the same location.

Consider, for example, campaigns to build separate latrines for schoolgirls in countries like India, so that the girls do not have to quit school in shame when they start menstruating. Consider, also, that refugee camps maintain separate latrine facilities for men and women. It is considered undignified and shameful to urinate, defecate and attend to menstrual cleanliness in the presence of members of the opposite biological sex.

The presumably Middle Eastern men and the presumably Muslim woman who followed my husband into the bathrooms at the ROM might have asserted that their culture prohibited them from entering mixed-“gender” bathrooms. In Canada at the moment, much attention is paid to preserving the culture of minority groups. But white Canadians of European ancestry also have cultural values that prescribe privacy for both men and women with regard to urination, defecation, and menstruation.

Must cultures if not all cultures, in most parts of the world, separate men and women for dignity’s sake. In some cultures, there are public baths. Men and women usually go to separate public baths. It would undignified and shameful for either men or women to be naked in these baths in the presence of people of the opposite biological sex.

Ideally, in the longer term, this problem can be solved by new ways of building infrastructure. Many newer restaurants, for example, have fully enclosed single-unit toilets, which anyone of whatever sex or gender may use. Perhaps also, women’s shelters could build separate units for transgender women whose biological sex does not conform to their gender identity.

But women and girls should still be entitled both to physical safety and to dignified privacy. So should men and boys. And no one should be vilified for pointing out that while there should be accommodation for people whose social gender and biological sex do not coincide, some consideration should be also given to people whose sex and gender do coincide. Many if not most of those people feel uncomfortable—if not unsafe—conducting their intimate private business in the presence of those whose sex they do not share.


1 comment:

  1. Nailed it! Best I've read yet on this sensitive subject.