Bathrooms are a touchy subject. Bathrooms are a somewhat private space where intimate acts take place. We feel vulnerable in bathrooms, and so knowing we are safe is important when we walk into one.
For trans folks, bathrooms can be a source of major anxiety throughout their lives — both before transition of any kind, when they feel they’re using the “wrong” one, and after, when they fear harassment or violence for using the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity.
Of course, gender identity is not as simple as the binary bathroom argument makes it seem. There are many non-binary and gender-nonconforming people who don’t fit neatly behind a door marked “men” or “women” — nor do they want to.
Now, as we watch states like North Carolina pass bills that prohibit trans folks from using bathrooms that do not match the sex they were assigned at birth, our country is finding itself at a civil rights crossroads. And Target has stepped right into the debate when it became the first major retailer to do something bold — it took a stance against discrimination, stating that people who visited Target stores would be allowed to use the bathroom that best aligns with their gender identity.
Despite what all this controversy may have you thinking, nothing has actually changed when it comes to who uses what bathroom. Target has always supported people using the bathrooms that feel safest for them; it just made that policy more widely known. And people have been using the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity; most cisgender women have already peed next to a trans women and had no idea.
But what’s popped up in regard to bathroom safety amounts to a sort of panic, where people are afraid that men will assault young girls and (cis) women in bathrooms as a result of these policies. Sometimes that fear manifests in transphobia, where trans women are portrayed as predatory men in dresses (never mind that trans women are much more likely to be the victims of violence in a bathroom than the perpetrator. In fact, zero trans people have been arrested for perpetrating violence in bathrooms). Other times, that fear looks like what we see in Facebook posts like the one below — a worry that a man with bad intentions will follow a young girl or woman into the women’s bathroom and assault her.
But let’s be clear about where both these fears actually come from: What we’re afraid of is men. Whether or not that fear is shrouded in transphobic logic, what we’re actually afraid of when we talk about women and girls being assaulted in bathrooms is men and the sexual violence that we know men perpetrate in the rape culture we live in. But making this fear about bathrooms is misguided and misplaced — where we should really be looking is the culture that surrounds us, the way we raise our boys and the men in our lives.
Because the truth of the matter is, if a man wants to corner a woman in a bathroom and assault her, he will do that regardless of the policy or law in place. He will not care about those guidelines; he’s already proven he is a predator and lawbreaker based on the fact that he is willing to assault a woman in the first place.
If we want to protect women and girls and trans folks — who face higher rates of sexual violence and are not the ones we need protection from, but instead, we should seek to protect — we need to do something about the messages we send about women when we turn on the TV. We need to address the victim-blaming that occurs when sexual assault victims report to law enforcement. We need to look at judges who make statements — like the judge who threw out Kesha’s lawsuit — about rape not being a gender-based hate crime.
Our bathroom fears are but a symptom of a larger problem. Letting people pee in peace will not increase violence against cis women and girls, but it may decrease violence against trans folks. Addressing the violent, misogynistic world we live in is what really needs to happen if we care about the violence that men perpetrate against women — cis and trans. But I suppose getting worked up about bathrooms is much easier than dismantling an entire culture.
In the meantime, I’ll be proud to spend my money at a store that supports nondiscrimination and safe bathrooms for everyone.