Dear Europe: Some Notes on Culture and Target’s Bathrooms

In all of the flurry of stuff going on, there has been, of course, an (American) national debate surrounding the idea of bathrooms. If you’ve managed to steer clear of it, good for you. I have, however, started to see a similar, but significantly different, stream of commentary from my European friends, all of whom are wondering the same thing:

“Why are integrated bathrooms/restrooms/WCs such a big deal?”

The answer is, actually, fairly simple: it’s a balancing act between letting people function in their own identity and other people feeling safe. It’s just a little harder to understand why these two things are at odds, especially if you have not been around American bathrooms that frequently. American bathrooms, and how people use them, are quite different. To sum it up, think back to my mum’s experience with her iPad: in the U.S., she would never have gotten it back. Whoever found it would have cleared her data off of it (instead of uploading it to the cloud) and would have claimed it as their own or sold it off to someone else. They might have thought about calling her, but they never would have gone through the effort to reverse track her emails and get in touch. The same cultural difference, strangely enough, is also at the root of the Great Bathroom Debate.

Here is my shabby attempt to explain the difference, while at the same time articulating why I am perfectly fine with European bathrooms (where anyone can go in) and bothered with the same thing in the U.S. Basically, however, it comes down to this: public restrooms in America suck, and there are lots of people who are assholes and will take every opportunity to take advantage of other people. If they find an iPad, they will take the iPad. But before we get into that….some things to know about bathrooms:

1. Bathroom Partitions
In Europe, bathroom stall doors are like real doors: they go all the way to the floor (or very nearly), and they nestle close against each stall door. In the United States, there is an inch gap on either side of the stall door, and an adult can crawl under the door…or under the stall walls. I have had children look through the door, look under the door, and even crawl into a stall while I’m using it, which is why, in general, I tend to wait if there are lots of little people around. Basically, most people are already uncomfortable using public restrooms.

2. People Often Use Bathrooms For Other Things
In the U.S., people use the bathroom for its intended use (peeing and pooping, just in case someone was not clear about that), and then as many things that nature did not intend; as a makeshift changing room (I’m guilty of that, too), as a place to nurse children (because apparently the American public hates the idea of boobs being used, well, like they’re supposed to be), to hide from unwanted social interactions, to smoke pot and pop pills, to do their Halloween costume makeup, to make out (and more)…pretty much, everything goes on in bathrooms, and sometimes its hard to tell if everyone involved is OK with that. Which leads to…

3. People Get Raped In Bathrooms
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Unfortunately, it isn’t a new thing…but it’s something that has begun occurring more often as more places make restrooms non-sex-segregated. This was something my parents were concerned about when I was a little girl. This is why American mothers will bring their sons who most definitely can go to the bathroom by themselves into the women’s W.C.–at least, until someone complains, and then they’ll make them use the DP or Family restroom. In the U.S., this is a very legitimate fear. This is why women usually go to the restroom in a group. On top of that, there’s also a whole slew of weirdos who like to try to record people in bathrooms (this goes back to my first point, where many people are uncomfortable using public restrooms in the first place).

To be clear, I absolutely love the U.S., but it has more than its fair share of crime (also, to be fair: when I had a very real concern that a specific person might rape me, I was in Europe). I am not happy with the attempt to quickly unsegregate restrooms (I’d be a lot happier if they would use European style doors and the bathrooms were generally less creepy). I think, however, everyone is focusing on the wrong issue. I’m not even sure people know what issue they’re focusing on, but it definitely isn’t the right one.

What everyone should be focusing on is safety. While I am concerned about my own safety, and the fact that some idiots are taking advantage of these changes to further infringe on the safety  of women in general, I cannot ignore the fact that trans individuals deserve that same promise of safety, and by forcing them to use the restroom that corresponds to their DNA, they may be put in unsafe positions. In fact, they have been subject to those same safety infringements in the past: the same sort of people who would use “Oh, I’m trans” as an excuse to prey on women are usually the same sort of person who would go after a trans individual simply because they are trans. Forcing trans people to continue using a restroom where they don’t belong is compromising to their safety. No matter what your opinion is on LBGTQ issues, you need to remember that everyone involved is a human, and as a human, they have a right to be safe from harm or the threat of harm.

I strongly feel, however, that this is not the right way to deal with the situation. Nor is forcing everyone to go into a restroom they don’t match. Both scenarios put people in situations which can be unsafe. Perhaps it is time to take a page from Europe’s playbook and, well, design restrooms so that they are actually safe places (because, surprisingly enough, I think it isn’t nice for people to have to be ready to jump at a moments notice when they’re trying to relieve themselves. Seriously, people: it’s awkward). We know it is possible for restrooms to have actual walls, not partitions, between toilets; it’s also possible to have actual doors on each stall, just like it is possible to have restrooms that don’t smell. It’s possible to make them well lit, and to make stalls large enough that a mom can help her toddler who is in the midst of potty-training without having to leave the door open.

Really, it is simple: if you make public restrooms hospitable, we won’t need to have these debates. Everyone can use the restroom in peace. It shouldn’t be this hard to figure out. Yes, buildings will need retrofitting. But guess what? It isn’t a new idea. This whole thing doesn’t need to be Clash of the Titans. If we make it harder for creeps to be creepy, and we make it easier for the average person to, well, do their business, life will be a lot better.

And I am really, really tired of seeing little eyes peeking through the cracks and under the doors. I’d like to do my business in peace. I’m fairly sure that is all the trans community and the mommy community (and the every other community but the creep community) wants. So Target, if you really want to make a difference, how about leading the way by giving us bathrooms with actual doors and walls? It won’t change my shopping habits, but it should make for lots of happier customers. And that should be worth something, right?

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