A few months ago the Swedish Left made an important discovery: by ignoring the obvious fact that young men made up 70 to 90 percent of recent migrants and refugees to their country, Sweden had wound up with sex ratios in the young adult age groups that were significantly worse than China’s. Furthermore, rates of crimes against women were rising.
At first they responded by considering the principle of anti-racism so important that these new developments must not be commented upon, or even reported. Investigative reporting revealed the Swedish press had actually squashed important stories about rising crime against women, such as occurred at the Stockholm concert in 2014, to not give cover to the party of the Swedish Right, which was calling for a far less-welcoming policy towards refugees. Of course, such discussion-quashing actually increased the electorate’s sympathy for the rightist party.
By early 2016, however, the Swedish Left remembered it was not only a champion of anti-racism, but also of women’s equality. Leftist parties began calling for a “gender aware” immigration policy that would not overlook the costs to women’s equality of an open immigration policy. The famous Swedish common sense prevailed: it was deemed possible to be simultaneously anti-racist and pro-women’s equality.
We have a similar situation emerging in the United States over transgender individuals’ bathroom use. The political Left has not yet embraced the idea that there may be more than one valuable principle worth upholding in this controversy. While it is keen to uphold the principle of anti-discrimination against transgender individuals, the principle of commitment to women’s equality—traditionally associated with the Left—seems not to be seen as important to include in the discussion. At least not yet.
I believe the common sense of the American people will eventually prevail. But I fear that, like the Swedish case, there will be real regress for women as the dynamic works itself out. For example, in response to North Carolina’s new law about persons using the bathroom associated with their birth sex, the Obama administration rumbled it may halt federal funding for education and infrastructure in North Carolina to punish the state.
Toilet Security Matters for Women Everywhere
When we contemplate the issue of bathroom use, there are two progressive values to balance, not one. The sooner we talk about that second principle—women’s equality—the sooner common sense will provide solutions acceptable to all. So let’s talk about that second principle for a few moments.
The issue of “toilet security for women” is an emerging global issue. Human geographer Kathleen O’Reilly has recently written that “Toilet insecurity is not due solely to the absence of adequate sanitation. It is primarily due to gender.” While some women in poorer countries experience toilet insecurity because there are no toilets and open defecation is their only alternative, O’Reilly points out that many women experience toilet insecurity even when public toilets are provided, noting, “access to a toilet does not insure freedom from attack or fear of violence and harassment.”
The problem, as O’Reilly sees it, is “gender-neutral toilet policy” that does not take into account women’s special vulnerabilities in societies where women lack the structural power men enjoy. One of the most important transformations necessary is for policymakers to begin to embrace the principle that “women and girls have a right to toilet security” and that sanitation planning “must be accountable to women and girls.” O’Reilly concludes, “Women’s subordinate position in society is the most basic reason that women cannot use public toilets without fear or experiences of sexual violence or harassment. Fear and stress surroun[d] the use of [these toilets].” Toilet security for women is thus one indicator of a country’s commitment to women’s equality.
Gender-Neutral Bathrooms Are Not Neutral
Poor countries are not the only arenas of toilet insecurity for women. Such insecurity has become a serious issue in the European migration wave of 2015-2016. Men have dominated that migration wave, and in the refugee camps, toilet insecurity for women is rampant.
In a focus group designed by the Centers for Disease Control, “women identified the latrines and the paths leading to the latrines as areas where they felt the least safe. Women and girls spoke about men hanging around the latrines and nearby paths. They described lack of proper lighting in the area. They also described latrines without privacy or doors to close the latrines, with men positioning themselves so they could see inside the facilities.” Heightened fear and stress now accompany the most basic of everyday bodily needs for refugee women and their children. A “gender neutral” approach to toilets has undermined women’s equality in this case.
As toilet security for women has emerged as an important global issue, discussed by UNWomen, UN-Water, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and many others, one of the consistent recommendations is separate facilities for men and women. A UNWomen-sponsored report from Nepal urges the government to “maintai[n] separate toilets for men and women.”
The OHCR notes that “Separate toilets at school . . . mean more girls are likely to attend in the first place, and more girls are likely to say after puberty to complete their education . . . Women and girls place higher value on the need for a private toilet than men.” UN-Water urges separate facilities for men and women, noting this “does more to protect against violence than facilities lacking such conditions.”
Women Are Right to Fear Male Violence
Given such clear unanimity among international governmental organizations that separate toilet facilities and a rejection of a gender-neutral approach to sanitation are key to ensuring toilet security for women, the current U.S. brouhaha over North Carolina’s new law is both understandable and puzzling. It’s understandable because the United States has recently moved decisively toward non-discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation, and this is a new opportunity to demonstrate that commitment. But it’s puzzling because there is an international consensus that toilet security for women is a vital component of ensuring women’s equality.
If the issue of violence against women (VAW) had been solved in the United States, the discussion would be moot. But the United States has comparatively high rates of VAW compared to those of other developed countries. On one comparative scale, the United States ranks fourteenth in the world on reported rapes with an estimated 68 percent of rapes never reported to police. Indeed, the country has had a searing conversation about “rape culture” on college campuses, and is only now working through whether only “yes means yes.”
Of course, rape is not the only physical fear from men women experience, even from complete strangers in public, as the website Everyday Sexism makes plain. To suggest that women have no reason to feel fear and stress because of the presence of men in a public restroom in the United States is laughable. Everyone knows the problem does not so much concern trans men using men’s bathrooms; the problem is with trans women, especially those with intact male genitalia, using women’s bathrooms.
To ignore that the perpetrators of violence against persons with XX chromosomes are overwhelmingly persons with XY chromosomes is to blind oneself to the reality every woman lives.
Start by Asking Women What They Think
While the North Carolina law needs modification, its basic premise—that women deserve toilet security as a hallmark of a society that takes women’s equality seriously—certainly accords with positions taken by the United Nations, the OHCR, UNWomen, and UN-Water.
Why, then, would the Obama administration seek to punish North Carolina for trying to ensure what UNWomen sees as a basic right for women worldwide? Why hasn’t Hillary Clinton suggested that further research is needed on the costs and benefits of eliminating separate toilet facilities for men and women before a policy position can be justifiably articulated? And why has no one asked the women of North Carolina about what toilet security means to them? Why are the ones who would bear the burden of added fear and stress not being directly polled about any proposed policy changes that would affect their security?
I have enough faith in my fellow citizens to believe Americans know it’s simplistic to assume a zero-sum game between the value of anti-discrimination and the value of women’s equality. The idea that either transsexual individuals “win” their rights to use the bathroom of their choice or women “win” the right to toilet security simply cannot be the best way to frame this issue.
But we can’t find a smart solution agreeable to all until we are willing to acknowledge that toilet security for women is an important component of our goal of women’s equality in this nation, and that the voices of women must be sought and heard in this discussion as a prerequisite to any policy change. That’s square one, and the sooner we get there, the better.