So someone tweeted this blogpost from The F Word yesterday about the need for gender-neutral toilets. The article made some good points about the need for more gender-neutral toilet provision – for example to help out parents with opposite sex children, people caring for a member of the opposite sex, and also for trans or non-binary people who are concerned about being misgendered and the violence that can follow this. To me, this is where the debate about gender-neutral loos is surely meant to be sitting – there simply isn’t enough public toilet provision anyway, and we need to increase that provision to ensure everyone’s needs are met.
And then I read this paragraph:
The shelter, relative privacy and access to running water that public toilets provide have made them useful places to have sex when folks have nowhere else to do it, but they don’t particularly lend themselves to sexual assault. In the Ladies, women remain fully-dressed outside locked cubicles. These are rooms where people may walk in at any time. Currently, there’s nothing stopping men entering the Ladies (and indeed, the laws proposed in the US would force trans men to do so) but these aren’t common locations for sexual violence; outside of horror movies, ongoing drug deals and norovirus epidemics, public toilets are pretty safe.
The paragraph has now been removed from the article, after an exchange on Twitter where the editor apologised to me. I really appreciate the apology and the acknowledgement that this paragraph could result in upset and hurt. However, I started this post so I’ll finish, as the article isn’t the only place I’ve seen this dismissal…
What I want to address is the sweeping statement that women’s loos ‘don’t lend themselves to sexual assault.’
Because that, quite frankly, is bullshit.
A few years ago, a man followed me into the women’s toilets and tried to sexually assault me. Luckily for me I was able to fight him off – I pushed him away and said very clearly ‘you are in the wrong toilets.’ Again, luckily for me he wasn’t all that committed to assaulting me, grinned, shrugged and left. I wrote more about this incident here in terms of leading men on/victim blaming. Needless to say however, I was pretty upset, a bit shaken and absolutely furious that some arsehole had followed me into the women’s loos to try and assault me.
So to read that the ladies toilets don’t lend themselves to sexual assault is quite a kick in the teeth – to me who has dealt with an attempted assault in this space, and to the many, many women who have survived far worse violence while trying to go to the loo.
Who are these women? Well, here’s one. Here’s another. Another. Another. Oh look! This one’s in Bristol, the city where it happened to me! And then there was this news story from last week, where a trans woman was raped in a public toilet in New York. Then of course there is the well-documented issue for women accessing toilets in the developing world – where the lack of safe and secure toilets mean that women regularly experience violence and harassment in numbers that should be an international disgrace.
I’m sorry that our experiences don’t fit into a cosy narrative that women have nothing to fear from men in public loos – that women’s toilets ‘aren’t common locations for sexual violence.’ I’m sorry that our lived experience doesn’t fit into the narrative that women have nothing to fear from gender-neutral toilets as opposed to single-sex loo provision. I’m sorry that the fact of a man trying to assault me in the women’s toilets is inconvenient. But the fact is, this happened to me. And it’s happened to other women. And everyone knows that this happens to women. And everyone knows that one of the reasons we have men’s toilets is because some men choose to be violent against women.
No argument for gender-neutral toilet provision is served by ignoring the fact that the threat of male violence is something all women have to deal with, and the incontrovertible fact that many, many women will have dealt with it in this specific setting.
One of the huge problems facing women is that we aren’t believed when we talk about the violence committed against us. Our experiences are dismissed and minimised. We’re not encouraged to report our assaults. We’re told that we were probably leading the guy on, or that our behaviour provoked his violence. Even me, with all my feminist training, sat there after the attempted assault debating whether it was me who had caused it, because I’d been chatting to the guy beforehand.
So to read on a feminist website that the thing that happened to me and happens to girls and women the world over, is unlikely – well, that hurt. To read that my fears and misgivings about public toilets are silly, to read that the thing that happened to me is not important, is easily dismissed – it stung.
After all, feminism is the place we go to where we are believed. Where our fears aren’t dismissed. It’s the place where women are listened to. The place where we can say how messed up it is that men invade our spaces to harm us, and share our anger that women are so violently and brutally excluded from public space. Feminism shouldn’t be a place where we’re told that our fears, our founded fears, aren’t based on anything; not when we know our fears are based on what we experience – on what happens to women every day.
To have the violence I experienced dismissed in order to make a point about a cause I actually support – well, that is hard to deal with. Because again, the cause to create safer toilet provision for all women is not served by dismissing and ignoring the voices of some women – the women who have experienced male violence, who know what violent men will do.
I feel really uncomfortable writing this blogpost. Not just because it means dragging up an unpleasant experience that isn’t a happy memory. But also because any argument about access to toilets is seen as an attack on trans women’s and men’s rights to safe spaces too. And yet, for me this isn’t a trans vs not issue. Because everyone knows that trans women aren’t safe from male violence in gender-neutral loos either. That’s why it’s so important for all women to have access to safe and secure toilets which violent men can’t easily access – where women can challenge and say ‘NO’ to their presence.
Airily dismissing the idea that women’s loos are spaces where violent men attempt to assault women in order to advocate for more gender-neutral toilets doesn’t help anyone. It ignores women’s voices. It silences women’s experiences of male violence. And it does nothing to stop male violence – violence that all women live in fear of, violence that many, many, many women will have first-hand experience of.