Why Does This Persist?

If I have to share a public bathroom while I am in it, I prefer it to be a men's room, not a mixed-sex loo. But many establishments in New York have two bathrooms, each with only one toilet, and a door that locks, but still sex segregate them. This clearly costs patrons either time or embarrassment: occasionally "your" bathroom is occupied for a while when you need to go, while "their" bathroom is not: then, you either fidget with an unused toilet a few feet away, or risk plunging into the "wrong" bathroom, and getting a dirty look when you come out to find someone is upset that you took "her" ("his") rightful place in line.
So why does this practice persist? I considered the idea that people don't like even serially sharing a toilet with strangers of the other sex, but that doesn't seem right: Haven't we all done so repeatedly, since we were children, every time we've gone to a large party in a private home? Why would the fact the building says "restaurant" on the outside suddenly make us go all squeamish?


  1. Try pointing out the obvious and you'll be called a sexist by certain groups or be accused of sexual discrimination. Naturally, I would feel the same way.

  2. Because we are not as thoroughly logical and rational as we should be? We therefore persist in these arcane 'tradition' thingys, against all reason and good sense?

    1. Well, Scott, you know I am all down with tradition. But why do we accept non-segregated bathrooms at a big house party (and at many restaurants and bars) while other places continue with sex-segregation. We can't simply answer "tradition," because this tradition doesn't point in any unique direction. What explains why some places do things one way and others a different way, despite both having the same background of tradition?

    2. I have a little bit of a hard time responding to this more specifically, because, honestly, I don't think I've ever encountered a mixed sex bathroom as you've described. I've seen the kind you are wondering about not existing (mixed sex, one-at-a-time) at very small roadside restaurants and gas stations, and I've recently seen a 'family restroom' at a city zoo. But I've never seen a 'free-for-all-everybody's-welcome restroom' in a public place that I can recall. What you are talking about isn't normal to me.

      My guess as to the general sketch of an answer -- everybody actually still 'knows' they shouldn't be doing the mixed-sex pottying thing in public. The tradition/taboo has not actually died, and may not ever. But it is 'cool' to do (for some segment of people, anyway) and 'uncool' to be a fuddy-duddy. So, people go along with it, and pretend it's normal.

      The house party thing seems to break down into cases of a) a 'cool' large house party, where everybody's drinking and trying to get laid, and b) a formal large house party, where everybody knows eachother (i.e., family, close friends). Situation b) resembles normal family dynamics anyway, so it is inherently 'normal.' But it is not normal to be as comfortable around strangers as around family, or to treat strangers as family. Distance normally brings out formality.

      People dispense with the normal formality a) in order to get into other people's pants, or b) because at least in some small way they get off on it, or c) because they feel that if they object to it, they won't be perceived as cool. As situation a) begins to apply more closely to public life (or at least, people try to force it to, and pretend that's a normal thing to do), you see it showing up in public.

      So, I guess maybe I'm basically I'm saying that people probably started doing this stuff once a large enough proportion of the population went to college. Prolonged adolescence would tend to normalize adolescent mores (and, I suppose, traditions). But I should think that to actually dispense with the traditional notion that one doesn't potty with strange members of the opposite sex, you would have to raise kids collectively (i.e., little or no nuclear family) and make that the norm from a very young age.

    3. "I don't think I've ever encountered a mixed sex bathroom as you've described. I've seen the kind you are wondering about not existing (mixed sex, one-at-a-time) at very small roadside restaurants and gas stations, and I've recently seen a 'family restroom' at a city zoo. But I've never seen a 'free-for-all-everybody's-welcome restroom' in a public place"

      But that's NOT what I'm talking about. I'm talking about one at a time bathrooms!

      And one at a time, same sex bathrooms are all over New York. What I'm wondering is why one at a time, single sex bathrooms exist at all.

      "a 'cool' large house party, where everybody's drinking and trying to get laid"

      So, going into a bathroom just after a woman has used it is a good way to get laid?! What are you talking about?

      "But I should think that to actually dispense with the traditional notion that one doesn't potty with strange members of the opposite sex..."

      Who said anything about using the bathroom WITH strange members of the opposite sex?! Not me.

    4. Ah! Scott, did you miss the word "serially" in what I wrote?

    5. Ummm... Sorry, I did not miss serially, but I thought you meant by 'mixed-sex loo' basically what I described, and were contrasting. (i.e., if we have these mixed-sex bathrooms at some places, why do we still have these archaic one-at-a-time bathrooms which are sex-segregated. That doesn't make any sense).

      Basically, I didn't understand the first sentence, and it totally screwed up the rest of it. But now that I read it again, I don't really see any other way to understand it. You are talking about sharing a mixed-sex loo, while you are in it, are you not? Who would you be 'sharing it with, while you are in it' if not another person and potentially a member of the opposite sex?

    6. No, Scott, I am not! I am talking about usung it SERIALLY, one after another!

    7. I'm sorry, I'm afraid I don't understand you.

      I think maybe I should quit typing...

      (stepping slowly away from the keyboard...)

  3. Just be lucky your workplace isn't like that *looks around furtively* ...

  4. Scott, how do you use the bathroom at your house? Don't you go in one at a time, but women and men can use either bathroom (assuming you have 2)?

    Have you ever been in a private home where the first floor loo, say, said "women," and the second floor said "men"? I haven't. But I have been in a restaurant where there were two fully private loos, but one says "Men" and one says "Women."

    Why would they do that?

  5. Well, at the risk of further making a fool of myself, and against my better judgment...

    I think you are misconstruing the situation. No, people who visit my house cannot go to whichever bathroom they please, just so long as it is not currently occupied, and I suspect the situation is more or less the same at yours and pretty much every other house you have ever visited. There is very much an order to things which people are expected to follow.

    There is a distinct guest bath for the guests. Most people feel compelled to ask permission to use any other bathroom, as do I if I am in another person's house. If I am close enough to a person to feel that they are nearly family, this inhibition does fade somewhat, and I would assume that the same is true for others, too.

    And -- unlike a business like a restaurant -- I do not invite just absolutely whoever into my house, especially under such circumstances as they might wind up using the bathroom, and I can assume that my guests will behave themselves, which is not the case for public restrooms. The point is that there is a great deal of assumed order, even if it is not the same order as the expected public order.

    Ask yourself -- when you go into someone else's house, do you go traipsing through, wherever you please, or do you feel compelled to stay in the living area, unless specifically invited to go elsewhere? Then why would you think that any and all bathrooms were open to you unless they were currently occupied? There is order; it might not be explicitly based on sex as with the public order, and you might not consciously think about it, but it is there and very real. If you violate this order, I can assure you, others will notice.

    I simply can't imagine not segregating bathrooms in a public place if there is more than one bathroom. Even the 'family bathroom' at the zoo freaked me out. Maybe it has occurred to me that I wish I could use the women's bathroom if the men's was full, but it never occurred to me that it would be better not to segregate them at all, as that arrangement would be more economically efficient or whatever. That just seems animal and uncivilized. This almost seems like one of those things you would get mad about someone like DeLong questioning (like, 'Why are these people so silly and irrational that they believe this kind of stuff? Why can't they be more enlightened and mature and logical like me?'). But anyway, obviously you can't segregate the bathrooms in the same way as in a house, because everybody is a guest and they don't know each other. But again, there is clear order, and a felt need for it even if the order makes things less efficient in some respect.

    I suppose if nothing else, by my extreme confusion of your question and this issue, it would appear that maybe your answer is "very deeply embedded, perhaps only semi-rational sentiments of propriety and order." Maybe we are not all as 'rational' as you are.

    As to why this particular order? I don't know. If you thought about it long enough, maybe you could come up with something plausible. But I don't think the order is dumb or anything because sometimes it inconveniences people. (Yes, yes, I know -- 'you didn't say that.' And nowhere did you explicitly 'DeLong' anybody either. Yeah, yeah, you don't have to all-caps me; technically, I didn't explicitly accuse you of DeLonging anybody, either. But you get the idea. People seem to feel that 'There must be something. People ought not to be able to do just whatever they please. Without order, we'd be animals.')

  6. "There is a distinct guest bath for the guests. Most people feel compelled to ask permission to use any other bathroom, as do I if I am in another person's house."

    Right: this makes my point: if we cared deeply about not following a man or woman into the bathroom, we'd keep two open to guests, and one would be the men's room, and one the women's. I have NEVER seen this in a private home.

    "I simply can't imagine not segregating bathrooms in a public place if there is more than one bathroom."

    But why? I'm talking about PRIVATE bathrooms. Only you will be in it. Why do you care if a man or woman will follow you in, if you don't care in a party at your home?

    And, by the way, I'd say 60 or 70% of New York bathrooms now are like this, if they are single user bathrooms. A restaurant near my house has 5 single user bathrooms, and all of them are just bathrooms. Why do you find it "uncivilized" if I go into one of them after a woman has come out? Wouldn't that be "uncivilized" at a house party as well, then? Why don't we, at our house parties, do the "civilized" thing and have a men's and a women's bathroom? Why is it "disordered" to have private, any sex restaurant bathrooms, but "orderly" to have the same thing in our houses?

  7. "A restaurant near my house has 5 single user bathrooms, and all of them are just bathrooms."

    I see. So the arrangement treats you something like cattle, or like interchangeable parts in a factory. It is indifferent to obtuse 'social constructs' like sex that get in the way of efficiency.

    "Why is it "disordered" to have private, any sex restaurant bathrooms, but "orderly" to have the same thing in our houses?"

    It more about the violation of order than the absolute lack of one. We (or at least, I) expect public (by which I mean a public location/social situation, not merely the presence of other people) arrangements to be a certain way, and private (by which I mean a private location/social situation, not merely the absence of other people) arrangements to be another. You are not proposing a lack of order, but a different order -- an order based on a different set of traditions and habits of thought. I suppose that in reality, I do not much care who comes before or after me to the bathroom; I care that the custom is upheld, and find it unnerving when the distinction between sexes is glossed over in a public place.

    I'm sorry Gene, call me a sexist, but I think we need to preserve our customs that distinguish between the sexes, even if they are only ceremonial and impose inefficiencies, as you say. They remind us of important truths. I'm glad I would feel icky in a restaurant that had 5 individual, unsegregated restrooms, because, for some reason, the situation strikes me as violating something important. I feel, and I think most people feel, that the two situations are different, and call for different arrangements in recognition of that difference. One is clearly public, and one clearly 'more private' than the other. The 'publicness' of the one triggers the felt need for segregation.

    Maybe it isn't rational, or maybe it is in some sense that I find impossible to express. Maybe it belongs in Oakeshott's second category of knowledge. I don't know. But anyway, that's just the way it is. I don't think that, over the long run, tossing aside these kinds of things is going to help people.

    Having inefficient bathrooms may impose some cost, but what kinds of costs have been imposed by this slow grinding away of ceremonial distinctions between the sexes? If customs were still the way they were in the 19th century, do you think we'd still have the same rates of illegitimacy? Single motherhood? Divorce? Etc, etc?

    I might be wrong, but I suspect not. People are not super-rational robots. Our habits and customs shape us in important ways that we don't always understand and can't predict. And I can't believe I'm typing this to someone who has read and written so much about Oakeshott.

    Maybe one day, when we have become super-rational robots, and we have left behind all prejudice, and superstition, and ignorance, we will simply relieve ourselves wherever and whenever the urge strikes us, and little robots will come to clean it up. We will also have dispensed with pants, at least on days with good weather, these being illogical and inefficient under such circumstances, too.

    It never occurred to me that a truly enlightened existence would so much resemble the life of a cow.

    "But I didn't say any of that, just this one small point!" Yes, I know, I know you didn't. You weren't trying to be progressive about it. But you can't necessarily just go abstracting out little bits of complex situations. I'm just pointing out the potential for entanglement. If this point may be compromised in the name of rationality and efficiency...then what others, and where do we 'rationally' stop?

    1. Scott, you certainly have given me an answer as to why these arrangements persist!

      But I can say, I have never felt like "cattle" in a place with private, unisex bathrooms. In fact, I think you often have to sex segregate cattle, don't you.

    2. Also, Scott, Oakeshott was very, very clear on this: living traditions are not static at all. A living tradition is always undergoing change. Aren't you glad the custom of segregating by color has disappeared in our restaurants and so forth? (And note: I am not at all saying this is "exactly the same" as segregating by sex. I am just noting that when some traditions pass, we both would say "Good riddance," so *merely* saying "It's traditional" will not win this Oakeshottian over!

    3. And, in fact, I *pointed* to another tradition to critique this one: we share bathrooms after strangers of the opposite sex in our homes all the time, with no discomfort. (In my house, at least, we had people like insurance agents or real estate agents show up periodically, my parents hosted fundraisers for their friend running for mayor, etc.: not once did anyone even suggest we should use one bathroom for men and the other for women!)

    4. One more puzzle, Scott: How do you manage to fly? I have never encountered a plane with sex segregated bathrooms.

  8. Yes, the racial segregation thing is interesting. We did it when we decided that 'this distinction doesn't matter to us anymore.' Or, at least, it shouldn't, and people who insist on it have something wrong with them. And it was a meaningful thing -- everybody knew it, whether they agreed with it or not. The segregation existed for a reason, and people started not to like the reason, and got rid of the tradition.

    And I think it is that aspect of the dynamism that bothers me -- this is a meaningful thing, not just a rearrangement of something arbitrary. I don't necessarily care that much for every single little existing arrangement (and I might even help to get rid of some of them...). But I don't like the idea that 'men and women are basically the same, and there's no reason in the world that we should continue to recognize a social distinction between them.' It's gotten a lot of people into a lot of trouble. (Now, if one day, women's bathrooms were to suddenly become notoriously shoddy and rundown or whatever, because of social disregard for them, then you might have a compelling case for making the facilities interchangeable. If people can't grasp that distinctions do not imply inequality, only 'not sameness,' then it might be more important to emphasize the equality aspect than to retain the distinction. But I don't think that's the case here. Nobody thinks that separate women's and men's bathrooms imply inequality, but everybody knew it did with racially segregated bathrooms.)

    I've only been on a plane a couple of times in my life, and only once for a meaningful span of time (to China and back). Hmmm... I don't know. I suppose I did notice. I guess in that case you've got a pretty compelling reason, because efficiency is at a premium.

    Maybe I just took it for 'well, that's just the way things are on airplanes' because it was new experience at the time. I suppose that maybe if I'd ridden in them a lot, and one day, they decided to change things, I would have found it more alarming. Or maybe if I rode them a lot and it was always that way, I wouldn't find such an arrangement so strange at a restaurant.

    Maybe that's part of the impetus for changing things where you live. Here, real estate is extremely cheap, but where you are it can be quite expensive, and the store owners can maybe get away with smaller facilities and still be in code or whatever by using the more flexible arrangement. Maybe the code says something like 'for every 1,000 square feet of floorspace, there must be X women's and Y men's restroom facilities.' By doing it that way, they can get away with the larger of X or Y instead of X+Y. And if customers accept it, then why not? So maybe this is part of urbanization -- changing customs that might not otherwise be changed in order to try to accommodate higher population densities.

    BTW, I asked a coworker about this, just to make sure I wasn't crazy. He says he has never seen the arrangement you describe except at one place -- the YMCA where he takes is daughters sometimes to go swimming. They use it for their changerooms. Other than that, he's never seen it, but then again he says he doesn't think it would bother him that much if he did see it.

    Go figure.

  9. There's a single-occupancy restroom where I work (a technical R&D facility) labeled "female cafeteria employees only."


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Central Planning Works!

The biggest intellectual nothing burger of the last century?