Some thoughts on #genderd, bathroom stalls, and walking in the dark…

Me, at work

Tonite’s post finds me snuggled in on the couch. I’m sneezy right now, and my glands are swollen. That’s probably far more than you wanted to know about me, but this post is going to have a bit more TMI than my usual, so I thought I’d just get warmed-up from the get-go….

For quite some time now I’ve been meaning to follow up on my #genderd experiment. At the close of that day, one of the things I realized was that I never tweeted about using the bathroom. And I should have. It’s one of the most explicitly gendered choices I make several times per day at the office. I work on the floor of a building that has two restrooms. They are both single stalls with locked doors. One has signage for men, and one for woman. Or at least, they did back on September 1st when I did my #genderd experiment. But shortly after that day, I received an email from Chapman University’s SafeSpace Committee saying that they were working to locate all single-stall bathrooms on campus and change them from an assigned-sex bathroom to a gender-neutral bathroom. So I replied to them about the ones on my floor and suggested that the change would be particularly welcome because the floor primarily has women’s offices, so there can often be a line for the women’s bathroom, but I’ve never seen any men waiting in line for their designated stall. And honestly I thought many times about just using the men’s stall myself–given that it had a locking door, what would be the harm in doing so? But because I still felt so new at my job and I felt too uncomfortable to push the social boundary of using the opposite-sex bathroom stall in front of my colleagues. So I didn’t.

When I returned from my trip last week I discovered new signage on the men’s stall. It now has a men/women/wheelchair sign, while the women’s bathroom stall signage stayed the same. I think that’s peculiar, but I haven’t yet written to the the campus sign-maker to see why both stalls weren’t given the same signs. But perhaps what’s more interesting, are the surprised looks on the faces I’ve seen when I use the now-gender-neutral stall. After I exit that door I’ve seen colleagues walk up very close to the sign as if to see if it’s “real.” I’ve only seen one other woman ever use it, and she wasn’t a regular on our floor.

While I think having one neutral stall on the floor is certainly progress, I still think it would be far better to have two neutral stalls. Because it seems that as long as there is a women’s stall, the other stall will be “not women’s.” However, it could be that the reason they kept one as women’s is that it includes the wastebin at the side of the toilet for “hygiene” products (what a janitor friend of mine affectionately called the “cigar box”), and the formerly-men’s bathroom doesn’t have that feature. I’ve also noticed each time I use the not-women’s restroom that the toilet seat has been left up. I’m going to guess that that’s a leftover from when it was a “men’s” stall only.

And…speaking of men…

Last week I had the strangest concurrence of experiences. By the third time it happened I was so rattled, I could hardly make my way back to the place where I was staying for the night…

Three times in three days I had men call me out in public space, yelling sex-laden obscenities. What is probably most bizarre about this experience is that I’ve never had a man even so much as whistle my direction before (unless, perhaps, it was my partner being playful). Catcalls from strangers seemed like something that happened to streetwalkers and not to women that look like me. I suppose I’ve never experienced this because I don’t often walk in urban spaces–I’ve tended to live in middle-class suburban areas. But I also suspect that women who are disabled are far less likely to garner attention from male strangers.

The third time this happened I was alone and in a fairly deserted area of a city where I knew I probably shouldn’t be walking at night. But I was hungry and there was a corner store a few blocks away. I was sure I’d be just fine. And I was. But having a group of men following behind me and hurtling obscenities my way as I walked down the block? I was so scared. What was I scared of? Scared, knowing that I couldn’t run if they came after me. Scared, because I didn’t think I could dial anything coherent on my cellphone of they neared. Scared, because there was no one else nearby to hear if I should scream. Looking back on it now, it’s possible that these men might’ve even thought that they were flattering me with their opinions about my body. Perhaps they thought that I would respond back playfully or provocatively. But I think they knew that what they were doing was cruel and that I was scared shitless, despite my attempt to walk even more tall and confidently down the block as the vulgarity continued.

There was nothing in my clothing or in my behavior that indicated that I would be a target for men’s attention. I have a “boy” haircut, I’m nearly 40 years old. I was not wearing makeup and I was wearing “Mom” jeans (read: not sexy). But I was identifiably female, still, which is why I suppose I was a target.

I deliberately choose to raise my kids in an upper-middle-class neighborhood where just about anyone can safely walk at night. Though there are occasionally some college rowdy college students around, there is little to fear in my environment. There are, of course, costs to living in such a homogeneous suburban community, and lately I’ve wondered if we haven’t veered towards being too “safe” in choosing a place to live. For example, I relish the vibrancy of the urban neighborhoods that I found on recent travels through Oakland, San Francisco, and in San Diego, and felt the contrast to our “vanilla” community quite keenly. And while I usually don’t feel that I fit in my neighborhood (I am not really a vanilla gal, myself), it would be hard for me to change now if it meant facing the kind of jeering that I experienced last week on a regular basis. I suppose I would get used to it–perhaps even expect it. But it’s hard for me to imagine that now, I suspect I might just always be afraid.

4 thoughts on “Some thoughts on #genderd, bathroom stalls, and walking in the dark…

  1. Chandelle

    ‘There was nothing in my clothing or in my behavior that indicated that I would be a target for men’s attention. I have a “boy” haircut, I’m nearly 40 years old. I was not wearing makeup and I was wearing “Mom” jeans (read: not sexy).’

    It’s so funny you say this because I had a similar experience walking home from work this week. Three separate cars honked at me and shouted obscenities while I was wearing loose pants, a t-shirt, and a long, heavy sweater-coat. Glasses, short hair, and at night; I had to be hardly recognizable as female, especially as all three cars approached from behind. It seems like a reflex for some men to whistle, cat-call, shout invitations, or follow a woman – it’s totally irrelevant what she looks like.

    I do feel very uncomfortable walking home at night, even living in a small town where I hardly pass anyone. And I’m still bewildered by our experience in Oakland!

  2. Carla

    Gender-neutral bathrooms and dorms (at colleges) are parts of society I am just realizing does a great deal to enforce the gender binary. I wonder if gender neutral dorms will contribute to diminishing the importance of gender stereotypes and giving everyone more equality, or just more sex (not that I’d have a problem with that either).

  3. EmilyCC

    Fascinating ideas, Jana. I was surprised how disturbing I found the cat calls my travelling companions received in Rome this summer (I guess the men were more respectful of an obviously pregnant woman?), but it reminded me how nice it is not to worry about that where I live. This is very naive, but I’m sad to hear that it’s still happening in the U.S.

  4. kmillecam

    I would feel terrified in your cat-calling situation too. On a visceral level, I react to being owned or yelled at by wanting to run before I can think of anything to say back. I now feel especially concerned with being assaulted (again), a direct result of growing up in an abusive house where being on “alert” was a familiar state.

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