Shared bathrooms are the new normal. But how comfortable are students?

By Revi Aranbaev

Bathrooms have exploded as a safe space issue on campuses and in the general public — and everyone has a different opinion about what they call “safe.”

The media have recently focused on laws, like the one in North Carolina, requiring people to use bathrooms that correspond with the gender on their birth certificate.

But climbing into public consciousness are other debates surrounding gender-neutral bathrooms — the type where people of any gender use the same facilities.

‘Bathroom Bills’

North Carolina was the first to legalize a “bathroom bill” in March. But the bill goes beyond the bathroom because it also restricts cities from passing broader nondiscrimination laws.

The law is so unpopular outside of North Carolina that companies and performers are dropping prior commitments in the state.

In addition, in April a federal appeals court in Richmond, VA sided with a transgender student, ruling he could sue his school board over a bathroom ban that the student argues is discriminatory. This decision could also impact the “bathroom bill.”

The less discussed shift: the cities that are opting for gender-neutral bathrooms. Washington D.C. along with Philadelphia, Seattle, Austin, Multnomah County and West Hollywood have mandated that all single-occupancy bathrooms be gender-neutral. This law is specific to bathrooms that can only occupy one person at a time.

Moving further in that direction, some colleges, like Cooper Union, are making gender-neutral bathrooms the only choice on campus. These are bathrooms that occupy multiple people at one time — meaning that women, men and anyone of any gender have to share one multi-stall bathroom space.

Gender-neutral bathroom sign

A sign points to a new gender-inclusive bathroom in American University’s School of International Service. (Photo: Alejandro Alvarez)

Are all students on board with everyone sharing a bathroom?

“There could be the option but I don’t think it should be the only choice,” says a former Vassar student — due to the sensitive topic she asked not to include her name.

Since Vassar was an all women’s college until 1969, rather than building additional dorms and showers for men, the university made everything in the dorms unisex.

Today, there is one dorm facility that is only for women. The other seven have coed bathroom and shower spaces.

“A lot of women also use bathrooms as a private time for themselves … it is a safe space and I don’t know if they necessarily feel comfortable with a guy around,” according to the former Vassar student.

Some women interviewed say that they are not afraid of sharing a bathroom with a trans individual, but feel uncomfortable or afraid of sharing that space with males.

Others say they fear that this could lead to unwanted attention, harassment and even assault.

There are no statistics on assaults in shared bathroom settings today, since this is new territory. However, according to the Association of American Universities, one in four college women report surviving rape or attempted rape at some point in their lifetime. For those one in four women who have been through an assault, having to share a bathroom with a male could be triggering, depending on the person.

“For one person, their experience might not be a big deal, but for someone else, that’s everything to their experience and it really would feel like an unsafe place for them,” said Traci Callandrillo, director of the counseling center at American University.

When asked what a safe space might look like, Callandrillo said, “I think situations in where women have made intentional choices about being in single sex environments tend to feel safer for them.” She added that it is a generalization, and not the case for all women.