Fear of the Bathroom Boogeyman

Jamie Sanford, Flickr Creative Commons

Jamie Sanford, Flickr Creative Commons

I flashed on a nearly 40 year old memory yesterday.

The location of said flashback was Holden’s Chapel, the former black high school turned middle school in Boiling Springs, South Carolina, circa 1977. Holden’s Chapel wasn’t much to look at, but its glass brick, twirly slide, and baseball diamond gave it a certain charm. Our teachers had beehive hairdos and double knit butts too wide to fit down the narrow aisles separating our desks, except for Miss Giles. Every afternoon we walked over to  Miss Giles’s classroom for science lessons. I couldn’t differentiate Miss Giles from Cicely Tyson in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, specifically from the elderly Miss Jane who finally gets to sip from the whites-only drinking fountain. To my ten year-old eyes Old Lady Skinny Legs, as we called our science teacher, was at least 100 years old.

Even as a fifth grader I was aware that Miss Giles had been through some stuff; after all, she quite likely predated airplanes, which remained my greatest preoccupation at that age. Old Lady Skinny Legs probably taught at Holden’s Chapel when it was a “colored” school. She probably remembered when the Upstate was planted with cotton and the textile mills hummed; when the Palmetto Theater with its separate entrance for blacks wasn’t boarded up down on Main Street. I spent entirely too much of my time in Miss Giles’s class thinking about what she’d seen rather than listening to what she said.

Anyway, we must have had some free time on this particular day, as all of the kids were talking. The popular girls were tittering over a Judy Blume book that they made a show of hiding from the boys because it talked about girl stuff. “You’re a bunch of idiots,” Amy said. She was not part of their crowd. “How do you expect us to be treated equally when you won’t even let the boys see your stupid book?”

“You don’t even know what’s in it,” Theresa said.

“Yes I do.”

“No you don’t, because you haven’t gotten it yet,” Theresa’s friend said, and the popular girls laughed.

“We have to act like equals if we want to be treated like equals,” Amy said.

“I knew she hadn’t got it yet.”

“She’s one of them women’s libbers!” my friend, Eric, said.

“Yeah, I am. So what?” Amy said.

“I bet you want E.R.A.,” Eric said.

“Of course I do,” Amy said. “Why shouldn’t women have equal rights?”

“Women are supposed to be moms, not workers,” somebody said.

“My mom doesn’t want to have to get a job,” said someone else.

“You want women to go to war?”

Eric delivered the knockout punch. “The E.R.A. means we’d all have to use the same bathroom,” he said.

“No it doesn’t,” Amy said. “That’s stupid.”

“Yeah it does. My daddy says if there’s an E.R.A. then that means girls get to use the boys’ bathroom.”

“Your dad’s an idiot.”

“I don’t want no girls looking at my wiener,” Eric said, and the popular girls laughed.

That’s where my memory ends, but here we are 40 years later and one Carolina farther north, and the bathroom boogeyman is still in play. Recently, the notion of a transgendered person using a public restroom has been portrayed as a devious scheme by crossdressing perverts to see your or your loved ones’ lady business. Meanwhile, a frontrunner presidential candidate made public his disgust of women “bleeding out of [their] wherever,” proving that some boys are never mature enough for a peek at Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

Lines have been clearly drawn on social media, with one side condemning North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” and the other heralding it as an action necessary to protect women and children. In truth, the bill means absolutely nothing to the lives of an overwhelming majority of citizens. Chances are that at some point you’ve already shared a bathroom with someone who switched sexes and you didn’t even know it, and you did so without any harm. I have a friend, for example, who was born female and is now every bit as bald and bearded as I am. You wouldn’t give him a second glance coming out of the men’s room, but you’d do a double take if he stepped out of the women’s.

My buddy is a textbook example of what those crazy liberals picture when they envision the harm done by North Carolina’s recent legislation. Contrary to what pop culture may imply, not all trans people walk around in ball gowns looking like Caitlyn Jenner. Most are just incredibly average looking human beings.

For the sake of conversation, though, let’s entertain this “Caitlyn” stereotype. If we’re talking about the social discomfort that might accompany sharing a public restroom with a transgendered person, which of the following makes you more uneasy:

  1. Caitlyn sidles up to the urinal next to yours in her evening gown and hikes up her Vera to get to her Wang.
  2. Caitlyn enters a stall in the ladies’ room and does her business privately.

Of course, social discomfort isn’t the locus of the bathroom boogeyman argument. No, the notion here is that the Caitlyns of the world will lurk in bathroom stalls, masturbating like mentally ill chimps while they listen to the womenfolk relieve themselves, and when the aural thrill wears off these deviants will kick open their stall doors and expose themselves to the gathered innocents.

Like all scary stories, this one works because there’s a kernel of plausibility in there somewhere. After all, sometimes we get a piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken that’s shaped a little like a rat. Although we know that this particular piece of delicious extra crispy isn’t a rat, it lends credibility to that friend of a friend story that someone told us just before he drank Coke while eating Pop Rocks and exploded. Similarly, every bodily function claims its own accompanying paraphilia — even vomiting, which has its own subculture of emetophiles. Chuck Berry was neither the first nor the last to hide a camera in the ladies room, and yes, there are voyeurs, exhibitionists, and crossdressers a-plenty among our 300 million American neighbors. There are many rat-shaped chicken wings on the continuum of sexual behavior from which to make plausible boogeyman stories.

Additionally, deviant behavior in men’s restrooms has been a fact of life as long as I can remember. There’s the urinal peeker, the graffiti advertising sexual favors, and the odd waist-high hole in the truck stop stall wall. Once as a teenager parked in a Sears bathroom, I found a photo of a woman fellating a horse. Sears of all places, where America shops for value. At the time I was shocked, but now that I think about it I guess she was getting the most bang for her buck. Recently I was propositioned in the bathroom of my local grocery store, which left me wondering if that was a successful strategy for the solicitor. Do a lot of men just let the Cherry Garcia melt in the cart while they enjoy a complimentary blowjob in the grocery store restroom?

We agree that there’s ample support for the idea that some creep in a skirt is going to  get up to shenanigans in a public restroom. It could happen  because it unquestionably has happened, but that’s entirely beside my point.  The real question that my memory of Miss Giles’s class evoked was this: Why are we so obsessed with bathrooms? For generations now we’ve used the loo as a battleground in the war against some scary new social movement: “You don’t want coloreds in your restroom, do you?” “You don’t want women in your restroom, do you?” “You don’t want transsexuals in your restroom, do you?” It seems that when all else fails, trotting out the bathroom boogeyman guarantees action.

Perhaps this gambit remains effective because the bathroom is the most intimate public space. We’re not really a “nude in public” people, with exception to Mardi Gras and the Kardashians. Most everyone feels vulnerable when their pants are around their ankles, and rightfully so. Preying on that vulnerability with spooky stories about bathroom boogeymen is the social justice equivalent of “if you don’t do X then the terrorists win,” i.e., an overly-simplified, fear-based manipulation tactic.

The simple truth is that there are enough existing laws on the books to deal with a person who is up to no good in the public lavatory — we don’t need more. George Michael will be happy to tell you that masturbating in a public restroom is illegal; well, he probably won’t be happy to tell you that, but he’s aware of it. Former senator Larry “Wide Stance” Craig might have a thing or two to say about existing statutes, too, as might the aforementioned Mr. Berry.

So North Carolina’s new bathroom law doesn’t actually protect anybody from anything from which they aren’t already protected. All it does is harass a very small percentage of the population who have switched or are in the process of switching genders. The notion of making my bald and bearded friend use the ladies room not only is going to make him uncomfortable, it’s going to make the women in the ladies room uncomfortable, too. I don’t think any amount of “It’s okay, ladies, I have a vagina” is going to smooth that situation over. Similarly, if a perfectly put together woman marches into the men’s room and announces that she has a penis, none of the occupants are going to breathe a sigh of relief.

Children are obsessed with genitals and bodily functions — that’s why forty years ago my little dullard classmates were so quick to believe that the Equal Rights Amendment would lead to icky girls seeing their teeny weenies. It’s also why my female classmates thought a coming of age novel was too much for the icky boys to see, but with exception to some presidential candidates, we are not children. Paraphiles aside, we no longer conflate bodily functions with sexuality. It’s time to put the bathroom boogeyman stories away with the rest of our childish things and behave like grown-ups. We may not be comfortable with a transgendered person sharing our bathroom space, but that doesn’t equate to him or her being a sex offender.

So stop being silly, do your business, wash your hands, and go finish eating your chicken. Hysteria-based stories based on flimsy anecdotal evidence make for poor guideposts to a reasonable life, and besides — KFC stopped serving rat, like, months ago.


Categories: op-ed

2 replies »

  1. After watching the Bernie clip, I want you to know that I am now committed, more than ever, to vote for a presidential candidate who goes to the bathroom. (I don’t care which bathroom the winning candidate goes in, by the way.)


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