There was a running joke amongst the friends I hung around with in my twenties; at the stage where everyone else was feeling slightly queasy and the bouncers were scraping people out after last orders, I would be possessed with an unwavering steely determination to find all-night beer. That’s how, some fifteen years ago, I ended-up in a bar at about 4am with my boyfriend of the time and a similarly booze-focused male friend. Dingily lit by strip lights and with a sticky floor of lino-tiles, it had the ambience of a death row drinking hole. The barman was watching television downstairs as we headed upstairs where there were pool tables and vinyl chairs oozing yellowed foam. We were the only group in there until a crowd of young drunken lads poured in.
At 4’7’’ it’s fair to say I’m not a large woman, and despite being regularly put through its paces, there are only so many pints my bladder will take. I stood up to make my way to the loo. As I began to move away from my friends something felt wrong, my skin started to prickle. From the corner of my vision, I could see the group of five or six lads; they were moving towards me fast, as if in a pack. I bolted passed the sinks into the cubicle and fastened the lock. I stood with my back against the door trying to control my breathing, angry at myself for leaving my phone on the pool table.
I waited for what felt like a long time, only venturing out when I heard my boyfriend call my name. He was standing with my things, his back blocking the door to the bar where the men still were. I walked down the stairs and out into the street. When we were outside my boyfriend and friend confirmed what I had thought, as I headed for the loo the group of around five or six men had run after me. Thankfully, my boyfriend was a 6’3’’ former rugby player (we made an odd-looking couple) and my other friend was about as robust as a tissue but he looked mean. Oddly, I hadn’t been aware of any noise beyond the sound of the men’s footsteps but there had been an altercation. After dragging on the hood of the first man to follow me, my boyfriend and friend faced-off the would-be attackers who melted away. I sobered up very quickly when it occurred to me how close I had come to being gang raped, and we were all silent for the walk home.
Ultimately I was ok, but had I have been assaulted it is highly likely the men would have walked away without a record. I would have been left a statistic, another silly drunk woman. It was sheer chance that I went out that night with men, had my friends been female we would not have been able to stop them.
A sign on a door will not in itself prevent men from being abusive, but as social creatures, humans rely on shared cues. Seeing a man in a space meant for women is an indication of danger, and as women we ought never to feel ashamed to challenge men who feel comfortable invading women’s spaces. Such actions by men show a disregard for women’s boundaries and privacy.
It is an uncomfortable truth that 98% of sexual offences are committed by men. The clothes men wear and the pronouns they use do not lessen this threat. There are also men who gain sexual arousal at the thought of themselves as women, so-called autogynephiles. It’s not nice to acknowledge that there are men who root through sanitary bins and masturbate to the sound of women urinating, but they exist. The arguments for allowing men who identify as women are often summarised in the caption ‘we just want to pee.’ But this isn’t true; if you don’t believe me, make sure you’ve not eaten recently and google ‘pornhub sanitary.’ The results are quite unsanitary.
Women’s facilities, be that changing rooms, hospital wards or lavatories, do not exist to satisfy the porn-fuelled fantasies of men, nor to allay their fears. The argument that men who do not conform to stereotypes are at risk within male facilities has some merit, but this is not women’s problem to sort out. Irrespective of how they identify, men who feel uncomfortable or unsafe in male facilities ought to join the fight against male violence. But instead, pressure is put on women to accommodate those who claim not to feel like men, as ever, it is women are expected to be self-sacrificing.
It’s frustrating when the battle between sex-based and gender-based rights is reduced to talking-points around toilets. Nonetheless, the debate can be seen as illustrative of wider social patterns. Generations of feminists fought to break the ‘urinary leash’, and they campaigned for female lavatories so that women could enter the public realm. Female lavatories are still far from perfect, as little accommodation is made for the fact that our clothing and bodies mean we need more space and take more time than men. Consequently, women queuing for the loo is something of a running joke.
That women are expected to undergo the indignity of accepting men into what our foremothers fought for shows a fundamental disregard of our rights. Essentially, it is the prioritisation of men’s feelings above women’s comfort and safety. The demands of a tiny minority of men, who have only become a political force over the past decade, are successfully undoing centuries of feminist struggle for sex-based rights.