Single-sex spaces: it’s not all about the toilets

We are defending the principle that certain spaces and activities should be reserved for just one sex, says Kim Thomas.

“We only want to pee in peace.”

In the always-fraught debate between trans activists and feminists, this is a line you’ll hear time and time again. On the one side, you have vulnerable, beleaguered trans women, the victims of cruel prejudice, who simply want to be able to use women’s toilets rather than risk being beaten up in the men’s toilets. On the other side, you have the hard-hearted feminists: a group of women obsessed with toilets, and who scaremonger that trans women only want to use women’s toilets so that they can carry out sexual assault. Silly feminists! Don’t they realise that any man who wants to sexually assault a woman will just follow her into the toilets anyway?

When the debate is framed in this way, it has the effect of making feminists appear both bigoted and single-mindedly obsessed with one, rather marginal, issue. Their cause isn’t helped by the preponderance in the US of “bathroom bills” – legislation passed in individual states to make sure that toilets remain available to one sex only.

But this framing of the single-sex debate is disingenuous. For those of us who care about the assault on women’s rights, toilets are a very minor part of the whole discussion. Instead, we are defending the principle that certain spaces and activities should be reserved for just one sex. There are a lot of them: toilets, of course, but also changing-rooms, prisons, sports, hospital wards, some leisure activities (such as the women-only sessions at your local pool or gym), domestic violence refuges, homeless shelters and rape crisis centres. There are a handful of jobs, too, that are single-sex: in the UK, if you have a mammogram, it will always be performed by a female sonographer, because some women would feel deeply uncomfortable about having such an intimate procedure carried out by a man.

So why do we segregate by sex? There are two reasons: privacy and safety. For many women – and indeed many men – the knowledge that a particular space is single-sex is reassuring. We have separate male and female changing rooms, because on the whole, women don’t want to get undressed in the presence of a strange man. For some women this matters more than for others: I know women who are quite happy to share a changing room or a hospital ward with men, and if that’s their view, then fine. But they don’t have the right to impose mixed-sex spaces on the rest of us.

There are also some groups of women for whom sharing space with the opposite sex is taboo: the Hampstead Heath ladies’ pond used to be a place where Orthodox Jewish women could swim safe in the knowledge that they would not have to share the space with men. But once it became mixed-sex, allowing men who identified as women to use the pool, it became effectively closed to them. Similarly, women-only sessions at the local leisure pool or gym allow Muslim women to exercise without the need to cover up.

For women who have been raped or abused, a single-sex crisis centre or refuge is essential for their peace of mind. If you’re traumatised as the result of male abuse, being forced to share a private space with men is frightening, regardless of how they identify. They’re called refuges for a reason.

The second reason, of course, is safety. Many trans activists make light of the idea that sexual abusers would identify as female to gain access to female spaces. Yet we know by now that sexual abusers train as priests, as teachers, as sports coaches, as doctors to gain access to victims. Why on earth wouldn’t they identify as female for the same reason? Are we supposed to believe that sexual predators operate some special kind of code of honour that would stop them identifying as female?

It should come as no surprise to find that sexually predatory men have indeed used the trans cloak to attack women. Take Sam (previously Steve) Mehlenbacher, who sexually assaulted a female prisoner in Ontario. Or Karen White, a convicted rapist, who was placed in a female prison and proceeded to sexually assault female prisoners. White was previously known by the names Stephen Wood and David Thompson; perhaps the authorities thought that the change of name to Karen White represented a break with the past. Who, after all, could have predicted that a man with a history of sexually assaulting women would take the opportunity of being placed in a women’s prison to sexually assault women?

And yet the authorities seem determined to press on. In Ireland, a young man who has displayed a pattern of extreme physical and sexual violence towards woman now calls himself Barbie Kardashian and has been placed in a female prison. In Canada, a woman fleeing an abusive relationship was asked to leave a women’s homelessness shelter after she objected to being made to share a room with a man transitioning to female. The women most affected by the removal of single-sex spaces are the most vulnerable: prisoners, rape survivors, domestic abuse victims. The women who boast of their willingness to share spaces with men know they are unlikely to need a homelessness shelter or to share a prison cell with a rapist.

The typical answer to feminist objections to the removal of single-sex spaces is to repeat the mantra “trans women are women” – and to argue that excluding trans women is just as discriminatory as excluding, say, black women or lesbian women. But unless they really weren’t paying attention in biology class, no one truly believes that it’s possible to change sex. “Trans women are women” is, rather, a political statement, one which says, “I believe that a man who thinks he is a woman, or says he thinks he is a woman, should be treated to all intents and purposes as if he was a woman.”

And yet I wonder how far the people who parrot this phrase with such conviction are prepared to accept the consequences. One easy way to assess this is to pose the question devised by Helen Staniland: “Do you believe that male-sexed people should have the right to undress and shower in a communal changing room with teenage girls?” 

Curiously, people who become very energised about the right of male-sexed people to use female toilets don’t like this question very much and try to avoid answering it. But it gets to the heart of the issue about single-sex spaces: do we believe a man is a woman because he says he is? Or is there something more fundamental about what makes a woman a woman?

Answering that question truthfully is hard, because it means recognising that you too are a narrow-minded bigot who deserves to be shunned by polite society. Easier, perhaps, to lie and bask in the warm glow of woke righteousness – and let the vulnerable face the consequences.

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Kim Thomas

Kim Thomas has been a freelance journalist for more than 20 years, writing for national newspapers and magazines on topics such as technology, education and health care.

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One Comment

  1. There is now, however, an active debate around what bathrooms we should be able to use. A recently proposed Indiana law would make it a crime for a person to enter a single-sex public restroom that does not match the person’s “biological gender,” defined in terms of chromosomes and sex at birth. The punishment could be up to a year in jail and a five-thousand-dollar fine. Similar laws proposed in several other states have not passed. These proposals attempt to counter recent moves in many states to allow transgender people to access bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s same-sex-marriage decision, last summer, these skirmishes may give the sense of moving the L.G.B.T.-equality debate from the sublime to the ridiculous. But the implications of the controversy go far beyond bathrooms.

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