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Rethinking Gendered Bathrooms

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Law professor Carlos Ball made a legal case for rethinking gendered bathrooms in his recent Huffington Post blog. I think there is a marketing case to be made, too. Bear with me on this.

If it's one thing we are good at in America, it's market segmentation. Before selling a product, we start with as much data as we can gather about consumers and their specific needs and wants, then use information technology to slice and dice that data until we have grouped consumers into distinct profiles sharing common traits. We then develop products aimed directly at each profile.

Because this approach has been so successful, no company today would ever consider limiting its product offerings to only two - say vanilla and chocolate, red and white, or mild and spicy. Nor would today's spoiled consumer put up with such limited choices. Yet, in spite of this, we continue to tolerate the existence of public bathrooms limited to two types - one for men and one for women.

Our experience analyzing consumer data should have taught us by now that gender is much more complicated than that. According to a recent Newsweek article, gender researchers have been aware of this for some time. Some women don't feel Paris Hilton feminine and some men don't feel Sylvester Stallone masculine, and all are feeling increasingly free to live their lives in gender non-conforming ways.

If that's the case, binary bathrooms are a very old-school approach that should have died-out a long time ago. I'm not suggesting that we create umpteen types of bathrooms - that's economically unfeasible. I believe our marketing smarts would instead instruct us to improve the "bathroom experience."

Don't laugh. That's marketing-speak. Ask a marketer.

The bathroom experience right now is that we have two spaces segregated by gender for a common bodily function. The mere fact that bathrooms are segregated by gender leads the average person to assume that everyone fits neatly into one gender or the other.

Because this segregation is not enforced by public law enforcement, individual bathroom users tend to deputize themselves to be the arbiters of what is a man and what is a woman. When someone is spotted who does not quite fit the deputy's rules, that someone is assumed to be in the wrong bathroom. And if that someone dares to insist to the contrary, that someone is assumed to be up to no good and vigilante law takes over to drive them out. The result is a bad bathroom experience for all involved.

But really, gendered bathrooms are a problem of our own making, from the old days when our understanding of consumers was more limited. So let's use today's marketing savvy to build a better bathroom.

Why not provide a single facility with a shared sink area and individual non-gendered stalls that are more private? The stalls would have to be, in effect, closets, or at least have walls that extend much closer to the floor and ceiling than we commonly find today. Modern gendered restrooms seem to already be incorporating this closet design anyway, out of our increasing preference for privacy.

Worried about safety? Let's not have doors to the washroom part and instead have staggered walls so no one can see in, yet you can hear if anyone in the common area is in trouble. As for those very private stalls, existing non-bathroom closets in a building are far riskier because people are not constantly knocking at those doors to see if someone is inside.

(By the way, abusers generally know their victims, so random sexual violence in any closet is unlikely.)

Concerned about give-ups? The ladies' room used to be a refuge for girlfriends wanting to talk about what losers their male dates were. Now it's quicker just to text each other while still at the dinner table. And as for people needing the sink area to change clothes, I have honestly never seen that, ether in my earlier life using the men's room or my current life using the women's room. People change clothes in the stalls, period.

(By the way, my experience has shown me that women's rooms are just as messy and dirty as men's rooms.)

And what's with those urinals anyway? Do we really need to provide a public place for men to compare their sexual adequacy? Okay, so urinals are less expensive because they take up less space. If we have one combined bathroom, we'll save space that way, instead.

Think my proposed design is too radical? I've encountered this very setup in Europe and found no one to be phased by it. Besides, we all grew up using one bathroom at home, didn't we? And we manage to deal with having only unisex bathrooms on planes, don't we?

We clearly can't update all of the existing bathrooms overnight. In the meantime, we should follow the advice in Carlos Ball's post to accommodate the differently gendered. But when we are designing 21st Century buildings, shouldn't we make sure they have 21st Century bathrooms, too?