The bathroom: we all go there, but do we do it for the right reasons? In many states, Americans reinforce patriarchy by using gender-segregated public restrooms. Other, better states have gender-neutral public restrooms,1 but people still use them in ways that enforce their gender privilege. By “people,” I mean men. Fortunately, Everyday Feminism has published this handy, 2300-word guide titled 6 Helpful Ways to Check Your Male Privilege in Gender-Neutral Bathrooms. There are actually seven items on the list, but four of them boil down to “don’t cover the seat in urine.” Another item is “wash your hands,” which raises questions about the line between politics and hygiene. But what if washing your hands were a feminist act? What if resisting the patriarchy were as easy as not laughing at strangers when they pass gas?2 If that were true, I could do feminism every day, just by continuing my normal behavior.
I do not want to be too hard on this piece. Writers must get paid, and the author’s description of himself as a “science fiction fanatic” suggests that bathroom politics are not his first love, craft-wise. I do want to be hard on Everyday Feminism, though. Its name conveys its essential proposition: that being conscious of feminist issues in everyday life raises ordinary living to the level of activism.
You can see this principle at at work throughout this piece, for example in the implication that not urinating on the toilet seat is feminism. Please do aim at the center of the toilet (“1: Aim—Enough Said,” followed by 350 words.) Don’t try to go standing up with the seat still down (item 2.) If you urinate on or around the toilet, clean it up (item 4.) All of these ideas are basic decency, and ignoring them will inconvenience other men along with women. But the piece reframes not being a huge asshole as a specifically feminist act:
You are a cis man. And to some degree (especially if you are a white cis man), society promotes an idea that we are entitled to absolute freedom of movement. You deserve, among so many other things, to pee freely and have no one tell you about the consequences of your poor aim. Reality check: This is patriarchal logic, if not completely representative of the world in which we live. There are consequences.
If you accept the idea that patriarchal logic excuses men from urinating on the seats of public toilets—a dubious proposition, in my experience—then not peeing on the seat becomes an act of resistance to patriarchy. Basic decency becomes feminism. “There are consequences” to leaving a public toilet covered in your own waste, so not doing that must have meaningful, feminist consequences, too. Similarly, when the article tells you to wash your hands “because you care about gender politics in the bathroom and beyond,” it implies that maintaining a toddler’s level of personal hygiene somehow reduces the oppression of women.
Do wash your hands after you use the bathroom. But don’t pretend that’s feminism in the same way as working for access to abortion or a higher minimum wage. Plenty of misogynists wash their hands too. Todd Akin probably lifts the seat.
The problem with “everyday feminism” is that it encourages us to think that having the right values is as good as acting on them. It is the smug quiescence of the hippies, who thought smoking grass and hating Richard Nixon would get him out of office. Understanding the dimension of cis male privilege inherent in loud farting may advance feminist theory, but it is not feminist activism. It does not change the condition of women or those outside the gender binary. Thinking about those people when you go to the bathroom does not improve their lives.
If you are looking for a seventh3 helpful way to check your male privilege in gender-neutral bathrooms, wash your hands, exit the bathroom and go volunteer at a women’s shelter. Write a letter to your congressman about how he should be a woman, or at least talk to a woman before he legislates her rights away. Do something you do not do every day. A feminism that is as easy as washing your hands just might be no feminism at all.