A Bathroom of Her Own

December 21, 2009

The coed college bathroom, like the coed college dormitory, is so common (at least in some parts of the country) that it inspires crude comedy sketches, advice columns and complaints.

At least one student who doesn't think bathrooms should be shared between male and female students is fighting back. A new lawsuit by a student at Green Mountain College charges that Vermont officials (and those in other states) have an obligation to make sure that all public buildings need to have separate bathrooms for men and women.

Jennifer Weiler, the freshman who sued, says that Green Mountain housed her in a facility where only shared bathrooms were available. When she complained, the suit says, the college designated a bathroom in her dormitory as a women's bathroom, but did nothing when male students went right on using it.

Ron Weiler, Jennifer's father, said in an interview that his daughter had no idea when enrolling that the bathrooms were shared by men and women. He said that the bathrooms feature showers with curtains, and toilets in stalls. But he said that while the female students generally disrobe and towel themselves behind the shower curtains, many male students do not, nor do the male students necessarily shut the stall doors.

"The men just disrobe in the middle of the room," Weiler said, and women shouldn't have to see that.

Weiler said that state building codes generally require public buildings -- a category that would include dormitories -- to have both men's and women's facilities. And Weiler said he complained to the college, to state officials, and to others before suing the state to compel enforcement of building codes. "What we have is that it's seen as politically incorrect to interfere with what goes on on college campuses," Weiler said.

He added that he has no problem with a college opting to have some coed bathrooms, as long as there are single-sex facilities readily available throughout any residential facilities.

Vermont and college officials couldn't be reached for comment, and the suit indicates that the state has asserted that it is not responsible for determining the bathroom breakdown at colleges. But Weiler noted that the issue has come up elsewhere and he predicted that more people might raise protests about coed bathrooms.

Bathroom Politics in Higher Ed

The suit in Vermont represents the latest twist in the politics of bathrooms in higher education. Of late, the big push has been by transgender students, who have urged the creation of coed bathrooms or of individual bathrooms, where one does not need to designate oneself in a traditional male/female dichotomy to use the facilities. But many colleges -- outside of institutions where religious or local political traditions would frown on such a move -- have had coed bathrooms for years. In part this has been a matter of convenience, as colleges that used to have strict gender separation in residence halls, with one large bathroom to a floor, have modified bathroom policies as they became open to coeducational floors.

The issue has been debated periodically at Williams College, courtesy of Wendy Shalit, an alumna who launched her career as a pundit and an advocate for sexual "modesty" with an essay in Commentary, later reprinted for a much larger audience in Reader's Digest, in which she criticized the college's coed bathrooms and linked them to the decline of traditional dating.

Shalit, in comments similar to those of Weiler's suit, says that it wasn't her own body that led her to complain but the forced closeness to others. "When I objected, I was told by my fellow students that I 'must not be comfortable with [my] body.' Frankly, I didn’t get that, because I was fine with my body; it was their bodies in such close proximity to mine that I wasn’t thrilled about," she wrote. In an interview with the Independent Women's Forum, Shalit said that while she was mocked for expressing these views, she was thanked privately by many students who told her that they agreed, but didn't want to be labeled as prudes.

A spokesman for Williams said that changes at Williams over the years have had "the result, though not the purpose," of placing more first-year students in buildings with separate men's and women's bathrooms than was the case previously (when Shalit raised the issue).

But one of the practices Shalit criticized -- letting students on a given floor decide whether to make the bathrooms coed -- remains. "It's still the case that students organize dorm life and in some situations, over the course of the year, students determine that the cost of walking to the bathroom designated for their sex, though close by adult standards, exceeds the benefit," he said.

James Baumann, director of communications for the Association of College and University Housing Officers-International, said that there are no national data on the percentage of colleges that have coed bathrooms. But he said that "it grows in its commonality each year."

Joey McNamara, national chair of the National Association of College and University Residence Halls, which represents students who live in the halls, said that bathroom issues have come up for the group primarily when planning conferences. Some members don't want to meet at campuses that have strictly male and female bathrooms, he said.

McNamara, a student at Lynn University, said he has only experienced single-sex bathrooms and that he has sympathy for Weiler. "I think privacy needs to be allowed," he said.

Of course, at many campuses with coed bathrooms, the concerns tend to come from parents and prospective students -- while the realities of coed bathrooms are sufficiently mundane that everyone seems to get used to the situation. Michael Snively, one of the students who blogs for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology admissions office, wrote on his blog that he is constantly asked to write about the issue or to answer questions about this topic during campus tours.

The post mocks the excessive interest in bathrooms, noting there are four things about which to be certain: "1) The bathrooms are coed. 2) The bathrooms do not have locks on them. 3) Yes, two people may very well be showering in the same bathroom at the same time. 4) Nobody cares. That's right guys, if you get into MIT there's a high likelihood that you'll get to stand 6 inches away from a naked senior on just your first or second day here! That goes for you too ladies, naked guys standing just 6 inches away! Oo la la!"

Snively's discussion of the topic -- including authentic, G-rated photographs -- discusses how the bathrooms are set up and offers key rules. (Knocking is important). And comments posted suggest that many MIT students get questions from their family members about the topic, and chuckle at the interest.

The article concludes: "From my experience, there are so many things at MIT that are important, difficult, and take adjusting to, worrying about bathrooms just isn't that critical. We're grown ups now, just be civil and polite and everybody gets along alright. You may not be used to having to share a bathroom with a girl or a guy, but you'll find that very little changes (except the length of the hair you find in the shower), so don't sweat the small stuff and worry more about, well, anything, more than bathrooms at MIT."

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