Should you accompany your four-year-old daughter into the men's toilets?by Sam Leith / November 14, 2013 / Leave a comment
The other day I was kicked out of a ladies’ lavatory.
Hold your horses—there were mitigating circumstances: I was in there with my four-year-old daughter. Nevertheless, as I finished helping her wash her hands at the public loos next to the playground, a male toilet attendant came in and told us we shouldn’t be there.
I, for once in my life, had an answer ready. I’ve thought this one through. The choice is straightforward. Accompanying my daughter to the ladies’ isn’t ideal: the odd woman emerging from a cubicle might be momentarily startled to see a man in the area by the washbasins. But the alternative (the disabled loo having been locked) would be to take a four-year-old girl into the gents’, exposing her to a whole row of grown men with their —well, you don’t need me to spell it out.
For me, given the options, a fully-clothed grown woman encountering a fully-clothed grown man in a washbasin area trumps a four-year-old girl encountering men doing their business in an unsavoury urinal situation every time. But our man was not convinced. “You should take her to the gents’,” he insisted.
I hope you’ll forgive me for the lavatorial scene-setting. But it seems to me worth investigating this: it’s a dilemma that any father with a female child faces, and I haven’t seen it much discussed. What I find peculiar is that it’s not just this toilet attendant who seems unconvinced by my way of thinking. A straw poll of friends found a number who’d rather hustle a girl-child into a cubicle in the gents’ than invade the ladies’. I think that’s weird.
Consider the anatomy of the taboo. It’s worth noting that the male/female skew isn’t symmetrical: a woman accompanying her young son into the ladies’ is fine; whereas a woman accompanying her young son into the gents’ would cause discomfort to all concerned—rather more so than a stray man loitering in the ladies’ (the obvious point being that women use cubicles).
But look at the way this works. The protection of girl-children from exposure to man-bits is a pretty high priority in our culture at large: in fact, it’s about the highest sort-of-sexual taboo there is at the moment. Yet for many people, the integrity of the gendered space (as sociologists might call it) of the ladies’ toilet overpowers that consideration. The abstract and collective—men don’t go into women’s loos, and vice versa—overrides the concrete and particular. We sideline considerations to do with the set-up of cubicles and the actual likely outcomes of one transgression or the other (“Eek! A man!”; “Daddy: what are those men doing?”).
By being in the communal, fully-clothed washing-up area of the ladies loos, I’m not violating anybody’s actual privacy (if I’d been doing chin-ups to peer into the cubicles, or pulling my trousers off, we’d be having a wholly different conversation and this column would be datelined HMP Wandsworth). Rather, I’m violating the idea of the sanctity of a female space. The sex of the child is entirely irrelevant in this consideration, incidentally: children, until the age of puberty, pass through these invisible gender barriers like ghosts.
The closest comparison I can think of is those old-fashioned gentlemen’s clubs where “ladies” have to use a separate staircase. Should anybody in a skirt be sighted ascending the main staircase, one imagines an instant Bateman cartoon moment. Like the one I experienced in the ladies’ loos. Next time I’m simply going to jemmy the door of the disabled bogs and there’s an end of it.