One day I went to the bathroom of my university building, and I saw the signs had changed from ‘male’ and ‘female’ to ‘gender neutral’ and ‘gender neutral with urinals’. This development is not unique to the United Kingdom; in recent years, toilets have been changed to gender neutral and unisex across many countries1. This has mainly been driven by the transgender community to counter harassment against people who do not identify with either ‘male’ or ‘female’ genders.
Initially, it didn’t bother me. In fact, I welcomed the change until I walked into the bathroom one day to grab a tampon and found a man there washing his hands in the sink. I felt nervous, and my mind flashed back to bathroom incidents when I was an over-developed 12-year-old girl in Belize. Having to openly grab a menstrual product from a bathroom occupied by a man was therefore uncomfortable, and having that safe space taken away made me nervous.
However, I was told to get over my discomfort because those ‘developing world problems do not affect us here in the UK’. Maybe I am hypervigilant; back home, I learned to spot predatory behavior from before I was old enough to be catcalled while walking with peers in my white high school uniform. And maybe my requests for a safe female space are unreasonable in England, that small corner of the great former empire2. But harassment is still prevalent, and the trend of ignoring sex in favor of gender, for example through gender-neutral toilets, is dangerous3.
Growing up in Belize, I never thought about separating sex from gender. The two were inextricably linked through years of reinforcement. Male-female segregation occurred throughout life: for segregated teams, bathrooms and sex-education classes; sewing was for girls, woodwork for boys; we also wore different uniforms.
In girls, purity was emphasized. In boys, masculinity was encouraged. A lot of these gender roles were often given a biological justification; namely, women can get pregnant and are more vulnerable to certain types of assault, and if men are not tough enough, they cannot protect themselves and their families.
I didn’t notice these things growing up because I had nothing to contradict my worldview. It wasn’t until I moved from Belize seven years ago that my understanding of sex and gender was challenged.
In Belize I know a girl who was drugged and raped by a popular classmate. She blamed herself for getting into that situation, for seeming easy, for drinking, for wearing what she was wearing, and she buried it deep inside, smiling with her attacker the following week to not seem rude. She did not report it. I know of one woman who was raped vaginally, anally, and orally in broad daylight, and her family blamed her miniskirt and the time of day she was walking. She did not report it.
Yes, these are things that happened in Belize, but these are not only ‘developing world’ issues. These are problems that women face worldwide4, and not being able to acknowledge and prepare for that biological difference is impossible for me to understand because in the moment you face discrimination, harassment, and assault based on your breasts and the vulnerability of your vagina, it’s your body they are after.
I think we should therefore be very careful with developments like the introduction of gender-neutral spaces and acknowledge that, unfortunately for many women, the female restroom is often still the safe space to go.
2Belize used to be a British Crown colony from 1862 to 1964, and gained full independence in 1981.
3Sex is one of two main groups into which humans are categorized based on their biological characteristics, while gender refers to the roles and behaviors socially constructed around sex.
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