A joke I once heard: “What two words does a guy least want to hear at the urinal? … Nice d*ck!” The truth is that privacy matters. While most men don’t wish to be “admired” by other men, mens’ public restrooms would seem to provide adequate privacy for those having a particular sensitivity. I presume that womens’ restrooms do too.
Still, voyeurism is more common than we’d like, and strong privacy advocates believe that’s an adequate rationale for prohibiting transgender women (M to F) from using womens’ restrooms. It’s not legitimate trans-women who are of concern, whether they’ve undergone full sexual reassignment or not. Rather, it’s men who would falsely claim to be trans-women. Put another way, does the state have any compelling interest in protecting privacy by discriminating against transgender women, barring their use of womens’ restrooms?
Laws against voyeurism are grounded in the presumed right to privacy under the U.S. Constitution. The expectation of privacy is well-established as a condition under which voyeurism can be prosecuted, and bathrooms meet that test. In fact, the prevalence of voyeurism is estimated to be quite high, especially among males. The Wikipedia entry on this subject states that:
“…research found voyeurism to be the most common sexual law-breaking behavior in both clinical and general populations. … In a national study of Sweden it was found that 7.7% of the population (both men and women) had engaged in voyeurism at some point. It is also believed that voyeurism occurs up to 150 times more frequently than police reports indicate.“
The estimate from Sweden is conservative for male voyeurs. However, only a portion of that voyeurism occurs in or around public restrooms. For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that 5% of the estimate above relates to males likely to commit some form of voyeurism in or around womens’ restrooms, or 0.38% of the adult male population. Each of those males may commit voyeurism against multiple females on any given bathroom escapade, so this value may underestimate the risk to the privacy of women.
On the other hand, the prevalence of transgender, or gender identification different from that assigned at birth, is very low. Again according to Wikipedia, the most commonly cited figure is that 1 in 10,000 assigned males is transgender (and far fewer birth-assigned females). Some argue that this is too low to account for even the cases of sexual reassignment surgery (SRS) that have occurred in the U.S. I would argue, however, that trans-women (M to F) having undergone SRS would be welcome in womens’ restrooms. After all, they’d even pass a genital check at the door! That leaves transgender men who have not yet, or will not, undergo SRS. So, for the sake of argument, I will go with the incidence rate of 0.01% implied by the figure above. That is, 0.01% of the adult male population is an assigned-male trans woman having male genitals.
Assuming that all womens’ restrooms are thrown open to any male claiming to be a trans-woman, the conservative estimate of the incidence of voyeurism would be 38 times the incidence of legitimate trans-women disallowed from entering womens’ restrooms under traditional gender restrictions. Note that neither of these estimates has a time dimension. Repeat voyeurism is a likelihood, just as legitimate trans-women, pre-SRS, would be denied their rights on every trip to a public restroom.
Now we ask again which case is more compelling: protecting the right to privacy against the potential for voyeurism, or protecting the restroom rights of trans-women who are pre- or non-SRS? One possible solution is to acknowledge restrictions on restroom use as an incentive for transsexuals to undergo SRS. However, that is not practical in important respects: full gender transition can take a number of years; SRS is not and cannot be an immediate procedure for walk-ins at the doctor’s office for various reasons; and some transsexuals are never able to make a full transition.
Another consideration is the extent to which bathroom regulation makes any difference at all. While “throwing the doors open” might create some additional incentive to male voyeurs, they are already active, and most of them would be just as easy to prosecute if the rules on restroom use for trans-women were relaxed. However, to the extent that creates additional risk, it is borne by all women availing themselves of public restrooms. At the same time, it is certain that trans-women already make use of womens’ restrooms. If non-SRS, they must do so surreptitiously and at some legal risk, Again, their total number is limited.
The balance between the threat to privacy rights and the desire for equitable treatment of transsexuals is not as clear-cut as some on either side would have us believe. However, given the need to determine that balance, the classic federalist approach seems ideal. That is, states or more limited political jurisdictions should decide how best to handle the issue. That is more or less our current approach, as the issue is otherwise beyond our ability to find a consensus. Full conversion to unisex restrooms might even be acceptable in some parts of the U.S. Fortunately, individuals can “vote with their feet”, rewarding those jurisdictions having laws they find best-protect their rights as individuals. It’s another great experiment in the determination of social preferences. That’s what federalism is all about.