Public showers, locker rooms, and personal privacy

The controversy over who gets to use what public bathroom continues to rage. Many of the arguments by opponents of allowing people to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity rather than to the gender they were assigned at birth have been based of exaggerated fears of perceived risks.

The focus has been almost entirely on fears of men who might take the chance to go into women’s rooms. The argument being made by opponents is that this allows male perverts free rein to casually claim to be women and use the women’s bathroom to expose themselves or molest women or even worse. This is countered by the argument that such things have always been illegal and those determined to do such things are unlikely to be deterred by a mere sign on the bathroom door.

But there has been an interesting aspect to this issue and that is of privacy. People do have a legitimate right to privacy. In general, bathrooms that have private stalls should not cause any problems since people’s privacy is preserved. A trickier question concerns locker rooms and showers where it appears that people change and take showers in view of others.

The oft-repeated claim that adolescent boys in schools may take advantage of the new guidelines to one day declare themselves to be girls and thus gain access to the girls locker room is countered by the fact that the rules, at least as far as schools are concerned, do not allow for such idiosyncratic and temporary gender identification. People have to have shown a consistent gender identity in order to use the bathroom or locker room that corresponds to their gender.

What this situation has brought into question is the assumption that people should not be embarrassed to unclothe themselves in front of others of the same gender. But is that truly the case? There may be many reasons why people might be uncomfortable with undressing in front of anyone else at all, whatever their gender. They may just be shy or they may feel embarrassed by their bodies, especially since there is so much focus on being conventionally attractive and the consequent shaming of those who veer too much from the ideal. What this new controversy has brought to the forefront is the idea that such public changing and shower areas should also make provision for people who do not wish to undress in front of others under any circumstances, quite apart from any transgender issues.

In my own case, for example, the polio that I had as a child caused serious damage to my body. That has not prevented me from engaging in most activities but I do feel uncomfortable changing in front of others and indeed never do. When I wrote above that “it appears that people change and take showers in view of others”, the reason for my uncertainty is that I never use public changing rooms and locker rooms and so have little first-hand knowledge of what those places are like. I avoid any situation that requires me to expose most of my body to others so that I do not, for example, go swimming nor do I ever appear in public wearing shorts or without a shirt. The availability of private areas in locker rooms and showers would actually also benefit someone like me.

One could argue that I should not feel embarrassed by what is after all, not my fault. My body is what it is and I should not fall victim to what is popularly referred to as ‘body shaming’. But people tend to look at what is unusual and I do not wish to be the subject of curious looks or cause discomfort to others. It is not a great hardship to me to avoid public showers or locker rooms and growing up in Sri Lanka, there was no need to ever use them.

But it is not so easy in the US, especially in schools and colleges. The move to allow people to use public facilities that correspond to their gender identity has increased the awareness of the need to also provide private spaces for those who want them for whatever reason, and thus these moves may actually increase privacy rather than decrease it as opponents charge.


  1. Trickster Goddess says

    At the public pool/rec centre near me the change room has several lockable private changing stalls and all the showering coves have curtains.

    Here is my anecdote as a transgender woman: the very first time I walked into the women’s change room at the pool I was of course a little nervous, not knowing what kind of reaction I would get. I entered and turned the corner into the changing area, and right in front of me was a women sitting on a bench, facing me, and completely naked. She looked up at me — and immediately broke out into a big friendly smile.

  2. Mano Singham says

    Trickster Goddess,

    I am glad that you had that positive experience. I am hopeful that these will become the norm as more people realize that the whole issue has been terribly overblown.

  3. screechymonkey says

    Recently the New York Times reported on the increasing pressure from gym customers for more privacy.

    Unfortunately, there’s still some resistance, as shown by the snotty tone of the NYT article, and by this rather reprehensible piece by Mark Joseph Stern at Slate, which claims that people like Mano just need to “man up.” Though that’s probably just an unfortunate example of Slate being Slate.

    Anyway, the long-term trend appears to be going in the direction of those of us who like a little privacy. And in the age of digital camera phones, and whatever next-generation Google Glass device is coming down the pike next, I don’t expect that to change.

  4. Mano Singham says


    Thanks a lot for those two links. The article by Stern reflects a common feeling among some that if something isn’t a problem for them, it should not be a problem for others. Telling people “You shouldn’t feel that way” is rarely helpful.

    Stern seems to feel that the problem is almost exclusively about showing genitalia. Actually, for people like me (and I suspect for others who may have body types that vary from the idealized norm) the genitalia are not the issue at all, since those are the parts of the body that are the least distinctive!

  5. smrnda says

    I actually cannot recall any fitness facility I ever used which had communal showers -- I’m young, and communal showers seem to have been phased out.

    I found Stern’s piece reprehensible -- apparently he has appointed himself god for a day and declared what things are ‘rational’ or ‘irrational’ to be uncomfortable about.

    “Adults who are nervous about being naked around other adults are not rational and should not be treated as though they are. They are scared and insecure—and the only way they can work around their fear is to face it directly. ”

    First, last I checked it was no crime to be scared or insecure -- most people probably are in a few areas. Second, Stern isn’t someone’s therapist to decide what they should ‘work around’ and what is ‘healthy’ for them. he has also decided that he gets to pick what makes you an ‘adult’ or not. Somehow I think civilization can continue just fine even if people were universally against being naked in locker rooms. Third, Stern seems like the typical bully -- he thinks you should ‘man up’ and be naked, regardless of how *you* feel about it.

    And on how people deal with adult fears : I knew someone who was terrified of snakes. He simply avoided them. It would be obnoxious for someone to decide that such a person needs to handle a pet snake to ‘get over it.’ It would be obnoxious to demand that a friend who is afraid of spiders handle a tarantula. Part of being an adult is being considerate of other people’s feelings and making accommodations, though I take it Stern would probably have a juvenile remark to make about my definition of ‘adult.’

  6. Hans Besserfeld says

    Smrnda- of course being afraid of snakes and spiders are rational fears because they could physically harm you. Being afraid of being naked in the locker room is more akin to irrational fears like fears of elevators & fears of open spaces etc. yes, you can restrict yourself from using an elevator or being in an open space but it decreases your quality-of-life.

    Not using a public locker room and missing out on going swimming or exercising or going to the spa decreases your quality of life without any increase in your physical safety.

    So I would agree with Mr. Stern. These are irrational fears. I don’t care if you never go swimming or never ride an elevator, but I do feel sad for you.

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