Illustration by Maddy Pease.
I, like a lot of human beings, have both a digestive system and a urinary tract. This means that I’ve had my fair share of unique bathroom-related experiences. I won’t claim to have seen it all, but I’ve definitely seen a pretty good sample size of “it all,” from delighting in the loveliness of drunk girls in bathrooms to having a stare-down with a scorpion in a dimly lit public restroom in Thailand (true story).
Not to be dramatic, but I’m a firm believer that bathrooms are the uncelebrated champions of our most private moments. They are the quiet vacuums in which those who menstruate unwrap their first tampons as if they are rocket ships, sleek and intimidating. They are the camps we hunker in while hunching over pregnancy tests, hoping for a certain answer. Bathrooms are the calm refuges in which we are allowed to take a moment, splash our faces, and regain composure; they are the sanctuaries to which we slip quietly away during awkward work parties and over-stimulating social situations. As of late, bathrooms have also become hot-button political hubs: the illusion of a soft pink oasis full of spritzes and sprays has been toppled, replaced by scorching limelight that illuminates the intolerance that plagues American gender politics and public space codes.
Yet even with all that said, bathrooms aren’t a thing I devote much conscious energy to considering. Most days, bathrooms are simply a fact of life; a thing I take for granted (which showcases my privilege as a cisgender woman). Recently, though, I was thrown into a situation that urged me to re-examine an aspect of bathroom culture that, to me, is second nature: the habit of bringing a “bathroom buddy” with me whenever nature calls.
Let’s backtrack. I ended up in this conversation because a cis male friend of mine accidentally used a women’s public restroom. (This was in China, and he couldn’t read the sign. He made a quick, not to mention very embarrassed, exit upon realizing his error.)
“Hey, I have a question,” he said after emerging. I braced myself, expecting him to rattle off inquiries concerning the normal tropes of women’s restrooms: fancy soaps and sprays, tampon dispensers, and an enviable level of cleanliness. Instead of breaching any of those subjects, though, he asked: “Why does your bathroom have a help button?”
Truth be told, I had never paid much attention to the help button before. I’m not even sure it exists in the United States—if it does, it does so quietly, as it’s long gone unnoticed by my eyes. Furthermore, I had no idea that such a button didn’t or wouldn’t exist in the realm of men’s restrooms. Couldn’t disaster strike anywhere? Or was disaster allergic to masculinity?
My friend’s observation led our group to engage in a pleasantly productive discussion of women’s safety issues. My female-identifying friends shared past experiences of vulnerability and fear in public spaces; my cis male friends affirmed that they had never experienced such feelings. The conversation felt open and constructive. We spoke, and they listened! It felt good! It felt like we were getting somewhere!
And then another male friend asked:
“So, like, why do girls always go to the bathroom together?”
I was taken aback. Hadn’t we just gone over this? Hadn’t we laid out social facts and offered up sensitive personal stories? Was he kidding? Was he just messing around for the sake of making conversation?
But then I realized: my friend’s inquiry, however startling, was genuine. You see, in my friend’s straight cis male reality, one does not have to shape their individual behaviors around the avoidance of threats — or maybe one does, but certainly not during a routine trip to the restroom.
So though we had indeed just discussed one of the major reasons why women go to the bathroom together — because public restrooms aren’t certifiably safe to visit alone — his brain didn’t make the connection between “social issue” and “personal problem.” His brain, unlike mine, has not been programmed to plan escape routes.
So let’s settle this once and for all. Girls go to the bathroom together for a myriad of reasons. We like to have someone to talk to when the line is inevitably long! We like to discuss whatever has unfolded in the night thus far! We like to have someone confirm that yes, our lipstick looks fine, and no, nobody has noticed our sweat stains!
But also, we like to know that somebody is there to have our back, just in case.
In case that empty stall turns out to not be so empty. In case somebody questions our right to have walked in the door labeled “women.” In case, god forbid, we let down our guard when we’re just trying to empty our damn bladders.
Women, like a lot of human beings, crave safety. We style our behaviors to make sure we’re as safe as possible. Most days, this desire for safety doesn’t present itself as a domineering monster that towers over us, ordering us in military fashion to check over our shoulders or shoot pepper spray at any dark silhouette on our journey home. Instead, the desire for safety shows up as small voice gently encouraging us to constantly look around; to map our surroundings; to pre-dial 911 on the walk home or to bring a friend to the bathroom. For those of you whose reality doesn’t involve an intimate relationship with this voice: it is similar to the feeling in your gut that causes you to bring a jacket even when it looks sunny outside, because you have an ominous feeling that no matter what the weatherman has promised, you might grow cold.
“Just in case,” the voice whispers, and you concede. Because it is always better to be prepared.