Cognitive Daily

Yesterday on our way back from a vacation in New York, we stopped to get coffee and use the bathroom. There was a long line at the women’s room, and a much shorter line at the men’s restroom. These were both one-seat restrooms with locks on the door. A man in line for the men’s room gallantly suggested that Greta use the men’s toilet. By the time I had purchased our coffee, the situation had reversed and there was no line for the women’s room.

Would it be okay for me to use the women’s facility? Or would it be rude? After all, I might surprise a woman later on when I emerge. Is it okay for women to use the men’s room, but not the reverse? Should there even be separate restrooms for men and women?

And what type of person is more willing to use the opposite-gender’s restroom?

This week’s study should help us find out.

Click here to participate

The study should take just a few minutes to complete. You have until Thursday, January 8 to participate. There is no limit on the number of respondents. Don’t forget to come back next week for the results!


  1. #1 Skrud
    January 2, 2009

    As long as there’s only one toilet and the door locks, it doesn’t matter which gender the bathroom is for … it may as well be genderless. In which case etiquette would dictate that that men allow women to preempt the line (unless you *really* have to go), kind of like the cliché of holding a door open.

  2. #2 will
    January 2, 2009

    This post sounds like typical American angst.

    Shared restrooms are far more common elsewhere …. as long as people respect each others privacy (door?) who cares?

    (even the above might highlight my own angst?)

    Most importantly, people should wash their hands after using a public restroom (appalingly low %s actually do)

    On that thought: Happy New Year! 🙂

  3. #3 phd in yogurtry
    January 2, 2009

    Having worked closely with sex offenders and their victims, and knowing about the gender breakdown of perpetration, I believe in many instances, that separate bathrooms are a necessity. Or an added protective factor is a better way of putting it. I recall the dilemma when my son grew up to the age where he “should” go into the men’s bathroom by himself but I insisted on having him in the women’s room. When he eventually refused, I was struck by how vulnerable he was. Trying to explain the difference between a man using the urinal “normally” and exposing himself was difficult.

  4. #4 Dave Munger
    January 2, 2009

    Interesting comments, Phd — I was thinking about adding a question about when kids are old enough to use public restrooms by themselves (or to go to the opp. gender room with a parent), but I didn’t want the survey to get too long.

  5. #5 Tom
    January 2, 2009

    I live in the U.S. I’ve been in many bar restaurants that have had 2 men/women restrooms; single rooms with a toilet and a door with a lock.

  6. #6 Nan
    January 2, 2009

    For those who think it doesn’t matter to separate the sexes, I have this reminder: airplane restrooms. Women are forced to sit on the seat to use the toilet. Imagine how we feel when some selfish man has failed to raise the seat and left it sprinkled and filthy. Amtrak trains are often even worse. I’m afraid men cannot be trusted to leave the facility in a condition that is usable for others.

  7. #7 Comrade PhysioProf
    January 2, 2009

    As long as there’s only one toilet and the door locks, it doesn’t matter which gender the bathroom is for.


  8. #8 Jamie
    January 2, 2009

    My issue with the survey, which influenced how I filled it out, is that if there was NO line for the men’s bathroom, then fine, but if there is a short line, even just one guy, then I’d wait for the women’s room. A weird nuiance, but true at least in my case.

  9. #9 Comrade PhysioProf
    January 2, 2009

    Yes, there is a big difference between no line and a short line at the opposite sex bathroom.

    And BTW, it seems to me that unisex bathrooms would make it less likely for children to be subject to inappropriate sexual advances or leering by perverted adults.

  10. #10 KW
    January 2, 2009

    I agree with Jamie, no line at men’s I would use it. By the way many places now have a restroom for men, woman, and unisex.

  11. #11 alufelgi szczecin
    January 2, 2009

    In my opinion the largest threat for California are cataclysms and ecological catastrophes. Not important is how many money we have because one tragedy can us take all.

  12. #12 Camden
    January 2, 2009

    As a woman, I’m not too interested in walking into a multi-stall/urinal shared room where men are standing around with their trousers unzipped. I’m not too keen on my young school-aged son or daughter in the same situation, either.

  13. #13 ana
    January 2, 2009

    I am a woman and I would personally have no issues using the men’s restroom. Issues such as the ones posed in comment #6.
    BUT I would have problems with how people around me reacted. It is one thing to have one person suggest that you use the opposite-sex bathroom, and to me it would be completely different to just place myself at the opposite-sex line, without knowing what comments that could trigger.
    I clearly fear bad looks/comments, which is why, while I find it okay (thinking “hygiene” here) for women to use the men’s room (and vice versa), it is highly unlikely that I ever will (thinking “etiquette” and the risk of dealing with other persons’ negative reactions).
    I hope I wasn’t too confusing, I don’t normally comment around here, but I really wanted to mention these distinctions I made when answering your questions.

  14. #14 lily
    January 2, 2009

    Agreed: I wouldn’t actually use the other restroom unless there is NO line there, not “a short line.” It’s stupid, but there you have it. I do wish more places had unisex bathrooms, particularly ones like a restaurant near where I live where the sinks are in an area that’s partly open to the hallway of the restaurant (reducing the discomfort some women feel of being surrounded by men in a unisex bathroom). It’s quite comfortable, and easy to use for families and everyone else, and they keep it clean so it doesn’t develop Men’s Restroom Syndrome, which is the main reason I avoid using men’s restrooms (I’m a woman). This kind of restroom is still quite rare in the US, though.

    (And no, they don’t have urinals in this kind of restroom!)

  15. #15 requiemforagirl
    January 2, 2009

    All public toilets should have automated functions for hygiene reasons: cubicle doors that open and close via a hand wave trigger action (not those filthy latches that agonise the imagination with all sorts of germy nightmares); taps with an automatic timed sensor (so the filthy ignorant don’t have to think too hard about the fact that it takes more than a 2 sec flash job to properly clean your hands after emptying yourself).

    Don’t you just love the just-for-show 2 sec hand wash? Which makes you wonder what the fuck they do in the privacy of their own unobserved bathroom…

    That’s it! Cameras: they impel routinely immoral people to behave..well, more morally, and by extension, more hygienically.

    Civil liberties..HA!….we’re talking about hygiene crime here – majorly offensive to the polite mind.

  16. #16 Dr. Matthew
    January 2, 2009

    I think it’s interesting that you did not ask sexual orientation. In gay and lesbian spaces, be they bars, coffee shops, or LGBT community centers, bathrooms are rarely if ever policed like in heterosexual establishments. Individuals use restrooms based on comfort, the preference of friends, or how long the line is. Methodologically, given the gross disparities in gender-policing between straight and LGBT public spaces in U.S. culture, your data is likely to be strongly skewed by a variable you aren’t gathering data on that is at least as important as sex and age.

  17. #17 Rugosa
    January 2, 2009

    Nan – I agree guys can be slobs about toilet habits, but pee on the seat is pretty much par for the course in women’s rest rooms around here. Interestingly enough, a couple of years ago I spent a week in San Francisco, and I never had to wipe pee off a public toilet seat. Seems we East Coast ladies are so delicate that our derrieres can’t touch a toilet seat, even if it means sprinkling our effluvia on the commode and surrounding floor. Yuck.

  18. #18 Lis Riba
    January 2, 2009

    Grendel’s Den in Cambridge (MA) used to have two restrooms — each with a single toilet and locking door — labelled “EITHER” and “OR”

  19. #19 Francois C
    January 3, 2009

    It seems to me that your survey should have also covered people’s behavior when they are with their own children. The choice is more complex and the impact of a wrong choice more important that when there are only adults on the lines.

    For instance, I’m a man and I always go to women’s bathroom with my six-year-old daughter if she’s the one who needs to go. If I’m the one who needs to go, and if there is no other man in men’s bathroom, I take her with me there. I’m not sure about what I prefer if there are other men.

  20. #20 Laura
    January 3, 2009

    Lis Riba — actually, one of the Grendel’s Den bathrooms has two toilets, and one has a single toilet. I’ve been in the “twofer” before and seen a man wait for the single bathroom to open rather than walk into the shared room with a woman.

  21. #21 Ringo
    January 3, 2009

    Rugosa, SF has mandatory seat cover (aka “ass gasket”) dispensers. This may help the sprinkle problem.

  22. #22 JennyB
    January 3, 2009

    As a transsexual woman living in Ireland, I have for most of my life used the “wrong” gendered toilet. For a period after that, I was sometimes *perceived* to be using the wrong toilet. Since the authorities who had this perception also objected to me using the gents, that made things rather awkward :-\

    That situation only arose in private-public facilities, for example, when I was doing research in a library, objections were raised to my using the staff toilets. When I started college there was a hand-written sign posted on the door of the ladies’ loo on the floor where my classes were stating that it was ‘for females only”, and my tutor suggested I might be “more comfortable” with a key to the disabled loo. I declined, and for the next seven years I used the womens loos with no problems. In practice, people realise that you are only there for the designed purpose.

    Since then, I have used the “other” toilet in an emergency. Most facilities seem to provide the same number of stalls for men as for women, plus added urinals, so the women’s queue is nearly always longer.

    There is an etiquette to this that I have often observed. like most women, I have no wish to lock myself in a stall where the only way out is past a guy with his flies undone. So. first you peek in the door to check that on one is using the urinals, then you invite other women to use the stalls, and you wait till they are finished, otherwise, you ask someone you trust to watch the door for you.

  23. #23 Laura
    January 3, 2009

    JennyB, your comments remind me of a very sad piece of legislation currently coming up for vote in my home town of Gainesville, FL. Here’s a link describing the ordinance:

    Basically, through fear-mongering about “a man who says he ‘feels like a woman today'” being allowed to use women’s restrooms and terrorize women somehow, the supporters of this law wish to remove “gender identity” from the city’s list of anti-discrimination protected classes (currently more progressive than those defined by the state of Florida as a whole). This affects not only bathroom use, of course, but whether or not someone can be fired from their employer simply for being trans, and so on. It’s a nasty bit of business, and many of the people who signed the petition for this ordinance to get it on the ballot now say that they were misled by the people collecting signatures as to what the law was really about.

  24. #24 mdreyer
    January 3, 2009

    I agree– no line and I’d use the men’s, otherwise not. I have tired collaborating in multistalled bathrooms in, say, movie theaters– I’ll guard while you go, and then switch– but it seems to make other women think I am odd. But the women’s rooms always have a loong line! I saw a nice solution– a restaurant that had had one each mens and womens changed the signage so they had 2 everyone toilets.

  25. #25 kimbelry
    January 3, 2009

    I’ve lived in Paris for a year and a half now. Many places have unisex bathrooms; my school, my work, restaurants, starbucks…. The peeing on the toilet seat is not always by a man who does not lift a toilet seat, its also by woman squatting which is quite normal here – no disposable seat covers. But to directly answer the question…if its a one toilet each situation…and there’s a long line for the women’s I think it’s okay. But what’s more important to me, is the time that people take in the toilet. It’s kind of odd to me that in a public place, people will take 5 mins when they know there is a long line behind them.

  26. #26 PennyBright
    January 3, 2009

    I’ll use a men’s room if there is *no* line at the men’s room, and a long one at the women’s room — this happens occasionally at at movie theatre’s and the ballet. While it hasn’t come up, I would take my child into the opposite gender room as well, under the same circumstances.

    I’d be more likely to use a men’s room with men present if I were dealing with an extremely long line at the women’s and a young child who still had accidents – my mum did that when I was a kid.

    Conversely, if it ever arose that there was a completely un-used women’s room and an overflowing men’s , I think it would be fine for the men to use the women’s room.

    I’ve been in a couple of uni-sex designed bathrooms that were set up with the urinals and stalls back to back along a wall, so one could use either in relative privacy, which I thought was cool – I wish more bathrooms were designed like that.

    But if bathrooms are gender divided, then for the most part I want folks to respect that gender division – when I walk into a women’s room, I have an expectation that the others around me will be women, or young children, and given the intimate nature of the activities conducted in bathrooms, it’s my opinion that such expectations, when created, should be respected.

    The confounding factor there is the genderqueer community – personally, my friends and I treat it as a dress code issue at that point – when Gerald and I are out, he uses the mens — when it’s Geraldina and I, we both use the womens. On the other hand, Amie wouldn’t use the women’s until she was post-op – so I guess YMMV.

  27. #27 Arikia
    January 3, 2009

    One factor you don’t account for is alcohol intake. I am much more likely to barge into the men’s room and claim gender inequality (it’s not fair that women take longer to pee, they should have more stalls!!) if I am hammered than if i am sober. Also, if I am at a place where I will likely never see the other people there again, I will also barge in without regrets, whereas, if it’s like a classy event where I am trying to impress important people, I will probably not.

  28. #28 Brian X
    January 4, 2009

    I think it’s pretty cut-and-dried, at least for me: single-seaters should be unisex, multi-seaters should be gender-segregated, and TV/TS should use whichever bathroom they identify with.

  29. #29 Art
    January 4, 2009

    I was surprised, but not so much when I thought about it, to find out that in Florida, and many other states I’m told, to find out that there is no actual law that says that men must use the ‘mens’ room and ladies the ‘ladies’.

    There are laws covering indecent exposure, lewd behavior, disorderly conduct and such but nothing that tells anyone that they must use either bathroom and avoid the other.

    On one level this makes some sense. Everyone has firm ideas as to what male and female mean but the situation is not so clear conceptually or as manifested in the human body.

    I was recently reading a bit about the Olympics and the controversies over who is and who is not male/female. Exactly how do you keep men out of the woman’s events. Or vice-versa. Come to find out the main way was for the athlete to drop trou and let a team of judges draw a conclusion. Simple enough to judge in most cases. But thee are evidently a considerable number of sexually ‘ambiguous’ individuals around.

    If we can’t always go by the simple logic of the geometry of the genitals then what hopes can there be navigating through the realms of psychology, social norms and cultural status. What do we mean when we call ourselves or others male or female?

    Make all the bathrooms unisex with lots of stalls. Preferably with self elevating toilet seats so they stay relatively unsullied. I would not do away with the urinals. A guy, or game lady, assuming a proper choice has been made of both fixture and undergarments, can do their business at a very quick pace. Far faster than entering a stall.

    Of course if we look at other cultures and times there were societies that were less concerned by nudity and elimination. In that case a semi public row of toilets without surrounds would do well enough. Sort of what used to be common for marine barracks.

    Not that that would go over presently.

  30. #30 kozir
    January 4, 2009

    In my country (Poland) is typical problem. In my point of view woman should first check to environment where she want to use the toilet. In same place it can be very stresfull for woman and in others it normal behavior.
    I think that pubs, restaurants shoul build more space in toilet for woman., they should check how long takes it for woman and for man.

  31. #31 Bronnie
    January 4, 2009

    One quick question: how would I know there were urinals in the men’s room? Given that I’m a woman OUTSIDE the men’s room and there is no queue??

  32. #32 Celeste
    January 4, 2009

    I’m a woman who has used men’s bathrooms before, but it has always been a single restroom situation. I have reservations about large unisex restrooms. If it’s in a busy place like a restaurant, it wouldn’t be a big problem, but I’m just imagining places like rest stops where they have a multi-stall restroom but there is rarely other people. Then I could be in the awkward situation of being a woman alone with a strange man in the restroom. Though the man could just as easily enter a women’s restroom, at least I’d know for sure that something was wrong in that case.

  33. #33 Ryan Kennedy
    January 4, 2009

    Your survey only assumes there are two genders – there is actually a whole spectrum. What about transgender people such as myself? People who don’t identify as either? Intersex people? It’s a shame you only want to consider what strictly male- or female-identified people think about restrooms – we all have to use them.

  34. #34 Janet
    January 4, 2009

    I wrote, “ideally, there should be non-gendered and gendered bathrooms, to accommodate everyone.” I wanted to clarify what I meant: Transgendered people would probably be more comfortable in non-gendered bathrooms. For handicapped people who need assistance, and for parents and children, it makes things less confusing. But, as a girl living in a patriarchy, I don’t feel safe in a bathroom that men also use. My boyfriend wants me to add that a third, non-gendered bathroom helps situations of unbalanced lines between gendered bathrooms. 🙂

  35. #35 Koka
    January 5, 2009

    It’s funny, because while rationally I see no problem with unisex bathrooms, personally I am really modest about using a bathroom while men are in the same restroom. (I’m female.) I dislike using the bathroom in my house when someone can hear me (thus I turn on the fan), and I don’t like it when other women are in the restroom either. However, my level of discomfort would be greater if men were present.

  36. #36 Dill
    January 5, 2009

    I’m a woman, and if there is no line for a single-stall men’s room and a long line for the women’s, I sure don’t wait in line. But I do have a couple of pet peeves about the public restroom habits of my gender. First of all: what do other women DO in a stall that takes so long? I’m contending with the same undergarments and conducting the same business, but it seems to take me far less time than most other women. Am I missing something? Secondly, re sprinkling on the seat: women should take a cue from the other half of the species and LIFT THE SEAT if they do not intend to sit on it. That way, the people who need to sit on the seat (especially children) will find it much cleaner.

  37. #37 jane
    January 5, 2009

    Like others above, I would use the men’s room if there were no men in line, but not if there were a few. I answered the survey as if this were true (that short line meant no line). Apologies if this throws you off!

  38. #38
    January 5, 2009

    Terrible survey. When there’s a bathroom, I typically don’t use it. So I put extremely unlikely for all options. I only go a couple times per day.

  39. #39 Benjamin Geiger
    January 5, 2009

    Would there be a problem with having individual ‘stalls’ as separate rooms (floor-to-ceiling, or at least floor-to-7-feet, walls), with shared washing facilities? If urinals are needed, a group of them could possibly be separated into another room. This way, there’s adequate separation between genders and no allocation issues.

    Other comments:

    Anyone who claims men are worse with bathroom cleanliness has never cleaned restrooms. Granted, the men’s room may have the occasional (okay, the frequent) puddle, but that’s just urine. The women’s room often approached biohazard status; not only urine, but soiled feminine hygiene products and even feces were common. Guys have the advantage of being able to see where we’re going.

    As a man, I don’t usually lift the seat when I pee, but I always wipe the seat in the rare event that I sprinkle. Golden Rule (pun intended) and all that. I also tend to use a stall when I pee; typically I take that opportunity to drop trou and retuck/rearrange clothing.

    I wonder if squat toilets will ever become popular in the Western world…

  40. #40 Dave Munger
    January 5, 2009


    Why does that make it a terrible survey? We even asked how likely you would be to use a public restroom in general. We’ve got you covered. Some people don’t like to use public restrooms, and we’re interested in their behavior too. In some cultures it’s very rude to use someone else’s toilet.

  41. #41 Adrian
    January 6, 2009

    We don’t have his and hers dunnies in houses, why do we have them in all public buildings and workplaces?

    Love this american obsession with naming it a “restroom” or a “bathroom”. I haven’t yet seen anyone go in to one to either rest or take a bath.

  42. #42 S
    January 13, 2009

    Adrian, you sound like an Aussie…

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