Bathroom Politics: Male Special Operators Rebuff Unisex Restrooms to Keep Men-Only Status Quo, Study Finds

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unisex restroom sign
Unisex restroom sign. (Getty Images)

A study examining gender barriers in the U.S. military's most elite units has found restrooms to be a source of contention between male and female troops, with a third of men saying they would never use unisex bathrooms and 61% of women saying they were fine with them.

Male troops cited risk, hygiene and privacy as reasons for opposing gender-neutral bathrooms, although the study authors theorized that the resistance is tied to men wanting to preserve the status quo of the predominantly masculine special operations community.

The study, "Maintaining Male Exclusivity: Porcelain Privilege in the Military," published last month in the journal Armed Forces & Society, grew out of larger research conducted in 2013 and 2014 that sought to explore the advantages and barriers to women serving in special operations units.

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At the time of the study, Special Operations Command was weighing whether to request an exemption to a policy change that allowed women to serve in ground combat specialties.

The researchers said toilets were not a focus of the project but were mentioned without solicitation more than 350 times in 27 separate focus groups with 198 participants, sparking their interest in the subject.

According to the study, which was first reported by Stars and Stripes, nearly one-third, or 33%, of men said they would "never be willing to share a unisex bathroom facility with women, while well over half, 61%, of women indicated they would use a unisex bathroom all the time."

The researchers defined a unisex bathroom as a single facility that used flip signs or had designated times for individual use.

The men raised concerns about women's hygiene requirements, citing their own perceptions of a woman's need to shower and maintain cleanliness for health reasons.

They also said they didn't want to lose access to private male-only spaces, expressing an "inherent fear that integrating women into men's bathroom space will necessarily mean a loss, not of privacy for women but of the privileged status of men-only spaces," the researchers wrote.

"There's a lot of things that you don't hold back in a team room. It's behind closed doors," a male service member told the researchers. "You do what you need to do to get whatever accomplished and you say what needs to be said. You put a female in the mix and then there's people getting offended."

"Invoking the language of hygiene, risk, and privacy, men pointed out the unique embodied differences that mark women as unfit to integrate into Special Forces while subverting other motives intended to preserve the toilet as a privileged male-only space," the authors wrote.

In discussing the bathroom politics, the participants implicitly indicated that special operations was a "workplace where women did not belong."

"Men, having the full privilege of being the default in the military, see any change to the gender hierarchy as a disruption of that system which has come to feel like the natural order."

At least one female participant was nonplussed.

"All I'm saying is the bathroom's open all the time. You have stalls. Go in the stall. The showers are closed. Grab your towel, put it on before you get out. You're not walking around the company naked, and that's all I'm saying," she said.

Women currently serve in a number of ground combat specialties that previously were closed to them, although the numbers are minuscule in the elite forces. Last year, a female Army National Guard soldier graduated from Special Forces training, earning her Green Beret and a Special Forces tab. More than a dozen women have graduated from Army Ranger school and, in 2017, a woman became a member of the 75th Ranger Regiment.

At least two women have graduated from the Marine Corps' infantry officer course, and women have made it through the second phase of the Marine Corps' Special Operations Command's assessment and selection course but weren't chosen to continue.

Roughly a dozen women have attempted battlefield courses under the Air Force's Special Warfare Training Wing.

No women have completed Navy Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S), although an officer completed the SEAL Officer and Selection process and then later selected a different warfighter specialty as her top choice.

The study did not include or ask about bathroom use by transgender service members, because it was conducted before transgender individuals were allowed to serve.

The authors said their research is relevant to today's military and professions, like policing and firefighting, where issues of physicality, privacy and locker rooms are a concern.

They concluded that men's discomfort with sharing toilet and team spaces with women -- and women's willingness to use such spaces -- are "an indication that the underlying logic of sexism needs to be addressed" in integrating male-dominated professions.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to clarify that the study population was Army special operations, not Special Forces.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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