Gender divide: Women react much differently when a hand appears under a restroom stall

Editor’s note: Some readers may recall seeing a different version of this post before MinnPost officially launched Nov. 8. It was used as an example of the informal style our writers would use in their posts. Today’s news on Larry Craig prompted the writer to update it for our broader audience.

The political story that won’t die is back in the news today, right there with the primary-election excitement flowing out of New Hampshire.

U.S. Sen. Larry Craig’s newest attempt to clear his name after charges of disorderly conduct in an airport restroom is this: The cop started it.

Lawyers for Craig, R-Idaho, contend in a brief filed Tuesday that an undercover police officer in the next stall shouldn’t have been offended when Craig tapped his foot because the cop got the foot-tapping started. The cop also shouldn’t have been offended when Craig then slid his hand under the stall divider, a movement the officer pegged as yet another signal for soliciting gay sex, according to a Pioneer Press report. The brief filed with the Minnesota Court of Appeals contends that the facts support throwing out Craig’s guilty plea of disorderly conduct because they don’t support the definition of the crime.

The brief is another in a string of developments geared to clearing Craig’s name. But not all the talk for seven months about this restroom scenario has focused on whether Craig is guilty or not.

The other conversation
For women, the airport scenario is like a tale from outer space. When women see a hand slipping under the partition of a bathroom stall, they tend to respond much like this: “Oh, are you out of toilet paper?” When I ran that likely reaction past a dozen or more female friends and colleagues, they immediately bobbed their heads in agreement.

That’s because men’s and women’s restrooms not only look different, but they also represent two distinctly different cultures, said Eli Coleman, director of the University of Minnesota’s Program in Human Sexuality. In women’s restrooms, little fear or suspicion of being solicited for sex by another woman exists. Unless some overt come-on were to occur, that possibility wouldn’t enter most women’s minds.

Venus vs. Mars
So what explains a completely different culture in the men’s room?

Men are socialized to explore and experiment with their sexual behavior, Coleman said. As boys, they are much more likely to engage in exploratory sexual behavior with male peers than with females. As they grow up, most heterosexual men leave that exploration behind as they form adult heterosexual relationships. Curiosity is curtailed by societal constraints.

But the possibility of homosexual encounters remains “ever present,” he said. “The underlying possibility creates a level of anxiety and concern about ever crossing that boundary.”

Public restrooms and gyms are spaces ripe for raising that anxiety. “So most men are wary to varying degrees in those spaces of any behavior that might suggest that opportunity,” he said. At the same time, men’s restrooms are spaces where those who want to risk crossing that boundary may see an opportunity for anonymous sexual encounters.

The culture of anxiety is so intense that men are much less likely to talk in a men’s bathroom than they would elsewhere, he said. “They like to go in and do their business and leave.”

Women’s restrooms tend to be much friendlier places. As those who frequent them know, they’re sometimes filled with chatter. They’re also places where sharing a roll of toilet paper with a needy next-door neighbor simply goes with the territory.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 01/12/2008 - 02:41 pm.

    Wow. Did you speak to any men, other than Coleman, before deciding you understood male “bathroom culture”?

    A hand under the partition from the adjoining stall would be met with a stern rebuke (at the least) from every guy I know.

    Likewise, I think you have completely missed the mark where adolescent “exploratory sexual behavior with male peers” is concerned. The interesting thing is that both of your contorted conclusions skirt around the most obvious, and correct explanation.

    Coleman gave you a hint when he said “But the possibility of homosexual encounters remains “ever present..”, but you failed to follow up.

    The fact is that in their search for sexual gratification, male homosexuals are simply more aggressive in general, and are more willing to take that aggressiveness into public places.

    That fact also explains why homosexual are more willing to pursue adolescent boys than lesbians are to chase girls.

    That is what causes the “culture of anxiety” that Coleman spoke of.

    More importantly, this culture of anxiety contributes to the continuing loss of civility in society in general. As long as the public sphere is allowed to be influenced by the lowest common denominators among us, and that includes theives and thugs as well as sexual deviants, we will continue to treat one another with suspicion.

    This is why it is so important that men like Larry Craig be prosecuted to the fullest extent. The damage they do to themselves and their families pale in comparison to the damage they are doing to our society.

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