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The evolution of the bathroom predator

| Thursday, April 14, 2016

In 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was passed by Congress. After being introduced in every session since 1923, it finally saw progress, due in large part to the second wave of the women’s movement. As the campaign to ratify the ERA in the states waged on, however, opposing groups began to coalesce in a countermovement characterized by the religious right.

Led by Phyllis Schlafly, conservative groups raised their concerns about the legislation, including fears of women being sent into combat, privacy rights being overturned and women losing their right to be supported by their husbands. Perhaps the most powerful weapon to emerge from this countermovement that remains a feature of contemporary social and political discourse is the narrative of the bathroom predator.

Schlafly and the Stop ERA campaign saw potential to mobilize women by uniting them in fear of losing privacy and security in places they felt safe — not just in the home, but also in sex-segregated bathrooms. Pamphlets were produced that rebranded the ERA as the “Common Toilet” law, proposing that passage of the ERA would mean all restrooms would immediately become unisex.

Equal rights suddenly became an issue not of rights and freedom but of safety. Leaders of the ERA countermovement suggested that it would allow sexual predators to lurk in bathrooms until an opportune moment presented itself in which they could leap out and assault an unsuspecting woman. Thus, the bathroom predator was born. This narrative continues to be used as a tool to either slow progress for other marginalized groups or prop up discriminatory measures in various states and localities today.

In November 2015, voters in Houston voted overwhelmingly in favor of repealing the city’s Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO. The ordinance was aimed at prohibiting discrimination against 15 different classes of people, but opponents chose to focus attention on its application to transgender residents’ use of public restrooms. It was rebranded as the “bathroom bill,” and ads and signs that advocated for prohibiting dangerous men from entering women’s restrooms were widespread. The narrative of the lurking bathroom predator served once again as a mechanism for mobilizing voters to get to the polls and repeal an anti-discrimination measure.

Until recently, the pervasive threat of restroom sexual assailants was used to justify opposition to more general equal rights legislation. However, on March 23, state legislators in North Carolina passed the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, which allows for discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation and also restricts municipal governments from passing measures that would offer protection to these groups. Additionally, all public institutions are now required to post signs stating that bathrooms are to be segregated only based on biological sex.

At least three people have filed federal lawsuits against the act thus far. Companies such as Paypal have cancelled plans to expand in North Carolina, and Bruce Springsteen even cancelled a scheduled performance, saying, “Some things are more important than a rock show.” Whether the act will be implemented in its current form remains questionable, but for now, the mysterious bathroom predator has struck again, enabling lawmakers to limit freedoms and prop up discrimination against marginalized groups in society.

We must stop allowing the narrative of the bathroom assailant to scare us away from ensuring the rights, freedoms and the protection of dignity of those in our society who are most frequently discriminated against. There are legitimate conversations to be had on the details of controversial legislation such as the law in North Carolina and similar measures recently passed by South Dakota and Mississippi.

However, if we focus on the idea that a simple sign posted outside a bathroom door is the only thing stopping a person intent on carrying out a sexual assault from doing so, we have lost sight of reality. This false reassurance that lawmakers feel they are providing is not a valid reason by itself to roll back rights and limit freedoms. Existing laws against assault and their enforcement in every public space should serve as reassurances of our safety, not a plastic sign with a stick figure wearing a skirt.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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