Bioethics Blogs

Web Roundup: Public, Intimate Spaces (Bathrooms & Brains) by Sara M Bergstresser

Bounded categories and category-bounded spaces are always of interest. This month, there were salient discussions of two such spaces: the (gendered) public bathroom and the brain.


Public bathrooms as dichotomously-gendered spaces have been in the news this month. Controversy and legal action have been in the news across the United States, with schools at the forefront of debate (NY Times, NPR). Bathrooms as an issue of civil rights is not new; the Notches blog points out that “Jim Crow laws …mandated, among other things, separate public bathrooms for blacks and whites.”

The public bathroom itself is a curious thing for its stark juxtaposition of the “private” and the public. It can be a (grudging) nod to biological necessity, a relaxing haven, a place to touch up makeup or smoke something, one of the only places where one can breastfeed in peace, a place to talk, or these days, a place to talk on one’s smart phone. One would, in fact, expect a place where defecation is a normal behavior to exist a bit outside of the usual rules for public spaces… almost anything goes, apart from specifically watching others (at least, those who don’t want to be watched). Who can forget reading about the 1976 Middlemist, Knowles & Matter experiment in social psychology class? If you’ve forgotten, this is the one where an member of the research team (probably a graduate student) lurked in the men’s bathroom, watching who used which urinals, and timing their (anxiety-related) delays in urinary onset. This would be deemed unethical these days, because there is an expectation of privacy in this particular public space.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.