The privatization of privacy


In Illinois there has been a much publicized court case regarding a transgender female (physically male) student who is suing the school for limiting her access to the women’s dressing room. I have no doubt that many more cases like this one will soon be appearing in courts across the country. As I considered the case, I began to reflect upon the privatization of my own locker room experience.

A brief history:

As a child, we often attended Goodson Recreation Center where we would go swimming and when we were done, we would all shower, me, my brothers, and my father, all naked, all in the same room alongside strangers—normally old men.

In middle school, things were different. It was always an awkward moment when I had to change in and out of gym clothes. Part of the reason was that I still wore whitey-tighties while most everyone else had colorful boxers. But there was also the vulnerability of being publically naked, or mostly naked. We were never entirely naked. But in the back of the locker room were old metal showers that had not been turned on in years. Though the room remained unlit, the metal spouts stood as an almost unbelievable reminder that students had once showered together after gym.

In high school, most everything stayed the same, except for the swim team showered in their Speedos. Occasionally I would get entirely naked in order to put on compression shorts for soccer, but I changed fast and sometimes sought greater privacy in a toilet stall.

In college, when I would use the urinal, I found it hard to urinate if someone was standing next to me. I would either walk away without having gone, or just stand and wait until he would leave and I could finally go. The fact that I needed to urinate and could not caused me to realize, even years ago, how private my restroom and dressing room experience had become.

As I contemplated my experience again, I was surprised to see how even the design of the urinals imitated my own transition towards an individual privacy.
Early on I remember big ball-park urinals like this one:


People would urinate not only next to each other, but into the same basin. Then there were separate urinals like these:

These urinals at least made it so you wouldn’t see someone else’s urine. Then there were the half-walls that separated one urinal form another:

You could only see the shoulders and heads of the people standing next to you. But the walls have grown taller and taller over the years. Now I find that most modern urinals are normally sectioned off. Though I have never seen this in person, there are apparently separate stalls for some urinals, and best-practice journals recommend that all urinal walls extend from the floor to the ceiling.


I believe things will only continue down this path of privacy—defined on the individual level rather than broader gender markings. In regards to the publicized transgender issues, it seems unrealistic to try and solve the problem by building new rooms for other gender types. By the time we accommodated homosexual, bisexual, trans-men and trans-women who are attracted to men, and trans-men and trans-women who are attracted to women, etc. we would have a very long hallway with an array of creative signage.

Instead, I assume we will be tearing down the walls that stand between the men and the women’s bathroom. But they will be replaced with new walls, individual walls, as I have already described.

While we are, to our credit, increasingly accepting in the public sphere, we are simultaneously becoming increasingly private. A dressing room that once felt private now feels public. And we retreat further into stalls—privacy becoming increasingly private. We have entered an era of hyper-privacy.

And as we increase in privacy, the demand for an outlet increases. The result of this hyper-privacy, the sequestering of ourselves like a monk in a cell, is an orgasmic release. Our privatized gender escapes through fissures in the wall, displaying itself in bizarre sexual outbursts and confused orgies.

The more private our lives become, the more exposer and nakedness tends towards the pornographic. It seems to me that our hyper-private lives naturally yield hyper-sexualized fantasies. And in this case it is more than our bodies, but our very genders that are sexualized and pursued—beyond body parts or features, but gender itself.

In some ways we have never been more Victorian (an era we condemn for its interest in gender and its associated roles). Gender defines us now more than ever. We have more classifications, but they enforce rather than undo our gender fixations. When have we ever looked so rapturously upon gender? When have we ever craved to be other genders or obsessed and pursued gendered satisfaction like we do now? When have we ever been so aware of and so defined by our genders?

I will not condemn “society” or any particular movement. I wouldn’t even know which direction to point the finger: either towards the progressive agendas that incessantly make gender a personal issue, or the puritan sentiments we’ve inherited that promote privatized concepts of modesty, or both. But I will suggest a possible response, one that I have begun to take in hopes of counteracting the hyper-privatization of my life.

A few years back I decided to change my public bathroom experience. Simply enough, I needed to use the bathroom even when someone else was next to me. So as a form of private protest—me against myself—I began to shower naked in the locker room after I worked out. It is not entirely unheard of, but it was a change for me. And a year or so ago, after a good workout, I entered a hot-tub in a locker-room with nothing but me and my skin, my brother and his skin, and my uncle and his skin. There was something manly, something freeing, something good about being naked and not caring—nothing strange, nothing awkward, nothing sexual—just being naked as men together.

I know this is perhaps not something someone struggling with transgender issues or homosexuality or teenagers in a co-ed locker room might ever experience, and perhaps we ought to give it up for their benefit and sink into our personal and hyper-private genders. Or perhaps our locker rooms could become as casual and unassuming as many nude beaches. But for now, we’re a long way from solving the Victorian problem. If anything, we’ve gone deeper down the rabbit hole.

7 thoughts on “The privatization of privacy

  1. This is less of response to your ideas, and more of a related trivia tidbit, but in France, and pretty much everywhere we traveled in Europe, all bathroom stalls have walls that go all the way to the floor, and have tighter seams — meaning there’s no looking for feet to see if the stall is occupied. When my French friends have come to visit, they find American bathrooms bizarre — why are we expected “do our business” in such a public way? they ask.

    1. That’s interesting because I imagine Europe to be less private. Perhaps I am wrong in what I suggested about nude beaches. Part of the reason could also be that, or at least I’ve been told that, Europe (I’m sure this is an unfairly broad term) is further down the path of non-gendered bathrooms. Is that true?

  2. I know this is late and maybe not even totally related, but just recently I was in a locker room and many of the women were undressing very comfortably and of course I had to wait for a dressing room. I realized that the naked bodies, or the revealed bodies I see are generally are on media and usually really “nice looking” bodies. To the point that I think I am a bit uncomfortable in my own skin because I compare poorly with those models. In the US I think it’s rare for women to undress in the womens’ locker room. So, back to the point, it was relieving to me to see people comfortable in their skin who aren’t perfectly fit, and to have an idea of normal, which I do fit into. Even more, It was helpful to my sexual confidence. And it made me want my kids to have the same experience. So . . .

    1. I agree. I hope this is something we can maintain even as we address gender-sex issues. Though, at this point it seems like something to resurrect rather than maintain. I guess I’m assuming this used to happen in American locker rooms. It would be interesting to find the history of women’s comfort undressing in locker rooms (in America).

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