I’m so sure you’ve heard about the whole Target bathroom debacle that I’m not even providing a link to a story. I’m not going to go into my general opinions on the matter. But as a social worker who specialized in child welfare and worked as a child sexual abuse prevention educator, there are some things that must be cleared up.
The biggest argument (in my circles) against what Target has done centers around the risk of sexual assault in bathrooms. A common thread has been, “Now I’m scared to send my girls into public bathrooms alone! There could be pervert men pretending to be women in there!”
This gives me so much pause. This implies that there was a time in recent history where there was no risk in sending children (boys or girls) into public restrooms alone. This implies that sexual assault doesn’t already happen in public restrooms. This implies that we don’t need to worry about our little boys because perverted men are only interested in girls.
I have sad news for you. There has always been a risk for sexual assault in public restrooms for both boys and girls. And sexual assault in public bathrooms has been going on probably since the beginning of public bathrooms, which was centuries ago (at least).
It’s not a recent concept for a guy to sneak into a lonely public restroom and assault a girl. It’s nothing new for boys to be assaulted by boys or men in the men’s room. And it’s not unheard of if a girl is assaulted by another girl in a bathroom. Boys and girls, adults and children alike have been cornered in private nooks of public spaces for a long time. And it’s not OK. It’s never been OK. But it’s certainly not a new threat.
But is assault in public bathrooms a super common thing? Not really. Roughly 90% of child sexual abuse is committed by acquaintances–neighbors, relatives, friends, coaches, classmates, etc.–so the chances of being assaulted by a stranger are fairly slim to begin with. The chances of being assaulted by a stranger in a bathroom is even less likely.
Now let’s talk about who is most likely to be assaulted in a public restroom. Children, obviously. They’re small, and more easily emotionally manipulated. And I think it goes without saying that a child going alone into a public bathroom is at a much (much!) higher risk of assault, boy or girl. So who is going in public bathrooms alone more frequently–boys or girls? Women are often the primary caretakers of children, so when children are out and about and need the bathroom, boys are generally the ones going in without an adult.
But does this make boys more likely to be assaulted? I mean, generally speaking, stats say girls are assaulted more often. However, these stats are solely based on reported sexual abuse. So in all likelihood, boys are equally prone to sexual abuse, but less likely to tell you, which is an even bigger problem. Sexual abuse is not a “girl thing” and perpetuating that myth will make boys that much more hesitant to tell someone if they experience sexual abuse.
Also, it takes zero preparation for a guy to assault a boy in the men’s room. If the opportunity presents itself, he’s ready to go. He didn’t have to sneak in there. He didn’t have to disguise himself. And often sexual abuse by strangers is very opportunistic because it’s difficult to plan the perfect circumstances when he’s dealing with a victim he’s never met–things need to line up perfectly on their own. We’re dealing with a garden variety pervert here.
It does take planning for a guy to assault someone in the women’s room. Some thought had to go into a convincing woman getup (but only sometimes–it’d be easier to pull an “oops, I’m in the wrong bathroom” if a guy is found in there). He had to find a bathroom rarely used so he’d be more likely to be alone with a victim and less likely to be found suspiciously hanging out in the bathroom. And honestly, this kind of meticulously planning perpetrator isn’t common. That takes very unique kind of psycho, and they are few and far between, fortunately.
And although women do assault other girls or women sometimes, it’s really pretty rare in a stranger situation, and frankly not likely to happen in a public restroom.
But we must point out that a perpetrator’s risk of being caught is so high in a public bathroom. He has to be so freaking lucky, because he has no control over when the next person will come in and catch him in the act–unless there’s a lock on the main bathroom door, but I hope that’s not common in stall-type restrooms.
So what do we take home from this? Kids are much more (9 times more!) likely to be sexually abused by someone they know rather than a stranger in a bathroom. However, boys are more likely to be the target of assault in a public bathroom. Your children–boys and girls–are never completely safe in a public restroom unless a parent is in there. And perhaps not even then. The presence or absence of transexual individuals does not change this.
Can you always be in there with your kids? No way. But can you reduce your kids’ risk when they are alone? Absolutely. Your kids should know what sexual abuse is. They should learn to be aware of their surroundings while in a public restroom, and observant of anyone that seems suspicious. They should know to high tail out of there the second things get weird–washed hands or not. They should know to make a lot of noise if necessary (bathroom acoustics are awesome). And above all they should know to tell you right away if they see anything weird in a bathroom, whether or not they think it’s wrong.
Personally, when I have kids old enough, I think I’ll keep some rape whistles on lanyards in my purse specifically for solo public restroom trips–it’s an easily heard distress call, a physical reminder for my kids to be watchful and careful, and hopefully an obvious deterrent for any would-be evil-doers. Because nothing says “my mom is a social worker, so don’t even bother” like children wearing rape whistles.
You’re welcome to have a multitude of opinions and feelings about the great bathroom debate. But regardless of what happens politically and what public bathrooms you choose to support or boycott, just remember that sexual assault always has been and always will be a potential danger. Be safe out there, friends.