How old is too old for a child to be in an opposite-gender washroom? This question is a perennial one and seems to arrive every year with the hot weather and school’s ending. This time, I heard the question on CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM after the director of the show shared an encounter wherein he and his young daughters were verbally abused in a men’s change room. The young girls, aged three and five, needed a place to pee and their presence in the change room was deeply upsetting to this stranger, who felt uncomfortable being naked around young girls. After airing this story, listeners shared their opinions which were as diverse (and as occasionally heated) as you might imagine.
Most of the feedback seemed centered on the idea that children reach a certain age where their looking might become sexual, thus making people feel uncomfortable. With the notable exception of the story above, most of these complaints were from women. But what is that age? Is it six? 12? No one really seemed to know, but naked adult bodies and children’s eyes were clearly things that should not mix after a certain point.
As I listened to the conversation, I primarily had one thought: I can’t wait for gender liberation to arrive. I am so tired of the moral panic centering on nudity, bodies, and children. It feels like a kind of Puritanism that should have gone out of fashion a few centuries ago.
Don’t get me wrong: as someone who has been socialized as a woman, I know in my bones the kinds of messaging that women get about our bodies: they are shameful, always already sexual, and available for the male gaze, one that is lascivious at best and predatory at worst. Of course, women feel uncomfortable if they think they are being subjected to objectification in a semi-private place. But the answer isn’t to forbid children from using change rooms, it’s to stop teaching people these fucked up sexual dynamics in the first place.
I’d hate to break it to everyone, but change rooms are full of young queers figuring their shit out. I remember being a young girl in change rooms: I would stare at women’s breasts. I’m not talking casual glimpses, I’m talking full on staring. I assumed this was normal and everyone did it (spoiler: they do not). To my young proto-queer eyes, change rooms were a delight and a danger. I’m still not sure if I was looking because I was fantasizing about having breasts one day, because I was attracted to breasts, or a combination of the two. I am positive that if I was read as a young boy in those change rooms, I would have quickly been escorted out. But queer desire is still invisible, so those looks of mine passed as innocent.
I’m not suggesting that because there are queer children running around that the solution is to ban all children from seeing casual adult nudity. Children are curious about bodies and likely always will be. But the solution isn’t to teach them that seeing a non-sexual naked body is a source of shame. Rather, we should be asking what it would take for us to accept our bodies and be comfortable with them, in front of children and adults alike. We should teach ourselves that certain body parts are not immediately sexual, even if they turn us on. We should learn how to appropriately express our desire. And if being naked in front of other people is still too much for whatever reason? Those washroom stalls are always a great option.