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Calculating risk: the trans bathroom debate

February 2, 2018

One of the big arguments against letting trans people use the bathrooms of their choice concerns safety. Examining things from a trans perspective is often pitched as a betrayal of women, leaving them open to danger.

Here I look at the rational side of examining safety in bathrooms. It’s not a position that requires endless anecdotal evidence – only a little bit of reason. In this blog, I explore generalist faulty thinking. In the next, I look at specifics.


A major way in which we determine risk is by generalisation. This is also one of the most faulty ways. Here is the common pitch against trans people in the name of safety: Because some of the people who use the women-only bathrooms might be predatory, the whole lot should be banned.

This kind of profiling is an old idea. Because men are more likely to be child abusers, male primary school teachers are regarded with suspicion, even though we need more teachers. Because the current wave of terrorism tends to be Islamist, we profile people from Muslim countries. This is commonly understood to be prejudice.

Some people, however, simply don’t care that it is prejudiced. They think they are being logical, and that only the PC police can possibly object to protecting group X (usually the majority, or a larger group) by profiling group Y. The thinking goes thus: If it can save lives and protect people, it shouldn’t matter if it inconveniences members of a group.

The general problem with this line of thought is that the profiling does not perform the purpose that it is supposed to serve. It doesn’t eradicate risk, because different risk groups simply take the place of those in the current banned or restricted group. In other words, if you stop watching everyone and start watching just one guy, another guy can sneak up behind you and bonk you on the head.

When profiling, the vast majority of the minority group have not done anything wrong, and their civil liberties are ignored simply because people can’t handle statistics: the smaller the group, the less damage created by that group, even if the group is comparatively dangerous.

Let’s use an analogy. Let’s say that geese are more dangerous than ducks. 1/3 geese are dangerous, and 1/6 ducks are dangerous. If you’re in a room with 3 geese and 12 ducks, that’s 1 dangerous goose, and 2 dangerous ducks. The ducks, then, are the bigger risk in that room, simply because there are more of them. If you were going to launch a radical defence against someone in that room, it would make better sense to defend yourself against the ducks.

People also do not understand that there is a financial cost to profiling that goes far beyond the cost of good judgement, good research, and good practice; someone has to enforce travel bans, and someone has to pick up the slack when needed jobs aren’t being filled because people are blocked from them.

Similarly, if anyone hopes to actually enforce banning trans people from anywhere – rather than simply rage about it on the internet – someone foots the bill. It seems rational, then, to ask: who and why, and is it economical?

The law of diminishing returns

There is a law of diminishing returns on safety. You can poor endless resources into trying to protect someone or something, and you will never create a guarantee of its safety. You can reduce the risk, but after a certain point, the sheer amount of money, time and effort put in is no longer justified; you are using twice or three times the resources it took to solve 97% of the problem in order to solve the last 3%.

There are some who argue that when it comes to abuse, we should move heaven and earth to prevent it. And so we should – if we could move heaven and earth. Once you accept, however unhappily, that it is impossible to eradicate risk, you accept that the best and most efficient means of reducing it will have to do.

There are no flawless systems, no structures where no one slips through the net. Although preventative systems are laudable and better then reparation systems, there comes a time when a great deal more reparation work can be done with the same amount of resources as would be used attempting to iron out that last 3% of risk. At that point, it is not callous or defeatist, but good sense, to stop trying to iron out that 3%, and move your endeavours elsewhere.

There is such a thing as being too careful at the expense of good sense; this is one of those times. If the injustice of prejudice means nothing to you, at least be concerned by the lack of common sense. It is bad for society as a whole; and that’s why this debate should matter to everyone.



From → LGBT

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  1. Safety in bathrooms: The gender risk | Adrain on Society

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