How Bathroom Bills Undermine Child Protection

How Bathroom Bills Undermine Child Protection May 5, 2016
Image source: Flickr, Edmund Garman, used according to Creative Commons license terms.
Image source: Flickr, Edmund Garman, used according to Creative Commons license terms.

I have read all sorts of commentaries lately both for and against North Carolina’s so-called “bathroom bill.” I agree with the 250 leading sexual abuse and domestic violence prevention organizations that have come out in opposition to these bills. I agree with them for a number of reasons. First, I think transgender people have the right to use bathrooms in peace. Second, I think intersex people — who are constantly glossed over in these conversations — have the right to use bathrooms in peace. They do not deserve to be collateral damage in our culture wars. And third, I believe bathroom bills fundamentally undermine child protection efforts. Let me repeat that third part: bathroom bills fundamentally undermine child protection efforts.

Make no mistake: those who support bathroom bills make great efforts to cast themselves as the noble champions of children and women. Family Research Council, for example, stated that the absence of such bills might “threaten the public safety of women and children by creating the legitimized access that sexual predators tend to seek.” National Review warned that, without such bills, “A clever (or not so clever) rapist could smear on some lipstick, call himself transgender, and waltz right into a locker room full of half-dressed teenage girls.” Republican Senator Ted Cruz argued that the absence of such bills is “opening the door for predators.” This, despite Cruz having a dismal, even dangerous, record when it comes to child advocacy.

The arguments in favor of the bills that most move me—even though I disagree with them—come from fellow abuse survivors. The Federalist, for example, featured an emotional, powerful piece aptly titled, “A Rape Survivor Speaks Out About Transgender Bathrooms.” I disagree with that article’s conclusion, but—as a fellow survivor of sexual abuse—I get it. Certain environments remind me of my abuse experiences and I avoid similar-feeling environments. That’s part of PTSD. I would never attack someone for being honest about their PTSD triggers.

The problem is that bathroom bills, even when championed by child abuse survivors, rest upon a fundamentally dangerous myth: that strangers pose a greater danger to our children than non-strangers. This is called the stranger danger myth. It is a myth with regards to not only child abuse, but also adult sexual abuse. Just as children are far more likely to be abused or abducted by someone they know, so, too, are adults far more likely to be abused by someone they know. The aforementioned Federalist article is a good example of this: the author indicates that she was abused not by a stranger or a transgender female but by a close male acquaintance. That generally fits the actual profile of most sexual predators in the U.S.: a religious heterosexual male who targets and isolates people within his own sphere of family and friends.

Despite this profile, the stranger danger myth has reigned supreme in the public consciousness, including the American church. It has had devastating, life-changing impacts for many children, as it has encouraged churches to ignore the predators in their own midst. Fortunately, through great efforts on the part of child abuse and domestic violence organizations (like the 250 organizations who oppose bathroom bills), this myth has finally started to recede. It has even started to recede in the American church. People like Boz Tchividjian of Godly Response to Abuse in Christian Environments, author and abuse survivor Mary DeMuth, child advocates Justin and Lindsey Holcomb, and Victor Vieth of the Gundersen National Child Protection Center have helped create a sea change in how American Christians think about sexual abuse. The church is waking up to the fact that, as Tchividjian says, “Those who pose the greatest risk to our children are within our families, churches, and circle of friends.”

Unfortunately (and counterproductively), bathroom bills are predicated on the stranger danger myth. The bills directly promote and take advantage of the myth so many abuse survivor advocates have worked so hard to overcome. The bathroom bills want you to think that strangers are lurking around the corner, ready to take full advantage of transgender people’s bathroom rights. The bills want you to think that strangers now pose a greater danger to your children than the people at your church. The bills want you to ignore the fact that the most active child sexual predators molest both boys and girls, so which restroom they use makes little difference. The bills want you to ignore the fact that women can be predators, too. But no matter what these bills want you to think or ignore, giving transgender people the right to use whatever restroom they want does not change the basic facts about child abuse and sexual abuse.

As a child abuse survivor, I do not hold it against other survivors who find certain situations triggering. I understand that everyone has unique triggers. But I consider it inappropriate if your response to those triggers involves making the fight against child abuse harder for other people. It does not have to be that way.

As a child abuse survivor, I also think we must stand together in solidarity with one another—which means we need to stand in solidarity with transgender people. Abuse survivors only add salt to other survivors’ wounds when they ask this of transgender people: “Don’t they know anything about predators?” Of course they know about predators. They experience higher rates of victimization, even murder. While 1 out of every 6 women and 1 out of every 33 men have been the victim of sexual violence, around half of transgender people will experience sexual violence at some point in their lifetimes.

Around half.

That is 1 out of every 2.

The numbers go on. Nearly 80% of transgender people report experiencing harassment at school. Yet we’re worried about transgender people being the harassers. 12% of transgender youth report being sexually assaulted in K–12 settings by peers or educational staff. This, too, is higher than the general population by several percentage points. Yet we are worried about transgender people being the assaulters.

Instead of targeting a population that is particularly vulnerable to abuse, the people of North Carolina should be targeting real, pressing issues faced by their state’s children. For example, North Carolina could stop letting adults marry 14-year-old children. Or they could require background checks of private school teachers. Or they could ban convicted rapists from homeschooling. Or they could make female genital mutilation a state crime. Or they could stop sending children to adult jails. Or they could even implement child protection recommendations from 6 years ago, including strengthening the public school system’s teacher screening process.  Think about it: many of the adults who would enforce the North Carolina bathroom bill in public schools have not had adequate background checks. In terms of best practices for child protection, that is a bit problematic.

Best practices for child protection do not involve targeting vulnerable populations. They involve awareness and education, teaching families and children about consent and safety, access to therapy and services, law enforcement, background checks and mandatory reporting, and increasing families’ quality of life—all things that bathroom bills entirely neglect. If we are serious about child protection, we need to stop with the red herrings.

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  • Brandon Roberts

    i’ll try to be nice and i get where your coming from but sexual predators can already spy on and snatch children without taking adavantage of bathroom laws plus gay and lesbian people can also be child abusers so if we’re going to oppose bathroom bills in fear of this hypothetical situation than we must also oppose multiple people in the bathroom at a time plus can’t a parent just stand outside the stall or in front of a urinal while a child uses the restroom?

    • Ryan

      …I believe we agree?

      By “bathroom bills” I am referring to bills that deny transgender people their rights, not bills that protect their rights. And I am saying that denying transgender people their rights also has the opposite effect that bathroom bill advocates hope for: it actually hurts child protection efforts.

  • Mary DeMuth

    Humbled to be mentioned in this well thought out piece, Ryan.

    • Ryan

      Thanks for reading and for everything you do!

  • Frank

    Completely unconvincing. What protects children in bathrooms the most is supervision and biological men using the men’s room and biological women using the women’s room.

    • Marja Erwin

      Stollar offers his (?) evidence and reasoning. You haven’t offered yours. You haven’t explained how you categorize people, either, but I know I was badly bullied in the boys’ locker rooms growing up, and beaten unconscious elsewhere in school.

      • Frank

        I’m sorry that happened. It has nothing to do with people choosing what bathroom they want to use based on their mental illness or whatever.

      • Ryan

        Sorry to hear about these experiences, Marja. I myself was abused by a speech therapist in a public school in the therapist’s office. Still struggling with the impact to this day.

    • Polly MacDavid

      If you’re unconvinced, it’s because you either haven’t bothered to read the article or you simply have a closed mind. Where I live, there are unisex bathrooms. So your argument about what protects children the most is idiotic.

      • Frank

        You are welcome to your opinion. We will continue to fight to protect privacy and our children in bathrooms.

        Don’t blame me for the failure of the argument presented here.

    • webejustsayin

      Frank, your argument is ridiculous. Here, I’ll prove it. Do you have children? IF you have children, did you on occasion use the same bathroom as a female child in your home? Given the statistics that rapists/sexual abusers are MOST LIKELY to be someone in your own family or a close friend of the family, the fact that you DON’T have a men’s room and a ladies’ room in your own house goes against what you claim as truth.
      I wish the uneducated would have the integrity to take the time to educate THEMSELVES about what transgender really means.

      • Frank

        Whether children sometimes get molested by members of their own family is irrelevant to letting anyone choose what bathroom they want to use.

        I am quite educated on the subject.

    • Ryan

      Hey Frank. Assuming you want to dialogue… can you perhaps provide me with a more substantive response? I provided readers with links to nationally established best practices for child protection. Do you have links to different nationally established best practices that support your view that I could read? Then I could better understand your point of view.

      • Frank

        What are you disagreeing with? The fact that children are best protected under supervision or that biological men should use the men’s room and biological women should use the women’s room for privacy and safety for all involved?

        • Ryan

          You said, “What protects children in bathrooms the most IS…” Your first point — supervision — is part of the best practices I linked to. Your second point — biological men using the men’s room and biological women using the women’s room — is not. So I was wondering if you could share what nationally established best practices for child protection include that point. Then I can better interact with the idea.

          • Frank

            Since this madness of allowing people to chose what restroom they use based on whoever they feel they are is spanking new I imagine there would not be any best practices yet. The best practice appears to be to continue the logic of having men use the men’s room and women use the women’s room.

          • Ryan

            But you claimed that is “what protects children in bathrooms the most.” That is a big claim. You have evidence to back that up, yes?

          • Frank

            Yes history.

          • Ryan

            I see. Well, I guess I assumed wrongly that you actually want to dialogue. Peace to you.

          • Frank

            Dialogue about what? How you failed in your argument? No dialogue needed its obvious.

          • Korou

            Well done, Ryan. Having seen a lot of Frank’s arguments with other commenters I have to say you handled that really neatly.

          • Cindy Bird

            It’s NOT spanking new. It’s been going on for a long long time. A transgender woman dressed as a man can’t be identified unless you look under his clothes. And if he is in a dress you can’t tell “he’s” a man. Transgender individuals have been using the “wrong” bathrooms ever since there have been transgender people. This isn’t new. It’s just you never had to think about it before.

  • John

    Are the concerns of parents and girls who do not want to share private facilities with persons of the other biological sex valid? Are you defining their concerns as fear, thus casting something legitimate as a negative and effectively put them on the defensive? Are they now too prudish about biological sex differences and they need to relax their standards? Should we move more towards a “sexless” society where old traditions give way to a new openness and those who can’t make the leap are called bigots or other and just need to shut up get over it?
    This issues has moved too fast and what should be proper compromises and education have not caught up. Too bad. What is left is name calling and typecasting by all. Both sides have legitimate concerns and there is a better path forward, but winning and vilifying the opposite is all that matters, so it seems. And this article contributes to that.

    • Cindy Bird

      Just a point of information. You’ve been going to the bathroom with transgender individuals for a LONG time. You just didn’t know it because they aren’t dressed as their biological gender. It’s not something transgender people suddenly WANT to do, they’ve been doing it for a long long time. And you never knew.