Navigating the Gender Binary: Women-only Spaces

So, this thing happened. It was a tiny little thing, really, and most people wouldn’t have really given it a second thought, but it actually threw me for a bit of a loop. Here’s the thing:

Yesterday, I got a facebook invite to a clothing swap event. I was super excited! I’ve been wanting to cycle out a lot of my old wardrobe and get new stuff in, but haven’t had an affordable way to do it. This seemed like a good opportunity for me to at least make a start on doing that. And really, the only minor speed-bump for me is that a big part of my desire to switch out a good portion of my wardrobe is that I want to have more of a masculine/feminine/neutral gendered mix to the clothes available to me in the day-to-day – I’ve been borrowing my husband’s clothes sometimes, but that makes me feel silly in a weird way, and I want my own – whereas the swap was pretty clearly targeted at women and intended for women’s clothes

Anyway, I figured I could probably at least swap out some of the dresses I don’t want anymore, and get some button-down shirts or something in return. It’d be a start right? And I didn’t think too deeply about it being a woman-focused event, since I’d be bringing “women’s” clothes to the thing, so whatever.

And then, a few hours after I “joined” the event, the organizer posted:

In case you didn’t already know, this is a female only event. Thanks!

Oh. Well then. So I find myself in a bit of a dilemma?

Maybe. Maybe not. I am frequently, in my day-to-day life, required to implicitly or explicitly indicate my gender, and when it comes down to brass tacks, I go for the female marker. When using public washrooms, I use the women’s room 100% of the time. It’s safer, and since I do get read as female the vast majority of the time (no matter how hard I try sometimes) it’s just simpler. I’m unlikely to be challenged on it, so it’s what I do.

A few months back, I even attended a women’s only spa. I did think it through before making the call, but in the end I felt that I was obeying the spirit if not the letter of the rule. (And if I chose to interpret women in this context as “people with vaginas” – as I suspect they really meant; I imagine that some trans feminine people would be excluded, for instance – I was obeying the letter of the law as well.) I’ll break this one down.

The spa consists of a variety of baths at various temperatures, as well as a sauna. And it’s clothing optional. So, as is often the short-hand way of eliminating/minimizing sexual harassment and helping people feel comfortable, it was women only. And yeah, I get the intent behind this kind of rule; in similar environments that are co-ed, it can be difficult to prevent harassment from occurring. And even if a cis man is trying to be respectful, his body might betray him and make people uncomfortable. I don’t know if there’s a good solution to this, either. In order to eliminate the desire for women’s only spaces in this context, huge portions of our culture would have to be dismantled and reformed. We would need to stop sending the message that the naked female body is inherently sexual, and empower everyone (and especially straight cis men) to be able to still treat women context-appropriately regardless of their level of dress. And we would need to live in a society where an erect penis wasn’t automatically interpreted as a threat. Because it shouldn’t be, but I also understand why it is so often seen that way.

Anyway, I figured I would be as non-threatening to the environment as any other visibly queer (and I’m not even certain that I do read as queer to straight people, most of the time) vagina-having person. And I really needed the opportunity to relax and socialize, so I went. And I didn’t even feel horrible about it.

So why, then, am I having second thoughts about this clothing swap deal? Well, to be frank, the motivation behind the exclusionary policy here isn’t as compelling as it is in the case of the clothing-optional spa. There’s a bunch of things going on here, really, but before I dive into it, I want to be clear on a couple of things.

First, I don’t ascribe any ill-intentions to the organizer whose post threw me for such a loop. I’m certain it wasn’t even directed at me, in fact; she couldn’t possibly know my gender identity, after all, and after the post appeared, I checked the RSVP and invite lists and found that there were a handful of masculine-presenting people with clearly masculine names appearing there. So I suspect the notification was intended for them.

But still, I thought, why was it so important to make sure those men didn’t show up? Is she just concerned that they’ll be disappointed at the lack of other masculine folk with which to swap? Are we assuming these people are hoping to trade “men’s” clothes? Would it make a difference if we knew that they were looking to trade out feminine clothing to refresh their wardrobes? Or is the attendance of cross-dressers being deliberately discouraged (because it makes people uncomfortable)?

These are not the men who RSVP’d. But maybe they would like to go one of these events. Is there any reason not to let them?

I feel like the reasoning here is that the people who are interested in clothing swaps are generally pretty heavily female, and that therefore it makes sense to make them women-only, um, because… well, I mentioned above that people hoping to swap masculine clothing would be disappointed, so we can go with that. I do think the opening assumption there is acceptable – I suspect that women are more inclined to be interested int his kind of event than men are, on average, for all kinds of reasons that aren’t important in this discussion.

But I don’t see this as an important enough gender-related tendency for it to be explicitly reified and policed in the way the event is organized (strictly speaking, we should strive to never police gendered tendencies, though I acknowledge that the exclusionary policies of the spa to just this*). Why not decide that men/masculine clothing is welcome, but warn prospective masculine attendees that the pickings might be slim for them? It’s clear in the language of the event that it is primarily targeted toward women, but I see no point in being explicitly exclusionary. It’s entirely uncalled for, and it was certainly uncalled for to switch from the implicit exclusion of men (in the targeting of the event) to the explicit exclusion in the little public service announcement I posted above.

So, in the end, I don’t think I feel uncomfortable attending because I necessarily feel excluded (I certainly don’t feel intentionally excluded.) But I do feel uncomfortable attending an event that is explicitly excluding people without any non-discriminatory motivation for doing so. To make this distinction very clear: the swap would still function if men were welcome, whereas the spa might not; it certainly wouldn’t function in quite the same way (as much as I and many others might like it to).

But I also really need new clothes :\

*The primary reason I feel comfortable differentiating between the gender policing of the swap, and that at the spa (beyond the distinction made above) is that while both are reacting to gendered tendencies that are at least partially rooted in the patriarchy (in the case of the spa, it’s the inability of (straight) men to see women’s bodies in a non-sexual way; in the case of the swap, it’s the idea that men don’t really want to swap clothing), the spa policy is designed to reduce the negative impact of the gendered tendency by eliminating opportunities for men to harass women in the spa, while the swap policy is designed to perpetuate the lack of men participating in clothing swaps, which is pointless at best, and damaging to those men who are interested at worst.


  1. Thanks for writing this. I am currently organizing a woman’s retreat in New Mexico. It is inclusive all self identified women, but this post is helpful in articulating the need for that inclusivity. Great post.

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