It could put women at risk
Marks and Spencer needs to get a grip on its fitting rooms policy. The question of who can use the men’s and who can use the women’s has been a long running saga for the British clothing chain, which has now been accused of introducing unsafe changing rooms for women by stealth.
Responding to an already dissatisfied customer, the M&S social media team announced this week that, ‘in all of our stores, we have fitting rooms located within our womenswear and menswear departments and each is made up of individual lockable cubicles to ensure every customer feels comfortable and has the privacy they need.’
A politician trying to obfuscate might well have left it there. But there was a follow up. After a customer explained that they needed a shop with a female-only changing area, M&S continued:
While they are mainly used by customers of that gender, as an inclusive retailer and in line with most other retailers, we allow customers the choice of fitting room.Marks and Spencer / Twitter
So whatever the signs might say, any customer can do just as they please. Judging by the outraged howls of protest many of those customers may well decide to stay away from M&S. This is economic madness for a retailer that serves the sort of clientele who still know the difference between men and women.
But, worse, it puts women at risk. Michelle Shipworth, associate professor at UCL, pointed out that the M&S position was ‘worse than unisex’. She explained that many women won’t know that these areas are mixed sex, adding that ‘the good men stay out whereas in unisex there are also good men around.’
Shipworth told The Spectator that she was ‘extremely worried about the stealth introduction of policies that allowed any male access to “female-only” spaces’. She added,
Such policies are literally an open door to predatory males, who can pretend to identify as women in order to access spaces where women and girls are undressed and vulnerable.Michelle Shipworth
It’s telling that the concerns are not felt the same way in the other direction. Yes, a woman wandering into a men’s space may cause discomfort and embarrassment, but only the hopelessly naïve would imagine that men are threatened by women in the same way that women are threatened by men.
One thing Marks and Spencer cannot claim is ignorance. Following a previous row over M&S’s lax fitting room policy in early 2020, the House of Lords peer Baroness Nicholson wrote to the company’s chairman, Archie Norman, attaching ‘ministerial letters, Parliamentary questions and a Hansard report of a recent debate’ on single sex spaces, and called on the company to reintroduce single sex changing areas. Nicholson was clear that, ‘since changing of clothes can lead to voyeurism newer legislation (viz the upskirting law) brings this laxness of provision into question.’ Later that year, Nicholson wrote to the company again to congratulate it on updating its policies and reintroducing single sex changing rooms. Those policies appear to have been changed again.
Marks and Spencer needs to sort out the confusion. If – like some other retailers – they have a unisex policy then they should declare it. But they also need to ensure that those fitting rooms are designed for that purpose. There is a big difference between individual lockable rooms with floor-to-ceiling doors and small cubicles protected by no more than a flimsy curtain. Meanwhile those who don’t want to use unisex fitting rooms can try the clothes on at home. M&S have always had a good returns policy, after all. Or they could take their business elsewhere.
What is intolerable is the doublethink where the company implies that they offer separate sex facilities when they actually provide something quite different. If they genuinely want to be inclusive – and I hope that they do – then the answer is staring them in the face if they do not wish to retro-fit the fitting rooms across their stores for unisex use. Just keep the women’s, keep the men’s and add a couple of private cubicles for those who don’t want to share with their own sex. It’s hardly rocket science.
Debbie Hayton is a teacher and journalist.
* This article was first published by The Spectator on 26 August 2022: M&S’s ‘gender inclusive’ changing room policy is a mess.